Vocal meditations on religious faith, duty, and death

Print More
Photo: Lauren Sageer

Starting this evening, Eastman Opera Theatre presents one of the most celebrated operas of the 20th century, Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites.”

In terms of the standard operatic repertory, which includes few works less than a century old, this opera is practically brand new. The 1957 premiere of “Dialogues des Carmélites” at Milan’s La Scala was a tremendous success, and the opera’s profundity and its dramatic music immediately earned it a special place in the repertory.

“Dialogues des Carmélites” is based on a successful play by the French Catholic writer George Bernanos, suggested by an incident during the French Revolution: a convent of Carmelite nuns in the city of Compiègne were accused of being enemies of the state, and guillotined.

The main character in the play and opera, Blanche de la Force, is a timid young aristocrat who joins the convent to escape from her many fears, including a fear of death. Instead, death becomes an immediate threat when her fellow nuns take a vow of martyrdom in the face of the revolution, when practicing their faith is illegal.

The opera libretto, also by Poulenc, is faithful to the play and its meditations on religious faith, duty, and death. The central theme that “we do not die for ourselves, but for others, or even in place of others,” is embodied when Blanche overcomes her fear of death and is able to join her sisters calmly at the guillotine.

The appeal of “Dialogues des Carmélites” is easily explained, according to Patrick Diamond and Timothy Long, stage director and conductor, respectively, of this production.

“I love the idea of community that this opera presents,” says Long, “of people banding together in a common cause. The time of the French Revolution is so connected to today.”

Adds Diamond: “This was a period of senseless execution of religious groups, and this opera is asking us to decide what is ‘right’ during a time of political terror.”

His design concept for the opera includes monochrome panels inspired by Jacques David’s etchings of major French revolutionary events, with individual pieces suggesting an 18thcentury setting. But the last scenes, when the nuns no longer wear their habits and go to their deaths before an anonymous crowd, will have a somewhat contemporary look, to suggest this historical event’s relevance to the present day.

Diamond believes that the story’s preoccupation with attitudes toward acceptance of one’s death continues to resonate, as well. “Bernanos and Poulenc address this thing we all do—dying—and tell us that we are not alone in death, that we can empower each other.”

One of the opera’s standout roles is that of Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress who admits Blanche to the convent, and who sees herself in the young woman. This character appears only in Act I, but her influence is felt throughout the rest of the opera.

First-year graduate student Grace Lowther is one of the singers portraying the Old Prioress. (Eastman Opera productions are double-cast; the other student singer is Emily Shilling.) “I was very familiar with Poulenc through his art songs,” says Lowther, “but this particular work is unique and very compelling. I’ve never seen the theme of doubt versus faith told in quite this way.”

Lowther plays not only an elderly character, but one who ends the first act with a harrowing death scene. “When she is facing death, she has a vision of the destruction of the convent, and finds herself doubting everything,” she explains. But her “messy” death, as one character describes it, will be balanced by the calm death of someone else—Blanche.

“There are very heavy emotions in that scene, and in performing it you walk a fine line,” says Lowther. “Poulenc is very specific with expression markings, and it’s very clear what kind of emotion he intends in a scene. There’s enough drama in the words and music without me adding to it!”

“There are a lot of great roles in this opera, and it serves the students really well,” says Long. “Musically they’re not that difficult and stay within normal voice types, with a few high notes here and there. Our orchestra will have 57 players—that’s huge! But Poulenc uses all those instruments sparingly, for texture.”

In its general restraint, Poulenc’s music supports the idea of a community devoted to prayer—until that community confronts the guillotine in the finale and “the music completely changes,” says Long. A raucous, dissonant march is contrasted with the 13 nuns singing “Salve Regina” as they serenely walk to their fates. There is one less voice after each guillotining; the last one heard is Blanche, who has rejoined her sisters.  

“We’re so siloed today, politically and socially,” says Diamond. “This story confronts us with our own beliefs, and asks us to reconsider what we mean by ‘democracy’ and ‘community.’”

But, he adds, “it doesn’t give you the answers.”

Dialogues des Carmélites” plays April 4-7 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. The opera will be sung in French, with English supertitles.

David Raymond is a Rochester-area freelance writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *