Eddie Pensier writes:
Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites is a strange opera, and not an easy one. It weaves complex themes of devotion, martyrdom, fear, and politics around the storyline of a Carmelite convent during the French Revolution. It’s very talky, and the action, such as it is, is pretty minimal. But it has a final scene that might be the greatest in the history of musical theatre.
The nuns have been sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal. and are gathered in the square awaiting execution. They begin singing a hymn.
Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiæ,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ,
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentesin hac lacrimarum valle.
One by one, they walk up to the scaffold, and one by one, their voices are cut off by the grotesque sound of the guillotine, until only one voice remains. It belongs to Constance, the chirpy optimist of the convent. Her ascent to the scaffold is interrupted by a moment of terror. Blanche, a troubled noble girl whose motives for taking the veil were always murky, and who escaped before the arrest and sentencing, emerges from the crowd at Constance’s moment of despair. They embrace (the orchestra breaks into bright, happy major-tonal chords here), and Constance resumes her walk to the blade (orchestra resumes stomach-churning chant). Blanche herself then offers her life, singing the last verse of Veni Creator Spiritus:
Deo Patri sit gloria,
et Filio qui a mortuis
Surrexit, ac Paraclito,
in saeculorum saecula.
It’s difficult to overstate the emotional impact of this scene. Even if you have nothing invested in the story of “a bunch of nuns who get their heads chopped off” (as I once flippantly described it to a friend), between the stoicism of the women meeting their fate and the sheer coup-de-thêatre-ness of the religious singing being violently interrupted by the slicing blade, you’re more likely than not to be in tears at the end of it, or at least extremely shaken up. The fact that the guillotine sound effect is usually amplified to the best of the venue’s capabilities makes it even more unnerving.
This video is from the Metropolitan Opera’s famous John Dexter production of the late 70s. It’s a great example of a production that can present interesting and innovative visual ideas while still maintaining respect for the work’s spirit (the opera was only about 25 years old at the time). Jessye Norman plays Madame Lidoine.
Here’s another video of the scene, even starker and more abstract. The women simply line up, step forward one by one, and then collapse. The provenance of the production is unknown to me, but seeing the nuns’ faces as they approach death with serenity, anger, fear, or simply insecurity, is shattering. All these singers deserve acting awards.
I need to go watch some cartoons now.
- The Martyrs of Compiègne, on whose story Poulenc and his dramatist Georges Bernanos based Dialogues.
- Poulenc requested that the whenever the opera was performed, that it be translated into the language of its audience. This wish was heeded at its première (at Milan’s La Scala, in Italian, in 1957) and in most subsequent productions. Nowadays, of course, the composer’s intentions rarely matter.