Francis Poulenc — Dialogue des Carmélites

Who could have pre­dict­ed that one of the very few operas writ­ten after 1950 to suc­cess­ful­ly enter the inter­na­tion­al reper­toire, would be an opera about a group of nuns and their mar­tyr­dom dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion? Yet, from its pre­mière at La Scala (in Ital­ian) on Jan­u­ary 26, 1957 Dia­logues des Car­mélites quick­ly made its way through the major opera the­aters — Paris, San Fran­cis­co, Covent Gar­den, Vien­na — and it remains a sta­ple of the reper­toire, grow­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty with the pas­sage of time.

And who would have thought such an opera would be writ­ten by Fran­cis Poulenc, a com­pos­er bet­ter known at the time as “the play­boy com­pos­er,” a mem­ber of the cir­cle of com­posers dubbed Les Six, whose music often sparkled with wit, charm and insou­ciance, and who delight­ed in regal­ing Parisian soci­ety with tales of his homo­sex­u­al affairs?

Poulenc was born into a rather wealthy Parisian fam­i­ly on Jan­u­ary 7, 1899. (The mon­ey came from a fam­i­ly phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny that would lat­er become part of the giant Rhône-Poulenc chem­i­cal firm.) His first piano lessons were from his moth­er, and at the age of six­teen he began study­ing with the famous pianist Ricar­do Viñes, a friend of Debussy and Rav­el, who had pre­miered many of their works in his recitals.

By the time young Fran­cis began work­ing with Viñes, he had already devel­oped what his father called “odd tastes” in music. Thanks to an insa­tiable appetite for music, and the where­with­al to buy scores, he was famil­iar with works by Stravin­sky (he had attend­ed per­for­mances of The Rite of Spring in 1914 at the Casi­no de Paris), Bartók and Schoen­berg, to say noth­ing of the more tra­di­tion­al com­posers. His life­long eclec­tic taste in music was care­ful­ly nur­tured by his mother’s broth­er, “Uncle Papoum,” a bach­e­lor who loved every­thing from opera to café music, was a habitué of the the­ater, had known Toulouse-Lautrec and was equal­ly at home in Parisian soci­ety — and who was delight­ed to intro­duce his young nephew Fran­cis to all of it.

Debonair Fran­cis Poulenc

When Poulenc attempt­ed to study at the Paris Con­ser­va­to­ry he was told, “Your work stinks! I see you’re a fol­low­er of the Stravin­sky and Satie gang. Well, good­bye!” But when he per­formed the offend­ing piece, Rap­sodie nègre, at a con­cert in 1917, it was admired, and he became seri­ous about his com­pos­ing. How­ev­er, it was not until 1944, hav­ing writ­ten a wide vari­ety of music, that Poulenc turned to opera for the first time. The result was Les mamelles de Tirésias, an opéra bouffe, based on the play by sur­re­al­ist poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire, whose works had also inspired some of Poulenc’s songs.

Mamelles de Tirésias is utter­ly enchant­i­ng, delight­ful non­sense, Parisian — and Poulenc — to the core, by turns wit­ty and sil­ly, abound­ing with melody, “odd” in har­mo­ny and instru­men­tal col­ors that are per­fect for the moment. Through­out it is per­me­at­ed with an utter love of life itself. It could not be more oppo­site to his next opera, Car­mélites.

In the ear­ly 1950s (sur­pris­ing­ly, the exact date seems to be open to ques­tion), Poulenc was approached by the Ital­ian music pub­lish­ing house Ricor­di about a com­mis­sion for La Scala. Ini­tial­ly Ricor­di was inter­est­ed in a bal­let, pos­si­bly on the sub­ject of Saint Mar­gari­ta of Cor­tona. Though Poulenc was inter­est­ed in writ­ing a work for La Scala, he could not work up enthu­si­asm for the bal­let. But while on a con­cert tour of Italy, he met with the direc­tor of Ricor­di, Gui­do Val­carenghi, and sug­gest­ed an opera instead of a bal­let. Val­carn­nghi sug­gest­ed the play Dia­logues des Car­mélites by George Bernanos.

Poulenc had already seen the play — twice — but he had nev­er thought about set­ting it to music. “I bought the book and decid­ed to reread it,” he lat­er wrote. “For that, I sat down at the out­doors café Tre Scali­ni on the Piaz­za Navone. It was ten in the morn­ing. At noon I was still there, hav­ing con­sumed a cof­fee, an ice cream, an orange juice, and a bot­tle of Fug­gi min­er­al water to jus­ti­fy my pro­longed pres­ence. At twelve-thir­ty I was drunk with enthu­si­asm but the final ques­tion remained — would I find the music for such a text? I opened by chance the book and forced myself instant­ly to trans­late into music the first sen­tences I read.…As incred­i­ble as it may seem, I imme­di­ate­ly found the melod­ic line. Des­tiny had decid­ed.” Des­tiny might have inspired Poulenc that morn­ing in a Roman café, but the com­po­si­tion of the whole opera would drag on for some time and take an enor­mous toll on the composer’s men­tal as well as phys­i­cal health.

Georges Bernanos

The sto­ry of a group of nuns who are guil­lotines dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion was orig­i­nal­ly told by one of the sur­viv­ing nuns in her mem­oir, which then served as the basis for a nov­el Die let­zte am Schafott (The Last to the Scaf­fold) by Gertrud von le Fort, who seems to have giv­en her own name to the main char­ac­ter, Blanche del la Force. The nov­el, in turn, was adapt­ed as a screen­play (and dra­mat­ic play) by Georges Bernanos. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the adap­ta­tion rights had been sold to Emmet Lav­ery, and it was only after lengthy nego­ti­a­tions that he agreed to allow Poulenc to set the work to music, as long as Lavery’s name appeared on every pro­gram and score of Poulenc’s opera — which it does.

In August 1953 Poulenc began work­ing seri­ous­ly on Car­mélites and soon found that immers­ing him­self in the emo­tion­al world of his char­ac­ters was aggra­vat­ing his own hypochon­dria. He became con­vinced that he had stom­ach can­cer, and it was only with dif­fi­cult­ly that his doc­tors con­vinced him all the tests were neg­a­tive. In 1954 he went through what was described as “six weeks of anx­ious near-mad­ness” before recov­er­ing enough to go on tour with bari­tone Pierre Bernac. But in Novem­ber the com­pos­er had to break off the tour and return to Paris to be admit­ted to a clin­ic for a three-week cure for his insom­nia. In a bizarre twist of fate, Poulenc’s younger lover, Lucien Rou­bert, came down with pleurisy in April 1955 as Poulenc began near­ing the end of his new opera. That August as Poulenc fin­ished the work, he lat­er recalled telling his cook, “I have fin­ished: Mon­sieur Lucien will die now.” That’s exact­ly what happened.

Dia­logues des Car­mélites is in three acts, divid­ed into twelve scenes and five inter­ludes with nine brief pieces of orches­tral music con­nect­ing them. Some of the indi­vid­ual scenes only last a few min­utes, and they can seem so slight at the time — one might almost say incon­se­quen­tial — one might won­der, “Why did Poulenc both­er to include that scene?” A good exam­ple is the scene between Blanche and Con­stance where they dis­cuss death and its impli­ca­tions. As Denise Duvall, for whom Poulenc wrote the part of Blanche, observed: “How dif­fi­cult it is to sing it the way Poulenc want­ed, mak­ing it impor­tant and at the same time not overt­ly so. It is the sort of scene the pub­lic must remem­ber lat­er, but not be par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by while it is tak­ing place.”

The score of Car­mélites is almost paint­ed. Poulenc builds it up in a series of deft, brief tonal brush strokes, as an artist would con­struct an Impres­sion­ist paint­ing, with the suc­ces­sion of one brief scene after anoth­er. As the opera grad­u­al­ly unfolds, the dra­ma is built almost imper­cep­ti­bly, lay­er upon layer.

Poulenc with his Blanche, Denise Duval

There are few lush melodies in Car­mélites, few exam­ples of the rich orches­tral tex­tures of which Poulenc was capa­ble. The sweet­est music often goes to the nuns as they sing their reli­gious ser­vices. But what Poulenc does so superbly is to set the words of the libret­to with extra­or­di­nary clar­i­ty in a way to under­score their dra­ma musi­cal­ly. As Duval point­ed out, “Poulenc was so attached to the beau­ti­ful text that he want­ed the orches­tra to be ever so light, so every word sung could be heard. The dif­fi­cul­ty in singing Blanche is over­whelm­ing, for it must remain with­in a total puri­ty of line, almost a trans­paren­cy. And one must be made of stone is one is not over­come by emotion.”

Poulenc’s use of music goes far beyond mere word set­ting in Car­mélites. His score is a mar­vel of con­vey­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal nuances of the dra­ma and how his char­ac­ters feel about their sit­u­a­tion.  One exam­ple is the orches­tral music that always appears around Blanche’s father. Aside from the nuns’ choral music, this is the most lux­u­ri­ous music in the opera. It is music one could com­fort­ably sink into, and wrap around one­self. (And, as such, it is stark­ly dif­fer­ent from most of the rest of the opera which often involves ter­ror and anx­i­ety of one kind or anoth­er.) The music tells us that Blanche feels safe and secure, loved and pam­pered by her father in a unique way. Every time her father or her home is men­tioned in the opera (as when her broth­er vis­its her in Act II), this music reap­pears briefly, giv­ing that unique emo­tion­al tinge to the scene. When Blanche tells her broth­er “I am now a daugh­ter of God,” the orches­tra lets us know that Blanche means this lit­er­al­ly, because the music has the same col­or as the music for her father the Mar­quis. Sim­i­lar­ly, when Blanche express­es her con­cern that the Chap­lain must flee, the Chaplain’s music tells us Blanche sees him as a father fig­ure, a source of author­i­ty, but also a source of guid­ance and comfort.

This is, per­haps, a clue to why an opera about a group of nuns has become so pop­u­lar with con­tem­po­rary audi­ences. Aside from the reli­gious choral music Poulenc wrote for the nuns, he did not write music for nuns, but for women who hap­pened to be nuns. Poulenc brings each of the major char­ac­ters to life in her own unique way, not as a nun, but as a human being, with pri­vate emo­tions and fears who must meet her des­tiny in her own way.

What intrigues us about Blanche is not her voca­tion, but Blanche her­self. How does a neu­rot­ic, almost hys­ter­i­cal young woman, in the grip of a life and death sit­u­a­tion, find the courage — and the grace — to do what she knows she must do?

Though Poulenc was a world­ly man (and one who thor­ough­ly enjoyed his world­li­ness), he had a deep, intro­spec­tive side that could express itself through reli­gion. A cou­ple of years before writ­ing Car­mélites Poulenc com­posed his Sta­bat Mater, and wrote to a friend, “By the way, you know that I am as sin­cere in my faith, with­out any mes­sian­ic scream­ings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality…My musi­cal tone is spon­ta­neous, and in any case, I think, tru­ly personal.”

Per­haps that is why the pub­lic responds to Car­mélites so read­i­ly. It is the composer’s own per­son­al wrestling with death, with anx­i­ety, with the desire to tru­ly believe his per­son­al reli­gion — expressed through Blanche and the oth­er nuns as they are faced with their own mor­tal­i­ty — that moves us so.  It is the hon­esty and courage of this quest that inspires us in the audi­ence, what­ev­er our per­son­al reli­gious views. Because, after all, we, too, face the same Unknown.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the 2001 Aspen Opera The­atre pro­gram book.