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.
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.
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.
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.