“Dialogues” at Chicago Lyric

Dialogues des Carmélites
by Francis Poulenc

Lyric Opera of Chicago (Chicago Première)
Performance of Monday, February 26, 2007
Sung in French

Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Production: Robert Carsen
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder
Chorus Master: Donald Palumbo

Marquis de la Force: Dale Travis
Chevalier de la Force: Joseph Kaiser
Blanche de la Force: Isabel Bayrakdarian
Madame de Croissy (First Prioress): Felicity Palmer
Sister Constance: Anna Christy
Mother Marie of the Incarnation: Jane Irwin
Madame Lidoine (Second Prioress): Patricia Racette

“If talking is the expression of the mind, singing is the expression of the soul.”
Gerard Mortier, new General Manager and Artistic Director of the New York City Opera

an account by KEN QUANDT

The story opens with father, brother, and sister: widower, daughter, and son. Where is the mother? Her absence has left the son too solicitous of his little sister and the father too gruff. The daughter is a nervous wreck. Her mother died at her birth brought on prematurely by an accident at the marriage celebration for the Dauphin, when the fireworks exploded unexpectedly. Home they rushed in their trusty carriage, and got there safely. But once inside, the labor came on and took her life. The father’s dreams are still haunted by visions of that trip in the carriage. He has exchanged his wife for a daughter. His son has exchanged his mother for a sister. Blanche herself won life in a trade for another’s death.

Blanche is young enough still to have a governess. In the Paris of 1789 her big brother has good reason to worry how she might be affected when a milling mob slows down her carriage at the Bucy crossroads, but this anxious young lady needs no special reason to be rattled. The world, she says, is already too much for her. She denies it’s fear. Remind her that every night as she goes to sleep she worries she may die before she wakes in the morning and she will stand up and tell you there was only one real morning in the world, the morning that followed the night of the Sacred Agony in Gethsamene.

Not everyone would be able to understand what she is feeling or what she means when she says this, and a solicitous big brother would not be ready to even if he could. She has returned in her carriage and night is coming on fast. What matters is that the servant light her some candles before she enters her room. Suddenly she screams and runs back in to her brother and her father the Marquis, in the Library. The candlelight has projected the servant’s huge shadow on the wall and scared her. Yes, it is a small matter she will get over, as her father says, but it is also a sign, and a sign from above must not be ignored no matter how small. She must “go to Carmel,” become a Carmelite nun. The torment of her life is either an incurable and shameful weakness or else an indication she must retreat into the monastery and find the mission God has set for her.


This is what we learn in the first of the twelve scenes presented in the first of the three acts of Poulenc’s too rarely performed Dialogues of the Carmelites, an opera whose libretto is closely based on an inspiring screenplay by the great Catholic writer, George Bernanos — his final work. All the characters in the play are real except the ones we have just met, Blanche and her family de la Force. Bernanos did not invent them. Blanche is the creation and namesake of Gertrud von le Fort (1876–1971) who wrote the novel The last to the scaffold in 1931, on which the play is based, and who with some prescience for her own times saw Blanche as “the embodiment of the moral agony of an era going totally to its ruin.”

The opera presents the spiritual development of Blanche in a few stages, resembling in this and any many other ways Messiaen’s St-François d’Assise, written two decades later. The story of Francis needs less from the outside to reach its climax. Events “within” François produce his stigmata and the opera ends when he dies through them. The story of Blanche and the Carmelites also ends in death, a mass judicial murder brought on by alien forces from outside the monastery, namely, the Revolutionary Tribunal of 1793–4. As Blanche grows and provides the other nuns an occasion to continue their growth, the crisis approaches and all these lines collide in the Third Act.

As with the St-François the greatness of the opera lies in how sensitively and truly it presents spiritual experience. The common spiritual crisis faced by each of the Carmelites is to find a way to accept martyrdom with courage and without pride, and the speeches of the two Prioresses on such matters as this are full of insights we will treasure forever. More specifically, each of the characters moves toward a personal transfiguration appropriate to their own idiosyncrasies. Their idiosyncrasies are brought to the surface by the ways they relate and react to each other, and these relations are presented in conversations they have with each other — whence the opera’s title. The fact they are sung clothes the ideas in the personal souls that utter them.

Close study reveals that in each case the one character’s limitations become the occasion for the other to reach beyond her own. Blanche is one of the two partners in almost all of these relationships, and the most touching and most crucial to the plot is her relation with Constance. They are paired up as the two novices of the group. In their first scene together Constance seems anything but constant to the pallid Blanche. She is unbothered by the Prioress’s dying. Death she flippantly imagines might be as fun as life. She even has imagined that the two of them will die together, and soon. Blanche scolds her for being happy. Constance detects resentment hiding behind self-righteousness but calls Blanche only on what hurts: “I cannot help but say I feel you are trying to harm me.” Later when the nuns are pushed by Mother Marie to vote for martyrdom, which must be by secret ballot and unanimous, Sister Mathilde mutters she knows which will pale before the challenge, namely Blanche. When the vote is announced and there is indeed one vote against Mathilde says “I told you so,” but Constance reveals it is she who voted against it. She had voted on Blanche’s behalf, as Blanche had voted on hers, and now that she knows Blanche had voted for she joyfully begs to change her vote. Just after taking the vow side by side with her, Blanche flees the monastery and is absent in the final scene. Constance retains her faith that Blanche will show up, constant to the end. She is the last of the assembled nuns to be guillotined: in the end it is only her voice singing the “Salve Regina.” But Blanche runs on at the last moment, the “last to the scaffold,” and accepts death singing the last verse of the “Veni Creator.”


Editions of operatic libretti are scandalously bad. Typos in the original language and horrible mistranslations are ubiquitous. This malady becomes acute when the dialogue and the action are as radical and the distinctions being drawn as fine as in the Dialogues of the Carmelites. Sensitive to this fact Poulenc himself wanted the opera to be performed in the native tongue of its audience. The première at La Scala, which commissioned the opera, was performed in Italian, and the American première, in San Francisco, was sung in English. The standard and authorized English translation by Joseph Machlis, which comes with the EMI Dervaux CD of the opera as well as the Virgin Nagano, has many errors in the French and the translation. In I.ii, when the Prioress Madame de Croissy responds to Blanche’s hope to be deprived of her illusions by saying, “Qu’on vous en dépouille — il faudra vous charger seule de ce soin, ma fille. Chacune içi a déjà trop à faire de ses propres illusions,” she does not mean “You shall be deprived of them! I must warn you of one thing more, my daughter. Everyone here is much too concerned with her own illusions,” but rather, “Be deprived of them?” (responding to Blanche’s use of the impersonal construction with on) “You’ll have to take care of doing that for yourself, my dear. Everyone here already has her hands full dealing with her own problems.” There are regrettable omissions also, such as the Prioress’s explanation, in I.iv, that she was so moved by Blanche’s choice of her Carmelite name, Sister of the Agony of Christ, because this was the name she herself had adopted.

In connection with its production of the opera this year the Lyric Opera of Chicago has published a new edition of the text with a new translation into English by the Lyric’s “Editor,” Roger Pines. It is available for purchase on the way in. The French typography is worse but the errors in translation are different at least, and tend to come at different places (though for the Prioress’s response to Blanche, Pines writes the incorrect and almost unmeaning, “You will be deprived of them… There is a single burden with which you must be charged, my daughter: everyone here has already dealt all too well with her own illusions”). I am sorry to report that the need for something better has not been met by this new edition.


Of the production itself at the Lyric only good things can be said. It is a premiere for the company now in its 53rd year, a revival of the production of Robert Carsen that premiered at the Nederlanse Opera, Amsterdam, in 1997. The supertitles are newly done by Francis Rizzo and seemed good as far as I had time to notice. Many of the singers have a personal stake in this piece, as the wonderful Profiles section of the Lyric’s Program reveals by quoting what they say about their roles. Surely the star of the evening was Felicity Palmer as Madame de Croissy, a role she may be said to own these days. She knows the raw and the sublime dimensions of this character and of what she undergoes. Anna Christy’s Constance also received loud applause. Happy profundity is appealing and always easier for an audience to take. Conversely when Madame de Croissy on the point of death blurts out it’s not her time to think about God but God’s to think about her, the audience chuckled. A lot of light is shed on Isabel Bayrakdarian’s Blanche by her own remarks in the Profile: “Blanche is the one woman in the opera who is still finding out who she is. Any soprano can make this role her own if she believes in it.” Her performance left me feeling her first point is truer about herself than the role she is playing, and that there is something contrafactual in what she says second.

The mise en scène, with an empty stage bounded by slate gray rear and side walls that can raise up, is a faithful revival of the Carsen production by Didier Kersten, who collaborated with Carsen in a revival at La Scala in 2000 and has directed the opera every other year since. He sees the emptiness of the sets as setting into relief that “the people onstage make a net” for better or worse, which is indeed the essence of the piece. Moreover by almost totally foregoing the use of the curtain between scenes, and finding a way to show us everything, the director has imposed on himself as well as his audience an uncompromising askesis in the spirit of joining the Order. The emptiness of the stage however makes it dead for sound. When the characters face each other or sing from upstage their voices lose too much power.

As to the lighting I was very moved by the variation from cold light (pink as if fluorescent) to warm (yellow as if incandescent). The mob hustles onto the stage several times during the opera, often just to assist in obscuring the scene shifts. This group of people whose individual opinions are unknown to us are lit incandescently, and seem the more human for it. The nuns, whose personal spiritual drama is what we are watching, are lit with the cold light. This goes on until the end when they have been forced to switch from habits to street clothes and and are lying in a heap in the center of the stage. They are about to hear the final address from their Prioress Madame Lidoine (Patricia Racette, tenderly). At this moment they are illuminated by an incandescent light from above that brings them closer to us in the audience, reminds us they are mortals after all, and foreshadows that they will soon be dying.

It is natural that when people discuss productions they have seen of the Dialogues, the first and last thing they talk about is the how beautifully the execution was presented at the end. The criterion by which to measure and the goal by which to design a production of this opera is that the dramatic development enable the audience to experience the excruciating final scene the same way the sisters do, with joy and thanksgiving rather than mortification or resentment or revulsion. Of the closing scene in the current production at the Lyric I can report that it is indeed beautiful in a way that only the development leading up would make my own audience able to appreciate adequately.

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