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dialogues des carmélites

19 may 2019

Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) hews closer to its source material than almost any other opera.

Poulenc's opera is based on a work of the same title by Georges Bernanos, a leading Catholic intellectual in postwar France. The copy I found of Bernanos' Dialogues des Carmélites, a teaching edition for American students published in 1965, is a little unclear about its own text. Bernanos wrote Dialogues, a rough draft of, or possibly contribution to, a screenplay, in 1947-48. He based them on the novella Die Letzte am Schafott ("The Last to the Scaffold") by Gertrud von Le Fort. Editor Yvonne Guers says in her 1965 introduction that von Le Fort wrote her novella after escaping Hitler's Germany for Switzerland (7). But the novella appeared in 1931, and the Wikipedia page on von Le Fort indicates that although she traveled at times to Switzerland, she did not flee Germany, and actually lived throughout the war in Bavaria.

Be that as it may. Even if Gertrud von Le Fort was not a refugee from Hitler, she was distinctly a dissident, largely silenced by the Nazi propaganda machine. Her 1931 novella clearly anticipates the sacrifices that many people would make under the Third Reich. Von Le Fort took her story from an incident in 1794 in Compiègne, during the French Revolution. Jacobins who (as Bernanos would put it) "feared the aristocracy but hated the church," expropriated religious orders and then condemned any intransigent members to death. The sisters of one Carmelite convent all preferred martyrdom to apostasy.

Bernanos adapted von Le Fort's story; after his death, Albert Béguin and Marcelle Tassencourt adapted Bernanos' dialogue into a stage play; Poulenc adapted the material into a libretto for his own opera. The whole chain of transmission and readaptation is hard to follow, but hardly unique in musical theater. Three key contributions stand out. Von Le Fort imagined a protagonist for her story, a woman not present in the historical record: Blanche de la Force (the autobiographically calqued name is no coincidence). The aristocratic Blanche became the "last to the scaffold" who gives the story its focussed power. Bernanos gave the story its verbal form in French, full of paradoxes and mysteries. And Poulenc wrote the compelling music, unusually lyrical for a postmodern opera, but never sentimental or facile.

If Die Letzte am Schafott anticipated the Nazi terror, Dialogues des Carmélites was written in its wake. Not just the Nazi terror, of course, but the abetting of that terror by Vichy and collaborationist French. "N'y aura-t-il pas de bons Français pour prendre la défense de nos prêtres?" asks Bernanos' Sœur Constance. "Les Français sont-ils maintenant si lâches?" (94, 93). "Aren't there any good French people to defend our priests? Are the French now so cowardly?"

Bernanos' screenplay drives relentlessly towards doom; its characters do little but prepare for martyrdom. But it is not a serene preparation. Bernanos generates drama by accentuating internal and intragroup conflict. Blanche is anything but brave; her character note is fear, struck early in the play when she is terrified by a servant doing routine chores. "Je suis née dans la peur, j'y ai vécu, j'y vis encore," says Blanche shortly before her death (122): "I was born in fear, I've lived there, I still live there." She deliberately plays against her nature to embrace what her faith asks of her. By contrast, Constance exudes joie de vivre, turning even the most laborious religious duties into delights. She alone votes against the group's vow of martyrdom, but quickly repents and agrees to die – one imagines because she wants to make her sisters happy.

Bernanos' plot is muddied a bit by having three different elder nuns mentor Blanche, Constance, and the others. The comings and goings of these three are very precise but rather awkwardly motivated. At least this is true of Mère Marie and the second Prioress, who act as something of a tag team during the second half of the story. The first Prioress, who has an agonizing on-stage death, is crucial to the ideas in Dialogues. She is no saint; the pain of her passing turns her against God. Nuns who die serenely, she explains, are either utterly saintly or utterly stupid. Everyone in between has to wonder if she's wasted her life as she dies, inevitably, alone. Without this counterpoint to the stately death of the martyrs at the end of Bernanos' script, the whole effect would be saccharine. With the contrast – and the others provided by Blanche, Constance, and the lesser characters (who are frequently real-life, bickering, vain women), the drama becomes frighteningly intense.

Francis Poulenc, as I noted, just takes Bernanos' words and plot structure for granted and concentrates on the music. I recently saw the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast of Dialogues des Carmélites, starring Isabel Leonard as Blanche and Karita Mattila as the dying Prioress. Not many people saw the broadcast, at least in Grand Prairie, Texas, where I sat with three other fans in a house of a hundred comfy multiplex recliners, munching popcorn and mesmerized by the proceedings on screen. The Met's Dialogues is minimalist. The show opens with nuns, robed in black, prostrate on a white floor in the shape of a cross. The upstage axis of the cross will lead them, at the end of the opera, to their deaths.

Karita Mattila was the sensation of the show. Known for her athleticism as well as her marvelous voice, Mattila played her scenes as the script dictates, confined first to a chair and then to her character's deathbed. But it was one of the more energetic deaths in the history of opera: writhing, combative, unresigned. Mattila will be 59 later this year, the same age as her character: about time to die, says Constance – and evidently the same age as Georges Bernanos when he wrote their lines.

Bernanos, Georges. Dialogues des Carmélites. (1947-52) Edited by Yvonne Guers. New York: Macmillan, 1965.