Everyone's Talking About The Carmelites

Dialogues des Carmélites

Why would anyone want to spend an evening watching the reenactment of one of French history's bloodiest episodes - the guillotining of a dozen nuns? Could it be because Poulenc's opera Dialogues des Carmélites, now at the Royal Opera House, transforms the horror into something transcendent and beautiful? 

Why do people lose their heads over this opera?

It’s Poulenc’s masterpiece. It dates from 1956 and we don’t see it too often. The story concerns a group of nuns in the French Revolution – far indeed from the grand divas that tend to float people’s boat in the opera house.

The French Revolution? Don’t tell me – everybody dies.

Well, yes. The women all agree to go to their deaths rather than be forced to renounce their faith. The opera ends with the graphic beheading of 16 nuns.

Er, right…how graphic is graphic?

In the final scene, the nuns sing ‘Salve regina’ together en route to the scaffold: you hear the guillotine falling and with each whoosh another woman stops singing. Our heroine, Blanche, is left to sing the last verse on her own until…

Ouch. What on earth makes a composer write something like that?

It’s based loosely on a true story: the Martyrs of Compiègne, which was the topic of a novella, Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last at the Scafffold), by Gertrud von Le Fort. The writer Georges Bernanos turned the book first into a screenplay, then a stage play. Poulenc was attracted to it on many levels, but especially in terms of faith: he had become a devout Catholic in 1936 after a profound spiritual experience at the shrine of the Black Virgin, Rocamadour.

Has the story anything to do with France in World War II?

There are resonances, at least. Interesting, too, that it’s roughly contemporaneous with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which also deals with a reign of terror - literally a witch-hunt – that provided a parallel with McCarthyism. But there’s something archetypal in the progress of our heroine, Blanche, from rabbit-in-headlights timidity to courageous self-sacrifice.

Faith, martyrdom, irrationality, witch-hunts…it sounds terribly relevant to our own times, which alarms me a little.

Me too, but fortunately we don’t have guillotines now. Did you know: the guillotine remained France’s execution method of choice until the country abolished capital punishment in 1981. Its last guillotining took place as recently as 1977. In fact a replica guillotine was used for the final scene at the La Scala premiere in 1957. These days it’s usually a sound-effect.

Poulenc’s nickname was ‘Poulet’ – chicken – but he must have been a brave man, not least for being one of the first composers to be openly gay?

He went through agony over this opera. There were issues about the rights to the script, for one thing, and for another his boyfriend of six years, Lucien Roubert, threatened to call time. Poulenc made himself ill with anxiety and convinced himself that Lucien’s fate was in some way connected with this opera. He wasn’t wrong. Lucien died of pleurisy on the day that Poulenc finalized the piano score.

Any gay issues in the opera’s convent?

Not exactly. But Sister Constance tells Blanche early on that she is certain the two of them will die together. Blanche is none too happy. At the end Constance is the last nun in line; and Blanche arrives just in time to volunteer to die beside her.

And any tunes?

It’s very melodic, but a world away from Italian operatic oom-pah-pahs. Tonal music was thought awfully passé during the 1950s – it was the era of serialism or bust – but Poulenc had little time for that. 'You must forgive my Carmelites,' he wrote. 'It seems they can only sing tonal music.'

But…how exactly do you behead 16 nuns on stage?

Robert Carsen’s production, which is coming to the Royal Opera House, apparently choreographs the conclusion very beautifully. Don’t worry: it is symbolic and there’s no blood.

So why do I want to see it if there’s no blood?

Sir Simon Rattle is conducting and the cast is full of top singers. Sally Matthews is Blanche and we see Sophie Koch as Mère Marie, Anna Prohaska as Sister Constance, Thomas Allen as Blanche’s father. More cast megastars include Emma Bell, Deborah Polaski, Alan Oke.

I’m sure it will be well executed! Anybody missing?

Magdalena Kožená, a.k.a. Mrs Rattle. She was scheduled to sing Blanche, but is having a baby any minute now – though when she dropped out of the production in the autumn they said it was because her voice was not developing in the right direction for the role. Please do not make jokes about pregnant nuns - it won’t go over well with the editor.

I’m padlocking my Snarky Quip function. It could become a habit...

 Just keep your head and go and see the show.

 Dialogues des Carmélites, Royal Opera House, from 29 May.