“I am a musician without a label.” That is how French composer Francis Poulenc once described himself, and the eclectic body of music he created bears testament to that observation.
It is also an apt description of his opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. The piece, which debuted in 1957, is a modern, 20th century work, but its musical style is melodic and tonal and does not readily fit in with any of the dominant movements of Poulenc's times. It is a grim, fact-based tragedy, but it also imbued with an uplifting sense of spirituality that transcends the dusty pages of history or the acts of man.
In short, it is unique and incomparable as the man who created it.
Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963)
Poulenc's musical career had a much slower start than is typical among the composers we usually hear at the opera hall. His family, who were Parisian pharmaceutical manufacturers, recognized their son had musical talent, but insisted that he pursue a more general education before seriously studying music. He eventually began studies (at age 16) with Ricardo Vines, a famed Spanish pianist who was often chosen to debut works by French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.
Poulenc established himself as a piano virtuoso before he ventured into composition and remained a mainstay in the concert hall for much of his life, playing solo and collaborating with other French musical greats, such as the cellist Pierre Fournier. His fame as a performer took him not only all over Europe, but he also made several visits to the United States.
He began enjoying success as a composer while still in his late teens, despite that fact that he was largely self-taught in that area. He once said that he studied composition mainly by reading books because he was "fearful of being influenced by a teacher.”
In the 1920s, he was lumped into a group of composers known as "Les Six" - a half dozen French composers who were seen as something of a new musical movement, even though they shared little other than nationality (except for one – Arthur Honegger, who was Swiss), and a desire to break away from more dominant Italian and German styles. Despite his youth, Poulenc was obviously a respected member of this cadre of composers.
"Francis Poulenc is music itself,” said fellow Les Six member and friend Darius Milhaud. "I know no music more direct, more simply expressed nor which goes so unerringly to its target.”
Poulenc went on to create a wide variety of works that included not only keyboard pieces, but also concertos, film scores, ballets and various types of orchestral and chamber music. His most enduring legacy, however, is probably his many songs and choral works. He wrote only three or four works that might be considered operas, but The Dialogues of the Carmelites certainly stands out as one of his greatest works for the stage.
Evolution of the Opera
The origins of this opera really go back to era of the French Revolution. It is based on the true story of a group of Carmelite nuns (part of a Catholic religious order that dates back to the 12th century) who were condemned to death in 1794 as "enemies of the people" by the Revolutionary government. They certainly were not alone. Numerous members of the clergy were executed in those times, which is now known as "The Reign of Terror" for the many bloodthirsty acts of reprisal that were visited upon the church and other segments of French society that were seen as having acted counter to the goals of the Revolution.
But even in that chaotic and brutal period, the guillotining of the 16 nuns from Compiégne, a city near Paris, was apparently shocking to a French public that treated most government-sponsored beheadings as entertainment. The normally raucous crowds which gathered for these particular falls of the blade were reported to be eerily quiet. Adding to the overall strangeness of the scene was the fact that the nuns literally sang their way to their deaths, offering up psalms as they walked up the stairs to take their positions on the gruesome machine that would end their lives.
This horrible tale was first fictionalized in a 1931 German novella, The Last One on the Scaffold by Gertrude von Le Fort. In 1947, an Austrian priest, Father Raymond Bruckberger, attempted to develop a screenplay based on the story. French novelist Georges Bernanos was brought in to write dialogues for the planned film, which he completed before his death the following year. The film was not made, at least in part because Bernanos' contributions were seen as uncinematic, but a play based on his dialogues did emerge in 1952.
Poulenc did not select the subject for his operatic version of the story. It was suggested instead by Guido Valcarenghi, director of Ricordi Editions, the legendary Italian opera publishers who were directly involved with many of Verdi and Puccini's greatest works, at a casual meeting in Milan.
"I was stupefied by the proposition. What would the public say about an opera lacking a love intrigue?" said Poulenc, who had seen the play based on Bernanos' work. "Having always given credit to the innate theatrical sense of the Italians, I dismissed this objection, but needed time to consider.”
His plan was to wait until he returned to Paris to give the subject more thought - but chance intervened. Two days after his meeting with Valcarenghi, Poulenc was taking a morning stroll in Rome when "right in the middle of the window of a Roman bookstore, I saw The Dialogues which seemed to await me.” By 2 p.m. that same afternoon, he sent a telegram to Valcarenghi telling him he wanted to write the opera.
That was the beginning of a three year gestation period that was extremely trying for Poulenc. He reported being so consumed with the work that he had trouble sleeping and suffered physical ills both real and imagined that led him to reach out for spiritual support from, of all places, Dallas.
"My God, you cannot know the anguish. God knows if I shall ever complete Dialogues des Carmelites because I am very ill,” he wrote to a Father Griffin of the Discalced Carmelite Fathers at Mount Carmel Seminary in Dallas. "It is my stomach. Cancer. In spite of my doctors' assurances that there is nothing wrong with me, I fear I will never be able to work again. Will you ask the Carmelite Fathers of Dallas to make a novena that I recover my health and that I may be able to glorify God and the blessed martyrs of Compiégne with my music? I am in terrible fear.”
Toward the end of 1954, Poulenc apparently suffered a sort of nervous breakdown from the strain of writing both the music and libretto that bring the nuns' story to musical life. And, once the opera was finished, its production was delayed by haggling over the rights to the story. But the deeply religious composer would not be stopped and Dialogues of the Carmelites had its debut in Milan on Jan. 27, 1957.
Enjoying This Opera
The key to enjoying this opera is understanding that its title should be taken very literally. For fans of more traditional, 19th century operas, this work will sound like a continuous string of recitative (sung speech) rather than a series of arias. But this is how the composer intended it to be. He spoke of keeping the orchestration to a minimum in order not to interfere with the power of what the nuns are saying.
So rather than being about Poulenc and his music, this opera is about the nuns and their sufferings. It is the personalities of the sisters and the emotional power of their fears and dedication, as revealed in their dialogues, that have kept this opera in the repertoire. It is a gut-wrenchingly sad slice of history, but it also an opera that profoundly moves the heart and touches the soul.
Dr. Punch Shaw is a writer, teacher and lecturer on various topics related to communications and the arts. He presents the pre-performance lectures for Fort Worth Opera, teaches courses at TCU, co-hosts a monthly lecture/ discussion group on classical music at Borders Books & Music and frequently contributes reviews and features to various publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
CAST AND CREATIVE
The Chevalier Scott Scully
Marquis de la Force Brandon Poor
Blanche de la Force Janice Hall
Thierry, Valet to Marquis George Cornelius
Mme. De Croissy, Old Prioress Victoria Livengood
Sister Constance Sarah Tannehill
Mother Marie, assistant Prioress Eugenie Grunewald
M. Javelinot, a doctor Malcolm Beaty
Mme. Lidoine, New Prioress Marjorie Owens
L'Aumonier, Father Confessor Benjamin Bunsold
Sister Mathilde Tawny Seward
1st Commissioner Nathan Wentworth
2nd Commissioner/1st Officer/Jailer John Sauvey
Mother Jeanne, Dean Laura Mercado
Conductor Christopher Larkin
Stage Director Casey Stangl
Coach Mary Dibbern
Costumes Designed By Amrei Skalicki
Scenery and Props Designed By Harry Frehner and Scott Reid
Lighting Designer Marcus Dillard
Wig and Make-Up Designer Steven Bryant
Stage Manager Kurt Howard
Chorus Master/ Supertitles By Tony Kostecki
Rehearsal Accompanist Jason Smith