Dialogues des Carmélites
Francis Poulenc’s opera shows none of the human emotions usually dealt with in dramatic stage works such as love or greed. Instead it focuses on fear and the battle to overcome it. This unusual subject fascinated Poulenc, and from 1953 he worked almost obsessively on this commission from La Scala in Milan. Georges Bernanos, on whose
stage play The Fearless Heart the libretto is based, wrote, “Fear, real fear, is raving madness. Of all the folly of which we are capable it is without doubt the most cruel. Nothing equals its intensity, nothing can withstand its onslaught.”
For Blanche de la Force life means fear: in 1770, on the dauphin’s wedding day, her mother was caught up in a frenzied crowd. She was so terrified that she gave premature birth to Blanche and died. In 1789, Blanche too is
caught up in an angry mob. This experience persuades her to join the Carmelite Order. The prioress, Madame de Croissy, warns her against taking the veil purely out of fear of the world. But she is moved by the religious name
Blanche chooses – “Blanche of Christ’s Mortal Agony” – because she had once wanted to take this name herself. Blanche is allowed to stay. In the meantime the revolution breaks out and the monasteries are dissolved. The sisters swear to die for their faith if need be, whereupon Blanche flees from the order. Soon afterwards the nuns are condemned to death. On the way to be executed they sing “Salve Regina”. Then Blanche rejoins them, takes
up the song and mounts the gallows voluntarily as the last of the sisters.
The story is by and large a true one: in 1794, 16 Carmelite nuns from Compiègne mounted the scaffold, singing as they did so. Poulenc created moving psychological studies of these extraordinary women. Consequently it is words, the conversations, that form the core of the work. With the subtle differentiation of the vocal lines and a subtle orchestral treatment Poulenc portrays fear, despair, courage, fanaticism and devotion to God with perfect textual clarity. Following the overwhelming success of the series of performances in 2008, Robert Carsen’s lucid, vivid production returns to the Theater an der Wien.