Dialogues des Carmélites


Saturday, 16th April 2011
7 pm

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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.