True story of 18th century martyred nuns

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A scene from Act III of Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites.” (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

“Dialogues des Carmelites” (“Dialogues of the Carmelites”) is based on the true story of 16 Carmelite nuns and lay sisters who martyred themselves during the French Revolution instead of renouncing their vows. The opera is set between 1789 and 1794 in both Paris and the town of Compiegne in northeast France, the site of the nun’s convent. Like many operas, “Dialogues des Carmelites” features friendship, purity, sacrifice, love, rejection, aspiration and spirituality, but this opera ties together these elements in a unique way. In fact, Opera News rates the finale as the most stunning moment of spirituality in all of opera. The nuns sing the fervent prayer “Salve Regina,” and one by one they are taken offstage and killed, the whack of the guillotine punctuating the music. The nuns’ voices are reduced in number one by one until there is only one sister left, and then none.

The opera focuses on Blanche de la Force, a shy young aristocrat who decides to become a Carmelite nun because of her innate fear of life. As the Revolution threatens the monastic life she has chosen, Blanche runs away from the convent in fear. At the end, she returns in time to stand firm with her fellow sisters in face of an angry mob and a guillotine. The plot of this opera before the beheadings is fictional, but the deaths are real — it happened on July 17, 1794, at the Place de la Revolution in Paris.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) wrote both the libretto and the score for this opera. Young Poulenc was described as “half monk, half naughty boy.” Indeed, his early compositions — songs, solo piano pieces, chamber music, ballets, orchestral and choral pieces — were often lighthearted and irreverent. Later on, Poulenc’s composer friend was decapitated in a car crash, and Poulenc suddenly became more serious and spiritual. In 1953, La Scala commissioned Poulenc, and he began to write “Dialogues des Carmelites.” The result is a rare case of a modern opera that is equally esteemed by audiences and music experts. Poulenc is admittedly not the most famous of composers, but he was influenced by such famous ones as Bach, Mozart and Schubert. Critics claim that the genius of Poulenc’s music is his emphasis on melody, and particularly the melody expressed by the human voice. “His melodies are simple, pleasing, easily remembered, and most often emotionally expressive.”

This opera features an unusually large proportion of female singers, but Poulenc deals with this by distributing the score among numerous female voice types from a light soprano for the new young nuns down to a mature contralto for the more weary, tired nuns. The main character Blanche is sung by the exquisitely beautiful mezzo Isabel Leonard, star of three operas performed this season at The Met.

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