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Dialogues of the Carmelites

Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) is a 1956 French-language Italian translation) in January 1957 at La Scala in Milan; premières in Paris, France in French and in the United States (in English translation) in San Francisco followed the same year.

It tells a somewhat fictionalised version of the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, Carmelite nuns who, in 1794 during the closing days of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, were guillotined in Paris for refusing to renounce their vocation.


  • Development 1
  • The opera 2
  • Performance history 3
  • Roles 4
  • Synopsis 5
    • Act 1 5.1
    • Act 2 5.2
    • Act 3 5.3
  • Recordings 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Bernanos had been hired in 1947 to write a screenplay based on the novella Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold or Song at the Scaffold) by Gertrud von Le Fort. The novella is based on historical events at the monastery of Carmelite nuns in Compiègne, northern France, in the wake of the French Revolution, specifically in 1794 at the time of state seizure of the monastery's assets. It traces a fictional path from 1789 up to these events, when nuns of the Carmelite Order were guillotined.[1]

When the screenplay was judged unsatisfactory for a film, Bernanos adapted it as a play, which was published posthumously in 1949. It was staged by Jacques Hébertot in May 1952 at the Théâtre Hébertot. Poulenc saw the play, but it was his publishing firm Ricordi that suggested adapting the subject as an opera.

Some sources credit Emmet Lavery as librettist or co-librettist, but others say, "With the permission of Emmet Lavery."[2] The libretto is unusually deep in its psychological study of the contrasting characters of Mother Marie de l'Incarnation and Blanche de la Force.

Rodney Milnes describes Bernanos' text as "concise and clear" and that like "all good librettos it suggests far more than it states".[1]

The genesis of the opera began in 1953. Margarita Wallmann took her husband, president of Ricordi, to see the Bernanos play in Vienna. She had asked Poulenc to write an oratorio for her; through the commission from Ricordi, he developed the work as the opera.[1] Wallman was the eventual producer of the La Scala première of Poulenc's opera, and she later supervised the 1983 revival at Covent Garden. About the same time, M. Valcarenghi had approached Poulenc with a commission for a ballet for La Scala in Milan.

Poulenc composed the opera between 1953 and 1956.[3] At this time, he had recommitted himself to spirituality and Roman Catholicism, although he was openly gay and the church officially opposed homosexuality. Opera critic Alan Rich believes that Poulenc's concerns for the travails of post-World War II France, as it tried to reconcile issues related to the Holocaust, German occupation and the Resistance, was a subtext within the opera.[4] Wallmann worked closely with Poulenc during the composition process and in evolving the structure, as well as later when she re-staged the production in other theatres.[1]

The opera

Dialogues contributes to Poulenc's reputation as a composer especially of fine vocal music. The dialogues are largely set in a cappella setting of Ave Maria in Act II, Scene II, and the Ave verum corpus in Act II, Scene IV. During the final tableau of the opera, which takes place in the Place de la Nation, the distinct sound of the guillotine's descending blade is heard repeatedly over the orchestra and the singing of the nuns, who are taken one by one, until only Soeur Constance and Blanche de la Force remain.

Poulenc acknowledged his debt to [3][5] Music critic Anthony Tommasini feels there is nothing for Poulenc to be ashamed of:[5]

subtle and intricate tonal language is by turns hymnal and haunting. Though scored for a large orchestra, the instruments are often used in smaller groups selected for particular effects and colorings. The most distinctive element of the score, though, is its wonderfully natural vocal writing, which capture the rhythms and lyrical flow of the libretto in eloquent music that hardly calls attention to itself yet lingers with you.

The opera has been widely praised. Opera historian Charles Osborne wrote:[3]

The inexorable dramatic movement of the work is impressive and, in the final scene in which the nuns walk in procession to the guillotine chanting the Salve regina, extremely moving. Poulenc also found an easy and effective style to which to carry forward without monotony the scenes of convent life.

Performance history

The opera was first performed in an Italian translation at La Scala on 26 January 1957, with Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani in the role of Blanche. The original French version premiered on 21 June that year by the Paris Théâtre National de l'Opéra (the current Opéra National de Paris); the Paris cast had been chosen by Poulenc and included Denise Duval (Blanche de la Force), Régine Crespin (Madam Lidoine), Rita Gorr (Mother Marie), and Liliane Berton (Sister Constance).[3] The United States premiere took place three months later, on 20 September, in English, at San Francisco Opera; this featured the opera stage debut of Leontyne Price (as Madame Lidoine).[6] The opera was not presented in New York until 3 March 1966, in a staging by New York City Opera.[7]

The opera is among a comparatively small number of post-Puccini works that has never lost its place in the international repertory.[1]


Role Voice type Version in Italian
Première cast
26 January 1957 (Milan)
(conductor: Nino Sanzogno)
Original French version
Première cast
21 June 1957 (Paris)
(conductor: Pierre Dervaux)
Marquis de la Force baritone Scipio Colombo Xavier Depraz
Chevalier de la Force, his son tenor Nicola Filacuridi Jean Giraudeau
Blanche de la Force/Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, his daughter soprano Virginia Zeani Denise Duval
Thierry, a footman baritone Armando Manelli Forel
Madame de Croissy, the prioress of the monastery contralto Gianna Pederzini Denise Scharley
Sister Constance of St. Denis, a young novice soprano Eugenia Ratti Liliane Berton
Mother Marie of the Incarnation, sub-prioress mezzo-soprano Gigliola Frazzoni Rita Gorr
M. Javelinot, a doctor baritone Carlo Gasperini Max Conti
Madame Lidoine/Mother Marie of St. Augustine, the new prioress soprano Leyla Gencer Régine Crespin
Mother Jeanne of the Holy Child Jesus, the oldest nun contralto Vittoria Palombini Fourrier
Sister Mathilde mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto Desmoutiers
Chaplain of the monastery tenor Alvino Manelli Forel
First commissioner tenor Antonio Pirino Romagnoni
Second commissioner baritone Arturo La Porta
Officer baritone Michele Cazzato
Jailer baritone
Carmelites, officers, prisoners, townspeople


Elin Rombo as Sister Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites in a 2011 production at the Royal Swedish Opera.
Place: Paris and Compiègne, 1789–94
Time: during the French Revolution

Act 1

Against the setting of the French Revolution, when crowds stop carriages in the street and aristocrats are attacked, the pathologically timid Blanche de la Force decides to retreat from the world and enter a Carmelite monastery. The Mother Superior informs her that the Carmelite Order is not a refuge; it is the duty of the nuns to guard the Order, not the other way around. In the convent, the jolly Sister Constance tells Blanche (to her consternation) that she has had a dream that the two of them will die young together. The prioress, who is dying, commits Blanche to the care of Mother Marie. The Mother Superior passes away in great agony, shouting in her delirium that despite her long years of service to God, He has abandoned her. Blanche and Mother Marie, who witness her death, are shaken.

Act 2

Sister Constance remarks to Blanche that the prioress' death seemed unworthy of her, and speculates that she had been given the wrong death, as one might be given the wrong coat in a cloakroom. She said that perhaps someone else will find death surprisingly easy. Perhaps we die not for ourselves alone, but for each other.

Blanche's brother, the Chevalier de la Force, arrives to announce that their father thinks Blanche should withdraw from the monastery, since she is not safe there (being both an aristocrat and the member of a religious community, at a time of anti-aristocrat and anti-clericalism in the rising revolutionary tides). Blanche refuses, saying that she has found happiness in the Carmelite Order. Later she admits to Mother Marie that it is fear (or the fear of fear itself, as the Chevalier expresses it) that keeps her from leaving.

The chaplain announces that he has been forbidden to preach (presumably for being a non-juror under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy). The nuns remark on how fear rules the country, and no one has the courage to stand up for the priests. Sister Constance asks, "Are there no men left to come to the aid of the country?" "When priests are lacking, martyrs are superabundant," replies the new Mother Superior. Mother Marie says that the Carmelites can save France by giving their lives, but the Mother Superior corrects her: it is not permitted to choose to become a martyr; God decides who will be martyred.

A police officer arrives and announces to the community that the Legislative Assembly has nationalized the monastery and its property, and the nuns must give up their religious habits. When Mother Marie acquiesces, the officer taunts her for being eager to dress like everyone else. She replies that the nuns will continue to serve, no matter how they are dressed. "The people have no need of servants," proclaims the officer haughtily. "No, but they have a great need for martyrs," responds Mother Marie. "In times like these, death is nothing," he says. "Life is nothing," she answers, "when it is so debased."

Act 3

In the absence of a new prioress, Mother Marie proposes that the nuns take a vow of martyrdom. However, all must agree, or Mother Marie will not insist. A secret vote is held; there is one dissenting voice. Sister Constance declares that she was the dissenter, and that she has changed her mind, so the vow can proceed. Blanche runs away from the monastery, and Mother Marie goes to look for her, finding her in her father's library. Her father has been guillotined, and Blanche has been forced to serve her former servants.

The nuns are all arrested and condemned to death, but Mother Marie is away (with Blanche, presumably) at the time. The chaplain tells Mother Marie when they meet again that since God has chosen to spare her, she cannot voluntarily become a martyr by joining the others in prison. The nuns (one by one) slowly mount the scaffold, singing the "Salve Regina" ("Hail, Holy Queen"). At the last minute, Blanche appears, to Constance's joy, and joins the condemned community. Having seen all the other nuns executed, as she mounts the scaffold, Blanche sings the final stanza of the "Veni Creator Spiritus," "Deo Patri sit gloria...", the Catholic hymn traditionally used when taking vows in a religious community and offering one's life to God.


At least fourteen (14) complete recordings exist. Of these, studio audio recordings were made in 1958 (conducted by Dervaux; released on the HMV label), 1992 (Nagano; Virgin), and 2005 (Daniel; Chandos). Less formally, live audio recordings exist from Milan in 1957 (Sanzogno; Legendary), from London in 1958 (Kubelík; Opera Addiction), from Vienna in 1961 (Klobucar; Ponto), and from Paris in 1980 (Marty; INA). At least seven video recordings have been made: in 1981 (filmed in Strasbourg; conducted by Périsson; released on Lyric Distribution), 1984 (Sydney, with Sutherland as Mme Lidoine; Bonynge; Kultur), 1986 (Toronto; Fournet; Lyric Distribution), 1987 (New York; Rosenthal; Met label), 1998 (Strasbourg; Latham-König; Arthaus), 2004 (Milan, with Anja Silja as Madame de Croissy; Muti; TDK), 2010 ( 2008 live performance from Hamburg, conducted by Simone Young with Alexia Voulgaridou as Blanche de la Force) and 2010 (Munich; Nagano; Bel Air).


  1. ^ a b c d e Milnes R. Dialogues des Carmelites. 3 [Radio 3 magazine], April 1983, p21-23.
  2. ^ According to Benjamin Ivry ("Cries from the Scaffold", Commonweal, 6 April 2001), Lavery owned the theatrical rights to the story, and following a legal judgement over the copyright, his name must be given in connection with all staged performances.
  3. ^ a b c d Charles Osborne (2004). The Opera Lover's Companion. Yale University Press. 
  4. ^ "New York Magazine" 10 (8). Feb 21, 1977. 
  5. ^ a b Anthony Tommasini (2004). The New York Times Essential Library: Opera: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings. Times Books. 
  6. ^ "San Francisco Opera Archive" (PDF). Retrieved 17 December 2011. 
  7. ^ Schonberg, Harold C. (4 March 1966). "Music: 'Dialogues of the Carmelites'; Poulenc Work Is Given at Last by City Opera". The New York Times. 
  • Hell, Henri, Les Dialogues des Carmélites, liner notes to the recording on EMI compact disc no. 7493312.
  • Poulenc, Francis, The Dialogues of the Carmelites - Libretto, original text and English Translation. Ricordi and Belwin Mills Publishing Corp., Melville, NY. 1957, 1959.

External links

  • "Synopsis: Dialogues des Carmélites" at
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