The spiritual journey in Francis Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’

The deep and deeply felt Catholicism that drives this cerebral yet intensely moving opera can be unfathomable to many in our own ruthlessly secular century. But that needn't be the case. 

Blanche and Sister Constance.
(L-R) – Layla Claire as Blanche de la Force and Ashley Emerson as Sister Constance. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2015 − My recent, rather lengthy review of WNO’s deeply moving production of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” endeavored to place this quite philosophical and theologically oriented work in context. This particular review was motivated in part by the distinct impression I got during last Monday’s performance  that many in the audience seemed genuinely puzzled and occasionally bored by this opera, particularly its first half. This needn’t be the case.

Understanding the strong underpinnings of Poulenc’s Catholic faith−pre-Vatican II style−is an important key to understanding what’s going on in this opera’s first half. It explains why his Carmelite sister-heroines ultimately choose martyrdom at the opera’s conclusion.

RELATED: Washington National Opera’s moving new production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites”

Unfortunately, since we live in an age where elitists, academics and even the Federal government seem hell-bent on exterminating Christianity and Christian values from public discourse itself, it becomes more and more difficult to relate to Poulenc’s compelling and compassionate vision in this, perhaps his most famous work. Let’s take a closer look at this opera’s moral and theological influences.

Poulenc, Deco Music and a return to religious faith

Two sisters and a timid novice.
Will she or won’t she? Can timid Blanche make a commitment to a life of prayer? Or commit to anything? Dolora Zajick as Madame de Croissy, Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie, and Layla Claire as Blanche de la Force. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is perhaps better known for his lighter, more piquant works than he is for his later, serious compositions. He was regarded in his own country as one of the more antic members of “Les Six,” a somewhat informal grouping of composers who refused to embrace either the mantle of French Impressionism or the blandishments of the more foreboding Second Viennese School of serialism and popular oblivion.

Although he started out with far less formal musical training than his fellow “Sixers,” Poulenc studied with carefully chosen teachers to develop his craft, which considerably aided his natural talent for composing popular, antic tunes and other works with a style I’ve informally dubbed “Deco Music.” Many of these compositions gained popular favor, making Poulenc a well-known and well-regarded Parisian figure in the 1920s and 1930s.

In addition to smaller compositions, Poulenc also focused on ballets like his popular “Les biches” (1924) and novel and popular keyboard concertos such as his Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932) and his bizarrely amusing Concert Champêtre for Harpsichord and Orchestra (1927-8), which he composed for famed Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.

Francis Poulenc and Virginia Zeani.
Composer Francis Poulenc and soprano Virginia Zeani at “Dialogues'” La Scala premiere, 1957. Via Ms. Zeani’s website.

Personal loss, however, began to move Poulenc in a more serious direction during the mid-to-late 1930s, motivating him to embrace once again his long-dormant Catholicism, which began to resurface in a number of moving liturgical and liturgy-inspired works.

An early example of this compositional shift occurs in his Concerto in G-minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938-9, final revision 1941) which alternates huge, almost terrifying statements from the organ with quieter, more contemplative passages and the occasional surprising and delightful dash of Deco Music.

Only 20 minutes long and performed as one continuous movement, the concerto has become quite a popular piece over the years, having been performed here just last fall by the National Symphony orchestra, featuring the brilliant young organist Paul Jacobs as soloist on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s Rubenstein Family Organ.

The gestation of “Dialogues”

Fast-forwarding a bit, in 1953, La Scala offered Poulenc a commission to compose a ballet. Eventually settling on a religious story dating from the days of the French Revolution, he chose instead to compose an opera, basing it somewhat loosely on the tragic story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a convent of cloistered Carmelite nuns who during the Reign of Terror in 1794 chose to die on the guillotine rather than renounce their faith.

The resulting opera, “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” received its premiere—in Italian—at La Scala in 1957. It was successively premiered in French in Paris and in English in San Francisco.

Martyrs of Compiègne in stained glass.
Stained Glass window in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Quidenham, Norfolk. This window in the clerestory depicts the Martyrs of Compiègne, the tragic heroines of Poulenc’s opera.

Given this highly intellectual opera’s unusual and detailed theological and philosophical content, the composer sanctioned versions sung in the native languages of countries where it was performed, the better for local audiences to understand the characters’ personalities, faith and motivation.

The strong Catholic and theological element in this opera is most obvious in the work’s seemingly static first half. In many serious operas, the characters and plots are set up in the first act or two. The opera then blossoms into compelling musical drama as it moves inexorably toward its (usual) tragic climax. “Dialogues of the Carmelites” works the same way. Additionally, in place of the generally accepted linear plot, this opera’s plot line is buried beneath the surface.

In place of the dramatic trials and tribulations of the hero and heroine of a standard tragic opera, the cloistered nuns at the heart of “Dialogues,” in their seemingly trivial interactions and and personal conversations — their religious “dialogues” if you will — seriously and thoughtfully examine their vocation, their commitment to God and His Church, their dedication to a life of prayer, and their looming fate as they face a suddenly violent and viciously secular world that threatens and then invades their personal sanctity and their cloistered space.

Each sister in this community has a different attitude and approach toward salvation, even though all of them embrace a common faith. But as the opera develops, we watch as they gradually become of one mind, united in their intense desire to defend their faith and their God even though it may cost them their lives. In short, this opera and its characters decide in favor of moral principles and against an oppressive government, an ancient theme that has unfortunately become relevant again in our own times.

As the “dialogues” continue, the audience doesn’t encounter a discernable plot in this opera’s early scenes. Instead, they become privy to the inner lives of the sisters on their journey of faith. In Kantian terms, it’s a journey that takes place in the “noumenal” realm rather than in the “phenomenal” or physical realm, the one we tend to be most familiar and comfortable with.

The sisters’ progress, then, is both spiritual and intellectual. Only in the opera’s second half do we see the elements of this mental traveling morphs into reality as the sisters risk their very lives to oppose an amoral, out-of-control secular government. It’s at this point that their spirit journey becomes real, serving to set an example for those who will listen and bear witness. It’s heavy stuff to carry in a musical genre that’s generally meant to entertain rather than challenge the spirit and the intellect.

In spite of its strong religious theme and somewhat static first half, Poulenc’s scoring for orchestra and voices is uncommonly luminous and beautiful throughout, combining traditionally tonal and modernist harmonies and motifs underscoring the purpose and eventual unity of the doomed sisters, who come to view religious faith and community solidarity as more important than life itself.

Dialogues of the Carmelites.
Washington National Opera Production of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Final Scene. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Surprising any number of secular academic and media critics, Poulenc’s religious-themed opera quickly gained popularity after its European and American premieres, particularly in Europe. Along with Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” “Dialogues” remains one of the most frequently performed operas in the world that was composed after the 1926 death of Puccini, although its spiritual element may seem alien to a skeptical contemporary audience.

As we noted in our earlier review, when attempting to describe the music of “Dialogues,” perhaps a general comment on the composer’s musical output by American composer Ned Rorem catches its spirit best: “He was deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual.” That’s what we get in “Dialogues of the Carmelites:” an “uncontrollably sensual” piece of musical theater concealing within itself the deeply devout mind and spirit of a unique 20th century composer.

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