On the evening of July 17, 1794, at the height of the Great Terror of the French Revolution, 16 Carmelite nuns were guillotined in the Place de la Nation in Paris. Their story is re-told by Francis Poulenc in his 1957 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, which completed its run at the Washington National Opera yesterday.
This community of religious women refused to obey the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of the Revolutionary government mandating suppression of their monastery.
Martyred by the infamous Committee of Public Safety, their remains are now in a mass grave at the Picpus Cemetery in Paris. There you will find a discreet plaque with all of their names listed.
Poulenc combines music, song, and prayer in a dramatic portrayal of self-sacrifice. But the actual story does not end with the opera’s powerful closing scene in which the Carmelites sing Salve Regina as, one by one, the blade falls on each of their necks. You can see the Metropolitan Opera’s finale from its 1987 production on YouTube here.
The rest of the story is told by William Bush, a professor of French literature and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, in To Quell the Terror: The True Story of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne (1999). Ten days after the beheadings, Robespierre fell and was executed in the same manner as the nuns. The Terror ended. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? From a purely logical perspective, a causal connection cannot be proven. Yet, this story of voluntary sacrifice, and the bringing of relative peace to France and the Church, challenges even the rational mind.
Poulenc mixes fact and fiction, especially with the introduction of Blanche de la Force, a young aristocratic girl who seeks to escape her fear, angst really, of life by means of a vocation to the Carmelites. Such a motivation would normally not be recognized as a legitimate reason for a religious vocation. But Poulenc has his reasons for this character in his story.
Blanche was originally the creation of a German writer, Gertrud von Le Fort, in her novel, The Song at the Scaffold (1933) written as the shadow of Nazism was spreading over her country. This might account for the great fear driving her heroine’s actions. It was left to the great French Catholic writer, George Bernanos, author of Diary of a Country Priest (1936), to incorporate Blanche into the text of a play (never performed) that became the basis for Poulenc’s libretto.
Blanche’s very human struggle provides theatrical counterpoint to the unflinching heroism of the rest of the Carmelite community. She flees in fear of execution only to return to her companions in the final scene and death. She overcomes her fear through her love of God and her community.
Poulenc was a serious Catholic, and he does not reduce the religious commitment and self-sacrifice of the doomed Carmelites to some thin gruel of humanist individualism. This is great religious as well as operatic art if not precise history. Bush notes that the nuns did not take a “vow of martyrdom” as Poulenc would have it. It was “an act of consecration” whereby each member of the community “would join with the others in offering herself daily to God, soul and body, in holocaust to restore peace to France and to her church.” This, in fact, is what the prioress, Mother Lidoine, actually proposed in the fall of 1792.
Unknown to Poulenc, Mother Lidoine held a small terracotta statuette of the Madonna and Child in her hand, which each nun kissed, after renewing their vows, before climbing the scaffold. But these and other missing historical details do not take anything away from Poulenc’s achievement. His is a very French creation without the soaring arias of Italian opera. The French do like to talk, but they talk about great things, which the nuns do, to music, throughout this compelling production. These are, after all, the Dialogues of Carmelite martyrs with themselves and their God.