Opéra de Montréal presents

Dialogues des carmélites

Francis POULENC, composer

Faith, in the midst of the revolution

A virtuoso stage director, eclectic worlds, and one of Quebec’s most inspired conductors. Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman unable to overcome her dread of the world, enters a Carmelite monastery. But the French Revolution spares no one, let alone nuns.

“Blanche, was me,” wrote Francis Poulenc to a friend in a letter about the protagonist of his “mystical opera” Dialogues des carmélites. The opera draws its power from its multiple facets and many possible interpretations. On the one hand, it seems to depict the inner journey of all humans facing death. On the other, the historical subject matter and use of sacred music create an atmosphere that seems distant from our daily lives. At the same time, the violence of the Reign of Terror and its arbitrary executions are a subject that could not be more topical, whether in the context of the Cold War during which the opera was composed or in our own. As a reviewer wrote of Georges Bernanos’ play, on which Poulenc based his opera, it is “a work that obviously responds to the need for spirituality in a time threatened by historical and industrial materialism whose horror we feel. Our shudder, at its approach, is that of Blanche de la Force.”

Blanche de la Force: Marianne Fiset
Madame Lidoine: Marie-Josée Lord
Mère Marie de l’Incarnation: Aidan Ferguson
Madame de Croissy: Mia Lennox
Sœur Constance de Saint Denis: Magali Simard-Galdès
Le Marquis de la Force: Gino Quilico
Le chevalier de la Force: Antoine Bélanger
Conductor: Jean-François Rivet
Director: Serge Denoncourt


Act 1

April 1789. In the reading room, the Marquis de La Force is speaking to his son, the Chevalier. He tells him that an angry crowd is demonstrating against the aristocracy, and that Blanche’s carriage has been stopped at the roundabout. Worried about his sister’s safety, the Chevalier laments her nervous and timid nature.

Upon her arrival, Blanche announces to her father that she is thinking of entering the convent; she feels a stranger in the world, unable to truly live within it.

A few weeks later, at the Carmelite convent in Compiègne, Blanche introduces herself to the prioress, Madame de Croissy, who tells Blanche that the convent is a place of prayer, and not a refuge from the revolution: God will test her weaknesses, not her strengths.

Blanche, who has taken the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, works while chatting with Sister Constance in the convent’s workshop. Constance innocently talks of her days before entering the convent, but Blanche tells her to quiet down, reminding her that the old prioress is ill and that her end is near. They then begin to talk about their fear of death, a fear that Constance claims to have overcome. She tells Blanche that she dreamed that they would die together.

In the infirmary, the prioress attempts to hide her anguish in the face of her imminent death. She entrusts Blanche to Mère Marie. In a final admission of fear, the prioress succumbs before Blanche who falls to her knees by the bedside.

Act 2

In the chapel, Constance and Blanche keep vigil over the coffin. Blanche attempts to pray but, overcome by fright, tries to run off. Mère Marie holds her back and advises her to accept her fear.

Constance, who hopes that Mère Marie will be the new prioress, believes that Madame de Croissy died a death meant for someone else, a death too horrible and too mediocre for her. One day, she says, someone will be surprised to find their own death so easy.

Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, addresses the nuns, warning them against the temptation of wanting to be martyrs. At the same time, the Chevalier de La Force arrives and asks to see his sister before going abroad. With Mère Marie present, he meets with Blanche in the parlour and tells her that their father fears for her safety if she stays at the convent. Displeased, Blanche asks her brother to accept her courage in the same way as his own, even though it is of a different nature.

In the sacristy, the chaplain gives his last mass, as the revolutionaries have forbidden him to continue his duties.  With the troubles threatening the country, fear has set in. Madame Lidoine observes that “when there are no priests, there’ll be martyrs in plenty, thus the balance of grace is very soon restored.” In these words, Mère Marie realizes the order’s destiny. The prioress firmly replies that one does not decide to be a martyr but that it is God alone who makes the choice.

Outside, the sounds of the crowd grow louder. Two officials arrive to announce that the legislative assembly has voted to issue an expulsion order for the Carmelites.

Act 3

In the devastated chapel, Mère Marie—in the absence of Madame Lidoine, who has fled to Paris—proposes that the nuns take the vow of martyrdom for the love of their country and their order. Despite a general reluctance, the Carmelites take a secret vote. After having taken her vow, Blanche flees the convent. Forbidden from living within a community, the nuns are forced to dress in civilian clothes and to reintegrate into society. In the face of danger, the prioress objects to the celebration of a mass, saying that each is individually responsible for her actions before God.

Blanche, dressed like a peasant, cooks in her ruined family home; her father has been sent to the guillotine.  Mère Marie arrives and urges her to return to her sisters, for her own good. Blanche resists, but finally agrees to go to the address Mère Marie has given her.

At the break of day, in a large cell in the Conciergerie where they have spent the night, the Carmelites are accused of unlawful assembly and conspiracy against the government. On the Place de la Révolution, the nuns chant the Salve Regina as they make their way up to the guillotine. When it is Constance’s turn, Blanche cuts through the crowd, transfigured. Calmly, she climbs the steps singing the final verse of the Veni Creator.

For information and tickets: www.placedesarts.com  514-842-2112 or 1-866-842-2112


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