Major Operas | Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc | Modern Era

Composed: 1953–56
Premiered: 1957, Milan
Libretto by the composer after Georges Bernanos’ play

Act I

It is April 1789 and revolution is stirring. Blanche de la Force, timid and highly strung, announces her intention to become a nun. The prioress of the Carmelite convent at Compiègne warns Blanche that this is not a refuge. She wishes to be known as Soeur Blanche de l’Agonie du Christ Blanche rebukes Soeur Constance for chattering when the prioress is dying. Constance suggests that they should offer their lives in exchange for the prioress’s. She senses that she and Blanche will die young together. The prioress is dying. She entrusts Blanche to Mère Marie’s care and bids farewell to Blanche. As she nears death she becomes delirious, seeing visions of the chapel’s desecration. Blanche sees her die horribly.

Act II

Blanche and Constance keep watch over the body. Blanche is terrified when left alone. Constance suggests that the prioress’s death may mean that others die more easily. The new prioress, Madame Lidoine, warns that the sisters’ future will be full of trials. They should not aspire to martyrdom. Blanche’s brother has decided to leave France. He tries to persuade her to leave the convent, but she declares that she is in God’s care. When he has gone she collapses. Mère Marie tells her to have courage. The chaplain has been banned from performing his duties. The new prioress contradicts Mère Marie’s belief that they may preserve the Church by giving their lives. The civil powers take over the convent. Blanche is terrified by the sound of the mob.


The chapel has been sacked. With the prioress in Paris, Mère Marie proposes a vow of martyrdom. There is only one vote against, which Constance claims. As Blanche weeps, Constance begs to take the vow alongside Blanche, but she flees. The community has been outlawed and Blanche returns home. Her father has been guillotined, but she is too frightened to go back with Mère Marie. The Carmelites have been imprisoned. The prioress takes the vow. Constance has dreamt that Blanche will return, but they are all condemned to death. The chaplain stops Mère Marie rejoining the sisters by saying that perhaps she has another destiny. They are brought to the Place de la Révolution on 17 July 1794. The prioress leads them to the guillotine singing the ‘Salve Regina’. Constance is the last, and Blanche steps out of the crowd to join her.

Recommended Recording:
Dialogues des Carmélites, Philharmonia Orchestra; Jérémie Rhorer, conductor; Soloists: Sophie Koch (Mère Marie de l’Incarnation), Patricia Petibon (Blanche de la Force), Véronique Gens (Madame Lidoine), Sandrine Piau (Soeur Constance de Saint Denis), Rosalind Plowright (Madame de Croissy), Topi Lehtipuu (Le Chevalier de la Force)

Personalities | Francis Poulenc | Modern Era | Opera


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