Francis Poulenc and Dialogues of the Carmelites

The works of largely self-taught composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) are as varied as the preoccupations of the man himself. His earliest works to receive a public hearing were for voice and piano, and over the course of his career he wrote around 150 songs. The apparent simplicity of his melodies, so closely fitted to their texts, belies their meticulous craft. Poulenc’s musical settings of the sexy, subversive, and surreal verses of contemporary poets (Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard, Jean Cocteau, and Louise de Vilmorin, among others) seem absolutely inevitable. His first opera, based on Apollinaire’s play Les mamelles de Tirésias (“The Breasts of Tiresias”), sparkles with the same high spirits and sly sensuality that animate his miniature masterpieces.

In 1936, after a friend was killed in a violent car crash, Poulenc first visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour; his Litanies à la Vierge Noire (“Litanies of the Black Virgin”) were inspired by the statue of the Black Madonna there. “In that work I tried to get across the atmosphere of ‘peasant devotion’ that had struck me so forcibly in that lofty chapel,” Poulenc later said. A lifelong Catholic, Poulenc began making regular pilgrimages to Rocamadour. In 1937 he brought forth his Mass in G; it was followed by a number of other religious works, including Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39), Exultate Deo (1941), Salve Regina (1941), Stabat Mater (1950), Gloria (1959), and Hodie Christus Natus Est (1952), among others.

When Poulenc was approached to write a new ballet for La Scala, he proposed an opera instead. Ricordi, his publisher, suggested a treatment of the story of the Carmelites of Compiègne. After trying his hand at a few scenes to ensure he could find the right tone, he proceeded, finishing his second opera in 1956.

Dialogues of the Carmelites was first heard in an Italian translation at La Scala, as Poulenc felt it necessary that the work, so reliant on subtle verbal arguments, be performed in the language of the audience. Five months after its La Scala premiere, Dialogues was presented in French in Paris. Later that year, a young Leontyne Price took the stage as Madame Lidoine in an English-language performance at San Francisco Opera.

Poulenc’s opera is driven forward less by suspense than by the characters’ struggle to understand how they must live—and how they must die—in a world that has fallen to chaos. The dialogues of these Carmelites—about prayer, heroism, and grace—are the heart of the opera. Having spent her days in prayer and contemplation, each nun comes to her own hard-fought understanding and convictions, which may or may not be shared by those around her.

Composer Ned Rorem neatly summed up Poulenc as “deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual.” Poulenc’s simultaneous embrace of the suggestive and the sacred may seem a paradox, but, to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman, we all contain multitudes, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Blanche’s courageous fear; Mother Marie’s devotion and pride; Sister Constance’s delight in austerity.

—Kelley Rourke