Dialouges des Carmelites: Reclaiming Catholicism

In Francis Poulenc’s Only Opera, Cloister and Secular Revolution in Music Cast a Light on the Nature of Fear

Heidi Brunner (Madame Lidoine), Patricia Petibon (Sœur Constance), Michelle Breedt (Mère Marie), Elisabeth Wolfbauer (Mère Jeanne), Christa Ratzenböck (Sœur Mathilde) & Solistinnen des Arnold Schoenberg Chor | Photos: Armin Bardel

Left in the lurch by that political/sexual beast we call fate, countless opera heroines from Tosca to Elisabeth in Tannhäuser suddenly and conveniently pray to God for—well, “succour.” But French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) must have felt he was getting at the quintessence of lyric fervency when he set a play by Georges Bernanos in 1957, Dialogues des Carmelites, concerning the agonized transformation of Blanche de la Force, daughter of a Marquis, to Sister Blanche of Christ’s Fear of Death, against the background of the French Revolution. And since the French Revolution was not to be upstaged, as in real life, the nuns are guillotined in the last scene.

Whether this delicate, haunting span of musical theatre is a kind of pro-Catholic tract, or whether it merely uses religion as a locus to lay bare the consequences of human fear tested by history, there is nothing like it in opera, and the Theater an der Wien brought it back to Vienna on Jan. 19 after 40 years, in a production directed by Robert Carsten and conducted by Bertrand de Billy.

This remarkable music touches a nerve: how else to account for the uncanny similarity in vocal shading between Sally Matthews, the Blanche in Theater an der Wien, and the great Maria Ewing,  who played Blanche at the New York Metropolitan Opera back in 1976? Both seemed hounded by Poulenc’s tensile but elegiac music into a dark, tremulous middle range, with the same belligerent brilliance on top when Blanche flies off the handle.

How odd, and how good, that Poulenc’s musical idiom changed so little after he returned to Catholicism at the age of 37.  His musical persona, with elements from the boulevard, had always had something of the curdled elegance found in the poets he set, dreamers like Apollonaire and Paul Eluard. In these songs, Poulenc cuts, then he dries, and it’s brilliant. Possibly no composer has written so many melodies consisting of notes of equal length — not to mention his accompaniment figures, often a jaunty two-step more suggestive of a hatted, caned Maurice Chevalier than of deep religious conviction.

Central to Bernanos’ conception is that the old Prioress, in the first act, dies a protracted, blasphemous death in which she finds God utterly unhelpful – and says so, to the consternation of the nun at her bedside. Marjana Lipvosek pulled out the expected stops, her groans competing for vulgarity with the recorded guillotine whacks in the final scene. This is part of Poulenc’s conception, too, although he made much of his awestruck identification with the tragic story, writing chains of deceptive cadences like beads on a rosary.

His treble-happy orchestra, sporting triple winds and two harps, is all too ready to build an ethereal cage for the nuns’ theological discourse, and when their persecuted priest gives his last sermon before going into hiding, there’s a split second where rococo flourishes on those two harps make him sound like a buffoon. Parallels to baroque Catholic architecture come to mind, and as for buffoon-esque elements, couldn’t confession be the profoundest way of making fun of yourself?

A problem with nuns onstage is that we almost never acquire a sense of what these people were like before they put on their habits. Since this opera shows us a young woman actually becoming a nun, the singer and director should both arouse and satisfy our curiosity as to the character’s so-called motivations — and how extraordinary was the match of teint in Scene I between Blanche’s ivory-colored gown (costumes: Falk Bauer) and Matthews’ lucent, hothouse skin.

But for the most part, stage director Robert Carsen fell into the same trap as his singers, who in spite of spinning beautiful, expressive lines seemed rather too determined to prove to us, through the “intensity” of their expression, that religious sentiment can transcend anything. It may be that Religion, like pornography, is better suited to documentary genres than to fiction, where the artists always seem too focussed on proving the obvious—that heated emotions are at work here.

Patricia Petibon, as the innocent Sister Constance, provides the liveliest characterization along with the most angelic and vigorous sounds; when she tilts her saucer eyes, you might well think her wimple is about to slip off. Otherwise, these nuns do the same thing with their left and right hands too often. When the Revolution finally confiscates their uniforms, there is a gripping encounter between Blanche (who has now fled the cloister) and Mother Marie (Michelle Breedt) who comes to wrest her from the indignity of serving in a soup kitchen, where she burns the stew while lunging for a high note. Breedt’s cropped curls, freed from her wimple, shook urgently, unmistakeably; both women’s frantic movements gave halt to their hysteria, and they released their high notes like rubber bands about to snap.

For all the talk of overcoming fear, not to mention the “fear of fear”—the ultimate guilt trip sprung on Blanche by her blue-breeched brother (a noble, full-throated Yann Beuron) on his visit to the cloister — Blanche sounds just as timorous in her final decision to join the other nuns in their death as she is in the beginning. (Fear is a kind of gland we don’t understand.) The rhythmic and harmonic constancy of this opera suggests that calm in the face of the guillotine is merely sublimated fear, and lends that fear a richly-deserved nobility.

In this production, the nuns enact their deaths in a slow-motion pantomime suggesting tai chi (choreography: Philippe Giraudeau), gradually sinking one by one to the ground as each voice drops out. The music, a grim stately march accompanied by the nuns’ “Salve Regina,” cannot fail to move, and Poulenc’s terrifyingly random placement of the guillotine strokes can hardly fail to disgust. The juxtaposition of cloister and secular revolution, of religious genre music and whiffs of the music-hall, casts an unexpected light on fear itself: Are these contradictions in our environment, or are they within ourselves? Music blurs the line in the most frightening, convincing way possible.

Heidi Brunner, playing the “new” Prioress, sang with steadfast, rich tone, but her character’s stalwart leadership in the face of disaster seems ultimately less relevant to the piece than the open or hidden struggles of the other nuns. And once the cloister scenes begin, the color scheme (mise-en-scene: Michael Levine) fades to a tasteful gray, with discreet flashes of beige in the costumes of the populace who stare down the nuns and us — a tired, self-righteous device, especially when we glimpse them helpfully moving props around.

Orchestral effects of almost psychedelic delicacy, like the abrupt piccolo shriek when one nun refers in passing to a shepherd, or a frigid, discordant piano arpeggio wafting Blanche onstage in her first entrance, are not served in this staging. De Billy let his Radio Symphony Orchester make an imposing, even thrilling sound, imbuing most tempi with a taut drive. Considering that this is Poulenc’s only full-length opera, it is hard to account for his skill at deploying large orchestral textures without drowning out the singers in their plaintive melodies, so carefully crafted around Bernanos’ somber, subtle text.

Poulenc’s music, with its ethereally gorgeous cadences, seems to show us that religion, like perfect sunsets, is in inherently bad taste: It’s the last thing you discuss in polite company, both too good and too bad to be true. Seeing this piece with an unsuspecting, well-dressed audience can be a powerful experience: In the Dialogues de Carmelites, a playful, pious Catholic reclaims Catholicism for art.

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