First Martyrs of the French Revolution

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites

My introduction to Dialogues des Carmelites was profoundly significant and personal.

Died for democracy. Royal Albert Hall, 7 August.

It was also the start of a major love affair with the music of Francis Poulenc.

I had been very ill and had to delay going to university for a year, so I decided to study for a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Paris was an escape and a refuge for me from illness and hospitals. The opera is about finding refuge, and I had found mine.

Paris was the first city I lived in away from my parents, the first city I felt free and young in, and the first city where I began to feel myself again after an illness that had life-changing effects. Poulenc became my soundtrack.

At the Sorbonne, I was taught by the distinguished composer Jacques Chailley who started his course on French 20th-century music with the immortal phrase guaranteed to impress a “young audience ….as a small boy I  shook the hand of Debussy who had shook the hand of Liszt who had been kissed on the forehead by Beethoven”

We all looked at him with reverence, as the direct link to that Ludwig whose music most of us had massacred in school orchestra.

Not only had Chailley’s parents known Debussy, Ravel, and Satie, but he had been taught by Nadia Boulanger and was a friend of Les Six, of whom Francis Poulenc was the most famous.

We were almost able to go back in time and meet these people we had formerly only read about.

It was a heady time. Touching the past was our reality.

Our lectures were held at 8 AM in the Grand Amphitheatre de La Sorbonne – a huge 19th-century interior dominated by a vast canvas known as le bois sacre by the French symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

There were statues of Richelieu, Pascal and Descartes: green leather seats and wooden panelling. An old-fashioned gramophone and a pile of records were in the middle, on a high table.

The lecture on Francis Poulenc started with a few reminiscences about the composer, who died around the corner from the Sorbonne in 1963.

After examining his piano music and songs, we eventually arrived at his opera Dialogues des Carmelites.

Chailley took the record out of its cover, blew on it softly to remove any dust particles and placed the stylus on the record. We started with the last climatic scene of the opera, where the sixteen Carmelite nuns are guillotined during the revolution.

It was an early spring morning with the grey Paris light flooding in all around us. We all sat spellbound, listening to these sixteen women singing the Salve Regina whilst the heavy blade fell on their frail necks one by one.

Unforgettable and unbearable. I have never forgotten that first contact with this astounding and audacious work.

The opera tells the story of the sixteen blessed martyrs of Compiegne who were executed in the Place de La Nation, which was then known as the Place du Trone Renverse, on 17th July 1794.

They were arrested after living in anonymity for a month or so. Their sub-prioress, Sister Marie of the Incarnation, was away when they were arrested. She later told of their tragic tale from the relative safety of the 1830s.

The martyrs were the first victims of the French Revolution to be canonised.

Their story was taken up by the German Catholic convert writer Gertrud von le Fort after World War I. She invented the main character Blanche de la Force, whose name bears more than a passing resemblance to her own.

Blanche is also from a noble family whose mother died giving birth to her. She is attracted to the life of a nun because she feels like a stranger in the world.

The novel was translated into French, and the writer Georges Bernanos was commissioned to write a screenplay for a film that was never made. Still, it was eventually turned into a play.

Poulenc was in Italy about to write the music for a ballet based on a novel by Francois Mauriac for La Scala but came across the play in a Roman bookshop window.

He read it in one sitting on the terrace of a cafe in the Piazza Navone and knew he had to do it for La Scala as an opera rather than the ballet.

Poulenc was dealing with his mental distress at the time – his lover Lucien Roubert was dying of TB. He was convinced that Lucien was dying in his place as he had been ill the year before and survived.

Poulenc was utterly captivated by the line that Sister Constance says to Blanche in the play: Each of us does not die for ourselves but in the place of others.’ It was the hook that grabbed his interest. Lucien died on the day he was putting the finishing touches to the score of the opera.

Poulenc wrote, “I have known these women .. I have put my whole heart into it.” The person he most identified with was the fictional Blanche de la Force, of whom he wrote, “Blanche is so much a part of me and has been for so long, and she is at last springing into life.”

The most famous comment about Poulenc was that he was “something between a monk and a hooligan”. Someone with intense religious and spiritual beliefs who also had a rich and colourful sexual and romantic life.

His music divides between incredibly beautiful love songs or ballets and pure, rich devotional church rituals.

Blanche combined both sides of his nature. In a way, what makes him such a vital, emblematic 20th-century composer is what he felt was at heart, the most wrong about himself. He could never quite reconcile his deep faith with his full-on joie de vivre. This is, of course, precisely why we now love him and his work.

The opera opens with the line, “Where is Blanche?” This is the key question permeating the entire work. In many ways, Blanche is never there until perhaps at the very end when she appears to accept that she is part of something after all.

Unlike Poulenc himself, it is difficult to warm to Blanche. She is deeply neurotic and is always afraid of something she cannot define. She sees ghosts and is scared of the shadows that surround her.

Like Poulenc, she believes that she is an outsider who is not fit for the world she finds herself marooned in. Her brother calls her “his little hare”, and that is what she is – a nervous, thin creature full of fear and anxiety.

Her brother also sings that she “was born with a piece of ice in her heart”, and she sings that for her, “fear is like cold water”. The world is a cold and unfriendly place for Blanche. She wants to join the Carmelites as a place of refuge from a world that she cannot cope with.

In an important scene between her and the Old Prioress, who is dying, she is admonished when she says she wants to become a nun to seek refuge.

The Prioress tells her that “Our rule is not a refuge. It is not the rule that keeps us but we who keep the rule.” Blanche is allowed to become a Carmelite as the Prioress sees her young self in this nervous and fearful girl.

When she announces that she wants to be known at the convent as Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, the Prioress is convinced as it was also her given name upon entering the rule.

The Proms performance of Dialogues des Carmelites on 7th August was the acclaimed recent Glyndebourne production by Barrie Kosky.

It was cut down to fit a small stage by Donna Stirrup but with a vast audience and conducted brilliantly by Robin Ticciati, with a superlative London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne chorus.

It is a Proms tradition to take a production from Glyndebourne, and custom fit it to the Royal Albert Hall. It was more than a concert performance but not quite a full-blown opera.

The scene between Blanche, played by British soprano Sally Matthews and the Old Prioress, played by the Swedish mezzo Soprano Katarina Dalayman was incredibly touching.

It is a meditation on prayer and acceptance – the promise of youth seen as a reflection in the eyes of someone at the end of their life.

In the next scene, Blanche is shelling beans with Sister Constance, sung by Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette. Constance is at the heart of the opera with no ice in her heart. Unlike Blanche and perhaps the other nuns, she is full of grace and joy.

This is the one respite from the tension surrounding the nuns, but even here, amongst their mundane chores, Constance says she desires a young death and confesses that she wants to share it with Blanche.

She knows that there is another world for them in heaven but that there is no refuge or safe harbour from the terror engulfing the land, least of all in a remote contemplative convent. The screw tightens.

We see this only too clearly in the next scene, where the Old Prioress is on her deathbed and has a premonition of the destruction of her convent and her faith.

It is a terrible searing, violent scene. Dalayman is terrific as the scared dying woman full of fear and pain. She inhabits the role, and her death agonies are awful to behold.

She entrusts Blanche to the sub-prioress Mother Marie of the Incarnation, played by the wondrous Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill.

Is there any other mezzo who can equal her range and tremendous presence on stage? Memorable in so many performances throughout recent years, Cargill is one to watch out for.

There are two great set pieces in Dialogues des Carmelites – the death of the old Prioress and the execution scene.

The sisters have left their Gethsemene from which, as for Christ, there is only one escape, and they are now living a precarious existence in hiding, wearing secular clothes.

They take a vow of martyrdom and decide to die together for their faith. Mother Marie tries to keep Blanche, and the other nuns calm in impossible circumstances.

Blanche, however, is consumed by her ever-present fear and disappears to her deserted family home.

Where is Blanche? Mother Marie tracks her down and reminds her of her vow. The nuns are condemned to death and taken to the scaffold, where finally, Blanche finds her force and honours her name and tradition.

She joins Constance to fulfil her prophecy that they will die together.

The untidy group of dishevelled nuns waiting for their fate and guided by the New Prioress sung by the majestic South African soprano Golda Schultz were a pitiful sight.

They seemed very small and vulnerable in the cavernous splendour of the Royal Albert Hall. The power of their voices and Francis Poulenc’s faith made their singing of the Salve Regina one of the most vibrant moments on any stage this year.

The intensity of the music, coupled with the insistent fall of the guillotine, was inescapable. Death was inevitable. There was nowhere safe in the world. In the end, was faith really enough?

The opera ends almost mid-note as if we know that life cannot carry on as before. It was magnificent. The audience in the Hall was so moved that it took them a few beats to remember they had to clap but clap they did.

Working on a documentary for the BBC about Poulenc a few years ago, I had the immense privilege to meet and interview the French soprano Denise Duval – the original Blanche and for whom the role was written.

She was devoted to Poulenc as he was to her. She was small, impossibly elegant and somewhat high-strung. Poulenc adored her.

He showered her with flowers and got his friend Christian Dior to dress her. There was a deep understanding between the two of them. Duval told me that after he died, she continued to sing for a year, but then, in Buenos Aires, she stopped mid-aria and could never sing again because she missed him so much.

In fact, for over twenty-five years, she stopped listening to classical music altogether because it was just too painful. When we met, she had just begun to appreciate a little Mozart and maybe the odd piano piece by Schubert.

I treasure the image of this still exquisite, poised woman in her Swiss apartment, who put me, for the very briefest of seconds, into the company of my beloved Poulenc.

Duval and Poulenc were present at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday. The memory and fruits of their great friendship are the refuge many of us will take comfort in when the world seems impossible to bear.

Photograph courtesy of the BBC. All rights reserved.