I have recently been reading about the post World War II international attempts to restore Europe, both materially and spiritually.
This struggle for renewal after suffering and oppression is given a musical shape in Francis Poulenc's, "Dialogues des Carmélites." Though premiered in 1956, its origins are in the period directly after the war in 1947-49.
In one of the most roundabout and unexpected inspirations in opera, the idea for this work began a commission for a ballet from La Scala for Poulenc. After trying several subjects and finding them uninspiring, another subject came to his attention.
Georges Bernanos, a French novelist, was asked to write a screenplay about the death of a group of nuns during the French Revolution. The scenario was rejected for the cinema and the author turned it into a play - seeing this dramatic presentation of the subject fired Poulenc's imagination.
Again, finding parallels for the present from the past, the opera is set in a time of upheaval, revolution and violence. It is the end of the 18th century and the period leading up to The Terror in France.
As in the case of Poulenc, who lived in Paris throughout the German occupation and through the liberation, we are given the story of a survivor.
Like Mother Marie of the Incarnation who survived the Terror to tell the tale, Poulenc underwent something of a spiritual reawakening in the aftermath of war and recommitted himself to Roman Catholicism.
The plot of "Dialogues des Carmélites" centers on the question of a community of the faithful suffering both its doubts and thirst for spiritual transcendence.
At the heart of this struggle are three characters: Blanche de la Force and her family; Mother Marie of the Incarnation, temporary head of the order, and Sister Constance of St Denis.
The movement of the action is between the monastery at Compiegne (real historical site of the story), the family home of Blanche de la Force, and the series of intrusions, questions and crisis that are visited upon the order as the Revolution degenerates into the Terror.
The questions the sisters must answer as the world inevitably and brutally intrudes is: Are their spiritual values real, or are they all simply in flight from the challenges of the world?
Constance relates a dream to Blanche in which they are to die together while young. The head of the order dies in a state of doubt and bit by bit the demands of the revolutionaries begin to reach such a level that the sisters must choose submission to the world or martyrdom.
By the conclusion, in the opera's shattering climatic scene, Poulenc rallies his gift for religious writing, his melodic inspiration, which is so evident in his many songs. The ravishing chamber-like score moves between operatic aria/recitative and religious choral forms all with the directness of song.
Poulenc’s masterpiece makes a rare return to the Met with a cast led by Patricia Racette, Felicity Palmer, and Isabel Leonard. Louis Langrée conducts with one of the most haunting final moments in opera.
Tune in this Saturday afternoon for the Metropolitan Opera presentation of Poulenc's masterwork, "Dialogues des Carmélites" starting at noon on KPAC 88.3 FM.
- Read even more about "Dialogues des Carmélites" at www.metoperafamily.org