In my review of the New Zealand Opera School’s gala concert on 13 January, I mentioned that Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, in the last scene of which the Carmelite sisters are guillotined and which the women singers at the opera school performed, was based on a novel by Georges Bernanos.
It was based on a drama by that novelist, but the story’s origins go much further back.
It derives from actual events during the Terror that followed the French Revolution in 1793/94, when the sisters of the Carmelite convent at Compiègne were indeed guillotined. The story was told by one of their members, Mother Marie, who is assistant prioress in the opera and survived the massacre to live till 1836. The publication of her chronicle, Relation, led to the beatification of the sisters in 1906. The German writer Gertrude von Le Fort turned it into a novel in 1911, inventing the role of Blanche, naming her ‘de la Force’, an adaptation of her own name.
After the Second World War, the French resistance fighter Father Brückberger created a screen-play on the story, and invited Bernanos to write the dialogue. He too invested something of himself in the work; he was dying of cancer, like the Prioress, Madame de Croissy, and he even gave her his own age, 59. And he clothed the Prioress’s discourse with Blanche on theological matters and the character of their order. with his own religious obsessions and feelings.
But Bernanos’s work was regarded as unsuitable for film and it was turned into a stage play which Poulenc saw in the early 1950s. So that when his publisher, Ricordi, suggested it to Poulenc as the subject of an opera, he seized the chance at once. The opera was premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1957, in which the role of Blanche was sung by Virginia Zeani, founding principal tutor at the Wanganui opera school.
As I wrote in the review, this ensemble was perhaps the most striking of all the performances at this year’s concert. Perhaps it will prompt an enterprising impresario or opera company to tackle the entire opera, generally considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century.
(drawn from the Grove Book of Operas)