Poulenc’s masterpiece Dialogues des Carmélites is based on real events during the Reign of Terror in 1794, when 16 nuns were sentenced to death and guillotined as enemies of the Revolution. The opera could be considered simply as a paean to the counter-revolution written by a devout Catholic. Poulenc’s religious sentiment pervades his music: the prayers of the nuns are some of the most inspired moments in the opera. However, there are many more layers of interpretation of this work. A meditation on the meaning of death is a common thread throughout the opera, brought to its emotional peak during the scene portraying the death of the old prioress. She, after a life devoted to prayer and deep, sincere faith, goes through a terrifying, horrible passage to the afterlife, cursing God in rage and horror. This terrible death, in some mystic, transcendent way, is offered to God in exchange for the peaceful, heroic death given to Blanche and the other nuns.

Camilla Tilling (Blanche), Anne Sofie von Otter (Mme de Croissy) and Susanne Resmark (Mère Marie)
© Micke Sandström | Kungliga Operan

Other themes include an exploration of martyrdom and religious fanaticism, with ties into current topics of political discourse. Director Johanna Garpe explores these analogies with modern religious martyrs by using full veils on the nuns, reminiscent of burqas. The nuns become the symbol of any group of “other” people, who live by different rules and values. The ritualised, tribal movements they perform during prayer convey their alienation and distance from citizens who are socialised “normally”. The use of videos of suffering people during the prayers of the nuns was less successful, diluting the highly spiritual feeling of the music with a cheap effect.

Blanche, the main character, is a young aristocrat who doesn’t seem to find her place in life, her defining trait being fear: fear of life, fear of death, fear of fear itself. She becomes a Carmelite nun to “live a heroic life”, but stumbles from one mistake to the next, weak and uncertain. Only in death, in martyrdom, she finds her calling and gains control of her life. Camilla Tilling sang the character of Blanche with pathos, conveying her confusion and weakness, her voice finding strength and poise in the final scene.

Sofie Asplund was Sister Constance, the naïve country girl with a wisdom and an instinctive understanding of mystic truths like a sort of idiot savant. Asplund’s high, silvery soprano was perfect for the role, if perhaps a little monochrome. Mother Marie, the fanatic nun who pushes her sisters to make the vow of martyrdom, was Susanne Resmark; her mezzo displayed smooth, beautiful high notes, with some weakness in the middle register. Sara Olsson sang Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, with strength and authority.

Anne Sofie von Otter (Madame de Croissy)
© Micke Sandström | Kungliga Operan

But it was Anne Sofie von Otter who stole the show, with a towering performance as Madame de Croissy, the old prioress. Her voice still has the projection and the high notes needed to give life to an authoritative, awe-inspiring figure. Her death scene was heart-wrenching and unforgettable: the tension in the theatre was palpable, the audience holding their breath.

The other singers contributed to an emotional, enjoyable performance; Joel Annmo deserves special mention as Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier de la Force. He perfectly managed to convey his brotherly love, his desire to protect her, and his awkwardness.

Marc Soustrot led the Royal Swedish Orchestra in a strong, passionate reading of the score, with only a few occasional problems in the brass section. The sound coming from the pit was generally a bit too loud, and although it tended to drown the singers, it didn’t detract from a successful performance.

Camilla Tilling (Blanche)
© Micke Sandström | Kungliga Operan

The Carmélites features one of the most powerful final scenes in opera. The nuns pray, singing the Salve regina, while, at irregular intervals, the swish of the guillotine cuts through the orchestral texture and the nuns fall, one by one, until only Sister Blanche is left, the last one to sing and to die. The music is glorious and dramatic, conveying a sense of power and strength, as a celebration of faith and martyrdom.