In 1794, at the very end of the Reign of Terror, 16 Carmelite nuns were guillotined in Paris for their faith and their allegiance to the Catholic Church. This horrible episode, through different literary renditions, inspired Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites. The title highlights the true subject of the opera: not only the story of the unfortunate nuns, but their interactions, the way they influence one another, the dynamics of their communication.

Olga Kulchynska (Blanche de la Force)
© Herwig Prammer

More than a counter-revolutionary manifesto, Poulenc's opera is a reflection on the meaning of life, on overcoming the fear of death, and on fear in general. The nuns engage in philosophical discussions on timeless, fundamental subjects, revealing a moving, deep understanding of human nature.

The protagonist, Blanche de la Force, is a fictional character, a young aristocrat suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, who feels unable to navigate the world. She is pampered and patronised by an over-protective brother and not-so-secretly blamed by her father for the death of her mother, who didn’t survive childbirth. She joins the Carmelites with strong faith, and the hope for “a heroic life”, a hope which is immediately scorned by the Prioress in their first encounter. Her self-assurance, grounded in her faith, grows, until she decides to defy her brother (who is trying to convince her to leave the convent for fear of the Revolution) and to choose martyrdom, together with her sisters.

Alice Coote (Mère Marie), Olga Kulchynska (Blanche) François Piolino (L'Aumônier)
© Herwig Prammer

The opera is developed in twelve scenes in a decidedly cinematographic style. In each scene, the curtain opens in the middle of the action and often also closes without a real “closure” of the events. At Zurich Opera, director Jetske Mijnssen presents the story as re-lived by Blanche in her final moments (as explained in the programme notes – this was not obvious to me). This is why she is also present on stage in scenes where she’s supposed to be absent – which brings the question of how can she remember what has passed. Ben Baur's sets are stern, all in grey, with the same marble walls to represent the convent or the prison or – adorned with chandeliers and mirrors – the Palace de la Force. Gideon Davey's costumes are traditional, but despite this lack of originality the visual experience is powerful. The nuns are often positioned as in a painting, and Franck Evin's intelligent lighting makes for some beautiful, impressive images. The production, unfortunately, falls short in the most important scene. The finale of the Carmélites is one of the most powerful in all history of opera, the nuns singing the Salve Regina while, one by one, going up the scaffold to be executed. Mijnssen has his nuns standing in a group and, at the sound of the guillotine, simply walk away, each erasing her own name, which was written on the grey wall. The lighting is too bright here and the erasing of the names looked a bit obvious. I didn’t find it particularly inspiring.

Olga Kulchynska (Blanche) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Madame de Croissy)
© Herwig Prammer

This premiere saw the role debuts of nearly all the principal singers. Olga Kulchynska sang Blanche de la Force with a warm, easy soprano. She perhaps lacked some charisma, but managed to express the torment of Blanche’s soul with emotion and pathos. Sandra Hamaoui’s high, silvery soprano was perfect for Sœur Constance. The young novice, with an instinctive, mystical understanding of her faith, came through in a tender, engaging performance.

Sandra Hamaoui (Sœur Constance) and dancers
© Herwig Prammer

The part of Mère Marie seemed perfectly suited to Alice Coote’s mezzo. She managed to express all the facets of the sub-prioress: sweet and loving towards her sisters, but also fanatical in her faith, and deceitful in using emotional blackmail to manipulate them into taking a sacred vow for martyrdom. The occasional strain in her voice (first night nerves, perhaps), rather than being a hindrance added to the multi-dimensionality of her character, coming through as a kind of musical choice.

Inga Kalna gave Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, a motherly effect, singing with a very high soprano, not shying away from beautiful filati. Thomas Erlank, as Blanche’s brother, sang with a pleasant light, high tenor, while Nicolas Cavallier (the only principal not giving his debut) gave Blanche’s father authority and aristocratic countenance, with his solid, well projected bass.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Madame de Croissy) and Alice Coote (Mère Marie)
© Herwig Prammer

But it was Evelyin Herlitzius, as Madame de Croissy, who had the most successful prise du rôle. Her interpretation of the old prioress’ dramatic agony was impressive. She managed to convey all the horror, the desperation of the dying woman who loses everything in her final moments: her dignity, her faith, her authority, her sense of herself. It was a moving, disturbing performance.

Tito Ceccherini conducted the Philharmonia Zürich in an enthusiastic, engaging performance. At times the pit tended to overpower the stage, but, overall, the result was a very good musical experience, an evening of spiritual engagement and philosophical reflection.