Of all the surprising backdrops for grand opera in the universe of operas, surely the prayers of a contemplative order of nuns top any list. Yet, this three-act opera was so riveting, soul-searing, and utterly shocking that audience members were bereft of their senses by the final act, and bereft is no exaggeration. The Carmelite convent of Compiègne during the French Revolution provides the most gripping setting imaginable for Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites.

Dialogues des Carmélites, opening scene © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Dialogues des Carmélites, opening scene
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The story is based on actual events that occurred during the French Revolution. An order of Carmelite sisters is expelled from their convent by Revolutionaries and elect to face beheading by guillotine than renounce their vows. The inner life of the order is revealed through Blanche de la Force, their youngest member. Searching for serenity, even sanity, Blanche joins the Carmelites to escape the revolution encroaching on her town and threatening her noble family. Blanche, who fears both life and death, then flees the convent to hide as a servant in her ruined family home after her father has been executed. After she learns the nuns have been sentenced to execution, she joins her sisters in the Place de la Révolution, following them all to a senseless death.

Not a new production, the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Dialogues des Carmélites, originally directed by John Dexter in 1977, was nonetheless fresh and compelling in its approach and not at all tired, despite its age. It opens with an iconic image – a dozen sisters in brown habits lying prostrate, filling the cross in the center of the raked stage. There are numerous powerful images throughout that dramatically illustrate the depth of the devotion of the sisters and their constancy to their fellow sisters, none more so than the image of each striding toward the guillotine, one by one, singing the Salve Regina. The total effect of the sisters facing their beheadings – some with grace, some with mortal terror – and the thwack of the offstage guillotine punctuating each death surely contribute to one of the most compelling scenes in the history of modern opera.

The opera was so powerful that it will not be forgotten. However, listening to Poulenc’s score was, at times, like hearing the works of old friends – several of them, in turn. The first six scenes of the opera evidenced the sensibility of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande – quiet, pensive, even plodding, with the story sung in recitative rather than in formal arias. The orchestration often punched up and advanced the action – in the same way that Puccini’s scores can move the story along as powerfully and sometimes with more force than the portions that are sung. Strains reminiscent of Stravinsky, a Verdian sensibility, and even sacred music and requiem graced this piece.

Despite the fact that the work premièred in 1957, when many of Poulenc’s contemporaries were writing strident pieces, Poulenc chose tonality and a nostalgic musical feel for this work instead, remarking, “It appears [my Carmelites] can only sing tonal music”. Choosing harmony rather than dissonance lent the opera the transcendence of a significant spiritual experience. Its decided musicality made the difference in terms of being assimilated and deeply felt by audiences, avoiding the estrangement created by a gut-wrenching storyline accompanied by an atonal score.

Each role was ideally cast, and each role expertly sung. When the curtain opened for the bows, many in the audience had already gotten to their feet to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the ensemble. All the principal performers – including mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Blanche de la Force, soprano Patricia Racette as Madame Lidoine, soprano Erin Morley as Sister Constance, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie, soprano Felicity Palmer as Madame de Croissy, and tenor Paul Appleby as Chevalier de la Force – made this an extraordinary revival. It was easiest to single out the two youngest members of the order, Blanche and Constance, distinguished by their white wimples, because of their vulnerability and plaintive exchanges, including Sister Constance’s premonition sung in a sweet and crystalline pure soprano that she and the regal Blanche would die young on the same day.

Conductor Louis Langrée guided the orchestra with such precision it was as if they had been gloved on his hand – as supportive, expressive, and powerful as any orchestra I’ve ever heard at the Met.

Only two performances of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met remain this season. Truly, it is a theatrical experience not to be missed.

*****