Cher Public

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Headless nuns in starless cast

“The most sensuous sounds at the Met this week come from an opera with nary a love duet. In Dialogues des Carmélites—Francis Poulenc’s 1957 melodrama about an order of nuns martyred during the French Revolution—the music’s voluptuous sweetness depicts the sisters’ intense religious faith.” [New York Post]


  • Porgy Amor says:

    I wonder how those uncomfortable with the Poulenc opera feel (or would feel) about the Tcherniakov rethinking. He portrayed the nuns as a fanatical sect that was out of touch with the changing world, and he had Blanche realizing at the end that their irrelevant doctrines were not worth the loss of a single life. So in the final scene, she’s rushing into the gas chamber in which they’ve sealed themselves, dragging her sisters out one by one (while a roped-off crowd watches), and then she dies in an explosion at the end.

    I…do not find this preferable (or so harmonious with the score), but there are some good performances on the video version, as usual in his productions.

    • m. croche says:

      Porgy: I’ve only seem a video of the opera’s final tableau, but I agree with your suggestion that Cherniakov, who after all also knows his Khovanshchina, is responding to s

    • oedipe says:

      I wonder how those uncomfortable with the Poulenc opera feel (or would feel) about the Tcherniakov rethinking.

      This production was discussed to some extent on a previous thread. I don’t believe Tcherniakov’s main goal was to appease those who are uncomfortable with the opera, but that’s exactly what is happening: the production looks fashionably PC.

      • luvtennis says:

        I am not very familiar with the history of the opera’s creation. Perhaps Poulenc feels as Tcherniakov does and the opera is meant to be taken ironically. But for me, the overwhelming point of the opera is the transcendance that comes when we accept our fate as mortals. For me the whole backdrop of the revolution is just maguffin.

        • oedipe says:

          No, the Revolution is emphatically NOT merely background, as in Hollywood movie scripts.

          A central theme in Carmélites is that of “Liberté”. In this respect, the libretto fits in a long tradition of French intellectual history. Poulenc and Bernanos approach the notion of freedom on multiple -interrelated- levels: collective versus personal freedoms, religious freedom, freedom of choice and ontological freedom when faced with one’s own death. In a most dramatic and disturbing manner, diametrically opposed views of freedom are pitted against each other: the revolutionaries’ versus the Church’s views, the lay versus the religious views, the diverging beliefs of the nuns.

          There is a short dialogue in the Bernanos Carmélites movie script that illustrates perfectly the opposing views of freedom. When the nuns are accused of “scheming against the Republic” and sentenced to death, the “Commissaire du comité révolutionnaire” justifies the death sentence with these words: “Il n’y a pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la Liberté.” To which Mère Marie replies: “La nôtre est hors de vos atteintes.”

          This specific exchange of words does not appear in the libretto, but the notion of freedom is often touched upon.

          (The slogan “Il n’y a pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la Liberté” was used by Saint-Just during the period known as “La Terreur”, with disastrous consequences for personal freedoms.)

          As for irony, I think Poulenc and Bernanos are being cynical rather than ironic in the libretto. Thus La Prieuré, upon dying, expresses her doubt and despair by exclaiming: “Que suis-je a? cette heure, moi mise?rable, pour m’inquie?ter de Lui? Qu’il s’inquie?te donc d’abord de moi!” The Bernanos movie script is even more cynical and terrifying at this moment: “J’ai médité sur la mort chaque heure de ma vie, et cela ne me sert maintenant de rien!”

          • oedipe says:

            (Pdf diacritics fail!):

            “Que suis-je à cette heure, moi misérable, pour m’inquiéter de Lui? Qu’il s’inquiète donc d’abord de moi!”

  • MontyNostry says:

    Tony T’s review of the Dialogues. His stuff does read like a student essay. And I don’t think Bernanos ever made a play of the story …

    • rapt says:

      Andrew Porter writes that Bernanos wrote a movie script for it, published in 1949, and staged as a play in 1951.

    • Hippolyte says:

      According to Mr. Tomassini, “The excellent young American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop is a vocally lustrous and moving Mother Marie.”

      Since Ms. Bishop was a National Council Auditions Winner in 1993, I suspect she must be at least in her mid- to late-40s, so I’m sure she was pleased to learn she is still considered “young” by The New York Times.

      • ianw2 says:

        I’m usually TT’s only defender in these parts but that… that is amazing.

        • MontyNostry says:

          Maybe, for TT, ‘young’ = ‘I haven’t heard of her before’.

    • manou says:

      “Bernanos avait été chargé de composer les dialogues d’un scénario cinématographique, lui-même tiré de la célèbre nouvelle de Gertrud von Le Fort, “La Dernière à l’échafaud”, ayant pour thème la marche au martyre de seize carmélites de Compiègne qui furent guillotinées en place de Grève le 17 juillet 1794. Mais l’œuvre de Bernanos est profondément différente du récit allemand. Ne serait-ce que parce que Bernanos se trouvait lui-même à la veille de sa propre mort. Le texte complet des Dialogues a été retrouvé parmi les manuscrits de Bernanos et publié dès 1949 par Albert Béguin.”

  • Will says:

    Quoth Mr. Tommassini:
    Constance, terrified, is last to go. But Blanche, who had been hiding, working as a servant, joins her in sisterly solidarity as both go to the guillotine. So Constance was right: someone — herself — does have an easier death than she had feared.

    Have I missed the point all these years? — is it not Blanch, terrified by life and in flight from the convent when it falls into the Revolution’s net, the one who cannot face death easily but goes serenely at the end due to the Old Prioress’ difficult death?

    Also, yes, the Bernanos was a screenplay that was eventually filmed some years after the opera’s premiere with Alida Valli as Lidoine and Danielle Darrieux as the Old Prioress. The fascinating difference between Poulenc and Bernanos is that in the latter it is Lidoine who is the last to die, having seen Blanche in the crowd and embraced her as she comes forward to die with the other nuns. The movie is available complete in something like 11 chunks on YouTube.

    • Will says:

      Correction, Madeleine Renaud as the Old Prioress, and Jeanne Moreau as Mere Marie.

  • Batty Masetto says:

    OK, bear with me here, because this is a bit tricky to put into words.

    Since both Bernanos and Poulenc were pretty explicit in their opposition to Vichy, I can’t pin quite that kind of reactionary tag on either of them. But there’s something else along not-unrelated lines that does bother me.

    Let’s do a thought experiment, a bit of biographical fiction. Imagine you’re little Francis Poulenc, very musical and very gay. Your ma is a musician and your daddy is an intensely devout Catholic. So you ingest music and Catholicism – with its big dollops of negativity about sex in general and faggots in particular – almost from the cradle. (Who knows, maybe you even benefited from a little “personal instruction” from the local priest.)

    You go on to have a brilliant (and flamboyant) career. You are out, but are you proud? Or just defiant? You age. The deaths of friends traumatize you. You have a religious conversion experience of some kind that can only exacerbate your unease with yourself.

    Then you come across a text by arch-Catholic Georges Bernanos – written partly to exorcise his fear of his own impending death and his sense of shame at having abandoned France during her time of trial. It attracts you like a magnet. It speaks so clearly to you. It speaks to your fear, not just of death, but of that nameless thing, that shame, that horror, that buggery, and the eternal damnation it will inevitably bring down on you.

    And just as the scenario-play was a way for Bernanos to address his fear, composing the opera is a way for you to do something about your own hidden fear: your fear of that part of yourself that will send you to hell, and of the punishment that awaits you there.

    So you expiate through Blanche – but ya are Blanche. You trace how her unnameable fear leads her into a same-sex environment (safely sexless!), where Mère Marie opens the door to a redemption. With her help you follow the path. You and your “sisters” choose death, the death of the body, yes, but also the death of that part you hate, and by doing this extreme penance, you get right again with God and save your soul.

    So Blanche – sweet, dizzy, scared, gay, eternally closeted Blanche – dies as a sacrifice to the Great God Homophobia.

    But here’s the other thing: Blanche and the nuns are also a same-sex community that chooses to die rather than be forced to pass for someone they’re not.

    Ambivalence, anyone?

    • papopera says:

      no ! again a lot of blablablablablabla………

    • luvtennis says:

      You had me up the part about same sex environment. Insightful, very apt, but then you lost me with the sexual subtext. I don’t feel it in the text and I think it trivializes the artist to suggest that this profound statement about mortality is simple autobiograpy. Poulenc is NOT Tennessee Williams.

      • Batty Masetto says:

        Not remotely saying that this is only what’s there -- just that it’s there, too.

        • Batty Masetto says:

          Hey, PS -- you think Tennessee Williams is only about autobiography?????

    • The_Kid says:

      What a wonderful idea for a regie production, Batty. Wow. Just….wow. Also, thankfully free from Nazis and nude, decapitated cadavers.

  • MontyNostry says:

    Kozena (Blanche next year at ROH) joins Gheorghiu (!) for a photo at BBC Radio 3.

    • messa di voce says:

      Gheorghiu will be making her role debut as Madame de Croissy.

      • MontyNostry says:

        Maybe she will rather be simpering as Constance. Actually, she could make a good Madame Lidoine if she were prepared to be a co-diva.

        • oedipe says:

          Maybe Gheorghiu can give Kozena some advice about keeping up her spirits and staying young.

          • la vociaccia says:

            I think I just spent three minutes with my head tilted to the left. Wow….lucky her..

          • Hippolyte says:

            Gheorghiu has a “history” with the man in the photo: Romanian countertenor Florin Cezar Ouatu who is in the Eurovision Song Contest with a particularly horrifying entry:

            He serenaded Gheorghiu on television:

    • doktorlehar says:

      Wow. Since when did Kozena turn into Leonie Rysanek circa 1992?

      And as for Gheorghiu …. ?

    • peter says:

      Gheorghiu almost cancelled the photo session.

  • MontyNostry says:

    A propos of nothing at all in particular, look at this superb cover design for an old recording of Lohengrin

    • Batty Masetto says:

      That’s exactly how I’ve always imagined Lohengrin would look!

    • Camille says:

      They just don’ t make Grosser Querschnitts the way they used to!

  • MontyNostry says:

    Funny, I thought it was Telramund.

  • LittleMasterMiles says:

    The Poulenc is about to start on the live stream as we speak (well, as I type), and La Casa della Cieca is EMPTY! Where is everyone?

    • laddie says:

      Get thee to a chattery!

    • alejandro says:

      I was there last night and it was really great. I thought everyone bought the goods vocally, but boy am I still stumped on what the big deal with Isobel Leonard is. She has a nice voice, but I just felt (like I did with her Zerlina) that’s there’s no there there. Palmer, Racette and Bishop had this “something” that made you sit up in your seat and really listen and watch them. Whereas Leonard, for all the beauty of her voice, just left me cold. Blanche’s inner struggle was 100 miles away for me last night.