Sunday, November 23, 2014

Opera's most harrowing scene

Last night I went to see Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" performed by Buffalo's Opera Sacra. That is Poulenc up above with his puppy dog. I do like picturing composers with their pets.

 I have written about "Dialogues of the Carmelites," here and there. I had never seen it. Years ago I remember my father telling me about it, about how it was about this group of nuns who went to the guillotine in the French Revolution. He told me how they died singing the "Salve Regina," how each time you hear the guillotine there is one fewer voice.

After seeing that last scene last night I wrote about it but it did not get it out of my system. You keep thinking, this happened! And the music makes it so intense. The first time the blade comes down, the chant stops as the sisters falter. And then it starts up again in a higher key.

I read that the nuns saw their martyrdom as a sacrifice to offer up in atonement for the sins of France and to ask God for an end to the Reign of Terror. Ten days after they died, the Reign of Terror did come to an unexpected stop.

The nuns are saints, known as the Martyrs of Compiegne, and their feast day is July 17.

There are a few stunning videos of this scene up on YouTube. There is a beautiful moment near the end when the last sister in line to die, the country girl Sister Constance, suddenly sees Sister Blanche, who was frightened and had deserted the order. That is one reason this opera gets me, I identify with Blanche, I am nervous, I am a worrier. Anyway, Blanche steps forward from the crowd and for a moment everything seems to stop.

Earlier in the opera you see that Constance is this chatterbox who annoys Blanche. It makes what happens between them at the end so touching. There are a number of ways you can play this final scene, imagining the characters various ways.

In this Metropolitan Opera performance from the 1980s, Blanche is the great Maria Ewing and her reappearance takes a different turn. Jessye Norman as the Mother Superior makes me cry. I think most people would view this performance as one of the greats.

The nun with the cane! One of the nuns in real life was 78 years old and could hardly walk. Apparently a guard knocked her down and she told him calmly that she forgave him and would pray for him. Another sister who gets to me in this Met staging is the one who starts losing her nerve and raises her hands over her head.

Another detail to watch for: the guy in the mob who surreptitiously makes the sign of the cross. In real life the normally jeering crowd did fall silent as the sisters died.

Here is another staging. Someone wrote this comes from the Canadian Opera Company -- like the Met up above, some years ago. I love the beautiful, very French-looking Mother Superior. Sister Constance is Harolyn Blackwell. I cannot describe this so I will just post it. The sound is low quality but watch it anyway.

It is described by many as the most harrowing, horrifying scene in any stage drama -- opera or play.

But how beautiful, too. What a tribute Poulenc created to this group of saints.

Martyrs of Compeigne, pray for us!


  1. Poulenc is one of my favorite composers!! His works are usually whimsical and full of brilliant, witty harmonies. He himself said classical music was not much more than mere entertainment. This, however, goes way beyond that.

  2. Violin Hunter, isn't it funny, the masterpieces that come from artists who do not take themselves too seriously? Richard Strauss was another one, he just saw himself as kind of commercial, but look what he wrote. I think when you do not take yourself seriously it must free you up to do your best work. I share your admiration for Poulenc! I like him more and more.