Culture | Fight the government with song

On martyrdom in Opera de Montreal’s Dialogue des Carmélites

In 1794, at the height of France’s Reign of Terror, fourteen Carmelite nuns were sentenced to the guillotine.

Religious organizations stirred paranoia in the new Jacobin government: cloistered and secretive, might the nuns be plotting against the Revolution? The fourteen nuns were ordered to disband their convent – their home and community – but instead, they took a vow of martyrdom, willing to die for their beliefs. As they marched to their deaths on the scaffold, the nuns didn’t cry or scream in protest. Instead, they sang.

The true story of the singing Martyrs of Compiègne inspired a screenplay by French writer Georges Bernanos, which in turn inspired composer Francis Poulenc’s landmark 1956 opera Dialogues des carmélites. One of few regularly programmed postwar operas – most are overshadowed by the celebrated earlier works of Verdi and Psuccini – Dialogues is a meditative and tragic reflection on friendship, faith, and hardline ideology in times of danger and fear.

At first, the production seemed marred by a sense of cold detachment, with physical distance separating the characters and isolating the audience.

Opéra de Montréal presented Dialogues des carmélites in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier for a four-show run between January 28 to February 4. The performance on January 31 featured successful delivery by an all-Canadian cast, bolstered by the phenomenal Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal under the baton of conductor Jean-François Rivest.

At first, the production seemed marred by a sense of cold detachment, with physical distance separating the characters and isolating the audience. Nuns sat in chairs spaced far apart along the perimeter of the stage, and a gauzy, semi-sheer curtain acted as a physical barrier between characters and scenes. Life in the convent felt bleak and lonely; even the long-winded death of the convent’s Prioress – sung with ample gravitas by mezzo-soprano Mia Lennox – failed to enact any sense of intimacy in shared sorrow among the community of nuns.

Protagonist Blanche de La Force – soprano Marianne Fiset – and Sister Constance de Saint Denis – soprano Magali Simard-Galdès – provided an intimate antithesis to this staged detachment. Blanche is the nervous, flighty daughter of a deposed Marquis. Frightened of the increasingly violent Paris streets, and professing her desire to “lead a heroic life,” Blanche enters into the Order of Carmel as a novice nun. There, she meets another novice, Sister Constance, a bubbly and blithe foil to Blanche’s anxious pessimism. The two become friends, even as Blanche is shaken by Constance’s eerie premonition that the two would die young, together, on the same day.

Simard-Galdès stole the show in the role of Sister Constance, effortlessly nailing each bright, leaping melody. She lent her character a sense of the supernatural – angelic, prescient – in contrast with Fiset’s overwrought Sister Blanche. Fiset sang the demanding role with musical success, while Blanche’s stiff, melodramatic arias echoed the cold, spacious staging of the opening two acts.

As they marched to their deaths on the scaffold, the nuns didn’t cry or scream in protest. Instead, they sang.

However, in Act III, the audience witnessed a shift. Jacobin officers forced the nuns to exchange their habits for plainclothes, and urged them to declare allegiance to the Revolutionary government. Resolute in their refusal, the nuns – now unrecognizable in threadbare civilian cloaks – gathered closely in a crowd, finding warmth and strength in one another, and bridging the icy distance that stretched through the previous acts. Suddenly, closeness became a theme of the final act – closeness of community, both physical and emotional; the encroaching nearness of death; and closeness to God, on the threshold of the nuns’ martyrdom.

Dialogues des carmélites counts among a series of sacred and spiritual works composed by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) after the 1935 death of his father spurred his return to the Catholic Church. A member of Les Six – the six most prominent Parisian composers of the 20th century – Poulenc struggled to reconcile his devout Catholic faith with his queer sexuality. Dialogues sees traces of these identities: the intimate relationship between Blanche and Constance could easily be read as romantic, culminating in a literal “’til death do us part,” within a community of women and femmes devoted to serving God, and ultimately killed for their devotion.

When the nuns vote to take vows of martyrdom, Blanche’s faith wavers: she flees the convent, taking to the streets of Paris. However, on the day of the execution, she arrives at the city square and calmly takes her place on the scaffold, Sister Constance at her side.

Dialogues des carmélites continues to feel relevant in light of the perilous populism globally on the rise.

L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal delivered a colourful interpretation of Poulenc’s richly layered score. Woodwind melodies shone – especially a mournful, chant-like cadenza played by Pierre-Vincent Plante on English horn – while brass lent militaristic precision and resonant cellos and basses kept the orchestra grounded in a low, sombre range. The powerful ending featured the nuns’ final song: a harrowing rendition of the prayer “Salve Regina” as they approached the guillotine. Thunderous percussion paired with an electronic sound effect imitated the slicing of a blade, while each nun’s spotlight went out one by one, leaving the dead in darkness.

Written in a France still reeling from fascism and war, and recounting an earlier France similarly caught in the throes of extremism and terror, Dialogues des carmélites continues to feel relevant in light of the perilous populism globally on the rise. But there is a certain danger in ascribing heroism to Poulenc’s martyred nuns: they were willing to die for their beliefs, but not to stand and fight.

Nonetheless, Dialogues tells the story of a community of strong women and femmes who support one another, love one another, and uphold their faith and their values with outspoken pride in the face of violent political oppression – and who meet their fate not with resignation or fear, but with song. Here, song – music – becomes a political act: the voices of the oppressed, raised in unity, are impossible to ignore.


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