For today's Feast Day of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne, here is a video of the finale of Francis Poulenc's opera "Dialogues of the Carmelites". I saw it twice at the Met some time ago and would love to see it again. The Archives at ICS Publications has the real history of the deaths of the Carmelites of Compiège at the guillotine in 1794 under Robespierre.
You can't tell much of the story from this opera production if you don't already know it, so here is a summary of what is happening in the opera, which is a fictionalized version of the history: As Paris is threatened during the French Revolution, a young woman named Blanche, from a family of the nobility, decides to enter a Carmelite convent partly because she is afraid of what is going on in the world.
The prioress tells her that, in Carmel, she will not escape her problems but will confront them. When an aging prioress dies while it is Blanche's turn to be with her, Blanche is horrified as her fear of death overwhelms her. Yet, she is told, the suffering of their prioress' death will make death easier for someone else.
In the Carmel of Compiègne, which is near Paris, they are close to the center of the Revolution. Her brother tries to persuade her to leave, but she will not do so. As the Revolutionaries take control, in what was as much an anti-Catholic revolution as it was a pro-Democratic revolution, the nuns and their priest confront the reality that they will face death at the guillotine if they continue living in their community. They hide their priest, as many of the Paris clergy were guillotined, and help him to escape.
When they initially vote on whether to remain in community, they decide that they will not do so unless the vote is unanimous. They agree that the vote will be anonymous, but when one vote comes back against it, they all suspect that it was Blanche's fear of death that was to blame. But another novice comes forward and says it was her vote, and not Blanche's. She changes her vote, which makes it unanimous. Blanche then becomes terrified and flees. As her family is gone, she takes a job working as a servant for the Revolutionaries who now live in what was her family's home.
In the final scene, shown here, the nuns sing the Salve Regina as they go together to the guillotine. The Revolutionaries' bloodthirsty act of vengeance against such innocent people will shock the nation and help to bring an end to the killing of priests and religious. Blanche stands in the crowd, watching as her sisters go to the guillotine singing. The new prioress comforts them and blesses them as they walk to their martyrdom. In the end, the younger nun who had initially voted against the martyrdom is the last one remaining, and she becomes frightened as she is left to go to the guillotine alone. It is too late to change her mind. Blanche comes out of the crowd and walks with her as they both go to the guillotine.
Poulenc set the tempo at a disturbing rhythm, which lends itself more to rock music than to opera. In this production, the rhythm is somewhat syncopated, with the stress on the second and fourth beats of the measure (rock) instead of the first and third (classical). The guillotine falls at odd times, unexpectedly, to illustrate the unpredictability of our own deaths and death's proximity to each of us.
Maestro Kent Nagano (my favorite conductor) recorded the opera with the Opéra de Lyon. He conducted one of the two Met performances that I saw, which was (of course) my favorite of the two. He will conduct it in March and April 2010 with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, with two more performances as part of the Munich Opera Festival in June 2010.