Premiered: January, 1957 - Milan, Italy - Teatro alla Scala
Setting of Dialogues des carmélites:
Poulenc's Dialogues des carmélites takes place in France during the French Revolution in the late 18th century.
The Story of Dialogues des carmélites
Dialogues des carmélites, ACT 1
In their Paris home, Marquis de la Force and his son, Chevalier, talk about his daughter's extreme nervousness brought on by the start of the French Revolution. In the midst of their conversation, Blanche, Marquis' daughter, returns home anxious and tense having just been surrounded by rioting peasants outside of her carriage. After describing her terrible experience, she retires to her bedroom for the evening. As darkness falls and the shadows caused by the flickering flames of candlelight dance along the walls, Blanche is startled by the shadows cast into her bedroom. Running back to the library to seek solace from her father, she tells him that she wants to become a nun.
A few weeks pass, and Blanche meets with the Mother Superior of the Carmelite convent, Madame de Croissy. Croissy tells Blanche that the order is not a refuge from the revolution. In fact, should the order come under siege, it is the duty of the nuns to protect and guard the convent. Blanche becomes uneasy and timid by this, but joins the order anyway. After her meeting with the Mother Superior, Blanche helps Sister Constance unpack groceries. As they complete their task, they talk about the passing of a former nun, which reminds Sister Constance of her recent dream. She tells Blanche that she dreamed she would die young, and that Blanche would die with her.
The Mother Superior is sick and moments away from passing away. On her death bed, she charges Mother Marie to keep watch over and spiritually guide the young, Sister Blanche. Sister Blanche comes into the room and stands close to Mother Marie as The Mother Superior screams in agony. Amidst the cries of pain, Mother Superior details her many years of service to God, but angrily shouts that he has abandoned her in her final hours of life. In the shortest of moments, she dies, leaving Mother Marie and Sister Blanche scared and bewildered.
Dialogues des carmélites, ACT 2
Keeping watch over her body, Blanche and Constance talk about the Mother Superior's death. Sister Constance believes that somehow, the Mother Superior received the wrong death. Liking it to someone grabbing the wrong jacket, Sister Constance concludes that perhaps someone else will find death painless and easy. After talking, Sister Constance leaves to get the other nuns who will take over their duties for the rest of the night. Left alone, Sister Blanche becomes more and more frightened. Just as she's about to make a run for it, Mother Marie arrives and calms her nerves.
Several days later, Chevalier hastily makes his way into the convent, seeking his sister, Blanche. Chevalier has fled their home, and warns Blanche that she must escape with him. Even her father fears for her life. Blanche takes a firm stance and tells him she is happy where she is in the convent and she will not be leaving. Later, after her brother has left, Blanche confesses to Mother Marie that it is her own fear that keeps her in the convent.
Within the sacristy, the Chaplain tells the nuns that he has been forbidden to preach and perform his clerical duties. After giving his last Mass, he flees the convent. Mother Marie suggests that the sisters should fight for the cause and sacrifice their lives. The new Mother Superior, Madame Lidoine, rebukes her, saying that one does not choose to be a martyr, but rather it is a gift from God.
When the police arrive, they inform the sisters that under the authority of the Legislative Assembly, the convent has been nationalized, and the property and its belongings must be given to the state. Sister Jeanne, seeing that Blanche is very upset and scared, gives Blanche a small figurine of baby Jesus. Sadly, Blanche is so nervous, she drops the small statue to the ground and it breaks.
Dialogues des carmélites, ACT 3
As the nuns prepare to leave, Mother Marie holds a secret meeting while Mother Superior Lidoine is absent. Mother Marie asks the sisters to cast a secret ballot voting whether or not to be a martyr. Mother Marie tells them that it must be a unanimous vote. When the votes are tallied, there is one dissenting ballot. When it is announced, Sister Constance speaks up and says that she was the one who cast the dissenting vote. When she changes her mind, the sisters take a vow of martyrdom together. When the sisters depart the convent, Sister Blanche heads back to her father's home. Mother Marie, having pledged to watch over Blanche, arrives at Blanche's home, where she finds Blanche being forced to serve her former servants. Blanche tells her that her father was killed by the guillotine, and that she is fearful for her own life. After consoling her, Mother Marie hands her an address and tells her to meet there in 24 hours.
While traveling to the address, Blanche learns that all the other nuns have been arrested and sentenced to jail. Meanwhile, Mother Marie is confronted by the chaplain. He tells her the nuns have been arrested and sentenced to death. When Mother Marie tries to join them, he tells her that she wasn't chosen by God to be a martyr. Within their prison, Mother Superior takes the vow of martyrdom with her sisters, and one by one, each sister is lead to the guillotine chanting the Salve Regina. The last nun to be executed is Sister Constance. Before she is beheaded, she sees Sister Blanche step out of the crowd chanting the same prayer, and smiles. Finally, Blanche is escorted up the scaffolding to be killed.