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Screenplay by Georges Bernanos, based on the novella by Gertrud von Le Fort, Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold). Both screenplay and novella were based on the history of the martyrs of Compiègne, a group of sixteen Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during The Reign of Terror in France. Gertrud von le Fort’s novella was based on a surviving nun’s account of the martyrdom, but she invented the character of Blanche de la Force, basing much of the character on herself. Bernanos, who adapted the novella into cinematic dialogue, is credited with enhancing the character of the Prioress and projecting on to her his own crisis of faith and fears of death (he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer).
The opera, in an Italian-language version, premiered at La Scala on the Jan. 26, 1957. The French-language version, with some additional orchestral interludes added, was first performed on June 21 the same year at the Paris Théâtre national de l’Opéra.
Many productions of the work quickly followed upon its premiere, including the Covent Garden premiere the following year as well as a televised production.
Georges Bernanos adapted Gertrud von le Fort’s novella into cinematic dialogue. No film was ever completed, but Bernanos’s work was performed as a stage play, which Poulenc encountered in the early 1950s. When the famous publisher Ricordi approached him with the idea of creating an opera from the play, Poulenc loved the idea and agreed.
Poulenc composed Dialogues des Carmélites, his second opera, between 1953 and 1956. Poulenc suffered a nervous breakdown during the years of its composition, reportedly because he empathized so deeply with the nuns’ plight. Adding to his emotional distress, his partner Lucien Robert became mortally ill during the opera’s composition and passed away in 1955.
Poulenc’s adherence to tonality in his music made him something of an oddity among composers of his time, many of whom had long been exploring compositional methods that diminished or outright abandoned traditional Western harmonic and melodic principles. On the subject he wrote: “It seems that my Carmelites can only sing tonal music. You must forgive them.” He implicitly allied himself with composers of the past by dedicating the opera to Debussy, Mussorgsky, Monteverdi, and Verdi.
Unbeknownst to Poulenc, there were pre-existing legal disputes over the theatrical rights to the story. The theatrical rights to von Le Fort’s novella had already been assigned to an American playwright, who had secured a judgment from a French tribunal granting him the right to credit and royalties from all theatrical performances deriving from the novella. Poulenc had already composed much of the opera when he became aware of this issue, and the premiere had to be postponed while it was resolved.
The opera was first performed in an Italian-language version at La Scala. Later that year, some orchestral music was added for the French premiere to accommodate the staging.
Poulenc requested that this opera always be performed in the language of its audience, in order to preserve the immediacy of the story (and, indeed, the opera’s first performance was given in Italian, despite it having been written in French). The COC will perform it in French, one of Canada's two official languages.
Photo: A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Dialogues des Carmélites, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper
Generously underwritten in part by Tim and Frances Price.
Additional support from:
Cecily and Robert Bradshaw; Nani and Austin Beutel; Walter M. and Lisa Balfour Bowen; Michael and Linda Hutcheon; Judy & Wilmot Matthews; Don McQueen and Trina McQueen O.C; Sue Mortimer; Colleen Sexsmith; Dr. Noëlle Grace and The Shohet Family; Samara Walbohm and Joe Shlesinger; Rosemary Speirs; Anonymous.