Dialogues des Carmélites, Opera by F. Poulenc
Dialogues des Carmélites is the second opera that French neoclassical composer Francis Poulenc produced. Apart from the music, he also wrote the libretto based on the publication of the same name by the late Georges Bernanos. The dramatic plot focuses on the real-life story of the Martyrs of Compiègne who were guillotined for not renouncing their Catholic faith in the late days of the Reign of Terror, one of the darkest chapters of the French Revolution. Poulenc, better known in his time for his comedy works and piano skills, turns the sombre story into a transformative religious experience with his haunting, cleverly orchestrated score. Dialogues des Carmélites debuted in Italian at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 January 1957 and in the original French on 21 June 1957 in Paris. This season, Teatro Costanzi in Rome welcomes one of the modern classics in the opera genre.
The source text for the opera, which translates to Dialogues of the Carmelites in English, traces its roots to a film adaptation project of the novella ‘Die Letzte am Schafott’ (German for ‘The Last One on the Scaffold’) by Gertrud von Le Fort. It was Georges Bernanos who wrote the dialogues for the would-be film, but the overall screenplay did not convince producers to move forward with the idea. Poulenc chanced upon a publication of Bernanos’ dialogues and immediately became intrigued with the subject. Departing from his experimental streak, he composed largely tonal vocal melodies that continue to impress critics and audiences alike with their natural flow and elegance. The orchestral score is a thing of beauty in its own right, cleverly painting moods and sonic canvasses, groups of instruments fading in and out in poignant waves.
Dialogues des Carmélites is an impressive opera that is at once factual and fictionalised, both sides of the equation held in perfect balance by Francis Poulenc’s writing and music alike. The result is a modern opera that seldom falls out of audiences’ favour. Audiences at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma will immediately understand.