Dialogues des Carmelites — Devotion, Safety, Courage

Today Suzanne and I did one of our favorite things. We went to see the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. It’s an experience we enjoy sharing with a viewing audience in 70 countries around the world. (Having Renee Fleming as the host was a little extra treat.)

Today’s opera was Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, starring the wonderful Isabel Leonard. It is set during the French Revolution. The main character, Blanche de la Force (Leonard), is the daughter of a Marquis. She feels unsafe and fearful, so she decides to join a Carmelite convent, where she becomes Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ. She is warned by the prioress, Madame de Croissy (Karita Mattila), that the convent is not a refuge, but a house of prayer (reminiscent of The Sound of Music), and the prioress tells Blanche that even the prayer of the little shepherd is important because it is the prayer of humanity. It comes from the heart.

Blanche meets another novitiate, Sister Constance (brilliantly sung by Erin Morley), who predicts that the two of them will die young, and on the same day. The prioress dies, and Constance wonders why she had such a painful death. She says that perhaps it will enable someone else to be surprised at having an easy death. Madame Lidoine is appointed the new prioress.

Blanche’s brother arrives, tells her that their father is dying and he’s leaving the country, and urges her to return home, but Blanche remains with her sisters.

Soon the forces of the Revolution arrive with an order to expel the nuns from the convent. (I am struck by how tyrannical regimes, from the French Revolution to Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union to Communist China are consistently and violently hostile to religious orders and people of faith. I think that this is because they are in as much or more fear of their people as the people are of them.) Before they leave, the sisters take a vow of martyrdom. Blanche runs away and is forced to work as a servant in her father’s mansion. One of the elders, Mother Marie, arrives to take Blanche back to the sisters.

The sisters are in prison. They are read their death sentences. Constance says that Blanche will return. The Carmelite sisters are brought to the guillotine, and they march to their deaths one by one, still singing. Finally, no one is left but Constance, who falls down in apparent terror. Suddenly, Blanche steps out of the crowd and follows her sisters to the guillotine.

Dialogues des Carmelites can show us many things. We feel the power of surrender, the power of devotion in the face of the worst adversity. Blanche, the prioress, and others face fear and move through it. And we see the courage of the sisters as they are condemned for their faith. There is much in this opera that can inspire and uplift, and it all takes place to some lovely music.

If you get a chance to see Dialogues des Carmelites, it is a very powerful experience. There will be an encore showing this Wednesday night at 6:30. You will enjoy it, learn from it, and be inspired by it. I would recommend going.