Set against the backdrop of the French revolution, the Opera Dialogues des Carmelites is based on the book by the same name authored by Georges Bernanos with libretto (text of the Opera) by Francis Poulenc. Sowgandhika Krishnan tells us more.
It is the time of the revolution. Crowds attack the aristocracy and stop carriages on the streets. Blanche de la Force, a timid young woman overtly protected by her aristocratic father and brother, decides to become a nun. She is advised by the Mother Superior of the Carmelite Convent that the Convent is not a refuge, and one must be very sure if they wish to renounce worldly life. Mother Superior entrusts Blanche to Mother Marie before her death. Sister Constance who is another new entrant at the Convent like Blanche, speaks of a dream where Blanche and Constance die young together. This adds to Blanche’s fears.
As the revolution intensifies, Blanche’s brother visits her and advises her to retreat from the Convent for her safety as the Church is being targeted. Blanche refuses stating she is happy in the Convent. The Legislative Assembly (legislature during French Revolution) nationalizes the Convent and its property, and the nuns are ordered to give up their religious habits (attire) and priests are ordered to stop religious preaching. The nuns led by Mother Marie vow to continue serving no matter how they are dressed. They choose to be martyrs but not give up what they truly believe in.
Blanche runs away from the Convent in fear. Mother Marie finds her in her father’s house. Blanche has now lost her father and brother to the revolution. The nuns are arrested and sentenced to death. They sing ‘Salve Regina’ and walk up to their execution. Blanche finds her calling and comes back to join her condemned sisters and sings the “Veni Creator Spiritus” (the Catholic hymn traditionally used when taking vows and offering one’s life to God). She lays down her life with her fellow sisters.
The sets used are common for all scenes – a room with walls, with small adjustments in the form of windows, chandeliers and some furniture to denote different locations. The costumes and lighting are very well done. Of special mention is a scene when the convent doors are opened to receive a visitor – the cold dry and dim Convent interiors opening to sunlight from outside – using light effects. The singing is a class apart. It’s tough to choose who among the women sing best.
The strength of the Opera however lies in the topics it throws up for the audience to think about. Mother Superior is in agony and delirium towards the end of her life. She questions if God has abandoned her despite all her years of service to him. It is reminiscent of people asking “why me” when faced with problems. In contrast, the young Sister Constance shows amazing maturity for her age when she states Mother Superior probably took on the suffering of someone else who might have had an easy death. We probably die not for ourselves alone, but for each other.
The overprotected Blanche lives in perennial fear and makes choices out of fear. One could say her character is representative of choices people make in life- choices to enter and stay in situations or follow the commonly treaded path more out of fear of the unknown than out of conviction, be it life or career decisions.
The final scene of the sisters being executed is an example of ‘less is more’. It’s very effective, is dramatic but done very subtly, achieves maximum impact, and is a fitting finale. The sisters stand together singing Salve Regina while we hear the guillotine’s descending blade in the background repeatedly for each one of them denoting their execution. Each sister then moves to the surrounding walls of the set, which has her name on it, wipes out her name, and walks out.
The Opera moves beyond religion and looks at spirituality, true devotion, the courage of conviction, fear people live in, and the choices they make. This is an Opera that makes you think therein lies its strength. The resounding five-minute applause it got from its audience at the end stands testimony to that.
Images Credit: Herwig Prammer
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