To begin with, there really were sixteen Carmelites, the martyrs of Compiègne. They really did vow martyrdom as an act of reparation on behalf of France, and they really were executed in July 1794. All this would be fictionalized first as a novel, then as a play, then as a movie, and finally, famously, as an opera: Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, recently revived at the Metropolitan Opera for a brief three-night run.
For Poulenc, composing Dialogues was an emotionally intense experience, one which began with a manic spree of activity that would give way to depression and hospitalization. By the time he finished the opera, Poulenc himself was on stable ground, but his lover, Lucien Roubert, was dying of cancer. If his ex-lover Raymond was “the secret” of his previous work, Poulenc wrote to the baritone Pierre Bernac, then Lucien was the secret of Dialogues des Carmélites. Poulenc even entrusted Lucien to his “sixteen blessed Carmelites: may they protect his final hours.” (Lucien would die soon after Poulenc wrote this letter.)
Poulenc’s relationship with Lucien had not been a smooth one. Poulenc had alternately blown hot and cold in his relationship with the younger man, jealously possessive yet wary of losing his own freedom. A year before, Bernac had written Poulenc a pointed letter telling him that he had “worn down the affection of this loyal but not very interesting boy.… You are neither the first nor last to suffer a broken heart.” But the end of Poulenc’s artistic suffering coincided with Lucien’s own sharp decline. In the same letter in which he calls Lucien “the secret” of his opera, Poulenc also tells Bernac, “I am haunted by Bernanos’s phrase: ‘We do not die for ourselves alone…but for, or instead of, each other.’” Was Lucien dying on behalf of Poulenc?
Dialogues tells the story of the (fictional) Blanche de la Force, an intensely fearful French aristocrat who joins a Carmelite community as a way of hiding from the world. The prioress who permits Blanche to enter dies shortly afterward in a state of despair, convinced God has abandoned the community. But despite this, life within the convent goes on: a new prioress is elected, and the Carmelites are largely unaware of the revolution happening outside their doors until they are expelled from their monastery. Mother Marie of the Incarnation, the sub-prioress, convinces all the nuns to take a vow of martyrdom, from which Blanche recoils and then flees. This vow is fulfilled when the sisters (except, painfully, Marie) are caught by the police secretly meeting together. Blanche returns at the eleventh hour, joining her sisters as they go singing to the guillotine.
Like Poulenc himself, Dialogues is the product of a particular French Catholicism, one that spiritualized suffering and emphasized the possibility of suffering in someone else’s place. What it means to suffer or to be spared suffering, to be granted or refused martyrdom, is at the heart of the drama of Dialogues. The martyrdom of the sixteen Carmelites has always existed as an act of spiritual and political significance. So, too, does its artistic legacy.
For their own production of Dialogues, the Met chose to revive an older, minimalist staging by John Dexter from 1977—one of Dexter’s first attempts to show opera didn’t need to be, in his words, “grandiose beyond the limits of Cecil B. DeMille.” Dexter’s stage is, for the most part, bare of props or scenery, and what is there tends to be more suggestive than definite (for instance, the convent is sometimes represented only by a grille). The sparse setting—which, in its own way, works as an illustration of Carmelite spirituality—means that one’s eye is truly drawn to a few objects on stage and to the conflicts, spiritual and political, taking place. This decision also means that there are moments when the set design can quietly support the opera’s own theology of suffering: as each nun walks toward the guillotine singing “Salve Regina,” they exit through the space where the altar of their chapel had seemed to be.
Dialogues suggests, both overtly through its libretto and in the coincidences of its plot, a mystical mortification and substitution that happens in the kinds of suffering we face up to in our lives. There is the actual martyrdom on behalf of France, “to give our lives for the glory of Carmel and the salvation of our land,” in which the nuns hope to absorb some of the divine anger they feel to be focused on their country. But there are smaller moments, too. In the Met’s staging, many of the nuns comfort each other on the way to their deaths, but the very last—Sister Constance, Blanche’s fellow novice and friend—breaks down, tries to flee, and is rescued from her own fear by Blanche’s appearance. Earlier in the opera, Constance votes against communal martyrdom because she thinks Blanche will, too, and doesn’t want her to be alone in that refusal. They mutually save one another from their own fears.
These moments revolve around the decisions of individuals, but they never happen alone. Fearful Blanche, when she joins the Carmelites, requests the title “Blanche of the Agony of Christ.” Initially, this request felt grandiose to me. But in reality Blanche is starting to join her fear with the suffering of Christ, a process that takes place falteringly, but unmistakably. Blanche is timid but wants to be free from her fear, a process that involves not only conquering it (and, as another character suggests, conquering her fear of fear), but ceasing to be alone even in the decisions she makes in isolation. Her suffering is Christ’s, the burden of her fear shared. The nuns who die do so not only for France, but for her.
Yet in some ways the most compelling emotional moment in the opera is not Blanche’s. It is instead Mother Marie’s, who has been so eager for martyrdom, and now faces the brutal fact that she will not die. Marie’s absence from the execution leads her to grapple with what it might mean for God to will her to live, but it also, in a sense, provides the dramatic space for Blanche to appear as number sixteen.
Why does Blanche, who never even vowed martyrdom, get to embrace it while Marie is forced to live? While Blanche fears most to die—enough that she is, for a time, willing to endure humiliation rather than face death—living, too, can be its own form of martyrdom. Marie’s thirst for public martyrdom is quietly rebuked throughout the opera. She must suffer in her own way, and part of that suffering involves knowing that the reason she must go on living will be obscured to most of those around her.