Summary for the Busy Executive: A classic of Poulenc discography.
I probably don't have a religious or spiritual bone in my body. For some strange reason, however, I've read a lot of Catholic writing – Newman, Chesterton, Knox, Simon – all very entertaining authors. Somehow, they make supernaturalism sound so reasonable that occasionally I wonder whether I could have become Catholic myself. Then I come up against a work like this and conclude the answer to that question is "not hardly likely." George Bernanos's work makes me realize that I will remain an outsider. There's a kind of mysticism here that simply puts me off. I have nothing against mysticism per se, but I do like it allied to insight or somehow anchored to this world.
I, however, am not Poulenc, who considered this opera his greatest work. It certainly has some of his very best music, one of the very few modernist 20th-century operas – along with Stravinsky's Rake's Progress and Berg's Wozzeck – to hold a firm place in the international repertory. Still, the central plot point is so bizarre that at times I wonder what audiences are responding to. I feel like the horse in Tolstoy's Resurrection.
The Dialogues concern a young noblewoman, Blanche de la Force, an hysteric afraid of just about everything. Just before the French Revolution, she enters a Carmelite convent to hide from the world. The Prioress, who for reasons unexplained has taken a liking to Blanche (apparently, only one other sister, Constance – who likes everybody – can put up with Blanche), lies in her deathbed and worries about the young woman. She expresses the wish that she might trade her death for Blanche's. The Prioress begins to suffer terrifying visions – the priory in ruins, the altar desecrated. Blanche overhears this, and prays by the Prioress's bedside. The Prioress dies.
The nuns in turn keep watch over the corpse, to pray continually for the soul of the Prioress. Blanche, alone with the corpse, becomes frightened. She starts to leave, only to be met by Mother Marie, the Prioress's deputy, who sees through Blanche's feeble excuse. Later, Constance wonders aloud about the death of the Prioress. If one considered the Prioress's life, she seemed to suffer someone else's death, "as when you are given the wrong coat in a cloakroom."
Meanwhile, the Revolution begins. Mother Marie and the new prioress counsels prayer. The Father Confessor of the convent goes into hiding. There is a suggestion of martyrdom, but the new prioress quashes the suggestion from Mother Marie. The nuns are expelled from the convent, which the mob turns into a ruin. In the absence of the prioress, Mother Marie again proposes martyrdom. The nuns show a lack of enthusiasm for the idea, but the reasons have nothing to do with personal safety. Mother Marie proposes that the vote be secret and unanimous. If there is even one vote against, no one will take the vow. There is one vote against (guess who?). The nuns begin to turn against Blanche, but Constance says that it was she herself who cast the no vote. She informs them that she now sees she was wrong and votes yes. In the confusion, Blanche runs away. Mother Marie goes to look for her.
The Revolution arrests the nuns, including the prioress, who has been shocked to hear of the vow of martyrdom. Nevertheless, she too takes it. In the meantime, Mother Marie finds Blanche, hiding as a maid, and tells her to meet her in a safe house, so that they can rejoin their sisters. Blanche tells Mother Marie not to expect her.
The nuns are condemned to the guillotine. Mother Marie wants to rejoin them, but the Father Confessor in effect forbids her. The nun who in effect forced the vow of martyrdom on others is prevented from fulfilling it, while the nun who did everything she could to dissuade others from the vow willingly takes it on. The nuns die, one by one. Sister Constance is the last. She catches sight of Blanche in the crowd before she is killed. Blanche then steps forward, fearless, and calmly mounts the scaffold to her death.
If this were a story of pride – Mother Marie vs. the new prioress – it would make more sense to me. However, the idea of trading deaths drags this story to the level of a Twilight Zone episode. It seems to cheapen the sacrifice of the other nuns.
Poulenc's music moves from great psychological richness to a naïve and even majestic piety. Highlights include most of Blanche's music. Poulenc captures the terrors and especially the false resolutions of this timorous soul, as well as the swings between humiliation and false pride. Poulenc knew hysteria himself, having suffered through a psychologically ruinous love affair (his great friend and collaborator, Pierre Bernac, helped pull him through). The story may have originally attracted him because of this. Nevertheless, despite Poulenc's deep dramatic insight into Blanche, the resolution offered by the story is fairly lame. Blanche up to just before her death is as frightened as she was in the first scene. The story does not let us witness the course of transformation.
Still, Poulenc's music goes a long way to winning us over. Highlights include the various religious set pieces – an Ave Maria and an Ave verum corpus – the gravely beautiful instrumental interludes, and especially the last scene – a grand march to the scaffold. The music has the monumentality of (and indeed is heavily based on) Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, the masterpiece that taught neoclassic composers how to move beyond Mozartean and Bach pastiche. Here, however, is Poulenc's greatest coup de théâtre. The nuns go to their deaths singing the hymn Salve regina. A nun mounts the steps to the guillotine, just offstage. Suddenly the blade falls with a huge, heavy, horrifying wallop. It's a brilliant stroke of orchestration, for the blade is as much a part of the music as it is a sound effect – a combination which includes hammer and harp, among other instruments. The march continues, this time with fewer voices, but its intensity seems to grow. The nuns climb the scaffold, the blade drops, and the voices decrease. Finally, we come to the single voice of Constance, reduced to a horrible squawk by the blow of the blade, in the middle of the word "Maria." It's now Blanche's turn. She sings the last four lines of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to music of great radiance. If a listener is ever to be convinced, it's here. The guillotine chops her off as well, with a final ghastly stroke.
This re-issue restores a classic to the catalogue. Denise Duval, one of the great singing actresses of our time, inspired all three of Poulenc's operas (Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Dialogues, and La Voix humaine). Her acting range was astonishing (she worked early on at the Folies Bergères), and she repeats one of her greatest roles. Régine Crespin was probably the great French Wagnerian of her day. Vocally, the production is worry-free. Liliane Berton, as Sister Constance, stands out dramatically, with an electrifying sweetness to her voice. Duval is superb dramatically, and I don't speak French very well. But she certainly can convey a mood, or even several moods at once.
Dervaux and his players do well enough, although the recent Kent Nagano on EMD/Virgin 59227 has it all over them in finish. Dramatically (and this to me is the point of opera), the earlier performance scores over the later one. EMI originally released the LPs in a sumptuous box (I still have my set) and lavished their best efforts on the recording. The sound is the best of the early stereo era, still quite fine.
Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz