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THE DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES (Poulenc)


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Neil McGowan
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« on: June 16, 2014, 06:51:03 am »

Prompted in no small part by the new production at Covent Garden, there has been a flurry of somewhat inconsidered reaction and assessment of this work in a number of niches on the internet.

An Anglican Parson's Nose (that of the Rev Giles Fraser) became wedged into the topic in The Guardian, where the Rev most unwisely claimed that "all opera is based on the Bible" (by way of some be-Labouring the UK Education Minister?  As though external potty claims about the Bible and Opera were needed to challenge that gentleman's current political credibility...?)  Even the Grauniadistas noticed the folly of this bizarre claim, although Fraser subsquently claimed that 'sub-editors' had inserted this assertion.

As any fule kno, the list of "Top 20 Most Frequently Staged Operas Worldwide" does not, in fact, include a single opera on a Biblical story. The claims for "Samson et Dalila" and Handel's "Samson" (which is an oratorio, as the Rev Fraser should have twigged) swirl on the periphery of the opera-house repertoire. There are plenty of 'religious' operas (representing many religions, not only Christianity) - yet very few are Biblical in nature. This may, in part, be a legacy of an era when official censors fought shy of Biblical works, lest they give offence to the Priestly class.

THE DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES can hardly be a "Biblical" opera - since it purports to depict the events of the enforced closure and dissolution of the Compiegne Convent during the French Revolution, and the individual fates that engulfed the Carmelite Sisters thereafter. (Each of those who was executed during the events during the Revolution is named individually in the Indictment in Act III).

But what of the Rev Fraser's claims (echoed with tub-thumping certainty by the members of Another Forum Elsewhere) that DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES is inspired by the tenets of Christian faith??

Hmmm, some doubt arises....

The opera was written in the aftermath of WW2 - composed primarily during 1955, and premiered in 1956.

Yet several years later, at a Press Conference for an unrelated work, a sharp-witted journalist had the opportunity to put a pressing question to the composer:

JOURNALIST: "Monsieur Poulenc! Isn't your opera THE DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES a vivid allegory of how the Vichy Government of France in WW2 handed over the country's Jews to the Nazis?"

F POULENC: "Errr....  No Comment."


The issue of Vichy collaboration with the Nazis has remained the great unspoken crime of post-war France - and to this day journalists who threaten to expose the acts and individuals involved have been threatened, or dealt with, with extreme violence.

No surprise, then, that the Catholic Church in France has not leapt to embrace this 'evocation of faith' - since its priests know full well what the story of the opera actually concerns. No "Salve Regina" can save those going to the guillotine. (The fall of the guillotine for each of the sisters is meticulously indicated in the score, by the way).

I am not aware, however, of any opera theatre which has had the courage to stage the opera in the era of Vichy France. Some would say that this "isn't needed".  Perhaps not?  I would argue, however, that is indeed greatly needed.  It's already one of the most macabre endings* in opera - I wonder if audiences could 'deal with' its actual subject?



* one could argue that it's possibly outdone in this lugubrious achievement by the ending of Musorgsky's THE KHOVANSKY MASSACRE (KHOVANSCHINA)
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