Dialogues des Carmélites
"En des temps comme ceux-ci, mourir n'est rien."
Just as Mozart went through his "I have discovered Bach" phase, I can say that I have discovered Poulenc. More to the point, I have been listening to Dialogues des Carmélites nonstop for a couple of days now. The work was written in 1957, originally for La Scala, but premiered in French at the Opéra Garnier. Like Britten's War Requiem, and the best of Stravinsky, the work is undeniably modern but tonal. Poulenc uses a profoundly nervous and shifting tonal palette to express the anxiety of the Carmelites during the Revolution. It is as though Blanche's anxiety and weak constitution have been transformed into music.
Poulenc's spirituality created an environment for him to ask questions about life, death, duty, and fate. Within a profoundly Catholic environment, he answered those questions simply. Blanche de la Force has a peaceful and noble death, because the tragic and embarrassing death of the Prioress took her doubt and fear for her. Blanche became a hero for her Order because someone else shied away at the last trump for her. The opera is "about" Blanche, but that's like saying Der Ring des Nibelungen is "about" Siegfried. It is, "kind of-sort of." However, it's also about the place of servants and heroes in a "debased" time (i.e., Dialogues, not Der Ring). When there aren't priests, the new Prioress says, there are martyrs in abundance. However, you receive martyrdom from God Himself, and not through any wish.
That is why Mother Marie does not mount the scaffold. She was far too eager to meet a glorious end. Blanche, who cast the only "no" in the vote the community took on the vow of martyrdom, does. She got her reward. The "unlikely heroes" motif is overdone, but appropriate here. No. In another way, heroes are the ones who move, unknowingly, toward their apotheosis. If you want to be a hero, chances are you'll never get the opportunity.
The finale of Dialogues is, perhaps, the most tragic and jarring of the 20th century. The Carmelites, marched to the scaffold to be guillotined in accord with the will of the Assembly, sing Salve Regina as the blade falls on them, one-by-one. The choir gets smaller and smaller, until only one nun sings. The moment when Blanche mounts the scaffold, perfectly calm, is capped off with only the slam of the blade. Tragic. However, it's not unexpected. Like the great Greek dramatists, Poulenc makes you care about an ending that is foreseen and totally expected. Constance tells Blanche they will die together. They do. Still, you care.
This isn't an easy opera. And, like the questions of good, evil, love, and will raised by Wagner's Der Ring, this one leaves you with more questions than answers. Pierre Dervaux' recording has been canonical and non pareil for nearly fifty years. There's also Kent Nagano's, but - seriously? - why mess with a good thing.