By R. David Salvage
Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites received an outstanding production this month at the Teatro Comunale. A co-production with the Théȃtre des Champs-Élysées (Paris) and La Monnaie (Brussels), it arrived on a wave of acclaim and drew widespread media coverage.
Inspired by actual events, Dialogues tells the story of a young aristocratic woman who seeks refuge in a convent during the French Revolution, only to be executed a few years later during the final days of The Terror. In 1953, an executive at the famed music publishing house Ricordi drew Poulenc’s attention to the subject matter, and the composer, a passionate Catholic known both for his religious and secular music, immediately set to work, finishing the ambitious score in only three years. With its lush harmonies, beautiful melodies, and compelling drama, the opera has been a success ever since its premiere at La Scala.
As a single example of how well served this excellent opera was by director Olivier Py and his team, the final scene—the opera’s most famous—stands out. What happens on stage is sadistic to the point of being untasteful: one by one, sixteen nuns are guillotined as they sing the text of the “Salve Regina.” Py’s elegant staging, however, saves the moment from self-parody and turns it into powerful theater. Against the backdrop of a starry sky, each nun bows her head with each fatal fall of the guillotine blade—masterfully rendered in Poulenc’s orchestration—and then walks blissfully back into the sky; we see no guillotine or fake blood or mesmerized onlookers in the Place de la Révolution. Instead of being sensationalistic and melodramatic, the scene feels blunt and unsentimental. The night I attended, the second of the four performances, the audience gave the production an enthusiastic ovation.
The Teatro Comunale’s opera season continues with Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which opens April 13th.