There is a wonderful moment in Olivier Py’s new production of Dialogues des Carmélites that sums up the composer Poulenc’s approach to music — and to life. While the stern young Sister Blanche scrubs the floors of the convent, her more carefree yet equally pious companion Sister Constance blows bubbles from a bucket of soapy water. Francis Poulenc, an openly gay yet deeply spiritual man who returned to Catholicism in his thirties after the traumatic death of a friend, was once described as moitié moine, moitié voyou (half monk, half rascal) and you get glimpses of this duality in his later vocal music: austere harmonies grounded in medieval chant, enveloped in lush orchestral sound and leavened by pungent, playful details.
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death (overshadowed outside of France by the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner) with this stark yet elegant production of his second opera, which recounts the tragic history of the Compiègne nuns executed in 1794 as enemies of the French Revolution. Far from an obvious choice for a libretto, it lacks romantic interest and consists of long, sombre meditations on matters metaphysical. But its sense of encroaching doom, the conquering of fear and the acceptance of fate are universal themes, treated at times with unexpected, whimsical tenderness, as when the novices wonder if their Mother Superior was accidentally dealt too painful a death for someone who had served God so faithfully, like someone being handed back the wrong coat from the cloakroom.
Poulenc created the role of the high-born Sister Blanche for regal soprano Denise Duval, but would have been thrilled with the current French line-up, with the swooping, ethereal tones of Patricia Petibon’s volatile Blanche, Véronique Gens’s steadfast, velvety mezzo as the new prioress, the agonised death throes of Rosalind Plowright’s Mother Superior; although an indisposed Sandrine Piau’s Sister Constance was taken over by Anne-Catherine Gillet, I didn’t feel at all short-changed by the latter’s sparkling soubrettish tone, which provided much-needed lightness.
The interplay between light and dark guides Pierre-André Weitz’s bold, stylised staging, in which the nuns use simple props, during Poulenc’s musical interludes, to enact striking religious tableaux including The Last Supper. In the powerful, tour-de-force death scene of Act Two, Madame de Croissy’s bed is suspended vertically against the wall, casting sharp shadows, so that we see her suffering writ large like a crucifixion. And in the final scene, the fifteen singing nuns, clad in crisp white, stride single-file to their deaths — the unison voices cut off one by one by the chilling slice and thud of a guillotine in the orchestra pit — against a black backdrop illuminated by stars.
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées celebrates its centenary this year alongside the Poulenc anniversary, and has mounted an exhibition in the opulent art deco foyer of Poulenc’s association with the venue, from his days as an enfant terrible in the group of French composers known as Les Six. The selection includes posters from their 1920s concerts, Poulenc’s contract for the commission of Dialogue des Carmélites, a manuscript of the work with music that never made the final cut, and the last known photo of the composer.
Poulenc said of his 1956 opera, “You must forgive my Carmelites. It seems they can only sing tonal music.” One can imagine him unburdening himself thus at the confessional booth, with a glint in his eye.