Francis Poulenc’s fervently written opera Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956) tells the tale of sixteen Carmelite nuns who were brutally guillotined during the French Revolution in 1794. The story of the Martyrs of Compi.gne was popularised in the beginning of the 20th century thanks to the German writer Gertrud von Le Fort’s novel Song at the Scaffold (Die Letzte am Schafott). The novice Blanche, a scared and frail teenage girl, became the fictional heroine of the novel, and later also of Poulenc’s opera. Blanche’s fate forced her to stare into the eyes of a terrifying and hopeless world, and to try and find a way out of the trap created by her own fears.
French director Vincent Boussard describes the production: “Dialogues des Carmélites is a piece which requires the viewer to read between the lines. It is a long and, at times, pitiless meditation on death which moves from fear to liberation, from suicide to martyrdom, and so on.“ Under his direction this historically significant opera will come to life on the Latvian National Opera’s stage for the first time.
Marquis de la Force and his son, Chevalier, are in the reading room. They are worried about Blanche, Chevalier’s fearful sister, whose carriage has been held up by a mob on her way home. When Blanche arrives, she makes light of the incident, but her anxiety is revealed when a servant’s shadow frightens her as she leaves the room. Shaken, she returns to tell her father that she wants to become a nun.
In the convent of the Carmelite Order Blanche appeals to Madame de Croissy, the aged and ailing Prioress, to be accepted as a novice. The Prioress tells Blanche that the convent is a place of prayer, not a refuge. However, the Prioress is touched by Blanche’s resolve to embrace a new life.
Blanche and Constance, another young novice, are working together when Constance tells her that she has overcome the fear of death. Blanche admits her envy of Constance’s easy-going nature. Constance then shocks Blanche by telling her that the minute she saw her, she knew that they would both die young and on the same day.
The Prioress is on her death bed. She entrusts Blanche to Mother Marie. The Prioress blesses Blanche and tells her to be modest, kind and never to despise herself. In the presence of Mother Marie, Blanche and Sister Anne, the Prioress screams in agony and dies.
In the chapel, Constance and Blanche keep vigil over the coffin. Blanche is overcome with fear, and Mother Marie tries to calm her as she is about to run off.
Blanche and Constance talk about the Prioress’ horrible death. Constance believes the Prioress died in agony in order for somebody else to have a more peaceful death. “Perhaps,” she says, “people do not die for themselves, but for others.”
The nuns assemble to take their vow of obedience to the new Prioress, Madame Lidoine. She addresses the convent advising for patience, humility and prayers.
A visitor is announced – it is Chevalier de la Force who wants to see his sister before leaving the country. He meets with Blanche to share his concerns about her safety and isolation, and urges her to return home. Blanche assures him that she is safe and happy now, and that her duty is to her sisters. After he leaves, however, Blanche confesses to Mother Marie that she is afraid and tired of others’ pitying attitude towards her.
The chaplain is forbidden from further performing his duties under the new political order. Mother Marie suggests that the sisters sacrifice their lives in order for the balance of grace to be restored. The Prioress, however, reminds them that martyrs are not chosen by their own will, but by God’s.
Outside, the sounds of the crowd grow louder. Officials arrive to announce that the sisters have been expelled from the convent. Sister Jeanne gives Blanche a figurine of the infant Christ, but Blanche accidentally drops the figurine and breaks it.
In the absence of the Prioress Mother Marie proposes that the nuns take a vow of martyrdom by a unanimous decision. When the secret ballot reveals one dissenter, Constance claims that it was she, and asks to reverse her vote so that the vow can take place. After having taken her vow, Blanche flees. The sisters are led out from the convent, but do not wish to leave their vocation behind.
Blanche has returned to the ransacked mansion of her father who has been killed at the guillotine. Mother Marie arrives to persuade Blanche to return to the sisters and hands her an address telling her that she will wait for Blanche there until the next evening. On her way to the address, Blanche learns that the nuns have been arrested.
At the prison the Prioress and the nuns are accused of unlawful assembly and counter-revolutionary conspiracy, and sentenced to death. Constance is sure that Blanche will join them.
The chaplain informs Mother Marie of the death sentence imposed on the nuns. She wants to join them, but the chaplain reminds her that it is for God to decide whether or not she will become a martyr.
On the Place de la Révolution, the nuns chant the Salve Regina as they make their way up to the guillotine. Blanche steps out of the crowd and joins the sisters singing the final verse of the Veni Creator.