In 1956, the noted French composer Francis Poulenc debuted a new opera. He had been working on it obsessively for at least three years, and his choice of subject struck the opera world as a rather peculiar one. Inspired by a story by the French Catholic playwright Georges Bernanos — who had himself been moved by the novella Die Letzte am Schafott (“The Last on the Scaffold,” or “The Song at the Scaffold”), by Gertrude von le Fort — Poulenc had composed an opera called Dialogues des Carmélites (“Dialogues of the Carmelites”). In three acts he told the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a group of Carmelite nuns who were executed during the French Revolution by the guillotine in 1794.
In this issue, Stephanie Mann takes a vivid look at the Martyrs of Compiègne whose deaths not only momentarily silenced the vicious mobs of the Revolution but helped end the Terror, the darkest days of the Revolution in France. It is a powerful story, and Poulenc captured beautifully the dread of the Revolution and the choices that people of faith must sometimes make in the face of evil and persecution.
The main character in the opera is Blanche de la Force, a timid young noblewoman who hopes to escape the world and the mounting tides of revolution by entering the Carmelite order. The harder she flees from the threats and dangers of the world, of course, the more they become ever present in her life, and the nuns are soon confronted with the evil of the French Revolution. Blanche tries once again to flee, to escape having to make the choice of faith versus risk, but she is inexorably led to that decisive moment when she finally understands that she cannot hide from the confrontation with evil, even at the cost of her own life. It is a question that Christians are being asked every day around the world. As Pope Francis recently tweeted, “We must not believe the Evil One when he tells us that there is nothing we can do in the face of violence, injustice and sin.”
Poulenc’s opera is based on entirely real and harrowing events. “Dialogues of the Carmelites” ends with one of the most haunting and beautiful scenes in the history of opera. You will have to read the article (see Pages 22-25) to find out the climax of the opera, but remember that what Poulenc staged operatically actually took place in real life in the martyrdom of the nuns of Compiègne. Trust me, you will be hard-pressed to hear the beautiful hymn Salve Regina in quite the same way again. TCA
Matthew Bunson, D.Min., M.Div., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 45 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.