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Dialogues des Carmélites: Poulenc's homage to some of opera's most famous female characters

How iconic roles across two hundred years of operatic history inspired Poulenc's writing for the female voice.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

21 May 2014 at 4.11pm | 1 Comment

Francis Poulenc took the opportunity with the nearly all-female cast for his opera Dialogues des Carmélites to pay homage to some of his favourite operatic women. We take a look at the five models that inspired his Carmelite leading ladies:

Sister Constance – inspired by Zerlina from Mozart's Don Giovanni (soubrette)
Sister Constance is the youngest nun. She is blessed with a radiant happiness, even when facing the nuns' terrible fate. Her light, agile voice has its precursor in Zerlina, Mozart's bubbly peasant girl. Though Constance would never dream of getting up to the same shenanigans as Zerlina, her exuberance and optimism make them spiritual sisters.

Mother Marie  inspired by Amneris from Verdi's Aida (mezzo-soprano)
Mother Marie is a pillar of strength in the convent community. Though shy and reserved, she is devoted to the sisters in her care and would make any sacrifice for them – when Blanche runs away it is Mother Marie who goes to find her, and attempts to keep her from harm. Verdi's jealous princess Amneris has no such kindness, but her passion and single-minded determination can be heard in the richness of Mother Marie's velvety mezzo-soprano.

Madame de Croissy  inspired by Kundry from Wagner's Parsifal (contralto)
Madame de Croissy is the Prioress of the convent when Blanche arrives. She is strict and has high expectations for her sisters, but her loving compassion becomes quickly apparent in her first interview with Blanche. However, her death at the end of Act I is filled with pain, her powerful voice groaning and railing against God's cruelty. Although Poulenc has significantly decreased the vocal range of Wagner's sorceress to represent the Prioress's old age, her mix of authority and anguish owes a clear debt to the doomed Kundry.

Madame Lidoine  inspired by Desdemona from Verdi's Otello (lirico spinto soprano)
Madame Lidoine is the new prioress. It is she who must guide the community of nuns when the police of the French Revolution arrest them; it is she who eventually leads them to the scaffold. Poulenc writes her music of great simplicity and beauty, instantly creating a sense of her calmness and serenity. Verdi's angelic heroine Desdemona shares Madame Lidoine's faith and goodness, and her Act IV 'Ave Maria' is directly referenced in Poulenc's own setting of the prayer for Madame Lidoine and her sisters in Act II – anticipating both women's needless and brutal deaths.

Blanche  inspired by Thaïs from Massenet's Thaïs (lyric soprano)
Poulenc's heroine Blanche is the spiritual heart of Dialogues des Carmélites. We feel her love for the old Prioress, her fear of death and her horror at the fate awaiting the community – until she finally chooses to sacrifice herself with them. Her breathless agitation throughout much of the opera recalls Massenet's writing for Thaïs in Act II of his opera, where this courtesan – so cool and controlled in the first act – suddenly realizes how vulnerable she is. Thaïs's transformation in the final act into a self-denying saint is compressed by Poulenc into a tiny, simple Gloria sung by Blanche on the scaffold, filled with grace and beauty.

Dialogues des Carmélites runs 29 May–11 June 2014. Tickets are still available.
The production, originally from De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, The Taylor Family Foundation and The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Richard Evans responded on 24 May 2014 at 5:23pm Reply

    Thank you. Most interesting. It was a real pleasure to spend time reading and listening to your article.

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