Martyrdom at the Met

Dialogues of the Carmelites

an opera in three acts by Francis Poulenc, libretto drawn by the composer from a text by Georges Bernanos
At the Metropolitan Opera

The names that cluster near Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites provoke nostalgia for one educated in Catholic schools in the years following World War II—Gertrud von Le Fort, Georges Bernanos, Raymond Bruckberger. It is old home week for such oddly assorted Catholic heroes.

Gertrud von Le Fort was one of those baronesses taken up by Catholic liberals. Maritain was known to admire her Novelle, Die Letzte am Schaftot, which we read in high school as The Song at the Scaffold. The Baroness pitted grace against human wisdom in a schematic way, to make the Cross double-cross the World. That was a theme dear to Thirties Catholicism in Europe—the theme of Paul Claudel: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Sister Blanche of the Novelle is an improbably cowardly hero, the kind who would become a whiskey priest in Graham Greene. God makes the last ones first.

In Die Letzte, an epistolary story told in pious tut-tuts by a spokesman for the ancien régime, Sister Blanche is a Carmelite nun who runs from martyrdom during the French Revolution and finds it, while Sister Marie seeks martyrdom and is cheated of it. This simple story, with only two important characters, Le Fort extends by the use of rather heavy-handed imagery. First there is the runaway carriage. Blanche’s untimely birth, which killed her mother, was precipitated by horses starting at fireworks and rattling the family carriage wildly off. Then the grown-up Blanche is described to us, first, as trapped in the family carriage by a raging mob. Her neurotic fears become mantic, premonitions of the Revolution. The author’s fragile carriage is as reactionary as Dostoevsky’s troika, but not as expressive.

Another sustained image is that of the Royal Infant, a convent statuette of Jesus crowned and clothed by gift of King Louis XV. The statue is dropped and loses its head as a symbol of the king’s beheading—the Revolution has assaulted God. A third symbol depicts the Revolution as a Black Mass. Blanche, running from the convent in fear of revolutionary violence, becomes by accident a mad mascot of the rabble, and drinks a “communion” cup of blood from murdered nobles (Poulenc had the sense to cut this). In case the reader does not get these symbols, the epistolary narrator is there to point and nudge each of them over the page. He explains the holy deaths to death.

The Novelle was very loosely based on the fact that sixteen Carmelite nuns were guillotined in 1794. Among the evidence used against them was a picture of the convent’s benefactor, Louis XV. The nuns were beatified by Rome in 1906, partly as a rebuke to modern liberalism. It might seem odd that Jacques Maritain and others liked this smug masquerading of politics as piety. But the Catholic left in France has never been able to come to terms with the Revolution. It sought elsewhere its symbols of patriotic loyalty and populism—principally in Jeanne d’Arc …

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