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CFA Stages Dialogues of the Carmelites

Poulenc opera tells story of martyred French nuns


French composer Francis Poulenc included the lethal thunk of the guillotine blade in the score for his stirring opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on a true story of martyred nuns during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. “Dialogues is a remarkably beautiful story, with real characters in spiritual, emotional, and physical distress,” says stage director Sharon Daniels, a College of Fine Arts associate professor. “The score is profoundly dramatic and rich.”

Showcasing the strength and versatility of its female singers, the CFA Schools of Music and of Theatre and the Opera Institute will present four performances of the opera at the Boston University Theatre, beginning tonight. Although most often sung in French, the CFA production will be sung in English, in accordance with “the expressed wishes of Poulenc” that the opera be sung in “the language of the audience and the singers,” says Daniels, director of the Opera Institute and opera programs.

Dialogues, chosen in keeping with CFA’s keyword initiative, which this year focuses on the theme of violence, is based on one of the darkest periods in French history, when an estimated 16,500 lives were claimed by the guillotine. The opera was written by the musically prolific, but psychologically tormented Poulenc and first performed in 1957. The libretto, from a screenplay by George Bernanos, chronicles the last days of the martyrs of Compiègne, 14 Carmelite nuns and 2 lay sisters who were imprisoned by the French revolutionary government in 1794 after refusing to obey an edict to dissolve their religious order. The women chanted their vows as they mounted the guillotine scaffolds to die. Mostly recitative, with lush, often unpredictable harmonies, the opera will be performed with a 45-member orchestra under the direction of Opera Institute music director William Lumpkin.

The martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns was documented by one of the nuns, Mother Marie of the Incarnation, who survived to write her memoirs. In turn, her story inspired a historical novel by Gertrud von la Forte, an influential Catholic German writer, who in 1931 broadened the Carmelites’ story to reflect universal themes of faith colliding with fear of death, of morality and survival. The CFA cast read her book, The Song of the Scaffold, to prepare for their roles. A fallen Catholic “obsessed by guilt,” Poulenc reportedly had two nervous breakdowns while completing the opera, says Daniels.

Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc, BU Theatre, Boston University College of Fine Arts CFA

Virginia Barney (CFA’14) (from left), Jonathan Cole (CFA’12), Amanda Tarver (CFA’12), and Lauren Ashleigh Lyles (CFA’13).

Dialogues of the Carmelites is an opera which is very dear to my heart and I am profoundly honored to stage direct it for a second time,” says Daniels, who prepared for the first production by traveling to a Carmelite convent near Compiègne, France, where she spent 10 days living with the cloistered nuns, in silent meditation. In Paris, she visited the Pic Pus cemetery, where the 16 Carmelites are buried in a mass grave.

With a cast of 50, the opera continues to draw powerful emotional responses from audiences as well as singers. For soprano Kristin Young (CFA’13), who plays the novice Sister Constance, portraying her character’s faith drew on her own strong Catholic upbringing, at a church named for a Carmelite nun. Constance is “not afraid of death, but she really loves life,” says Young, a master’s candidate in vocal performance. “She brings lightness to the opera.”

The opera “looks at what is actual courage and strength,” says mezzo-soprano Lauren Ashley Lyles (CFA’13), who sings the role of the one nun to escape the guillotine, Mother Marie. “It’s haunting to see the voices of the sisters get cut back one by one,” as they go to their deaths.

Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc, BU Theatre, Boston University College of Fine Arts CFA

Soprano Celeste Fraser (CFA’13) in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.

“The final scene is a main reason to go to this show,” says soprano Celeste Fraser (CFA’13). Fraser portrays the emotionally tortured novice Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, who witnesses her father’s execution, is forced into servitude in her own home, loses her mind, and eventually willingly goes to her death. “I love playing her,” says Fraser, adding that cast members were so moved by the opera that they wept after the first full run-through.

Bringing Dialogues to the stage was a collaborative effort. In addition to being performed by singers from the Opera Institute and vocal performance degree candidates, School of Theatre students created the scenery, costumes, and lighting design and made up the build and run crew, with assistance from Huntington Theatre Company staffers.

“The artists and I have been shaken by the opera’s relevance to our time,” says Daniels. “Throughout history, and certainly today, human beings continue to participate in the murder of innocents in senseless violent acts of power.”

Dialogues of the Carmelites runs tonight through Saturday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, April 23, at 2 p.m. at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $20 for the general public, $15 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, and senior citizens; $5 for students with ID. Members of the BU community can get two free tickets with BU ID at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability. Purchase tickets here or call 617-933-8600.

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