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Opera in 3 acts
Libretto by Georges Bernanos based on Gertrud von Le Fort
First performed January 26 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Sung in French with German & English surtitles
Introductory talks (in German) in the Holzfoyer 30 mins before performances begin
Blanche de la Force has been plagued by panic attacks since she was a small child. Were they triggered off by the circumstances of her birth? She seeks refuge in a nunnery.
The Marquise de la Force, Blanche’s Mutter, was caught up in a violent public uprising when she was heavily pregnant. The shock caused a premature birth, during which she died. Blanche thinks she has found a way of life in a Carmelite convent. She sees how the devout but gravely ill prioress is consumed by fear at the hour of her death. The nuns are suspected by revolutionary guards of conspiring against the new regime. All cloisters are to be dissolved. The Carmelites gather for the last time and vow to be true to their faith, whatever happens. Blanche is the only one who got away before they were all arrested, but reappears at the hour of their execution, to share her sisters’ fate: faced with the guillotine, she has lost all fear.
The events in Poulenc’s opera are based on historical facts: In 1794 the Carmelites of Compiègne became martyrs, singing »Veni creator« as they calmly went to the guillotine, one after the other. In 1947 the French author Georges Bernanos turned the German writer Gertrud von le Fort’s 1931 novel into a film script, upon which the libretto for Poulenc’s opera was based. The work culminates in the execution scene, whose shattering effect leaves nobody unmoved.