Washington National Opera: Dialogues of the Carmelites

Saturday, February 21, 2015 - Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Faith is put to the ultimate test in Poulenc's powerful opera about an order of Carmelite nuns who refuse to renounce their beliefs during the French Revolution. WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello directs this company premiere, sung in English.


$25.00 - $300.00

Run Time:

approx. 3 hrs.

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Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957)

(Dialogues des carmélites)                            
Libretto by the composer, after a play by Georges Bernanos
Company premiere
WNO production, originally produced by Opéra National de Paris
"Wonderful psychological complexity… a hymn to the powers of sisterhood and the strength of female solidarity"--The Toronto Star
Faith is put to the ultimate test in Poulenc's powerful 1957 opera about an order of Carmelite nuns who refuse to renounce their beliefs in the wake of the French Revolution. With social unrest rippling through Paris, a timid young woman leaves her aristocratic family to seek refuge at a convent in northern France. She strives to align with her fellow sisters, who soon discover they must either abandon their monastery or face certain execution. Their act of defiance in the face of fear becomes a gripping, emotional story of loyalty, redemption, and sacrifice.
At turns hymnal and haunting, Dialogues of the Carmelites soars with exquisite harmonies, a sublime a cappella "Ave Maria," and wrenching twists, including a chilling final tableau. Directed by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello--and performing an English translation approved by the composer--the stellar cast includes three fast-rising sopranos: the WNO debuts of Leah Crocetto as steadfast leader Madame Lidoine and Layla Claire as impressionable new nun Blanche de la Force, plus Ashley Emerson (Papagena in WNO's The Magic Flute) as optimistic Sister Constance.
Additionally, star mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick (Adalgisa in WNO's Norma) makes her role debut as Madame de Croissy, the ailing prioress of the monastery, while mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop (Brangäne in WNO's Tristan and Isolde) portrays martyrdom-driven Mother Marie, a role she has performed to great acclaim. 
Madame Lidoine: Leah Crocetto*
Blanche de la Force: Layla Claire*
Madame de Croissy: Dolora Zajick 
Mother Marie: Elizabeth Bishop
Sister Constance: Ashley Emerson
Marquis de la Force: Alan Held
Chevalier de la Force: Shawn Mathey
The Chaplain: Robert Baker
Conductor: Antony Walker
Director: Francesca Zambello
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler*
Costume Designer: Claudie Gastine
Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough
*WNO debut

Sung in the composer's approved English translation by Joseph Machlis with projected English titles. Titles may not be visible from the rear of the orchestra.

Performance Timing: approximatley 3 hrs. (Act I: 86 minutes; Intermission 20 min.; Act II; 73 minutes)

Musicologist Saul
Lilienstein leads the Thursday, March 5 Opera Insight, starting 1 hour and 15 minutes before the performance and lasting 35–40 minutes. All other Opera Insights start 1 hour before the performance and last 20–25 minutes. Informative and entertaining, Opera Insights take you inside the composer's mind, behind the scenes of planning a production, and into the history and social context of each opera.
These lectures are free, but patrons must present a ticket from any performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Following these performances:

Monday evening, February 23
Sunday matinee, March 8
Join WNO artists for a unique opportunity to ask questions about the production.
All discussions begin immediately after the performance and are free with your ticket.

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Just outside Paris, 1789: The French Revolution is in full force. Arriving home safely despite the mobs in the streets, a young noblewoman, Blanche de la Force, is frightened by a footman. Interpreting the events of the day as a sign, she tells her father that she intends to become a nun. When she enters the Carmelite convent at Compiègne, the elderly and infirm Prioress warns Blanche that difficult ordeals await her. After Blanche is admitted to the convent, Sister Constance, another young novice, shocks her by suggesting they offer up their lives for that of the Prioress. Constance also tells Blanche that she has had a premonition that the two of them will die together.


The Prioress, on her deathbed, entrusts Blanche to the care of Mother Marie. In her final moments, the Prioress has a vision of their chapel desecrated, with straw and blood on the ground. As she continues to cry out, delirious, she demands an audience with Blanche, who witnesses the older nun's final, terror-filled moments.


Sister Constance suggests to Blanche that the late Prioress was given the wrong death by mistake, one meant for someone else, who will now have an easy death. A new Prioress arrives and greets the nuns and reminds them that their most important duty is prayer.


Intermission (20 minutes)


Blanche's brother tries to convince her to leave the convent for her own safety; she refuses. The sisters' Chaplain tells them he has been forbidden to perform his duties and will go into hiding. Mother Marie suggests that an act of martyrdom by the sisters will make France safe for priests again; the new Prioress rebukes her, telling her God alone will decide. Two commissioners arrive, backed by a mob, to inform the nuns that the convent will be seized and put up for sale.


While the Prioress is away, Mother Marie proposes to the community that they take a collective vow of martyrdom in order to save their order and their country. A secret vote is taken, with all but one in favor. Sister Constance tells the group it was her vote and she has changed her mind. Blanche flees. Mother Marie finds Blanche, who is living as a servant in her family's ruined home, and gives her an address where she can safely hide. Meanwhile, all of the nuns except Blanche and Mother Marie are imprisoned and condemned to death.  The sisters sing defiantly as they go to the guillotine, one by one. Constance is the last to ascend the scaffold; as she pauses, Blanche, making her way through the crowd, catches her eye. Constance continues and Blanche follows.

Watch and Listen

WNO Commentary: Dialogues of the Carmelites 1 of 7: Act One: The library of the Marquis (audio only)

WNO Commentary: Dialogues of the Carmelites 2 of 7: Act One: In the Carmelite convent (audio only)

WNO Commentary: Dialogues of the Carmelites 3 of 7: Act Two: 1789-1792: The new Prioress (audio only)

WNO Commentary: Dialogues of the Carmelites 4 of 7: Act Two: 1789-1792: Brother and sister meet again (audio only)

WNO Commentary: Dialogues of the Carmelites 5 of 7: Act Two: 1789-1792: The Father Confessor bids farewell (audio only)

WNO Commentary: Dialogues of the Carmelites 6 of 7: Act Three 1793-1794: The vow of martyrdom (audio only)

WNO Commentary: Dialogues of the Carmelites 7 of 7: Act Three 1793-1794: At the Place de la Revolution (audio only)

Francesca Zambello discusses Dialogues of the Carmelites

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