Happy Birthday, Francis Poulenc

January 7, 2012

If you don’t know the finale of Poulenc’s stupendous opera Dialogues des Carmélites, I can’t imagine a fuller introduction to his art — varied though it can be, often treating the most frivolous of themes or, as here, the most profound. This passage represents, among other things, as great a final scene to a majestic tragedy as can be imagined. You might like to watch that guillotine scene in one or more of the recordings below. Not only does the composer get the historical drama just right, but it’s also echt Poulenc at the same time.

Having the Carmelites go to their deaths singing Salve Regina, just as they would once have been accustomed to doing before going to sleep at night, safe in their cloister, would have tempted many composers to gussy up the traditional plainchant or to write something pseudo-Gregorian or otherwise archaic-sounding. Instead, Poulenc writes in his own personal expressive manner, having the persecuted 18th-century contemplatives go to their deaths singing to the Virgin Mary in worldly 20th-century Parisian harmonies. Not a single measure of it could possibly have been composed by anyone else. It’s utterly unmistakable as Poulenc but also manages to embody the tragic-yet-serene moment to perfection.

The last young woman to die is one who had escaped the death-sentence but was in the crowd at the scaffold and voluntarily joined her sisters in their fate at the last moment. A synopsis can be read here, but a synopsis may not be essential to understanding what is going on in the riveting dénouement.

Two very different stage productions of the scene follow:

and

And here’s a better musical performance, but without the staging:

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