Explore Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites in our archive.
The revolution is gaining pace, and every day the streets of Paris become less safe. After a terrifying encounter with a mob, young aristocrat Blanche de la Force can no longer face the outside world, and announces to her father and brother her intention to join the Carmelite Order as a nun. But once at the convent, the Old Prioress makes clear to the frightened girl that the church is a place of prayer, not refuge. Blanche vows to face her fears.
Blanche and Sister Constance talk while they perform their chores. Both are struck by the Old Prioress’s illness and conversation turns to death. Constance suggests that she and Blanche offer their lives up for that of the Prioress, but Blanche rejects the idea angrily. Constance persists, sharing her belief that they will both die young, and on the same day.
In the Infirmary the Old Prioress, Madame de Croissy, is dying. Before her death she entrusts Blanche, the newest member of the order, to the care of Mère Marie. Suddenly fearful and angry, despite a lifetime of faith and prayer, her end is agonising, witnessed by a terrified Blanche.
At night in the chapel Blanche and Constance keep vigil over the body of the Prioress. Later they talk again about her death, and Constance shares her theory that Madame de Croissy’s violent death was not her own but belonged to another. Someone else, she speculates, may find their’s unexpectedly easy as a consequence.
The new Prioress, Madame Lidoine, gathers the nuns together to reassure them as the Revolution grows. Blanche’s brother the Chevalier de la Force arrives to try and persuade his sister to flee Paris with him, but Blanche is steadfast and will not leave her sisters.
The chaplain, stripped of his office by the Revolutionaries, performs one final Mass in the convent. The nuns discuss their own fates, and Mère Marie wonders whether they will become martyrs. But the conversation is interrupted by the arrival of soldiers. All religious houses have been dissolved, and the nuns must immediately put aside their habits and rejoin the community, or else face execution.
In the ransacked and empty chapel the nuns take a vote to decide whether they will become martyrs. After a false start the vote is unanimous. Overcome with emotion, Blanche flees.
The nuns have disbanded and have once again become everyday citizens. Blanche has returned to her family home where she now works as a servant. Mere Marie pays her a visit and urges her to rejoin her sisters. Shortly afterwards, Blanche learns that the nuns have been arrested.
The Carmelites await their deaths calmly. Singing the Salve Regina, they are led to the guillotine one by one. As each blow falls the voices become fewer and fewer until just one – Soeur Constance – remains. Just as she prepares to die she is startled to see Blanche stepping forwards out of the crowd. Calm and confident, she walks to her death behind her sisters.