Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc

Orchestra of St. Luke's

Sat, July 25, 2015, 8:00pm


Will Crutchfield, Caramoor’s Director of Opera, comments:

An excursion from Bel Canto: With Dialogues of the Carmelites, Caramoor branches out from its core repertory of “bel canto” opera to present a 20th-century masterpiece – precisely the opera that has, more than any other written after World War Two, attracted the great singing actresses of the standard repertory.  From the very beginning (1957) the work was interpreted by singers like Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Anneliese Rothenberger, Régine Crespin, Virginia Zeani, and Fiorenza Cossotto.  Caramoor is proud to welcome the radiant Hei-Kyung Hong as the New Prioress, Jennifer Larmore (who triumphed here in 2013 with her first Eboli in Don Carlos) as Mère Marie, and – in a rare and much-anticipated New York appearance – Deborah Polaski, Bayreuth’s leading Brünnhilde in two historic “Ring” cycles, as the Old Prioress.

Blanche Jennifer Check, soprano
Constance  Alisa Jordheim, soprano
Croissy  Deborah Polaski, soprano
Lidoine  Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano
Marie  Jennifer Larmore, mezzo-soprano
Chevalier de la Force  Noah Baetge, tenor
Marquis de la Force  Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone
Will Crutchfield, conductor
Victoria Crutchfield, stage director
Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Caramoor Coach GraphicCatch the Caramoor Coach!

Round-trip or one-way transportation to Caramoor in a luxury, air-conditioned coach from Grand Central/Lexington Avenue (between 42nd & 43rd Streets), departing at 4:00pm, arriving in plenty of time for a bite or garden stroll.

Choose this add-on when buying tickets to the performance.

Arrive Early…

For special lectures and recitals before the performance. Free to ticket-holders!

    3:00pm / Religion and Politics, History and Literature, Cinema and Opera

    Will Crutchfield and Victoria Crutchfield discuss the background of Poulenc’s masterpiece and the issues it explores.

    4:00pm / The Other Dialogues

    Members of the Carmélites cast read the fascinating dialogues by Georges Bernanos that did not make it into the opera’s libretto.

    5:00pm / Songs of Les Six

    Poulenc belonged to a circle of entertaining radicals who moved, pushed, yanked and shoved French music forward from the era of Debussy and Ravel.

    6:00pm / Dinner Break
    7:00pm / Pre-Opera Lecture with Ken Benson
    8:00pm / Dialogues des Carmélites

Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) is one of America’s most versatile and distinguished orchestras, collaborating with the world’s greatest artists and performing approximately 70 concerts each year—including its Carnegie Hall Orchestra Series, Chamber Music Series at The Morgan Library & Museum and Brooklyn Museum, and summer residency at Caramoor Music Festival. OSL has commissioned more than 50 new works, including four this season; has given more than 170 world, U.S., and New York City premieres; and appears on more than 100 recordings, including four Grammy Award winners and seven releases on its own label, St. Luke’s Collection. Pablo Heras-Casado, named 2014 Conductor of the Year by Musical America, is OSL’s principal conductor.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, OSL began as a chamber ensemble based at The Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village. Today, St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble consists of 21 virtuoso artists who perform a diverse repertoire and make up OSL’s artistic core.

OSL owns and operates The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Midtown Manhattan, where it shares a building with the Baryshnikov Arts Center. The DiMenna Center is New York City’s premier venue for rehearsal, recording, and learning, having quickly gained a reputation for its superb acoustics, state-of-the-art facilities, and affordability. Since opening in 2011, The DiMenna Center has welcomed more than 50,000 visitors, including more than 300 ensembles and artists such as Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Valery Gergiev, James Levine, James Taylor, and Sting.OSL hosts hundreds of neighbors, families, and school children at its home each year for free community events.

Through its Community & Education programs, OSL has introduced audiences across New York City to live classical music. OSL brings free chamber concerts to the five boroughs; offers free interactive music programs at The DiMenna Center; provides chamber music coaching for adult amateurs; and engages 10,000 public school students each year through its Free School Concerts. In 2013, OSL launched Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s (YOSL), an intensive in- and after-school instrumental coaching program emphasizing musical excellence and social development, in partnership with Police Athletic League (PAL) and public schools in the Clinton / Hudson Yards neighborhood.


Jordheim_Alisa_150423-MC WEB

Alisa Jordheim

Lauded by the San Francisco Chronicle as “vocally resplendent” and possessing “impeccable coloratura,” soprano Alisa Jordheim makes her role and company debut as Constance in Dialogues des Carmélites with the Caramoor International Music Festival following her first performances of Marzelline in Fidelio with Madison Opera and Lulu Baines in Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry in a return to Florentine Opera this season.  Future engagements include her first performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in her debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and a program of Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites with the Northwest Indiana Symphony.

Last season, she returned to Cincinnati Opera as Satirino in La Calisto and sang Nannetta in Falstaff with Emerald City Opera and Micaëla in Carmen with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.  She also joined the Fox Valley Symphony for Orff’s Carmina burana and returned to Lawrence University as the guest soloist in Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem.  As a recent member of Florentine Opera’s studio, she sang Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring, Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro, and Frasquita in Carmen.  She is also a former participant in San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera program, where she sang both Lucia in The Rape of Lucretia and Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro.  With Central City Opera, she sang Flora in The Turn of the Screw, Ellen in Oklahoma!, Fredrika in A Little Night Music, and Sirena in a family matinee of Rinaldo, and Gilda in the outreach tour of Rigoletto.  She has also joined Cincinnati Opera in previous seasons as the zweite Knabe in Die Zauberflöte and the Page in Rigoletto.

On the concert stage, Ms. Jordheim has sung Handel’s Messiah and Bestienne in Bastien und Bestienne also with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate with the Fox Valley Symphony, and Bach’s Cantata No. 29 with the Dayton Philharmonic.


Ken Benson, lecturer

Ken Benson is one of the leading managers for opera singers, including 25 years as Vice-President of Columbia Artists Management, Inc.,where his artists included Thomas Hampson, Aprile Millo,, Jerry Hadley, Florence Quivar, Susanne Mentzer, Marcello Giordani and Jamie Barton. He is Vocal consultant at Juilliard School of Music, and he regularly gives classes and consultations at Yale, UCLA, Mannes, Manhattan School of Music, Boston Conservatory, DePaul, Roosevelt and Indiana Universities. He also offers private consultations. Mr. Benson is invited to serve as adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera National Council’s auditions, as well as to judge in most of the major vocal competitions throughout the US. Frequently, he lectures on operatic subjects, includes a series of talks on Wagner’s “Ring” at the Metropolitan Opera House. He is also heard as frequent Host and panelist on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast’s Opera quiz. As a writer, he regularly contributes to such publications as Opera News and Classical Singer magazine.

He has recently returned to Artists Management, representing a select group of the most talented singers from the emerging generation.

Ken Benson Artists


Hei-Kyung HongHei-Kyung Hong

Conductor’s Note

The Dialogues of the Carmelites proceeds from a historical event by way of three intervening stages.  The event was the guillotining, on July 17, 1794, of sixteen nuns and lay sisters from the Carmelite convent of Compiègne.   A group of Benedictine nuns of English origin, imprisoned with the Carmelites but freed before sharing their fate, considered them saintly for their willing self-sacrifice, and credited their martyrdom with dealing the final blow to Robespierre’s regime of terror, which ended only days later.  Various contemporary accounts relate that the nuns sang hymns all along their path from prison to the place of execution, and continued to sing as each in turn mounted the scaffold.

One Carmelite who did not die with the others, Sister Marie of the Incarnation, was persuaded forty years after the events to write her recollection of them, published as La Relation du Martyre des Seize Carmélites de Compiègne.   Many devotional and historical accounts of the nuns’ deaths, drawing largely on this “relation,” appeared over the years, and the victims were declared “venerable” in 1902 by Pope Leo XIII, and beatified four years later by Pius X.

The second link in the chain leading to the opera came in 1931, when Gertrud von Le Fort (1876-1971), a Prussian baroness of Huguenot descent who had converted to Catholicism in 1926, published the novella Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last One at the Scaffold), based on the story of the Compiègne martyrs.  This introduced the fictional character of Blanche de la Force, the novice whose psychological struggles become the focus of the narrative, and gave Sister Marie the role — also fictional — of bringing about the fateful vow of martyrdom in excruciatingly ambiguous circumstances.

It was for a proposed film based on Von Le Fort’s novella that Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) wrote what would eventually become — in an abridgement made by Poulenc himself — the opera’s libretto.  Father R. L. Bruckberger, a Domenican priest who was also a noted film director and a fighter in the French Resistance, had contracted with the author for rights to a screen adaptation in 1946, and had drawn up a scenario.  He asked Albert Camus to provide the dialogue; Camus declined, saying it should be written by a believer, and recommending Bernanos, a prolific French Catholic novelist and essayist.

It was to be Bernanos’s final work.   Already under a death sentence from cancer, and tortured both by the national dishonor he saw in France’s wartime collaboration with the occupying Nazis and by his own decision to spend the war years outside France, he found in the story themes that reflected his own preoccupations irresistably.  The script he produced is far more than a simple dramatization of Von Le Fort – but it was found uncinematic, and never filmed.  Bernanos died soon after completing it, and his literary executors adapted it as a stage play, first produced in 1949 in Zurich.  (Bruckberger did eventually film the story three years after the opera’s premiere, but with a much-altered text.)

Bernanos’s text remains unique in opera, and perhaps nearly so in all theater, for the urgency with which it dramatizes questions of theology.  Theology, and not simply faith itself:  the nuns engage thorny questions of the nature of prayer and intercession, of agency and responsibility on the human side in the dialogue with God.  And their fates turn on these dialogues.  Most religions embrace some notion of martyrdom, but few martyrs can have met their fates with such exquisitely painstaking examination of the choices before them as Bernanos’s imagined daughters of  Carmel.


In the 1950s, which were also his own fifties, no-one particularly thought of Francis Poulenc as an opera composer.  In his long career he had written only one, and that one, Les mamelles de Tirésias, though not composed until 1945, was a short essay in the zany comedic style of his youthful instrumental works.   Those works, his many songs, some film scores, and his brilliant performances as a pianist had made him a leading figure in French music ever since his teens, and when the publisher Ricordi and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala wanted to offer Poulenc a commission in 1953, it was for a ballet.  But the composer wanted to write again for the theater.

The head of Ricordi at the time, Guido Valcarenghi, was married to the stage director Margherita Wallman, who had seen the stage version of Bernanos’s screenplay when it reached Vienna.  It was apparently her bold suggestion that brought composer and subject together – bold, or prescient, because the composer and the subject could hardly have seemed good match to those who thought of Poulenc mostly in terms of his brash satires, sensuous songs, or elegant pianistic miniatures.  Could Wallman have known some of the choral pieces that hinted at what the Dialogues became?  The composer himself had doubts at first, but found a copy of the script in a bookstore in Rome, and recounted the story from there in an account written for the Paris Opera in 1957:

I can see myself in a café on the Piazza Navone, on a bright morning in March of 1953, devouring Bernanos’s drama and telling myself at the end of each scene, “But obviously, it’s made for me! It’s made for me!”  By half-past-noon I was drunk with enthusiasm, but the decisive test remained: would I be able to find the music for such a text?  I then took the book and, leaving it to fate, opened it anywhere, forcing myself, on the spot, to translate musically the first sentences I read.  Fate did not spare me, as one can judge from these lines [of the Old Prioress]:

“Do not imagine that this armchair, like the footstool of a duchess, is a privelege of my rank! Alas! Out of charity for my dear daughters who make so much of it, I should like to feel at ease sitting in it, but it is not always simple to return to long-forgotten habits, and I now see that what should be comfort for me can only be a humiliating obligation.”  As unbelievable as it may seem, I immediately found the melodic line for that long reply.  The die was cast.  Within two hours I had wired M. Valcarenghi, a true conjuror, that I would write Les Dialogues.

The composition was apparently complete within less than three years.  Progress was briefly impeded by the necessity of reaching a settlement with an American playwright who had acquired from Von le Fort exclusive stage rights (as opposed to film) to the novella.  But by the end of 1956 the opera was in rehearsal at La Scala, where it was first performed on 26 January 1957.  Six months later it was heard in Paris; before the year was out, in San Francisco; in 1958 at London’s Covent Garden; in 1959 at the Vienna State Opera.  The names involved in those first casts — Virginia Zeani, Régine Crespin, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Anneliese Rothenberger, Dorothy Kirsten, Rita Gorr, Irmgard Seefried, Fiorenza Cossotto — reveal something important about the opera:  it had roles for real singers.  Not old-fashioned roles, not imitations or evocations of 19th-century opera in any way — but music that needs, and rewards, the beauty of tone and expression that the greatest operatic voices cultivate.


Poulenc’s dedication of the opera’s score names four predecessors as “models”:  Debussy, Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, Verdi.  It is a suggestive and provocative quartet.  First of all, though the list reaches back to the origins of opera, French music before Poulenc’s own time is excluded.  A debt to Debussy is obvious enough in everything Poulenc composed.  Monteverdi, whose music he probably knew mostly through the revivals of it by Nadia Boulanger in collaboration with several members of his own circle, was presumably valued especially for the candid simplicity of his vocal writing, a beautiful model for any composer who wants to set a play to music as a play, without turning it into a “libretto” structured in terms of musical opportunities.

I suspect the citation of Mussorgsky has to do with two things.  One is the Russian composer’s personal style of expanded harmony, with its modal elements and its weakening of some of the traditional ways of linking keys to one another (especially, its demotion of dominant chords and “leading-tones” to a lesser importance than was usual in his time).  This must have served as an inspiration for composers who, like Poulenc, wanted to go on writing “tonal” music, but did not want either to imitate the Romantics or to make a gloss or satire on them.  (In this respect he could just as well have named an even closer influence, Stravinsky, but perhaps he felt it best to exclude living composers from his list.)  The other might be Mussorgsky’s insistence on draping his Monteverdi-like vocal declamation over music with a recognizable beat, rhythmic flow, and clear sense of the destination of phrases.  Poulenc did this as well — at a time when modernist contemporaries preferred to dissolve those elements into gestures and structures too complex for any underlying flow to be perceived by most listeners.

But Verdi?  There is scarcely a composer most people would be less likely to mention in connection with Poulenc.  And there is not much written record (other than this dedication) of Poulenc’s thoughts on the Italian master, whose reputation was at its nadir during the Frenchman’s formative years.  But the score of the Dialogues says a lot in this regard, if we compare the two composers in their way of shaping a scene, building to a climax, setting off a crucial moment, timing a curtain.  Perhaps it is Verdi we have to thank for the fact that Dialogues des Carmélites, though it was the author’s first and only full-length opera, reads and plays as the product of a very experienced, very sure theatrical hand.