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Production History

Production History

By Mandi Barrus, Logan Blackman, and Michelle Pedersen


 The original production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites was performed at Italy’s famed La Scala Opera House. Though the composer and the subject of the opera are of French origin, that first performance was given in Italian. It was Poulenc’s distinct wish for Dialogues des Carmélites to be performed in the native vernacular of the audience, allowing the listeners to more fully understand the opera and its dramatic content. This production was conducted under the baton of Nino Sanzogno, who was well-known for premiering contemporary works such as Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth of Mtensk and Berg’s Lulu, and who had begun his career at La Scala in 1939.

The French premiere, in Paris in June of 1957, featured Denise Duval as Blanche de la Force, a role composed specifically for her voice by an admiring Poulenc. Duval is widely accepted as Poulenc’s muse, garnering huge success in the premiere of Dialogues and adding to it two years later with the recording of Poulenc’s La Voix Humane, a one-woman show he composed with her distinct skill set in mind. The 1957 EMI original-Paris-cast recording, featuring Duval along with Régine Crespin as the Second Prioress, Denise Scharley as the First Prioress, Liliane Berton as Soeur Constance, and Rita Gorr as Mère Marie, is still considered the highest quality source of audio reference in relation to this opera.

However, the narrative tension of the opera does not lie purely its music; since Poulenc chose to write this opera in a recitativo style, the drama tends to occur within the individual conversations (or dialogues) between characters, instead of in the more familiar opera formats of aria, duet, and large ensemble pieces. Hence, in Poulenc’s mind, the importance of using the audiences’ native language for better understanding of a deeply symbolic and emotional show.   

Dialogues was first performed in the United States at the San Francisco Opera in English, on September 20, 1957, only nine months after its original premiere in Italian and three months after its French premiere (conducted by Pierre Dervaux at l’Opera de Paris--it was at this time that Poulenc added orchestral interludes and preludes).  It would take almost another twenty years for the famed Metropolitan Opera to stage Poulenc’s opera, also in English.  The opera will return to the Met stage next month on May 3, 8, and 11, 2019, and will be broadcast to cinemas across the nation--however, this time it will be sung in French with English, German, and Spanish supertitles.

In the University of Utah’s production of Dialogues des Carmèlites, stage director and producer  Dr. Robert Breault and music director Prof. Jeffrey Price have made an academic decision to give students the opportunity to learn to sing in a foreign language by using the French translation, as performed at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris on June 21, 1957. When asked about this decision, Breault offered:

“Poulenc probably never imagined having supertitles. Personally, I’m a big fan of doing dramatic works like this in the vernacular. [American singers] need to learn to sing in English, too, of course. Like I said, it wasn’t an easy decision. I have noticed that more and more American opera companies are doing it in French. And, to add to that, we have Dr. Paul Dorgan doing our supertitles. We’re lucky in that way.”  

The ensemble not only sings in French but also uses a specialized Latin, as the opera is set in a Catholic cloistered convent and characters sing portions of text from the Catholic Mass. After extensive research by music director Prof. Jeffrey Price, the audience will hear the Mass texts in Gallic Franco-Latin, the type of Latin used in universities and churches of the time period. Utilizing several sources on historic Latin, mainly the Bärenreiter publication Handbuch der Lateinischen Aussprache by Vera U.G.Scherr, Professor Price realized that the nuns of this period in France would have been using a Gallic version of Latin. This will sound a bit different from the more common and later-mandated unification of the Latin language handed down by the Vatican, and its use adds historical authenticity to this production. To Prof. Price’s knowledge, this production will be the first to use Gallic Franco-Latin.

This opera is also unique in its scoring of an interesting “instrument”: a guillotine. In the finale during the execution of the nuns, a guillotine is expressed in the score with a simple notation: “ghigliottina” is marked on the percussion staff, and on the beats where the guillotine is supposed to sound, Poulenc simply marks a quarter note with an “x” head.



This leaves how the sound of the guillotine is created up to interpretation. Interestingly enough, composers from Gustav Mahler onward were usually fairly specific in how such an effect should be achieved--they would often leave descriptions of what items should be used, or they would create diagrams of extended instrument techniques within the score. Poulenc, however, decided not to do this. He left it up to the conductor and director to choose how to represent the guillotine as an instrument.

In the most recent 2010 University of Utah production of Dialogues, orchestra musicians taped together four music stand heads, and with a chain and crowbar, slid across the heads. This metallic slide effect was punctuated by a fateful thud created by a four-pound sledgehammer hitting an upside-down bucket. In the current production, the sound of the guillotine will be generated digitally.

Also of note, the Ricordi full orchestral score that conductor Dr. Robert Baldwin used nine years ago for that first University of Utah Dialogues production has apparently been re-rented to many orchestras and opera companies, with his original notes intact. When Dr. Baldwin received the score from Ricordi for this current production, he found his notes from nearly a decade ago, which have presumably influenced productions of Dialogues des Carmélites throughout the world.

Last Updated: 3/22/23