Set in the French Revolution, between the years 1789 and 1794, Poulenc’s tragic opera Dialogues des Carmélites tells the horrifying story of the martyring of the entire Carmélite order.
Blanche, the daughter of the Chevalier de la Force, has had a tremendous fright, when she was caught up in a street riot on the outskirts of Paris. Her weak temperament cannot withstand any more violence, so she seeks the peace and safety of convent life, and becomes one of the sisters at Carmel. She is warned by Mother Marie not to look for refuge at the convent, a lesson which is repeated by the newly appointed Prioress: the days of peace are over but they must continue their lives of prayer. The convent is not safe from the Revolution: they crowd are demanding the closure of all religious houses, the Chaplain has said his final mass, and Blanche’s brother has secretly visited her to say goodbye before he flees the country, Rather than leave, Mother Marie tells the nuns that they must do their duty to God, and asks them to become martyrs. Blanche flees the convent in fear for her life, but when she returns home she is too late; her father has already been taken to the guillotine. Meanwhile, her sisters have been imprisoned and are awaiting execution.
Finally, Sister Blanche regains her faith and returns to her sisters, fearlessly joining them in martyrdom. The famous final scene of this opera shows the nuns of the Carmélite order being executed one by one as they sing the Salve Regina. As each nun is guillotined, an action which is precisely written into Poulenc’s score, their voice stops singing until they are silenced completely.