Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Le mercredi des cendres, Ash Wednesday

For me today has always been a day of reflection on the meaning of life and death and the afterlife.
It is the beginning of Lent or Le Carême as we call it in French and in 46 days we will celebrate Easter and the promise of the afterlife.

I always like the opéra Dialogue des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc. The story is set during the French Revolution and tells the story of the Carmelite nuns in Paris who fall victims of the fury of the French Civil War and of the street mob. The final act of the Opera takes place on Place de la Révolution today Place de la Concorde.

These women are facing execution in public, the mob roars, the sinister guillotine looms large over them. At this grave hour they are carried by Faith and Faith alone and the promise of the Afterlife. Poulenc uses the Salve Regina as the backdrop music to make his point and to illustrate the courage of the nuns. At the very end Sister Constance is the last to walk to the guillotine, she falters and Sister Blanche who ran away from the Order when the revolution started comes out of the crowd and joins her, having found Faith and Courage.

In our world this is a forgotten message. Poulenc wrote this opéra 60 years ago but it could have been 300 years ago, the world today is so very different. Difficult to find people motivated by Faith or by Courage today. Such themes take us into a different reality which requires a deeper understanding of who we are and of the world around us, hopefully Ash Wednesday is such a day.

The finale of the Dialogue of the Carmelites, Canadian Robert Carsen created this production that we saw at the Scala Milan a few years ago.


  1. Perhaps the greatest final scene in any opera (tho' Rosenkav and Gotterdammerung and Tristan must be up there, of course). Do you know the Carsen production for La Scala? Incredibly moving, stylised staging (no guillotine onstage or off). Available on DVD, well worth it.

    1. David funny you should mention the Carsen production, this was the one we saw at La Scala years ago, very beautiful and dramatic.

  2. This was a lovely post, made even more marvelous as Dialogues is my favorite opera. The ending alone is worth the price of admission. Thank you for making me aware of it, otherwise I would have missed the gem.
    Being steadfast in Faith, and having the courage to continue is a virtue becoming rarer as time goes on. It has its faults (zealots) but overall it is a noble trait to be admired.