On January 26, 1957, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan was the site of a new opera by noted French Catholic composer François Poulenc. Le Dialogue des Carmélites (The Dialogue of the Carmelites) was based in part on a screenplay written by the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos and inspired by Gertrud von le Fort’s German novella, Die Letzte am Schafott (" The Last on the Scaffold"). The new work presented a seemingly odd choice for its subject—the execution of sixteen French Carmelite nuns from Compiègne during the darkest days of the French Revolution.
The opera was recognized immediately as one of the greatest of the twentieth century and opened to rave reviews both in Italy and France. At the heart of Poulenc’s opera is the harrowing approach of death for the nuns in the Carmelite cloister of Compiègne and the way that each of them makes her own spiritual journey to martyrdom, despite the chances to surrender her faith and so live. The opera ends, like the lives of the nuns, upon the scaffold in Paris, with the nuns singing a hymn. One by one their voices are silenced, but the power of their message sings on into eternity.
Poulenc’s effort remains a powerful and frequently performed work of classical opera. Its very success reminds us that the deaths of some French nuns during French Revolution have not been forgotten, and the examples of faith in the face of repression and anti-Catholic persecutions are eternal ones.