Synopsis for Dialogues of the Carmelites
The first signs of the French Revolution are beginning to shake the country. In his library, the Marquis de la Force and his son, the Chevalier, are worried about Blanche, the Chevalier’s fearful, nervous sister, whose carriage has been held up by a mob on her way home. When Blanche arrives, she makes light of the incident, but her anxiety is revealed when a servant’s shadow frightens her as she leaves the room. Shaken, she returns to tell her father that she has made up her mind to become a nun.
Weeks later at the Carmelite convent in Compiègne, the aged and ailing prioress Madame de Croissy interviews Blanche and makes it clear to the girl that the convent is a house of prayer, not a refuge. Nevertheless, the prioress is touched by Blanche’s resolve to embrace her new life.
In the workroom of the convent, Blanche and the young Sister Constance discuss their fear of death, which Constance claims to have overcome. Blanche admits her envy of her companion’s straightforward and easygoing nature. Constance shocks Blanche by telling her that she knows that they will both die young and on the same day.
In the infirmary, Madame de Croissy is lying on her deathbed, struggling to appear calm. She blesses Blanche and consigns her, as the youngest member of the order, to the care of the loyal Mother Marie. The prioress confesses her terror in the hour of death, then falls lifeless.
That night in the chapel, Constance and Blanche keep vigil by the prioress’s bier. Blanche is overcome by fear and is about to run off when Mother Marie appears. Realizing that Blanche is genuinely afraid, she tries to calm her. Constance hopes that Mother Marie will be the new prioress. She tells Blanche that she wonders why a Godfearing person like Madame de Croissy had to die such an agonizing death. Perhaps, she says, people don’t die for themselves but for others. Someone else will be surprised one day to find death easy.
Madame Lidoine has been appointed the new prioress. In the chapter room, she addresses the convent, counseling patience and humility.
A visitor is announced—it is Blanche’s brother, who is about to flee the country. He urges Blanche to leave the convent and return to their father. Blanche replies that her duty is to her sisters.
In the sacristy, the chaplain, forbidden to perform his duties, celebrates his last mass. The nuns discuss the fear that has grabbed the country, and Mother Marie wonders if self-sacrifice will be their destiny. Madame Lidoine reminds them that martyrs are not chosen by their own will, only by God’s. Two commissioners enter and tell the sisters that they have been expelled from the convent. One of them, speaking quietly to Mother Marie, adds that he will do what he can to help them get away safely. One of the sisters gives Blanche a figurine of the Christ Child. When revolutionary cries are heard from outside, Blanche nervously drops the figure, breaking it. She is horrified by this omen.
In the devastated chapel, Mother Marie suggests, in Madame Lidoine’s absence, that they all take a vow of martyrdom by unanimous decision. Noting Blanche’s reaction, the others suspect that she will vote against it. When the secret ballot reveals one dissenter, Constance claims it was she and asks to reverse her vote so that the vow can proceed. Blanche, afraid to live or to die, runs away. Soldiers lead the sisters from the convent.
Blanche is forced to work as a servant in the ransacked mansion of her father, who has been sent to the guillotine. Mother Marie finds her there and tries to persuade her to return to the sisters.
The nuns have been arrested. At the Conciergerie prison, Madame Lidoine joins the sisters in their vow of martyrdom. Constance says that she has dreamed of Blanche’s return. A jailer enters and reads the death sentence. Madame Lidoine blesses the sisters. When Mother Marie learns from the chaplain that the nuns will die, she resolves to join them, but the chaplain reminds her that it is for God to decide whether or not she will be a martyr.
A crowd has gathered on the Place de la Révolution. The Carmelites walk toward the guillotine, led by Madame Lidoine, singing the “Salve Regina.” With each stroke of the blade, their voices are silenced, one by one, finally leaving only Constance. On her way to the scaffold, she sees Blanche step up from the crowd, take up the chant, and follow her to her death.
--Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera