Arts: Death and the maidens

First a memoir of Revolutionary Terror, then a novel, then a screenplay, and lastly an opera by Poulenc, The Carmelites bears the deep biographical imprints of all those involved in its creation.
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The tourist office in Compiegne was terribly helpful. Yes, they said, there is a little bit of the famous Carmelite convent still standing, but of course it was torn down during the Revolution, and the nuns taken to Paris and executed...

That much I knew. That's why I was there; it was an opera lover's sentimental journey. So after a 10-minute walk down a pretty dreary road (typically Northern French Municipal - one Revolution, two World Wars, and a lot of "town planning") I arrived at the spot marked on my tourist map. And there indeed was the tiny Place du Carmel, an unmistakably 18th-century wall, a fairly recent chapel, a garage, a stretch of sheltered housing... and no plaque. So I paid my respects - tried to imagine what the Terror must have been like, failed, then traipsed back to the centre and Compiegne's other operatic landmark, the theatre. Pretty spectacular, by all accounts, it was planned by Napoleon III with only two seats, for himself and his wife. The lady at the stage door said that of course I could look round, but only if I could gather 23 friends, the minimum size of a tour party. With some fury and frustration, I turned and left - and noticed the plaque. "This opera house," it said, "is built on the site of the former Carmelite convent, whence the nuns were transported to Paris..."

More fool me, expecting any factual consensus around an opera which may seem like an historical document but is really the result of a series of accretions, different glosses on the truth applied by several creative artists, each with a slightly different story to tell.

Its genesis is the nuns' execution. This event is certain. They met their end in the Place du Trone in Paris, and their grave is close at hand in the Cimitiere de Picpus. And they would have remained unnoticed, perhaps, like so many victims of the Terror, were it not for a sole survivor, Mother Marie of the Incarnation of God. Hers, she thought, was the greatest tragedy of all. She was away from Compiegne and thus not able to share the martyrdom. So she survived, and lived until 1836 in a convent in Sens where she wrote a personal account of her sisters' suffering. Its publication after her death led in turn to the beatification of the Compiegne Carmelites by Pope Pius X in 1906.

This work came into the hands of Gertrude von Le Fort, a young German Catholic convert, and inspired her novel The Last to the Scaffold (1931). And here fantasy begins to blur the edges of fact.

Le Fort's intention was an allegorical portrayal of what she, with grim percipience, foresaw as the fate of the faithful under Nazism. In the background is the Terror, gruesomely depicted, and in the foreground a fictitious heroine, the aristocratic young nun Blanche de la Force. One has but to compare the names of authoress and heroine to see the extent of their personal identification. "Historically she never existed," Fort wrote later, "but her existence came from inside me... Born of a time of impending doom, she became the embodiment of fear."

Le Fort's novel is disguised as a 19th-century epistle, but both in tone and content Freud is never far away. Blanche's obsessive phobias are attributable to a traumatic birth after which her mother dies. She seeks (and finds) substitute mothers in the bosom of the Carmel. But she is too immature to face new responsibilities and dangers, and leaves the convent to flee to her father in Paris. Here she is forced to watch his execution, and to drink aristocratic blood. This excess of trauma effects a sort of calm transfiguration as, unbidden, she joins her sisters in martyrdom - the last to the scaffold.

Blanche's story is played against historical fact - even the circumstances of her birth (the Royal Fireworks Panic of 1770) are accurate. But her Mother Marie is almost entirely fictitious. Gertrude von Le Fort is plainly obsessed with aristocracy in adversity. So, Mother Marie (the daughter of a prince) is presented as an antithesis to Blanche - fanatical, jealous, ambitious to rule the roost in the convent.

It was such embellishments on fact, and their bearing on death and shared martyrdom, that most interested the writer George Bernanos when he adapted the novel in 1947. This was at the request of Father Bruckberger, an Austrian priest and French resistance fighter, who had sketched a scenario and wanted Bernanos to write the dialogue. Bernanos, then living in exile in Tunisia, had never written drama before, indeed had written no fiction for 10 years, and he was dying slowly and painfully of cancer. But he flung himself into feverish activity, knowing this to be his last work.

Bernanos's dialogue is of extraordinary personal intensity. It contains long discussions on his favourite themes - the transference of Grace, the subjugation of the self - but underlying everything and in every character's mouth is fear, and speculation on the nature of death. Just as Le Fort had written herself into Blanche, so Bernanos became the First Prioress who dies of illness in the First Act. She is only a paragraph in the original novel, but Bernanos provides all the pathos of a pious person who finds himself quite unprepared for death. The scene in which the Prioress (to whom Bernanos even ascribes his own age - 59 - "a fine age to die") passes in her agony from calm acceptance to pain, fear, delirium and blasphemy, while Blanche looks on with compassion and Mother Marie chivvies away at the younger nuns, is quite devastating even on the page. Coupled with Poulenc's terrifying music it becomes one of the most remarkable, certainly the most realistic, of deaths in all opera.

Bernanos's dialogues had been unsuccessful on both stage and screen, but their true destiny was discovered when, in 1953, they were suggested to Poulenc as an operatic subject. Initial reticence was soon conquered when he found himself composing music in his head on his first reading. "Obviously," he wrote, "it is made for me." And so it was.

Poulenc had the typical work patterns of the inveterate depressive: bursts of manic energy, punctuated by exhaustion and self-doubt. By his early fifties he had acquired a modicum of self-knowledge. Enough to recognise his cycles, certainly, but also enough to recognise the impossibility of breaking them. He knew that The Carmelites would be a mammoth undertaking. He even sensed that it would take its toll on him, as eventually it did.

But at the beginning of the journey he was robust and confident. He had learnt how to tame his wayward gift by meticulous planning and structuring, and had put the system to the test on his great post-war song-cycles Caligrammes and Le Fraicheur et le Feu.

Also, and this was rare, his personal life was on a fairly stable plateau. There was a young man from Toulon, Lucien Roubert, whom Poulenc had met in the late 1940s. Lucien was the despair of Poulenc's friends, who considered him unstable, unsuitable and unworthy. Poulenc had found someone even more needy than himself, and, significantly, sicker than himself. Poulenc was one of the great hypochondriacs of the century, but Lucien was genuinely ill with tuberculosis. In any event, when the Carmelites process began, they were together, and happy. And Poulenc set to work.

The composition and orchestration of The Carmelites took well over three years. At first he wrote like a thing possessed. Occasionally Lucien was with him, listening from his sick bed to the final "Funeral March", which the invalid found oddly comforting.

But other problems were developing. It's a dictum in the musical theatre that you never write a note until you have the rights. Poulenc had done just that. The Le Fort novel had been snapped up by an American writer named Emmet Lavery, and he was refusing to relinquish his underlying rights to the Bernanos screenplay, and therefore to the Poulenc opera. There was a possibility that it would never be heard. (The matter was eventually settled, and Lavery retains a credit at every performance). But Poulenc's depression worsened, and there were periods in clinics.

Meanwhile Lucien's condition was rapidly deteriorating, and although Poulenc still organised all medical attention for his dying friend, they were now effectively apart. But he was certainly present in Poulenc's thoughts. Illness, the presence of death, the paralysis of fear and the sharing of despair are all central to the piece. On 25 October 1955, at 5 o'clock, Poulenc completed his final draft. He got up from his desk and said to his servant, "I have finished... Monsieur Lucien will die now". Lucien died that very day. Poulenc described him as the "secret heart" of The Carmelites.

The opera opened triumphantly at La Scala and then made a successful world tour. But Poulenc was never the same. In 1957 he had to write extra interludes for the Paris production, but they are the skimped work of a tired man. The music left in him was, for the most part, a reworking of the emotional and musical themes of The Carmelites.

"When my time comes, I hope I will know how to die like Blanche," he wrote. When it did come, it came suddenly. He died of a heart attack early in 1963, only five years after the Carmelites premiere. The operatic tourist can complete his Carmelites pilgrimage with a visit to Poulenc's grave in Pere Lachaise. Every time I have visited, there have always been fresh flowers.

The Carmelites opens at the ENO Coliseum tomorrow. Box office: 0171 632 8300. It will also be performed in a semi-staged version by Opera National du Rhin at the BBC Proms on August 4 and broadcast live on Radio 3