Synopsis

Act One

It’s 1789 in an aristocrat’s home outside Paris. The French Revolution is in full force and mobs in the streets are running amok, howling for the heads of the aristocracy and the religious. The Marquis de la Force is worried that his daughter, Blanche, hasn’t returned home. When she arrives, she’s unsettled and is momentarily scared by a servant’s shadow. Finally composed, she tells her father and brother that she intends to join the Carmelite order.

Weeks later at the Carmelite convent, the aging Prioress interviews Blanche. She questions whether Blanche, young and unsure, has the true vocation of a nun. Touched by the young woman’s devotion, she gives her blessing. But she warns Blanche that the convent isn’t a refuge and that the order can’t guarantee her protection in this dangerous time. While doing chores, Blanche is upset when Constance, a bouncy young novice, predicts that she and Blanche will die together and soon.

The Prioress is in her final hours of life. She consigns Blanche to her assistant, Mother Marie. In her delirium, she has a vision of the Carmelite chapel in ruins. Even though she’s led a religious life, she tells Blanche she fears dying but believes her death will protect Blanche from the perils she is sure to face.

Act Two

In the chapel, Blanche and Constance keep a vigil by the Prioress’ bier. After leading an Ave verum corpus, the convent’s Father Confessor tells the nuns he’s leaving and going into hiding. The funeral requiem is replaced by ominous music that foreshadows rising danger. Blanche is genuinely afraid but is reassured by Mother Marie. The new Prioress counsels humility and warns the sisters not to be tempted by martyrdom.

Blanche’s brother arrives and urges her to leave the convent, pointing out that she faces the double danger of being an aristocrat and a member of a religious community. Commissars pound on the door and announce that the nuns are hereby expelled and the convent will be sold. Blanche holds a small statue of the infant Jesus. When she hears the fury of the outside mob, she drops it and to her shock, sees it break on the floor.

Act Three

Their future in peril and with the Prioress away, Mother Marie gathers the sisters and suggests they take a vow of martyrdom. In a secret ballot, there is one “no” vote. Blanche is suspected but Constance confesses that she was the dissenter. She switches her vote to make it unanimous. Blanche, confused and afraid, escapes to her father’s house and lives disguised as a servant.

Mother Marie tracks down Blanche at her family’s destroyed home. She urges her to return. Blanche refuses, saying that her father has died on the guillotine. She’s in agony but says she feels safer apart from the sisters. Mother Marie replies that she may have saved her life but not her soul.

Blanche learns that the nuns have been arrested and are being held in the conciergerie. There, the Prioress is counseling courage, preparing them for the ordeal ahead. A jailer reads the death sentence. Constance says she dreamed that Blanche will return but the sisters dismiss this.

In the Place de la Révolution, the Carmelites, led by the Prioress, walk toward the guillotine, singing the Salve Regina. Their voices are reduced, as one by one they die. Constance is the last to face the blade. As she does so, she sees Blanche step from the crowd and walk slowly and reverently toward the scaffold.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson