For the first time in recent memory, the Portland Symphony Orchestra will devote an entire evening to an opera, Francois Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” written in 1956. The orchestra will be accompanied on March 8 by seven soloists and members of the Choral Art Society.

Poulenc was known for “light,” highly melodic music in a traditional tonal style that is nevertheless unmistakably his own, but he also had a serious and religious side.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which has a strong orchestral score, tells the true story of Carmelite nuns executed during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror for refusing to relinquish their calling. The final scene, in which the sisters are called one by one to the guillotine, is one of the most moving in the repertoire. It is also a bit harrowing, as their singing of “Veni Creator Spiritus” is punctuated by the swish and thump of the infernal machine, until only one remains.

Poulenc wrote the opera, premiered at La Scala in an Italian language version, immediately after abandoning plans for a ballet based on the life of St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297), who repented after a life of sin and founded a hospital and an order of nurses. She is the patron saint of the homeless and reformed prostitutes.

For PSO music director Robert Moody, the choice of “Dialogues” was an easy one. He has conducted it before and remembers how “it grabbed me in the guts” when he saw it for the first time as a teenager. “It’s really dear to me personally,” he said.

He has been thinking of staging an opera since joining the Portland Symphony. “It fits our objective of collaboration with local arts organizations,” he said.

Because the Poulenc is a great work that has never been out of the repertoire but that is not as popular as “La Boheme” or “Madame Butterfly,” Moody said it did not infringe on

PORTopera productions.

The performance will be a joint venture with Moody’s other orchestra, the Winston-Salem Symphony, which performed the work last November. “We are using the same seven cast members and stage director, with other roles filled by members of the Choral Art Society.”

He is enthusiastic about the singers, some of whom have appeared with the orchestra before. They are Sarah Jane McMahon as Blanche de la Force, Jill Gardner as Madame Lidoine, Mary Gayle Green as Madame de Croissy, Diana Yodzis as Mère Marie, Catherine Zachary as Constance, Daniel Stein as Chevalier de la Force, and Troy Cook as Marquis de la Force.

“I like the fact that the opera is exactly what the title implies, a series of personal conversations that gives you insight into the amazing, crazy time that was France under Robespierre,” Moody said. The dialogues move the action rapidly and also tell a tale of personal redemption. A novice, Blanche, has joined the convent because of her fear of the revolutionaries. After the other nuns pledge not to renounce their faith in the face of execution, Blanche flees. Her rejoining with the condemned sisters in front of the guillotine is one of the most touching moments in opera.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites” will be sung in English, with supertitles for even greater clarity. The translation is based on that of the English National Opera, which Moody believes has a good flow of text. “Poulenc was adamant that the opera be performed in the vernacular of the country in which it was staged,” he said.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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