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  • Writer's pictureMarie-Avril Roux Steinkühler

🇬🇧 - Dialogues of the Carmélites or how the French Courts protect moral rights

"Living: one who lives. It is theatre. Not a museum, "writes Jean-Marc Proust in an article in Slate dated October 22nd 2015[1]. These words reflect the excitement of the world of theatre and opera as, on 13th October 2015, the Paris Appeal Court sanctioned the staging of Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc by Dmitri Tcherniakov - based on Georges Bernanos' libretto - at the Munich Opera in March 2010 and April 2011, until January 23rd 2016.

Opéra Bastille
© Florence Degoy-Vacher

Contrary to what was held in court, the Court considers that "notwithstanding its brevity and outwith any assessment of its merit, the staging of Mr. Tcherniakov's final scene [...], far from limiting itself to an interpretation of the works of Bernanos and Poulenc, modifies them in essential step that gives them their meaning and hence distorts the spirit of it"[2]. But at the same time, the Court recognises that the formal elements of the work, such as text, music, stage directions and themes, have been respected; only the staging of the final tableau distorted the spirit of the work.

The staging issue is concentrated in the final scene. In the original work, that is to say scene 17 of the fifth tableau of the work of Bernanos and the fourth tableau from Act III of the libretto by Poulenc, nuns sentenced to death under the French revolution, rise one by one from the scaffold and disappear singing the Salve Regina, then the Veni Creator. In comparison, Tcherniakov offers a scenic area consisting of a wooden hut surrounded by the crowd, kept at a distance by a security tape, inside which the nuns are held. To the sound of recorded religious songs, one of them, Blanche de la Force saves them one by one from gassing and goes back alone into the hut, which explodes moments later. The sound of the guillotine blade falling, which marks each disappearance in Poulenc's opera, here marks each life saved. These differences are deemed to distort the spirit of the work.

This decision resulted in a ban in all countries of the distribution of the video of Tcherniakov's version of the opera. Part of the artistic world rose up against the decision which, it claimed "curbs the freedom of interpretation, [a] risk of stalling contemporary opera, which already has enough on its plate trying not to be boring"[3].

This decision questions the notion of the "spirit of a work" in concluding that the original has been distorted even though the formal elements have been respected (I). Going beyond previous case law to take a more comprehensive approach, the Court severely punishes the staging, bringing a brutal halt to the distribution of this opera to all countries (II).

1.The "spirit of the work" is distorted despite compliance with formal elements

The Court recognises that the music and the libretto and the main themes are respected; yet it punishes a distortion of the "spirit of the work." Does not the spirit of a piece of opera depend on factors that are themselves evolutionary, as is the case for the rest of the art world - is the new "present" not revealed over time and as a result of artists seeking new meaning and new interests? In this case, the Court seems to think that the spirit of an opera work is enshrined in the remarks that its authors have, at one time, made.

Of course, judging the distorting of the spirit of a work and the staging of an opera is a perilous exercise for a judge, especially when it comes to distinguishing themes of the work and spirit of work, and the fact that the Court of Appeal and the lower courts seem to have different opinions, even opposing ones as far as this concept is concerned.

This decision is all the more surprising as the libretto and music are unchanged, the stage directions - the author's instructions regarding the staging - are respected, and because "Mr. Tcherniakov respects the themes of hope, martyrdom, grace and the transfer of grace and the communion of saints, all dear to the original authors of the work ".[4]

However, the Court finds that during the final scene, the change of action "renders so enigmatic or incomprehensible, or even imperceptible to the untrained eye the retention of the sound of blade of the guillotine falling, as this appears this time, paradoxically, to mark each rescue."[5] The Court deems that the director, who, although he has authorship qualities, must merely interpret the work. It considers also the need to protect the neophyte audience - it is true that "Dialogues ..." is aimed at a not very enlightened audience ... - few of whom are up to reading even a review in order to learn about the very liberal nature of the staging proposed by Mr. Tcherniakov, or simply reading the programme or the libretto in order to compare this scene to that imagined by Francis Poulenc in 1957 at la Scala in Milan. However, the public could, at the same time choose to attend the relatively orthodox staging of the same opera at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées (Paris) by Olivier Py [6]. This same public does not fail to take offence at a staging it considers questionable: for example the Damnation of Faust by Alvis Hermanis in December 2015 at the Paris Opera [7]; or Luc Bondy's staging of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2009[8].

What about the intentions of Poulenc and Bernanos, the original authors of the work? Michel Kohlhauer, responsible for the new edition of the Pleiades, said during the programme The Course of History Bernanos himself was not necessarily opposed to his work being interpreted[9]. On page 252 of the biography of Francis Poulenc by Henri Hell[10], it says, the Dialogues of the Carmelites “are an inner tragedy, the French Revolution is only a backdrop". Similarly regarding intention, Poulenc said: “it was not so much the true history of the Carmelite nuns, which alone is upsetting , which convinced me to undertake this work as the splendid prose of Bernanos at its most spiritual and most serious. For me, absolute fear is as important as the very Bernanosian idea of ​​communion and of the transfer of grace"[11].

Again, this decision recalls that French justice is extremely protective of the rights of authors and rights holders, especially of moral rights, as in the decision on The Misfits by John Huston.[12]

2.The Court imposes sanctions sounding the death knell of this staging

The sanctions that were imposed are extremely harsh in light of the earlier judgement. If the performances themselves are not prohibited, since the pre-trial judge decided in 2012 that he was not competent to judge the performances taking place outside French territory:

(i) The marketing of videos in electronic or physical form is prohibited in all countries;

(ii) Television broadcasting in all countries by the Mezzo video chain is also prohibited.

The penalties are all the more severe as it appears that the beneficiaries acting in this case, having third degree rights, were not specifically designated by Francis Poulenc and were, in fact, excluded - he insisted on including the fact that "only" his niece Brigitte Le Mans - who died shortly after him - was to inherit.

However, jurisprudence normally feels reluctant to prohibit a work - the director is an author - and often proposes other alternatives, in particular to inform the spectators of the violation of the moral right, while explaining the reasons which make it possible to identify the infringement.

Dmitri Tcherniakov, for his part, was not impressed. At this moment, his production of Pélléas et Mélisande at the Zurich Opera that is completely contrary to Debussy's original performance, has disconcerted more than one spectator[13].

[1] Http://

[2] Decision of the Court of Appeal of Paris, ch. 1, October 13th , 2015, n°14/08900, Bernanos and others vs. Opéra de Munich and others.

[3] Antoine Guillot in his column on France Culture on October 22nd 2015

[4] Decision of the Court of Appeal of Paris, ch. 1, October 13th , 2015, n°14/08900, Bernanos and others vs. Opéra de Munich and others.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Performances from 2013 onwards

[7] Http://

[9] Issue "March of History", by Jean Lebrun, of October 28th 2015 on Georges Bernanos

[10] Francis Poulenc, Henri Hell, 1978 Ed. Fayard

[11] Letter of Francis Poulenc from October 16th 1961 published in the January 1963 edition of the Cahiers de l'Herne, dedicated to Georges Bernanos.

[12] Civ. 1st Chamber, May 28, 1991 : Bull. civ. I, n° 172 – D. 1993. 197, comment by Raynard.


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