Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
Eh oui, La nonne sanglante. More like La conne sanglante! The opera which contributed to the overthrow of the then director of the Opera and which has been produced three times in human history (1854, 2008, and 2018), and probably doesn’t deserve more than that…. Given that I already know that my friend Nick the OperaScribe is reviewing the more recent revival in Paris last June as his next post, this review is of the 2008 recording from Osnabruck, Germany. I figured I would do this one because the 167 minute video is extended by a 25 minute intermission and an eight minute final curtain call which actually makes this recording two minutes longer and me like longer (when it isn’t Wagner!).
SETTING: 11th century Bohemia. Yes, you heard right. The fact that Peter the Hermit is in this thing we can semi-accurately date the actions of the bloody nun to between 1096 and 1100. There are two families at war with each other and two lovers (this bodes promisingly…). The lovers are Rudolphe, younger son of Count Ludorf, and Agnes, daughter of Baron Moldaw, whose castle is haunted by the titular bloody nun. I won’t give too many spoilers here yet but a lot of the plot makes little to no sense and could be straightened out in 30 seconds but since I want to retain some semblance of surprise here as to who marries/kills whom, this is all you are getting. One would assume that with a livret by Eugene Scribe, yes that Eugene Scribe, this would be better than it is. Off day? Incidentally, Verdi had been offered this libretto and turned it down rather quickly. Probably a good decision.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Outdoor scene on the grounds of the castle of le Comte Ludorf. (40 minutes)
0: The overture * starts off rather symphonically but remains something between low temperature and the soundtrack of a 1930s Hollywood horror film. It isn’t terrible, one star items are “worth looking out for” by definition after all. Just the standard we have come to expect from Gounod. It is probably a little better than the overture to Faust though as in the last three minutes (of nine!) it starts to liltingly dance about for a moment before returning to the first scary theme (a heavy brassy chord). The finish sounds more like Weber or even early Wagner than anyone else. A fine concert piece, but with little personality of its own.
9: Furious intro music leads to the call of Peter the Monk for the vassles of Comte Ludorf to follow him on crusade to the Holy Land as they are constantly fighting with the servants of Baron Moldaw. Oddly enough, not a bad bass aria *. The chorus is more serene than holy.
18: A soldiers chorus * pops in. It is tuneful and not very militant for soldiers.
20: The duet * between Peter the Hermit and Rudolphe is more interesting for the hyper-active performance of the tenor than for its tune. The Hermit is like a sedate rock here grounding everything. To cement a peace between the two families, Peter proposes that Rudolphe’s brother Theobald marry Moldaw’s daughter Agnes, the problem here is that Rudolphe is Agnes’ lover (although in that case would it not be wiser to marry the other brother to Agnes, problem solved? Oh inheritance rights and first-borns getting married first why are you a rule?)
25: The long (9 minute) Rudolphe-Agnes duet ** in which they plot to elope with Agnes disguised as the bloody nun that haunts her father’s castle. Towards the middle it gets a little sinister in the orchestra, but much of it is rather sunny if a tiny bit fragmentary. Both get sizeable arioso passages.
34: The act ends with a concert finale starting with the arrival of Count Ludorf. Although in the last minute or so it warms up it is a rather standard item *.
ACT 2: Another such spot where Rudolphe and Agnes are to rendez-vous. (28 minutes)
0: The first eight minutes * of the act consist of a brief but chromatic prelude, a male opening chorus and a couplet for Rudolphe’s squire Arthur (a soprano) who relates the tale of the bloody nun. Pre-show, however, Arthur has a rather heavenly passage from the orchestra with bells or something (not celeste, it didn’t exist yet!). It is a mix of good orchestral and some ornery male choral work. The couplets is a bit shrill though and given the subject matter, the orchestral accompaniment is rather comique although in itself it is tuneful.
9, 17, 26: The rest of the act consists of nineteen minutes of just Rudolphe, the veiled Nun/Bride and the chorus. The first section, Rudolphe’s aria, is fine *. This lasts for about four minute and then we get some mildly chromatic mood music as he waits and then the nun shows up in a wedding veil (disguised as Agnes). Her entrance is not all that obvious until the orchestra gives us some furious cues as to what is going on *. We then get something called a “fantastic interlude”. It may well be an interlude but is really isn’t all that fantastic, rather brassy though with the chorus making grunting sounds. The ghosts of Rudolphe’s relatives come for the wedding (at least someone is, incidentally who marries Rudolphe to the nun because the wedding obviously takes place off stage?). There is yet another dark pattering orchestral interlude until Rudolphe comes on realizing that he has married a dead nun (necrophilia anyone?). The wedding guests are very ornery (this might be the worst moment in the opera). I know Gounod is going for spooky here but it just comes off ornery. The nun reveals her deception (naughty dead nun!) It does get more spooky with gongs and whirlwinds and heavy brass * and the act ends on some noble sounding chords.
ACT 3: Another scene around the Ludorf castle. (28 minutes)
0: This being act 3 of a French opera we have our required Zerlina-Masetto con coro entrance sequence. Oddly better than the usual comique number **. This time we have a soprano-tenor duo named Anna and Fritz.
5, 10, 12, 14: Arthur comes on looking for Rudolphe. His couplets is okay * but we know this character is comic relief with no dramatic value and the music Gounod provides him/her reflects this rather stridently. We finally get a plot point out of all of this, Theobald, Rudolphe’s brother, has been killed in battle, meaning that he is now theoretically able to marry Agnes (single-mindedness of the libretto: a wedding just after a funeral?) Rudolphe shows incredibly little remorse about his brother being dead and the orchestra waltzes about rather skillfully *. The ensuing duet between master and squire includes a rather sweet soprano passage for Arthur ** after the furious bit his master throws at him. The duet proper finishes with a lovely cabaletta for the duet **.
16: An etherial cavatina for Rudolphe ** complete with harp accompaniment.
20: The nun arrives to a big roll from the timpani. She reminds Rudolphe of the sham marriage vows he made to her (how is this valid, she’s dead!?!). They discuss how he can get out of this frankly weird situation: he has to kill her murderer. (Seriously woman? This is how you get revenge? Also, if you are dead, how do you know know already what will happen in act 5? Nuns be weird….). In itself the duet is a solemn affair ** dividing its time between being hushed and religious and brassy and dramatic. Arthur returns to tell Rudolphe that the wedding is about to begin. The groom freaks out (wouldn’t you if you just talked to your ghost wife?).
ACT 4: The great hall of Comte Ludorf’s castle, wedding festivities in progress. (21.5 minutes)
0: The act beings with a glittering orchestral intro and then Ludorf and Moldaw take turns singing of their happiness upon the marriage of their surviving children **. Very noble.
3, 9: This is followed by 9 minutes of orchestral music split almost equally between a wedding march * (the longer of the two by about a minute) and a three part ballet: Waltz *, Pas de Trois (watch for the noisy timpani!), danse bohemienne *. This last was reused for the ballet of Romeo et Juliette, you will recognize the theme instantly.
12, 20: The remainder of the act consists of an eight and a half minute finale ** in which more happens than in the entirety of the opera so far. The nun reveals who here killer is: Comte Ludorf himself! Rudolphe freaks out and tries to run from the hall in terror. This upsets literally everyone else who are completely oblivious to the apparition. Incidentally, this is the first time Agnes has sung since act 1. The act ends on a chorus and orchestral feature of sheer terror **.
ACT 5: A forest clearing on the Ludorf estate near a chapel. (21 minutes)
0: Strong opening orchestral intro leading into Ludorf’s aria in which he goes through a lot of background about how he killed that bloody nun **.
5: The Conspiracy scene ** in which two friends of Baron Moldaw come on with the chorus to kill Rudolphe for the disastrous wedding which apparently disgraced Agnes or something. The Comte overhears this and decides to go Gilda-style on us and get himself stabbed to death instead.
11: Agnes comes on and encounters Rudolphe in the clearing and he reveals the apparitions of the bloody nun to her. Their duet and the encounter with Ludorf which follows are the finest moments in the opera ***, full of force-9 angst and even genuine terror with a slight tinge of the sympathetically pathetic. The Comte comes on having been mortally wounded by the conspirators hired by Agnes’ father which does, incidentally, disgust her because she knows the intended victim was her lover.
20: The finale is more of a dramatic resolution. The Comte dies at the nun’s tomb, she is satisfied and rises to heaven promising to pray for his soul for eternity. The final chorus is very grand and etherial ***, ending the opera on a fine note.
This isn’t a bad opera, at least not musically. None of the music is ever totally bad, it just rarely is very good. The libretto is a train wreck of illogical ideas: how, for instance, is the bloody nun able to hold Rudolphe to wedding vows when she is a. dead, and b. a nun who took a solemn vow of celibacy long before? Why would the wedding of Rudolphe and Agnes take place just after the death of his older brother? Why does the nun refrain from telling Rudolphe who her murderer was until during the wedding to Agnes? The Comte is oddly noble for a nun killer (allowing himself to be set upon by assassins intended for his son). I get that the nun is dead and so already knew about the elopement and so was able to trick Rudolph into thinking she was Agnes, but how does the nun not ultimately know the fate of her killer ahead of time if she obviously has omniscience of the dead?
Apart from Rudolphe, who is obviously more the main character than the title role, the other characters get very little to do. Agnes doesn’t really do anything at all and only becomes interesting in the final act. The shock of who the nun slayer is isn’t that shocking, and the nun is more annoying with her quest for revenge than scary. The rest of the characters, other than the Baron, are throwaways or comic relief, filler more than part of the actual narrative. The opera does get progressively better musically, the first two acts are the weakest with the middle of the second act sort of falling apart dramatically, the fifth act is the strongest with the final 11 minutes being by far the best in the opera. I must admit that one of the opera’s good qualities is its brevity. The first act is by far the longest at 40 minutes and the other four are less than a half an hour each. This is a good thing because the plot is spread out very thin (each act consists of one or two plot points when this could easily be a three or even two act opera because the story is frustratingly simplistic). The plot and libretto are D-grade and do not utilize its casting effectively. Calling it a gamma on this point would be high flattery, but the music might raise it to a beta.