Charles Gounod: La nonne sanglante (1854)

Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.

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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!).

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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.

COMMENTS:

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?

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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.

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31 thoughts on “Charles Gounod: La nonne sanglante (1854)

  1. This year’s production from Paris makes a stronger case for the opera. The cast is Francophone. Spyres’ French is nearly impeccable – and he may well be the best tenor in the world. But the staging itself is dreary: modern dress, everything in shades of black, bare stage, and two neon-lit columns. Why must there be directors?

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    1. I agree with you, on Spyres (the man can sing high G’s! Even I can’t sing that high except maybe in the shower) and the black staging. You already know my opinion on modern staging concepts. I am the anti-naked chorus representing the scourge of capitalism after all. When an opera has an historical period setting, I demand the period setting. I want Don Carlos to be performed only the way the Met did back in the mid-1970s. Otherwise, why bother with this primitive minimalism, save it for Menotti’s The Consul where at least it is appropriate! Why must there be directors? Why must there be dictators!

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    1. Don Giovanni? Maybe that opera by Dargomyzhsky based on the Pushkin closet drama? I always liked the idea of Don Juan performed by a tenor. I wish Mozart’s could be with severely altering the score. Or, could it be, NO! Not Zampa!!!

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      1. I got an invitation to join the Delibes group on Facebook. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something…. OK, Lakme will be #81!

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      2. Well, I’m an anti-facebooker myself (I’ve actually never been on it!) but if I can get a review of Lakme…. I want you to tackle Sir Denis Forman’s 20-one star gamma review where he declares the Bell Song to be kitsch!

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      3. I listened to the first half of the Lombard / Mesplé this afternoon. I feel I deserve a pat on the head and a biscuit!

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      4. Listened to Act I of the Mesplé, and Act II of the Sutherland, which has clearer sound, more life (stage effects! crowds!), and I like Sutherland’s voice more than Mesplé’s in this role.

        Much that’s attractive, even lovely – the Bell Song; the Flower Duet; the two duets; the morning chorus.

        BUT.

        There’s definitely a “but”, *but* I’m not quite sure what it is. It’ll probably come to me at 3 am!

        Does it lack that vulgar thing called “go”? (aka drama & tension?) Is it, with all its refined score, an opéra-comique that ends unhappily, closer to the world of Auber or Messager than to Meyerbeer or even Bizet?

        I definitely like it more than your pal Denis Forman (whose comments on French opera are rarely sensible) – but using your reckoning, it’s a B.

        (And I haven’t got to Act III yet, which doesn’t have any tunes I can recall.)

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      5. Sutherland is definitely the best. I have three recordings of Lakme (which may demonstrate what I think of Forman in reality ) but even the extraordinary Mado Robin isn’t as wonderful as Sutherland in this role.

        Quoting from the Holy Bible of Opera: The Good Opera Guide, the Prophet Denis says in the Prophecy of Lakme chapter 5 verse 1 that Lakme is “not grand nor an opera, except in the sense that any piece staged with singers and a full orchestra is an opera. It is in fact a music romance of the kind that Ivor Novello produced so successfully fifty years later. It is undemanding light music, but opera–no. The music doesn’t have the power, the characters don’t have the credibility and the unconscious comedy of Delibes’ vision of India make it a pretty ludicrous old thing. The music is not without charm, Delibes could write a moderately good short tune but never a long one. So you get in the best pieces a sort of haphazard parade of good melodic ideas which beguile the ear but don’t satisfy that craving for shape, form, structure or whatever it is that tells us when a piece of music is music and not muzak.” The best numbers (according to our lord and master Forman) are Lakme’s Pourquoi and Gerald’s Ah! viens dans la forest (ACT 3, so there is something in the final act). He does say that the orchestral pieces are much more professional (including the prelude to act 3, so there is hope!), that the Bell Song is kitsch, and that Lakme probably violates the Trades Descriptions Act.

        Personally, I recognize that Lakme is light undemanding music and that Delibes’ melodies are very short and consist of parades of fragments strung together. The Bell Song may or may not be kitschy. That is true, but I do like it and I listen to it a lot (hence the three recordings of it I own!). Like I said about Faust, it satisfies hygge! So yes, it does lack “go”. Apart from Nilakantha wanting to kill Gerald for almost the entire opera there really isn’t any serious situation. Forman does connect it to L’Africaine and Les pecheurs de perles, but mostly because of the similar exotic settings.

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      6. Yes, I’ve got Forman on my tablet! His mistake, really, is to see it as grand opera, which it’s not. It’s sentimental opera comique, a different genre!
        Contemporary critics like Bellaigue, Lagenevais, and Jullien said it was in the line of Auber and even Boieldieu, rather than Bizet, and that the plot is L’Africaine writ small. It’s a hard opera not to like.

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      7. It’s actually part of a sub-genre of opéra comique about Europeans in India – such as Halévy’s Nabab and Auber’s Premier jour de bonheur.

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      8. As for the Bell Song… it really is a vocal showpiece for glottomanes. Not the best of its type – it doesn’t have a great tune – and I like the sinuous little chorus of conspirators that follows a lot more!

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      9. Forman declared the conspiracy chorus to be the most opera-like number in the entire score. But the Bell Song he declared to be rehearsal backstage at a Neapolitan opera house.

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  2. Good heavens! Maybe Lakme isn’t so awesome after all! I’m rather certain the Mesple recording was one of the three that he listened to for the book.

    I think I’ve figured out how to understand Gounod without finding him annoying, dry, or mindless at times. Faust has suffered from popular genre confusion similarly to Wuthering Heights being seen as a romance and not a gothic novel, but in the opposite direction. Faust has to be interpreted as an ironic romantic comedic parody of grand opera. If you take it as serious drama, problems arise. What would be flaws in a serious opera (the episodic and fragmentary nature of acts 4 and 5, the character motivations, the light tunefulness of the score, the pretentious darkness of the overture, the fact that Mephisto isn’t scary at all) are all stock and trade in comic opera. Even the gigantic size of the work is meant to invoke irony since the story gradually becomes more and more simplistic until we are down to just the three main characters battling it out at the end. Having been an opera comique with spoken dialogue when it was first born, this should be a tip off. The biggest joke about Faust is that everyone has assumed that it is a tragic grand opera, when in fact it mocks the genre. In that sense it is brilliant because it has fooled most people for over 150 years including people who love it as a serious dramatic work. I don’t know, maybe this is my grad student mind trying to work out a Ph.D. thesis. We can’t ask a score if it’s trans-genre after all!

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    1. Clever! 🙂

      It’s drame lyrique, of course, in its final form – netiher opéra-comique / opéra-bouffe nor Meyerbeerian grand opera, but able to use elements from both. (And even then, French opera has always been able to vary genres in a way Italian opera doesn’t. Les Huguenots, for instance, starts as Mozart / opéra-comique, and ends as Verdi.)

      Méphistophèles is a mocking, ironic, comic trickster, with whom Marguerite’s old neighbour falls in love (“Cette vieille impitoyable De force ou de gré, je crois, Allait épouser le diable!”) – and frightening in the Church scene (“À toi l’enfer! Marguerite, soit maudite!”). (Goethe’s Faust is also a sardonic, sceptical rationalist.)

      (The devil in Massenet’s Grisélidis is even more harmless: a henpecked husband who wants to make other couples suffer, but is really happier lying in the sun and chasing butterflies. Charming aria, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wy8TRASEnrM)

      The Act V trio is modelled on the famous one in Robert – which could be more fuel for your thesis – but I can’t imagine the very religious Gounod writing, as a joke, a chorus of angels praising Christ!

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      1. That is true, Gounod was uber-Catholic and his amazing output of Christian music is testament to that. I just have a problem with taking Faust seriously. The only way I think I can stomach it is as a spoof of grand opera because it really is a big opera comique. It probably does have something to do, as you said, with the French ability to blend genres. I can take Lakme easily probably because it is so light and incredible. Faust has far more serious elements in it. I like the connection to Robert le diable. You never fully realize how much of French opera is indebted to Meyerbeer until you listen to him!

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      2. Psychotic quakes like Sir Denis Forman. Why do you ask? No actually there are specific specialists known as Music Historians who usually have Ph.D.’s or at least MA’s in one aspect of musical history or they are musicologists who specialize in history rather than theory. So, for instance, there are opera historians, and they write books on opera. Forman wasn’t one though. More on Lombardi to follow….

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    2. B in my book means good, enjoyable, but not great. So:

      A (5 star) = great / a favorite
      Examples: Huguenots, Prophete, Benvenuto Cellini, Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov, Straszny Dwor, Lohengrin, Faust (!), Hoffmann, Don Carlos

      B (4) = good
      Examples : Etoile du Nord, Robert, Tannhauser, Trovatore

      C (3) = average, or mixture of good and bad
      Examples: your standard bel canto, The Ring

      D (2) = Oh dear / I don’t like it
      Examples: Lully, Capriccio, Nixon in China, Tristan

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      1. My system is similar. An A+ is something like Huguenots or Prophete, an amazing musical work with amazing scenario, libretto, psychology. An A or A- are good/great operas. B range can be really very good/mildly great (Vanda) down to starting to get meh (Alzira). C range are things with obvious flaws (Re Lear). D range are things that are just terrible (The Misery Knight for instance) usually ornery plots with dark scores and heavy weighty music. I’m not sure what an F is yet. Possibly some modern operas.

        I wonder what gets one star in your system? There has to be an opera that is so gad awful that it just deserves an F. I like the methodological break down though! Average good/bad mix would be something like Puccini’s La Rondine. Much as I’d like to love L’etoile du Nord, it is definitely the weakest of Meyerbeer’s French works, along with Robert. Dinorah is better. L’Africaine better still but Huguenots and Prophete are the super-classics. Faust would be more of a B to me, but to each his own. Tannhauser is the poster child of the beta opera. The Ring is inflated (not by you, by reality), although I will admit to being a Belliniphile. Tristan…yeah….

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      2. Forman seems to give Betas (good marks) to operas he criticises like Attila and I Lombardi – because they’re Verdi?

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      3. Forman “betas” do not correspond to our standards. At least not yours. Your 5-star operas would be “alpha plus” according to Forman, 4-star would be alpha, 3-beta, 2-gamma. You’ve never given out a 1-star, what would qualify for that honour? Since Forman only calls Lakme “gamma or worse” without defining just what is below a gamma, we are left in limbo. Since you use a five point scale as opposed to Forman’s three (in theory), you have to make adjustments. But yes, in any case, I Lombardi’s star count is awful for even a beta and would more logically place it in the same category as Rondine or Ariadne auf Naxos, both Forman gammas along with the biggest gamma of them all, Suor Angelica.

        He is critical of early Verdi (except Macbeth, which is understandable), as well as Forza and Vespiri, but also soft for some reason. Ernani has a lot of two-star items, but no three-star, and is a beta. Lombardi has five or six good numbers (the Islamophobic baptism trio in act three is the best, ironically), but the rest is actually rather dreadful. He claims at the end that it “can and will do better”, which is partially true. Lombardi does come off better in live performance than it does from just hearing it. Giselda’s mad scene in act 2 scene 3 “Non giusta cause” is a dreadfully fragmentary low-temperature piece (rightly a Forman one-star item), but in live performance it turns into a rousing anti-war declaration which never fails to bring audiences to their feet as the act ends (especially if Theodossiou sings it, very, VERY slowly and you can tell everyone on stage with her is bored out of their minds). If you don’t pay attention to this textual aspect, the only interesting thing about the mad scene is the repeated coloratura bit with Giselda holding a high-B and performing a series of triplets going up to a high-C and down to an E (hear Deutekom sing it at 6:12 to end: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyh-8OV6Azc.) But even this comes off more like a bizarrely beguiling vocal ornament that just comes out of nowhere if you are listening to a recording and not watching a live performance. If Pacini had written it it would be totally forgotten today, although personally, I actually enjoy singing it in the shower, transposed down an octave, as a vocal exercise. You already know my low opinion of Lombardi, the thing is an incoherent episodic mess with an Islamophobic and sugary Christophile plot which makes me want to gag on my own tongue. I much prefer Jerusalem, even though it isn’t perfect either. The music can sometimes be good, sometimes, but the plot is hellish and most of the characters are grossly underused, including two other sopranos, a tenor, and two basses. That leaves four singers, of whom there is one tenor too many, Giselda just ends up as the prima donna by default even though in act one the only indication of this is her “Salve Maria” (because technically, in the original poem, she wasn’t even born yet when the events of act one occur,) and Pagano’s death scene is too much like Oronte’s in the previous act.

        If Forman hadn’t reviewed it, I would have done I Lombardi alla prima crociata because it is just so gad horrid, but you get a lot of my personal feelings in my review of Jerusalem, which is probably good enough as I used Forman’s Lombardi review as a default. And don’t get me started on the fact that the third act begins on the exact same chord act two ends on!

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