The operas of Gounod occupy a much lower place in the repertoire of most opera houses than was the case in his own century. Performances of Faust
and Roméo et Juliette
are not too infrequent outside France, but his other operas – ten in all – need to be sought out in their rare revivals. In the case of La Nonne Sanglante
(“The Bleeding Nun”) the revival which this recording documents was the first since its initial performances. It was Gounod’s second completed opera, an attempt to meet the public taste more directly than he had done in his first opera, Sapho
. However after eleven reasonably successful performances of La Nonne Sanglante
a new director was appointed to the Opéra in Paris who disapproved of its mixture of Gothic horror, sex and religion and cancelled further performances. Whatever the rights or wrongs of this view one must wonder whether he would have done the same if the libretto had been set by one of the other composers to whom it had been offered, including Berlioz, David and Verdi.
Much has been written about the defects of both libretto and music, inevitably by those who had never had the chance to hear it, let alone see it on stage. Whilst its mixture of surefire elements and a tendency to leave unexplained crucial aspects of the plot does make it hard to feel any real concern about the characters, it is no worse than many operas of that period that have been successfully revived in recent years. The conductor in his notes in the booklet explains that some changes have been made to focus the story more precisely. As far as I can see without access to the original text these have been wholly beneficial, although admittedly most relate to a specific production rather than to what is heard on these discs. The photographs in the booklet suggest that a DVD of the production would be very much worth seeing.
The plot is drawn from part of Matthew Lewis’s once enormously popular novel “The Monk”. It concerns a couple from two feuding families who wish to marry. Rodolphe plans with Agnès that they will elope together. To prevent this being discovered they will meet at midnight with Agnès disguised as the ghost of the Bleeding Nun (who, confusingly, has the same name). In the event it is the real ghost who turns up and Rodolphe promises to marry the ghost. He does not do so however, and circumstances change so that he would now be free to marry Agnès - his original intended, not the Nun. The ghost now appears to him every night, offering to free him from his vow only if he will kill the man who murdered her. After yet more complications she reveals that this was Rodolphe’s father, who in the last Act atones for the crime by allowing himself to be murdered in place of his son. The Nun is at last free to ascend to heaven to seek atonement for her murderer. That is a mere summary of the plot but I hope that it is sufficient to show that it contains what might be termed strong if not very believable theatrical confrontations, and opportunities for various kinds of set piece. These include the opening scene with two warring families (a familiar situation in a later Gounod opera) brought together by Peter the Hermit (best not to ask what he is doing here), a series of duets for the (many) main characters, a soldiers’ chorus, a peasant waltz, and a final apotheosis (all familiar forms from the best known of Gounod’s operas). In addition there is a chorus of ghostly ancestors who come alive from their pictures. This must inevitably remind the British listener of Ruddigore
. Given Gilbert’s undoubted knowledge of operas of the day – or at least of their plots, perhaps this was deliberate, and certainly parts of the “spooky” effects in the woodwind are similar to Sullivan’s in Sir Roderic’s song. It would be interesting to have the views of Sullivan scholars on this, but what really matters is that the scene is extremely effective, as is most of the rest of the opera. What is less clear is whether or not it would actually add up to anything as a whole in live performance. In the meantime this is an extremely welcome opportunity to get to know one of the composer’s least known but most interesting works.
The performance is the result of live performances although it does not appear to have been recorded at them. None of the performers are well known, but most are more than adequate in their roles. The singers of the two ladies called Agnès are by some way the most satisfactory, and the many smaller roles are well filled. The chorus and orchestra match those of the greatest opera houses, but they are never less than adequate for what they are asked to do, and are dramatic and eloquent by turns as the music and plot require. The only serious disappointment is Yooki Baek, whose somewhat lachrymose and nasal tenor is heard in almost every scene as Rodolphe. This is unfortunate but not sufficient to spoil the performance as a whole. In many ways the recording is above all a tribute to what a minor opera house like Osnabrück can achieve using almost entirely its own ensemble, something that seems virtually to have disappeared in larger opera houses. To be able to present a more than acceptable revival and recording of an opera which had wholly disappeared from public view is no mean achievement. Fortunately the opera responds well to this treatment, and listening to this set has been a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable experience.
Just about a year after Gounod’s opera had its initial performances, the English composer Edward Loder produced his opera Raymond and Agnes
based on the same sub-plot from “The Monk” but treating it in a very different way. A recording of that work would be very welcome both on its own account and as a comparison with Gounod’s opera. It would be good to think that CPO and Opera Rara were competing to see who could produce one first. In the meantime, CPO and the Osnabrück Theatre deserve considerable praise for this very successful revival of this fascinating work.