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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
La Nonne Sanglante, Opera in five acts (1852-54)
Michael Spyres – Rodolphe (tenor)
Vannina Santoni – Agnès (soprano)
Marion Lebegue – La Nonne (mezzo-soprano)
Jerome Boutillier – Le Comte de Luddorf (baritone)
Jodie Devos – Arthur (soprano)
Jean Teitgen – Pierre l’Ermite (bass)
Luc Bertin-Hugault – Le Baron de Moldaw (bass)
Enguerrand De Hys – Fritz/Le Veilleur de nuit (tenor)
Olivia Doray – Anna (soprano)
Pierre-Antoine Chaumien – Arnold (tenor)
Julien Neyer – Norberg (bass)
Vincent Eveno – Théobald (bass-baritone)
Insula Orchestra/Laurence Equilbey
accentus/Christophe Grapperon (Chorus Master)
Stage Director – David Bobée
Set Designers – David Bobée and Aurélie Lemaignen
Costume Designer – Alain Blanchot
Lighting Designer – Stéphane Babi Aubert
rec. Opéra Comique, Paris, France 10 & 12 June, 2018
Subtitles: French (original language), English, German. Japanese, Korean
Picture Format: HD 16:9; Sound format: PCM stereo and DTS-HD 5.1
Reviewed in stereo
NAXOS NBD0097V Blu-ray [139 mins]

Premiered by the Paris Opéra at the Salle Le Pelletier in October 1854, Charles Gounod’s second opera, La Nonne sanglante (The Bleeding Nun), received eleven performances before it was withdrawn after the company director, Nestor Roqueplan, was replaced by François-Louis Crosnier, who found the work trashy. The libretto was fashioned by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne, inspired by the 1796 novel The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Gounod subsequently seemed to have little confidence in his opera, possibly in part because Gothic subject matter was falling out of fashion. Moreover, he soon turned his focus to other operas, including Faust (1859), and thus La Nonne sanglante was unperformed for the remainder of his lifetime and throughout the following century. It was finally revived in Germany in 2008 at the Theatre Osnabrück under its music director Hermann Bäumer. A double CD set based on those performances was issued in 2010 on the cpo label, which I have not heard. This new effort on Naxos is derived from performances at the opera’s second revival run, at the Opéra Comique in June 2018, and is its first appearance on video. Frankly, La Nonne sanglante has been unjustly neglected, and while it may not quite deserve repertory status, it should receive far more than just an occasional staging. I enjoyed it tremendously—music, weird story and all.

Regarding the story: set in 11th century Bohemia amid the crusades, the opera opens as Pierre the Hermit arranges a marriage between two members of warring families to bring an end to their hereditary enmity. Thus, the fathers of the families agree that Agnès de Moldaw will marry Théodore de Luddorf. But Agnès is already in love with Rodolphe, Théodore’s younger brother. Banished by his father for objecting to the marriage arrangement, Rodolphe has developed plans to elope with Agnès: inspired by the story of the Bleeding Nun, who was brutally slain by an unknown assailant and whose dreaded ghost is said to appear at the Moldaw Castle every midnight, the two lovers will meet there at that time to escape. Naturally, the actual Bleeding Nun shows up to meet Rodolphe there and he vows to marry her, believing her to be Agnès, unable to see her face through her white veils.

They go to his ancestors’ abandoned castle, which suddenly comes to life—ghostly life, as deceased Luddorfs arise and Rodolphe now grasps the situation: the Nun holds him to his vow, expecting their marriage will ensue. Rodolphe flees to live with a peasant family, but is harassed nightly by the Nun. Arthur, Rodolphe’s servant, comes with news of his brother Théodore’s death in battle, which frees Rodolphe to marry Agnès, if he can be unbound from his vow to wed the Nun. She appears and tells him he can be freed of it by killing her murderer. He pledges to do so and she promises to reveal the guilty party’s identity soon.

Rodolphe carries through with his intentions to marry Agnès and just before the ceremony amid joyous celebrations by both the Luddorf and Moldaw families, the Nun appears and reveals her murderer to be Count de Luddorf. Horrified at the thought of killing his father, Rodolphe flees, renewing hostilities between the families. Guilt about the murder overcomes the Count and after overhearing plans by the Moldaw family to kill Rodolphe, he stands in for his son at the point of ambush and is killed, freeing the Nun to rise to heaven with the now cleansed Count de Luddorf himself and releasing Rodolphe to marry Agnès.

Quite a story—and more than a little silly. But it’s perfectly suitable in the world of opera, and what brings it off so effectively here is the brilliant production by stage director David Bobée. He creates a creepy medieval atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of more than a few productions of the Wagner Ring operas. Lighting is subtly employed with a mostly dark background but well lit for action on stage. Throughout the opera the background features gigantic erector set-like columns that show slanted neon bars of light. Sometimes a ghostly figure can be seen lurking within the structures. Costuming is Gothic, but actually neo-Gothic, with characters wearing shirts, belts and footwear of a modern style, thus suggesting the medieval fantasy genre. In the end, everything is extremely effective in invoking an otherworldly aura. My only quibble with the production is that at the opening of the opera, during the eight-minute Overture we see a staging of the Nun’s murder, with Count de Luddorf as her killer, thus rendering the Act IV revelation of her murderer’s identity totally anticlimactic. Granted, this scene provides good background to the Bloody Nun tale and, the way it is presented, establishes a motive for her killing. But why couldn’t Luddorf have been shown wearing a large hood or in shadows?

As for the performances by the singers, there are two outstanding efforts and several others nearly as good. In fact, of the more than dozen operas I’ve reviewed here in the last year, to my memory this one features the finest cast. American tenor Michael Spyres as Rodolphe is extraordinary both dramatically and vocally and nearly steals the show. He possesses a creamy yet virile tenor sound, has seemingly perfect vibrato control and seems to lack nothing. Among many highlights, you might try his Act II Du Seigneur, pâle fiancée (track 10) or his Act III Un jour plus pur (track 20). In the trouser role of Arthur, Belgian soprano Jodie Devos is outstanding. She is a virtuoso coloratura who not only hits the high notes with ease but sings beautifully and with superior acting ability. To cite just two numbers, hear her stunning Act II L’espoir et l’amour dans l’âme (track 9) and Act III Du vain délire… (track 19) to sample her superb vocalism as well as her utterly disarming portrait of the carefree Arthur. I can surmise that these two singers will have major careers on the world’s operatic stages.

As Agnès French lyric soprano Vannina Santoni is nearly as outstanding. She possesses an attractive, powerful voice that she can project well above the orchestra’s full sound. Like Spyres and Devos, she has many impressive moments in the opera, for example her Act I encounter with Rodolphe, Mon père, ‘un ton inflexible (track 6). In this number and the later duet, Ô toi que j’adore (same track), you can’t help but notice that Spyres delivers knock-out performances to match hers. Bass Jean Tietgen as Pierre the Hermit and baritone Jérôme Boutillier as Count de Luddorf are also quite impressive and the rest of the cast is fine.

Conductor Laurence Equilbey has a thoroughly convincing grasp of Gounod’s style and draws splendid playing from her orchestra. In 2012 she founded the Insula Orchestra, a period-instrument ensemble devoted mainly to Classical and pre-Romantic repertory. The orchestra adapts well to Gounod’s more advanced style. She is also the founder of the chamber choir used in this performance, accentus, which she formed in 1991. They sing magnificently here and three of their members do quite well in filling the last three roles in the cast list.

The picture clarity, camera work and sound reproduction on this Naxos Blu-ray disc are all of state-of-the-art quality. Gounod’s Faust and Romeo et Juliette are the only operas of the twelve he completed to be regularly staged. This stunning account of La Nonne sanglante shows this opera is probably strong enough to join them. Certainly Gounod mavens and many others won’t be let down by this performance of it.

Robert Cummings

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