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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 Lebègue – La Nonne (mezzo-soprano)
Jérôme 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)
accentus/Christophe Grapperon
Insula Orchestra/Laurence Equilbey
Stage Director – David Bobée
Set Designers – David Bobée and Aurélie Lemaignen
Costume Designer – Alain Blanchot
Lighting Designer – Stéphane Babi Aubert
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
rec. Opéra Comique, Paris, France, 10 & 12 June, 2018
NAXOS 2.110632 DVD [139 mins]

Interesting how, in a truly wonderful Gounod Gala in the Maison de la Radio France in 2018 in celebration of that composer’s 200th anniversary, there was no excerpt from La Nonne Songlante (Roméo et Juliette, Sapho, Faust and Le Reine de Saba were all there along with an organ improvisation on themes from Cinq-Mars, Mireille and the religious piece Mors et Vita).

Berlioz had turned down the libretto for La Nonne Sanglante (The Bloody Nun) 15 years previous to Gounod’s acceptance. It is based on a sub-plot from Matthew Lewis’ novel The Monk. This, the composer’s second opera, was premiered in 1854 in Paris but laid silent thereafter until fairly recently. The indefatigable Laurence Equilbey heads this particular revival of the score with her impeccably trained Insula Orchestra and accentus choir as chorus; the excellence of those forces have been encountered multiple times for Seen and Heard by this reviewer: Der Freischütz in Aix and London, Louise Farrenc in Paris and London, Mozart’s Requiem re-imagined in Paris and A Pastoral for the Planet at La Seine Musicale.

The opening of La Nonne Songlante is grippingly played on the current DVD, against which are scenes of conflict on a predominantly grey stage (events preceding the drama itself that led to the bloody murder of a woman “who took the veil”). Note this is not the Overture; it is Gounod’s orchestral introduction, with the Overture itself performed during the fifth and final act to, as Equilbey puts it, to “thicken” the atmosphere of the ambush scene there.

The opera is set in 11th-century Bohemia. Hereditary conflict has propelled many a scenario (most famously Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its contemporary offshoot, West Side Story; there is more than a hint of the Bard’s ghost of Banquo from Macbeth in the fourth act, too, when the nun pulls Rodolphe away from the assembled cast, but most notable away from Agnès). Here it is the clans of Moldaw and Luddorf in the Middle Ages (the original source was set in the 17th century). The hermit Pierre (the superbly rounded and focused bass Jean Teitgen) leads us into an opera which has pronounced supernatural elements (so lovers of Freischütz should not hesitate). There is also an obsolete order (one might think of Parsifal here, too, possibly). The ghost of the nun appears at the crucial moment of the drama and things are never the same thereafter. The major character, who is the lead tenor Rodolphe (the excellent Michael Spyres) undergoes a journey of maturation but also perhaps initiation. He loves Agnès, who in the first act is betrothed to Théobald de Luddorf. Unfortunately, he mistakes the ghost of the nun for Agnès and agrees to marriage; the only way out is to kill her murderer, a task especially appealing to him when he finds out, in the third act, that Agnès is once more available but counterbalanced by the fact that the murderer was his own father).

Spyres, who has previously impressed on a number of occasions (Mitridate with Rousset at Covent Garden; Damnation de Faust at the Proms, as was Benvenuto Cellini), is the perfect heroic tenor for the role, strong, idealistic, with a voice with a glint of steel. The character Rodolphe is banished by his father and the lovers elect to meet at midnight at the place where the ghost of a bleeding nun is said to appear. Spyres has the ardent emotions plus huge stamina, which make him perfect for the role. He is entirely up to the demands Gounod makes of him in the final act.

So it is that for every leading tenor there should be a leading lyric soprano (just as it is inevitable in opera if one decides to meet where a ghost is said to be, said ghost will inevitably show up). The Agnès is the superb Vannina Santoni, whose voice can run the gamut from the smoothest silk to spine-chilling outpourings. Santoni debuted as Donna Anna in both Italy and at Versailles. Santoni’s voice soars over ensembles gloriously (the conclusion of the first act a case in point).

The second act brings the meeting of Rodolphe and Agnès. Spyres is supremely ardent in his aria “Voice l’heure” (there is the odd scoop between notes, though); our apparition is of course a woman with a sheet over her and a dagger in one hand (no projections here). The generally dark setting that had pervaded the first act is particularly effective here, the Gothic nature of the plot foregrounded beautifully. This is Spyres’ act given the silence of the nun; it is only in the second part of the act, when the ghosts of the ancestors appear (tons of makeup here) that we hear the excellence of mezzo Marion Lebègue (who sings, incidentally, in Slatkin’s Berlioz Roméo et Juliette on Naxos with the Orchestre National de Lyon: review).

As the Count Luddorf, baritone Jérôme Boutillier is supremely eloquent in Gounod’s long lines that open the fifth and final act. The confrontation between Rodolphe and Agnès is French opera at its very best; lyrical, impassioned underpinned by panting, breathless rhythms in the orchestra. What’s more, Spyres and Santoni can actually sing in octaves (after all, not every pair of opera singers can boast that).

It’s hardly true to say there is a happy ending here. While the principal couple do find each other, there is too much blood shed to enable triumphalism to prevail. But the reappearance of the nun, who enables the ending by freeing Rodolphe of his obligations, purely dressed in a now Persil-white gown without a drop of blood in sight, enables some sort of resolution. Bobée clearly realized this, as Rodolphe and Agnès are left alone on stage, but don’t embrace, leaving a curious sense of emptiness.

Gounod’s score is little short of miraculous. His scoring is at times impossibly delicate, his colouring of dramatic moments ever apt (not least in the chromaticism of the supernatural moments). Over all of this there is a compulsive power that runs from first to last. To immerse oneself in this wold is to be completely gripped, and enraptured. Insula Orchestra’s contributions of the waltz at the opening of the third act are light, frothy and delicious. It seems so churlish to even mentions that there are some cuts, given the duration, but Equilbey and Bobée decided to cut a drinking chorus and a verse sung by the page, Arthur (a charming song, absolutely beautifully sung by high soprano Jodie Devos, who excels in her several arias, but one can see their point); the ballet was moved in the action and cut in half (two dances instead of four).

The camera work is exemplary throughout, the picture quality fine (I see Robert Cummings in his review of the Bluray version of this is laudatory about the picture, and my experience is that Bluray is definitely a preferable format if the choice is available). No lover of French Romantic opera should hesitate.

Colin Clarke

Previous review (Blu-ray): Robert Cummings

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