The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is best known today for two of his operas, Roméo et Juliette (based on the Shakespeare play) and Faust (based on Goethe’s monumental drama). I have seen both of these, several times each, in excellent productions at the Frankfurt Opera:
- Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production of Roméo et Juliette had its premiere in Frankfurt in 2003, conducted by Karen Kamensek (who at that time was not yet General Music Director in Freiburg or Hannover), with the then-unknown Joseph Calleja as Romeo and Juanita Lascarro as Juliette.
- Christoph Loy’s production of Faust premiered in Frankfurt in 2005, conducted by Johannes Debus (who at that time was not yet General Music Director of the Canadian Opera in Toronto), with Andrew Richards as Faust, Mark S. Doss as Mephisto and Nina Stemme as Marguerite.
Both of these productions were revived repeatedly in later seasons, so I was able to see them several more times, often with different singers and conductors.
What I never realized was that in addition to these two famous operas, Gounod had also composed ten other operas which have since been more or less forgotten.
In 2018, fifteen days before Gounod’s 200th birthday, the Opéra Comique in Paris resurrected one of his forgotten operas, La Nonne Sanglante (The Bleeding Nun), from the year 1854.
I bought my ticket at the box office a few hours before the premiere without even looking at the cast list, so it was a nice surprise when I saw that the American tenor Michael Spyres would be singing the male lead. I had met Michael a few months earlier in Frankfurt, where he was singing another huge tenor role in French, Vasco da Gama in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine.
At the Opéra Comique there is always an introductory talk 45 minutes before show time in the Salle Bizet (go straight down when the doors open, if you want to get a seat; it’s downstairs on the right). The lady who introduced La Nonne Sanglante told us we would be seeing the twelfth performance (ever) of this opera, because its run in 1854 was cancelled after only eleven performances, and it was never revived after that.
This opera takes place in Bohemia in the 11th century. It begins with a battle (elaborately choreographed in slow motion, in this production) between two rival clans who have evidently been feuding for generations, sort of like the Capulets and Montagues or the Hatfields and McCoys. The battle is stopped by a religious hermit, who sings in a deep bass: “Stop, Christians, stop!” He orders them to stop fighting each other (which, improbably, they immediately do) and to join forces in a crusade to fight the Muslims (but the crusade is not mentioned again). He also orders the two families to make peace by having the daughter of one family, Agnès, marry the oldest son of the other family, Théobold. The two fathers agree to this, as does Théobold, apparently (though Théobold is only a minor character who rarely appears or says much of anything). But Agnès objects vehemently because she is in love with Théobold’s younger brother Rodolphe, whom she has pledged to marry. Rodolphe is the main tenor role, sung by Michael Spyres.
Rodolphe’s first words are: “Marry him? That will not be!” and he decides that he and Agnès will flee together by having Agnès dress up as the ghost that regularly haunts the castle. Agnès is rather frightened by this plan, but Rodolphe assures her there is nothing to worry about, since there is no such thing as a ghost. But as soon as he is alone he sings a long aria wondering if ghosts perhaps might exist after all.
When the ghost appears, he assumes it is Agnès and swears his eternal love to her (also in a long aria), but this turns out to be a big mistake because the ghost really is a ghost and not Agnès. The ghost (the “bleeding nun” of the title) haunts this particular castle because this is where she was murdered years before. She makes Rodolphe swear to take revenge on her murderer, but doesn’t tell him who it is until about two acts later, when she reveals that it is Rodolphe’s own father.
I was very impressed by the performance of La Nonne Sanglante, particularly by the tenor Michael Spyres, who has the voice and the stamina (and the French language skills) for this sort of long and demanding role. The other singers were also excellent, for instance a young soprano named Jodie Devos who got a lot of applause for her role as a perky page boy. The orchestra and chorus were also superb, as was the conductor Laurence Equilbey. At the end the entire orchestra was invited up onto the stage, which is quite unusual.
Nonetheless, I don’t really think we’ll see many more productions of La Nonne Sanglante. Gounod’s music is fine, but the big problem is with the libretto. Not only is it illogical (lots of opera librettos are illogical) but it doesn’t have much in the way of dramatic tension. Things happen more by chance than because of interaction among the characters, and unless you firmly believe in ghosts it isn’t even scary.
It turns out the libretto was originally intended for Berlioz, who started composing it but soon lost interest. Then it was offered to several other prominent composers such as Auber, Meyerbeer, Halévy and even Verdi, all of whom turned it down. (Verdi was an especially good judge of what would be effective on the stage and what wouldn’t.)
Berlioz later wrote that in his opinion the drama didn’t work because the ghost had too much to sing (including a long duet with Rodolphe), so she didn’t seem like a ghost at all but more like a living person.
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.
See also: Auber at the Opéra Comique.