Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Gounod - La Nonne sanglante (Paris, 2018)

Charles Gounod - La Nonne sanglante

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2018

Laurence Equilbey, David Bobée, Michael Spyres, Vannina Santoni, Marion Lebègue, Jérôme Boutillier, Jodie Devos, Jean Teitgen, Luc Bertin-Hugault, Enguerrand De Hys, Olivia Doray, Pierre-Antoine Chaumien, Julien Neyer, Vincent Eveno

Culturebox - 12th June 2018

In some respects, La Nonne sanglante (The Bloody Nun) is very much opera by numbers, featuring all the expected family situations and romantic complications, all mixed up in war, religion and high drama with a few colourful attractions - ghosts, drinking songs, marriage celebrations - that are familiar from the grand opera tradition. It's early Verdi's bread and butter and Charles Gounod could make much of it as well with that particular French romantic touch of melody and dynamic. La Nonne sanglante however is a fairly obscure work by the composer, and it has taken the 200th anniversary of Gounod's birth in 1818 to raise the bloody nun from the dead, so to speak.

The fate of the opera was sealed during its initial run, the subject regarded as being distasteful by the new director of the Paris Opéra, who immediately cancelled it and it's been buried ever since. As you might expect from the title, it's a bit of a gothic melodrama, and as you might also expect, it's highly entertaining. To a certain point at least. The first act certainly is just marvellous, a reminder of how formulaic opera might have been then, but it was a formula that worked and entertained. The first Act alone is a mini-opera in itself, Gounod bringing conflict and hatred towards an early provisional resolution with religious intervention, but it's clear that undercurrents of resentment and unfinished business remain.

The setting of the scene for the high drama that follows is established well in the Opéra Comique's production directed by David Bobée. A single murder - which is to have further significance later - is followed by a pitched battle that indeed has the ferocity of one long-fought. A feud has been running in Bohemia between the Moldaw and Luddorf armies for many years, and played out in slow motion during the overture; there's a repetition, a constant rising and falling that makes it seem never-ending. A priest however brings the feud to an end by suggesting that Agnès, the daughter of the Baron of Moldaw marry Théobald, one of the Baron of Luddorf's sons.

Luddorf's other son Rodolphe isn't best pleased when he hears the news. He's been in love with Agnès, intending to marry her himself. He suggests to Agnès that they meet at midnight and run away together. It won't do much for the peace settlement, but the notion holds more terror for Agnès than that. It's at midnight that the ghost of the Bloody Nun makes her rounds of Moldow castle. Dismissive of the ghost story, Rodolphe turns up at the appointed hour and swears eternal allegiance to Agnès who he believes has come disguised as the ghost in order to escape but in reality Rodolphe has sealed his union with the Bloody Nun herself. In her power, he must avenge her death, and her killer is revealed to be Rodolphe's own father.

Up to that point, La Nonne sanglante is tremendously entertaining, but inevitably it runs out of steam as the composer is required to fill in all the usual expected numbers and situations. There's a now unfashionable ballet which is included here, but neither Gounod nor the director really know what to do with it, so there's a lot of standing and shuffling around instead of dancing. We get a requisite love aria as Rodolphe believes his love for Agnès can be rekindled that is a little bit dull, so dull that Rodolphe's boy, Arthur falls asleep during it. Add a raucous wedding and a drinking song and it pads out the next two acts fairly conventionally.

The stage direction runs out of ideas too by this point, although it makes the most of the first half of the work. There's not much required or presented in terms of sets, the stage dark and monochromatic, giving a fine gothic character and more than adequate mood for the appearance of the ghost of the nun in her blood-stained white robes. It's Michael Spyres who has to carry much of the drive of the work and his sweet tenor is well suited to the role of Rodolphe, but there are solid performances also from Vannina Santoni as Agnès and Jérôme Boutillier as Luddorf. Jodie Devos is a bright Arthur and Marion Lebègue presents a suitably scary presence as the nun, even though you think a bigger voice could have done more with this role.

If there's any reason for reviving La Nonne sanglante aside from mere curiosity value, it has to be for Gounod's score and how he skillfully and entertainingly brings all those elements together, particularly in the first two acts. Laurence Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra make the most of the drama and the melodic flow of the score. Amends are made for the injustice of the nun's fate after 150 years of neglect, but as entertaining as its return from the dead might be, the fate of La Nonne sanglante after the Gounod centenary celebrations could well be burial once again.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, Culturebox, YouTube