Nun but the Lonely Heart
I will confess that it’s been a number of years since I read M.G. Lewis’s classic gothic novel, The Monk. I do recall that I was not convinced it truly ought to be classified as gothic. It’s too funny. It meanders all over Madrid, weaving a couple of major plots, several subplots and myriad ridiculous occurrences into a hilarious tapestry of lyrical ribaldry, more rococo, to my thinking, than gothic.
But, what do I know? I’ve always considered Moby Dick to be a comedy.
Gothic or rococo, what it was when it exploded across Europe in 1796, was lurid, licentious and controversial. It’s a picaresque of a devout Catholic priest, Ambrosius, who falls from grace and gives himself over to a series of lubricious episodes wallowing in the pleasures of the flesh scandalized the continent, so of course, it was a bestseller that has rarely been out of print for over two centuries.
The above highly condensed description is the main, er, thrust of the novel. The secondary plot concerns young lovers Raymond and Agnes, and the supernatural involvement of The Bloody Nun. And that is what bwings us togewwer today. Wuv, twoo wuv….
Sorry. Had a momentary attack of Princess Briditis. Won’t happen again. I hope.
Ahem. So, the Bloody Nun has, since 1835, been that part of The Monk that has most inspired the creative minds of what by then was the Romantic Era. On the 16th of February of that year, a five-act play, La nonne sanglante, premiered at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris. Written by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Julien de Mallian, it did, in the parlance of a later period, boffo box-office. Three years later, Gaetano Donizetti adapted the play into an opera, Maria de Rudenz…
Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. He just did an opera column last month. Can we please move on to some other medium? We haven’t done old-time radio yet, or comic books. Do we have to do opera again, so soon?
Well, my hands are sort of tied. This is for religious horror, the theme for the first part of this month. And I only recently acquired a DVD of a performance, not of the Donizetti work, but of one of the other two, later, completed operas. When am I ever going to enjoy the exploitation of such a glorious concatenation of circumstances? How can I not take this unique opportunity to address the episode of the Bloody Nun in its most exquisite manifestation?
All right, all right. Feel free to check in at the box office for a full refund of your admission price, if you so desire. The rest of us will proceed.
Ahem. So, Donizetti is dealt with. I’m not even going to mention Hector Berlioz taking a stab at it in 1841 that went nowhere, just a few bits that he later incorporated into Les Troyens. We move along, on to the 1850s, when not one but two operatic works, based not on the play but on the original novel, appeared. English composer Edward Loder’s 1855 Raymond and Agnes included material from a second Lewis novel, The Castle Spectre from 1797. It has its points of interest, but it’s not the subject of this essay.
Of the twelve operas, Charles Gounod composed, only Romeo et Juliette and Faust are still performed regularly. Fair warning – I will address Faust in the future, probably in relation to the other dozen or so operas based on the old deal-with-the-devil yarn, including the aforementioned Berioz’s own Damnation of Faust. I will take mercy on the populace and defer that for more than just a month, however.
Anyhow, Gounod’s second opera was La Nonne Sanglante, with a libretto by Eugene Scribe and Germaine Delavigne. A libretto is the book of lyrics set to the music created by the composer, by the way. It was not well received at its premiere on October 18, 1854, at the Salle le Peletier in Paris. A brief revival in 1866 in Cambridge, England was about it for over a hundred and fifty years. A German production in 2008 revived interest in the work, and a 2018 live performance at the Opera Comique in Paris was recorded for the DVD I purchased with my wife’s hard-earned cash.
Gounod relocated the action from Spain to 11th Century Bohemia, on the eve of the First Crusade. Works for me. To quote Three Dog Night, “Well, I never been to Spain…” I have been to Bohemia, just not in the 11th Century. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I recommend that, once we are able to travel again, folks should include it on their bucket list. Not that you’ll see anything in this opera that reflects that lovely city in any century.
The sets are quite minimalistic, in fact, which helps I think to focus the attention on the intimacy of the events. No grand Wagnerian settings with multiple moving parts, dragons, giants and gods. The action takes place in the space between the castles of two warring families, the Luddorfs and the Moldaws, apart from the hero’s brief sojourn in a nearby village. Tight. Intimate. Almost claustrophobic. Like being trapped in a banquet hall with a ghost only you can see.
It begins with a bit of a spoiler. Acted out during the playing of the overture, we see the title character being first rejected, then murdered by her lover. Just the sort of thing that results in an angry ghost wandering about in your typical Medieval castle. I’m not sure I approve, but for some reason, I was not consulted. An oversight, no doubt.
Once the overture is finished, we segue to a pitched battle between the warring families. The melee is interrupted by the local holy man, Pierre the Hermit (bass Jean Teitgen). He reminds the combatants that the Crusade is imminent, and urges them to save their bloodlust for the Muslim infidels in the Holy Land. He advises a marriage of convenience between Agnes de Moldaw (soprano Vannina Santoni) and Luddorf’s elder son, Theobald. Trouble is, Agnes is in love with the second Luddorf son, Rodolphe (tenor Michael Spyres), who is off recruiting fighters for the Crusade. By the time Rodolphe returns, the deal is done. He objects and is banished by his father.
You just can’t trust a bass. They always mess things up. Just ask Mighty Mouse.
Before he leaves, Rodolphe meets with Agnes, who tells him all about her family’s castle ghost, the Bloody Nun. Every night at midnight, she appears at the castle gate, carrying a lamp and a dagger. The guard lets her pass through to make her spectral rounds. Rodolphe has the bright idea that Agnes should disguise herself as the Bloody Nun, so the guard will let her out and they can run off together. Rodolphe is an idiot.
Act II begins with local commoners milling about before being sent off to bed. Rodolphe’s page, Arthur, hangs around to meet with him. Arthur is one of the best things about the performance, being wonderfully played by soprano Jodie Devos as a sort of cross between Matthew Broderick from Ladyhawke and the Artful Dodger. Rodolphe sends Arthur off to prepare for his departure while he loiters outside the Moldaw castle for Agnes to show up.
And so she does, but it’s the wrong Agnes. Rodolphe winds up pledging himself to the Bloody Nun (Marion Lebegue), who is also named Agnes. Rodolphe doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano. I do believe I did mention his cognitive deficit above. She informs him that she will hold him to his betrothal unless he kills the man who murdered her twenty years before. Being one of those more contrary kinds of specters, she declines to identify the miscreant. Rodolphe, in desperation, agrees before he leaves town.
This is the best scene of the opera so far, with the shades of Rodolphe’s family dead looming around him as he agonizes over the dilemma he’s gotten himself into. The music is dire and dour, deep into a minor key that accentuates the ghastly situation. Worth the price of admission alone.
Act III takes place in a small village where Rodolphe finds himself amidst a wedding party that devolves into a general orgy. Rodolphe extracts himself from the pile of writhing bodies long enough to fill Arthur in on how the Bloody Nun comes to him every night, reminding him of his pledge. Arthur shares the good news that Theobald has been killed in battle, and he is free and clear to marry Agnes. The correct Agnes. Rodolphe heads home.
The action amps up in Act IV as the now reconciled families hold a banquet celebrating the new arrangement. Unfortunately, the Blood Nun shows up as an uninvited guest, whom only Rodolphe can see and hear. She reminds him of his vows, he turns all party-pooper without explaining why, and everyone gets all pissy about it. Luddorf, however, figures out that his son is being haunted by the ghost of the woman he himself killed all those years ago, just as she tells Rodolphe that he’s going to have to execute his own father to get out of his engagement to her.
It’s a wild scene, full of tension and angst, and ending with the two families back on each other’s naughty list. Exeunt all, except for Luddorf, who agonizes over the crime he committed so long ago and the price his son will have to pay for that sin.
Moldaw partisans flood the scene at the onset of the final act, vowing to kill Rodolphe for his offense against their family. Luddorf overhears the plot, and when Rodolphe and Agnes show up to argue over the situation and his inability to communicate his feeling to her, Luddorf intervenes in the attack and gets himself killed. The Blood Nun shows up, takes Luddorf’s spirit away with her, and absolves Rodolphe of his pledge. Rodolphe and Agnes are left staring at each other from a distance of about six feet as the music swells and the house lights dim. Not social distancing, but perhaps having said too much during their conflict and thus, unsure of where they stand with each other. Like the orgy, a rather more modern take than Gounod probably intended, but I liked it. That’s just my cynical old curmudgeon side showing out, I suppose.
The individual performances varied in quality. As noted above, Jodie Devos was consistently delightful. Marion Lebegue was exceptional as the Bloody Nun. The others were more than up to the task, except I thought for Michael Spyres’ Rodolphe. I found him a tad light in his delivery in the first act, and not always exact. He did improve as the opera went on, but I never stopped wishing someone of the caliber of a Roberto Alagna had been available. And affordable, which is likely why Spyres was chosen. Alagna has played Gounod’s Romeo as well as his Faust, so perhaps, someday…
Anyhow, that’s all I have to say about that. I recommend taking a look at La Nonne Sanglante if you ever find yourselves in possession of the DVD, or in the vicinity of a live performance. The accompanying booklet does include some details I glossed over, although I was rather disappointed it did not contain the libretto, either in the original French or an English translation. The DVD does have subtitles in several languages and is nicely shot.
In lieu of all that, here is a sort of trailer, albeit with a different performer in the role of Luddorf. Or at least, a different look. Regardless, it’s a nice little extract, drawing mostly from the end of Act II…
So, until next time, as always…
Be afraid. Be very afraid.