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2.110632 - GOUNOD, C.-F.: Nonne sanglante (La) [Opera] (Opéra Comique, 2018) (NTSC)
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Gounod: La Nonne sanglante

 

Of Charles Gounod’s twelve operas, only two are still regularly performed—Roméo et Juliette and Faust. This is why, in the bicentenary year of Gounod’s birth, the Opéra Comique alongside the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice, in the true spirit of its philosophy of always seeking out the new, chose to revive La Nonne sanglante (‘The Bleeding Nun’): first performed in 1854, the opera was quickly canned, first by the then director of the Opéra and subsequently by the composer himself—which put paid to any chance of this ghost story ever enjoying any success.

Should we conclude from the opera’s title La Nonne sanglante that Gounod—whose profound devotion to the Catholic faith was well known—had run straight into a complex story of taboo topics? Or, on the contrary, that he had immersed himself in worship to atone for his Satanic choice of subject matter?

Neither, as it turns out: the Bleeding Nun was a familiar literary figure, well capable of inspiring a colourful Gothic work of the kind popular in Paris at the time. More than anything else, here was a prestigious commission for the 36-year-old composer from the Opéra, which at the time was situated in the Rue Le Peletier (right next to the Opéra Comique, in a slightly smaller hall), with a text by Europe’s most prominent librettist, Eugène Scribe. Gounod himself wrote: ‘Nestor Roqueplan, director of the Opéra, had been a big fan of Sapho [Gounod’s first opera] and had become good friends with me: he told me that he saw in me a tendency to do things on a grand scale. It was his suggestion that I should write a work in five acts for the Opéra.’

Gounod accepted the project unreservedly, leaving aside the fear of displeasing Berlioz, 15 years his senior, who had turned it down five years earlier: ‘I am surprised’, Gounod graciously wrote to the latter, ‘that you were the least bit embarrassed by the project: I feel neither regret nor the slightest tinge of bitterness in hindsight. We are artists, for heaven’s sake!’

Sketched for Berlioz in 1841, the libretto was therefore completed with Gounod in mind. Using the structure of a ‘grand opéra’—with an integrated ballet—he adapted a medieval legend published in 1786 by the German storyteller J.K.A. Musaeus, or, to be more precise, a version that had been reworked by the English novelist Matthew Gregory Lewis as a central anecdote in his famous novel The Monk. Available in French translation from 1797 and immediately adapted for the theatre, Le Moine had been retranslated in 1840 by Léon de Wailly, librettist of Benvenuto Cellini. The Nun of Thuringia had become established, on both sides of the Channel, as a popular figure that had inspired not only chilling spectacles, illustrated editions and magic lantern games, but also scholars such as Charles Nodier, Victor Hugo and E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Scribe set to work on the adaptation of the episode for the world of Romantic opera with his legendary dexterity. He set it in a context of political conflict, shifting the story back to the Middle Ages, where the tale originated, to the Bohemia of Der Freischütz, land of eerie fairy tales. This meant that the stage of the Opéra was guaranteed impressive tableaux, gatherings with large numbers of extras, and all the decorum of Gothic drama. Scribe turned his back on the drama of the same name written by Anicet-Bourgeois for the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in 1835, chiefly because Donizetti had already written an opera on the same subject in Venice, Maria de Rudenz. But the memory of the 1835 success could not help but attract the 1854 audience, even with a different story. The vengeful spectres of the Nun and the vow binding the hero Rodolphe to this extraordinary figure are part of a long-established lyrical mode, ranging from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable and Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the translation by Castil- Blaze, from Hérold’s Zampa to Weber’s Der Freischütz in the translation by Berlioz.

Scribe brought a new moral tone to his treatment of the material: whereas the English novel had been excoriating in its contempt for religion, the theatrical equivalent went in the opposite direction, anxious to be a model of rectitude in terms of morality and the Church. The Nun was no longer a lustful criminal murdered by her lover, but an innocent girl in love who, believing her fiancé dead, took holy orders. The character of a hermit also made an appearance, to the delight of Gounod, who enjoyed composing religious music, as if to compensate for his own failure to enter the Church. Gounod himself reworked the libretto to give it more fluency, and to add a dramatic dimension to his music.

At the Opéra, study of the score followed by rehearsals lasted twelve months. For this preparatory phase, the young Bizet had prepared a reduction for voices and piano of La Nonne sanglante. He would hark back to it when composing his first opera, Les Pêcheurs de perles (‘The Pearl Fishers’). First performed on 18 October 1854, La Nonne sanglante was blessed with an extravagant production: sets created by six painters, an order of 387 costumes and a magnificent cast. The supernatural scenes were effectively staged, thanks to the availability of gas lighting and the involvement of Palmyre Wertheimber, who was not afraid to ‘ugly up’ for the role of the Nun, while the tenor Louis Gueymard was outstanding in the hugely demanding lead role.

Takings were healthy, reviews were favourable and Gounod was preparing to adjust his work to appeal to his audience even more, although he was already well pleased with his orchestration. But, as he would later report, ‘there were only eleven performances, after which Roqueplan was replaced as director of the Opéra by Monsieur [Édouard] Crosnier. Given that the new director had declared that he would no longer allow “such trash” to be played, the piece was dropped from the billing and has never reappeared since.’

Gounod committed himself to editing his score, dedicated to Fromental Halévy—but then went in a different direction altogether. The next year he met a team of two authors of his own generation, Barbier and Carré, which propelled his still simmering inspiration towards a new supernatural project—Faust, for the Théâtre Lyrique, a more adventurous institution than the Opéra, while at the same time also being more intimate. He would go on to enjoy his biggest successes there.

Of all Gounod’s vast output for the stage, only Cinq-Mars (the story of one of Cardinal Richelieu’s favourites) was premiered at the Opéra Comique, although it was Roméo et Juliette that proved to be a mainstay of the repertoire. In its current programmes, the Opéra Comique is anxious to marry its own artistic convictions with the wishes of its artists, especially since it reopened in 2017 under the direction of Olivier Mantei.

So it is that, with a team headed by Laurence Equilbey and David Bobée, we chose La Nonne sanglante as a work of outstanding musical quality with the ability to speak directly to our deepest emotions.

Agnès Terrier / Opéra Comique 2018

Synopsis

Act I

Bohemia, in the 11th century. There is a hereditary conflict between the clans of Moldaw and Luddorf. With the Crusades taking place in the background, the hermit Pierre gets the two leading nobles to agree to form an alliance while bringing their children together in marriage: Théobald de Luddorf will marry Agnès de Moldaw. Everyone is preparing to celebrate the news in the castle of Moldaw. However: it is Agnès and Rodolphe, the youngest of the Luddorfs, who love each other. Rodolphe opposes his father’s decision and is banished. The lovers plan to flee, inspired by the ritual appearance of a ghost—the Bleeding Nun.

Act II

It is the dead of night. As his page Arthur makes preparations for their escape, Rodolphe waits for Agnès. A veiled woman appears, to whom he swears eternal fidelity, before taking her inside his ancestors’ abandoned castle. On their arrival, the ruins come back to life, a lavish banquet appears and the ghosts of Rodolphe’s forefathers arise: the veiled woman is none other than the Bleeding Nun, who now intends to marry Rodolphe.

Act III

Rodolphe has taken refuge with a peasant family, but is haunted every night by the Bleeding Nun, insisting on what is rightly hers. Arthur comes to announce the death of Rodolphe’s brother in combat. Rodolphe could now in theory marry Agnès, but his vow binds him to the ghost. The only way the Nun’s curse can be lifted is through the death of the murderer who took her life. He pledges to kill him, once the Nun has revealed the murderer’s identity to him.

Act IV

With the wedding celebrations in full swing and Rodolphe about to marry Agnès, Rodolphe sees the Bleeding Nun appear, who points the murderer out to him: his own father, Luddorf. Horrified, Rodolphe leaves the ceremony, which reignites the enmity between the two clans.

Act V

Near Pierre’s hermitage, Count Luddorf is ready to pay for his crimes in order to save his son. He overhears a plan of the Moldaw clan to ambush Rodolphe, before hearing Rodolphe’s confession to Agnès: cursed by the Nun and incapable of killing his father, he wishes to go into exile for ever. The father throws himself into the trap intended for his son and is killed. The Nun, finally avenged, beseeches God for clemency and sets Rodolphe free from his vows.

Artists’ Discussion

The production’s stage director and conductor in a joint interview

How did you set about tackling this relatively unknown opera of Gounod?

David Bobée: Inspired by Lewis’s The Monk, the libretto of La Nonne sanglante as recommended to me by Olivier Mantei out of all Gounod’s operas resonated with my taste for Romanticism and the supernatural. And, indirectly related, it chimed with my predilection for a particular kind of genre cinema that resurrects Gothic figures, a form of horror cinema that played a significant role in my introduction to the world of the theatre. So I accepted the project straight away. Laurence and I worked on the dramatic concept together, bringing together our respective avenues of research. I discussed the possibilities of a political interpretation with Corinne Meyniel, and we also talked about the echoes with my work as a theatre and film producer, with my experiences of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo.

Laurence Equilbey: With both the conductor and the stage director at the forefront, the dramatic preparation of an operatic production deepens the sense of osmosis between the embodiment of the characters on stage and the singing itself, while also enhancing the depth of the interpretation and the impact of the work in general. Not being familiar with the Gothic universe, I also felt the need to give some meaning to this ghost story. I enlisted the help of Lacanian psychoanalyst Anaëlle Leibovits-Quenehen, François Angelier, host of Mauvais Genres (‘Bad Genres’) on France Culture, and literary historian Martine Lavaud. Thanks to their phenomenal research and analysis, I was able to appreciate the journey of this figure of the ‘nonne sanglante’ throughout literary history, and get a picture of her cinematic incarnations. All this helped me to appreciate how the work is able to resonate with audiences today, even while staying true to itself.

David Bobée: Putting on an unknown work affords us a degree of freedom, but also effectively obliges us to tell the story without diverging too much from the source. The libretto of La Nonne sanglante doesn’t harbour a great deal of mysteries. Its architecture and themes, heavily referenced as they are, belong in the tradition of Dark Romanticism. This trend arose under the influence of English supernaturalism and spread around the mid-19th century via minor genres, both theatrical and literary, and began to feature in mid-ranking theatres and in the arts sections of the press. The failure of La Nonne sanglante at the Opéra in 1854 can probably be explained by the opera appearing too late, possibly in the wrong place. Undervalued for several decades as a result of their less intellectual offshoots, the Gothic elements of La Nonne – in terms of place, character and situation—seemed out of place in the serious, academic art form of opera.

Laurence Equilbey: By accommodating the myth to the form of the libretto, Scribe and Delavigne still managed to ensure that they had put together a drama compatible with Catholic morality and the religious authorities, far removed from Lewis’s antireligious sensibilities. So they deliberately restrained the work’s passions and emotions in favour of a chilling sobriety that is likelier to bring the audience out in a cold sweat. The libretto sets out a mental universe where everything is portrayed at a distance and the authorities can be seen behind the characters.

What, then, is the story of La Nonne sanglante?

David Bobée: The story is a familiar one in a theatrical sense—it’s about generational conflict. Masters of an obsolete order in a decaying world, the priests are becoming progressively weaker. And the monster, the spectre of the Nun, appears at a moment of acute crisis. In order for truth to emerge triumphant, the younger generation must resist.

In order to bring about a new world—their very own—they must first make the old one disappear. Rodolphe is caught in between the two and, from the first act to the last, undergoes a major journey—from the romantic, rebellious idealist he used to be to the mature, proven man who will be able not only to marry but also to inherit his father’s throne, having renounced vengeance in favour of the process of justice. The storyline of La Nonne echoes that of Roméo et Juliette: two family houses confront each other, two fathers force their children to bear the brunt of their quarrel, while the man of the church, a figure of religious authority, makes the families pay the price of their reconciliation. Any sense of divine purpose is patently absent. In Roméo et Juliette, the death of the children allows for the emergence of peace, whereas in La Nonne, the father dies and the nun disappears, which allows the children to live and to love each other. Their happiness walks on corpses, indeed, but there is a clarity of truth and justice. In both cases, peace arises from the ashes.

Laurence Equilbey: The driving force of the libretto is also, interpreted from a psychoanalytical perspective, Rodolphe’s fear for his own life, his complex as regards his elders, his confrontation with his father—and with the hermit—the impossibility of killing his own father and the sheer weight of the burden imposed on him by the unspoken family background of the murder committed before he was born.

David Bobée: The opera’s title sets a powerful ghostly presence at the centre of the drama. The supernatural is not interesting if all it does is scare us: it becomes interesting at the point when it holds up a mirror to society of its own psyche, a picture that is distorted but revelatory. Rodolphe is an archetype whose characteristics lead us inexorably towards psychoanalysis. In hock to the authority figures represented by the hermit and his father, he projects his feelings for his future wife—a mixture of repressed desire and fear—on to the all-consuming figure of the Nun. She gives the opera its title, but it is Rodolphe’s viewpoint that the work embraces. This young man is afraid of the feminine. The bleeding of the Nun refers simultaneously to menstrual blood, to the blood of deflowering, of murder and of the stigmata associated with it. Michael Spyres, who is in the prime of life, brings to Rodolphe a breadth and a depth befitting a man who has to confront his demons.

What is the space-time context that you have chosen for this musical legend?

David Bobée: Lewis’s novel sets the action in the 17th century, the libretto puts it in the Middle Ages and the music in the 19th century. We decided to play with the different eras using a form of timelessness that allows us to open up our perspective: we don’t need to modernise the narrative or shift it around, but we used a location in space and time where all the eras can convene. The supernatural dimension permits us to blend things in this way, and cinematic culture does so to an even greater degree, in case you’re a fan of ‘heroic fantasy’. The stage space which I designed with Aurélie Lemaignen is monochrome, black: it is a mental space onto which we can project our fantasies and deepest fears. The set is all tiles, burnt wood and heaps of ashes, to give a material dimension to a night that both conceals and liberates our most unbridled desires and fantasies.

José Gherrak’s video, whether representational or abstract, reveals ruins, a church, a forest, a ballroom, a labyrinth and an undulating landscape—but also conjures up inner visions. It embraces the mobility of emotions and the passing from one world to the next, in line with the work’s dramatic construction, which presents us with occasionally abrupt ellipses and transitions. There are several groups that live and come into contact in this universe: soldiers, citizens (the ‘bourgeois’), gypsies, guests… Ghosts are accorded special costume treatment, whereas the others all belong to the same world and are distinguished by their accessories. Only the Nun is dressed in white, and we explored the techniques of making her dress appear soaked in blood with Alain Blanchot and the Opéra Comique. The aesthetic treatment of the set, the lighting by Stéphane Babi Aubert and the video take their inspiration from horror cinema, which itself was heavily influenced by Gothic Romanticism. Apart from this affinity—which again I’m more than happy to acknowledge—I also think it’s only logical to combine this with the rationale of Scribe and Gounod, which sought to make use of the effective techniques of minor and popular genres with a view to enlivening their opera.

What were the musical means Gounod used to tackle this supernatural subject?

Laurence Equilbey: By the time of this, his second opera, Gounod had demonstrated a perfect mastery of putting his musical techniques at the service of the drama. We are plunged straight into the heart of the action, to the moment described on stage. And yet he never sacrifices the poetic development of his musical ideas. What is always striking is Gounod’s inspired and seemingly inexhaustible musical inspiration. Rodolphe is blessed with the opera’s finest arias, and his is a splendid role all tenors will fall in love with.

Gounod was expert at turning his inspiration to dramatic effect, going as far as to use leitmotifs, whether for the Nun or to solemnise Rodolphe’s vow. Another characteristic of his style, inherited from Lesueur, of whom he was one of the last students, is his harmonic versatility, generously expressed by the sequences of diminished chords and unexpected modulations. Chromaticism is used to full effect in the supernatural scenes. The strong influence of Weber is apparent: from his discovery of Castil-Blaze’s adaptation of Der Freischütz, Robin des Bois, at the age of six at the Odéon, through to his enthusiastic studies later on of Weber’s scores, which he practically learnt by heart, Gounod made no secret of his admiration for the beauty and orchestral effectiveness of his great predecessor—particularly the chilling ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene from Freischütz, which proved a model for all French Romantic composers. The supple orchestration is based on pre- Romantic orchestral line-ups, with winds very much to the fore. We use period instruments, with four natural horns, with their vast range of tones, playing parts demanding in their denseness and virtuosity. The bass clarinet is associated with the Nun. Full use, too, is made of the percussion: timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine and bells.

The exploration of blending instrumental timbres—clarinet/bassoon, flute/clarinet, and so on—and the practice of the vertical doubling of chords also recall Weber’s techniques. The most exciting thing about this opera is the way it approaches a form that is ‘durchkomponiert’, through-composed, by linking all its individual episodes together. French opera at the time tended to reel off a series of musical numbers like a thread of pearls, to the detriment of an overarching construct as favoured by the Germans. We get the clear impression that Gounod was inspired by the idea of this larger form, and keen to cast off the shackle of operatic ‘numbers’—even if La Nonne still contains plenty of the latter, and indeed showcases several of them for good practical reasons. This background trend informed the way we set about pruning some of the responses which closed too many of the scenes. In this more continuous approach to shaping the opera, Gounod constructed large-scale ensembles where the perspectives of several protagonists or groups would come into conflict: these admirable scenes present a delicate balancing act from a musical viewpoint, between pit and stage, and what is more they are difficult to surtitle, since you then have to make a judgement on which words are the most relevant and should therefore take priority on the display.

Did you make any cuts or changes to the work?

Laurence Equilbey: If the work had survived for longer than its mere eleven performances, there’s no doubt that Gounod would have taken pains to make it more effective, having seen how it worked on stage. We tried to proceed sparingly, always with the best interests of the opera at heart. This led us to make a few minor cuts: one drinking chorus in Act I—a commonplace that could lead the finest composers to come up with some duff music—and also for instance a verse sung by the page Arthur, where the music is simply repeated without the text adding any information at all. The ballet—a compulsory section in every French opera of the 20th century—lasts 20 minutes if played in its entirety, which therefore affects the dramatic tension. We have shifted it and reduced it to two dances instead of four—the most interesting ones—which means that it still has some theatrical value. In a very few cases, we have changed an individual word in order to make the dialogue more relevant or reinforce a scene’s dramatic impact.

So in order to reinforce the work’s impact, you reconsidered both the overture and the conclusion of the opera?

David Bobée: The drama of Rodolphe was predated by another love story and an original crime still awaiting redress. We therefore chose to take the opportunity of the overture to illustrate how the relationship between the woman who took the veil and Rodolphe’s father ended in a bloody murder. Luddorf effectively sacrificed love (the woman who became a nun) for politics (Rodolphe’s mother), something his son will refuse to do. The woman who was betrayed and eventually murdered was, if you will, an Agnès. Rodolphe wants to marry another Agnès. This will bring a resolution to the feud between the two clans. His young lover’s character will be formed through a series of tests: she will develop a sense of inner freedom in the face of tribal rules and laws, ultimately attaining a level of maturity that will allow her to emancipate herself even from Rodolphe. The ghost of the Nun initially appears as a monster, but is humanised to the point that she reveals the monstrousness of the living, and of her murderer in particular. The latter, a powerful, virile warrior who represents traditional authoritarian values, is weakened to the extent of joining the Nun in death, thus reuniting the original pair of lovers. Through his sacrifice, he becomes a loving, protecting father.

Laurence Equilbey: Which leads us to the end of the work. The father’s sacrifice, which concludes Act V, interrupts the dramatic sequence of events in abrupt fashion, like a poorly prepared moral lesson: Luddorf sacrifices himself for the sake of his son’s happiness, with nothing to prepare the audience for it. We took advantage of the fact that the score included a brief orchestral introduction, an alternative to the overture: unused at the beginning of the performance, we use it in Act V in order to ‘thicken’ the atmosphere of the ambush scene, to afford some stage time to combat and to give Rodolphe a chance to respond to events. This means that scenes feel less juxtaposed. As for the conclusion of the work, Luddorf and the Nun are positioned back to back, which concentrates attention on the pair in order to conclude on the theme of repentance, a Christian notion, which therefore relegates Rodolphe and Agnès in importance. By means of our staging and musical rebalancing, we have recast this finale to focus on the happiness of Rodolphe and Agnès, which is after all the most important theme in the whole drama.

David Bobée: Refocusing the denouement of the opera on the union of the young lovers also means giving it a more political interpretation than Scribe and Gounod had in mind. Inspired by Lewis, we are therefore offering a more contemporary reading of La Nonne sanglante.

Charles Gounod (1818–1893)

Born in Paris on 17 June 1818, Charles Gounod was the son of the painter François Gounod and grandson of the last fourbisseur du Roi (‘King’s furbisher’, or ‘armourer’). Craftsmen were housed in the Louvre gallery and accorded equivalent status to the artists attached to the royal family, their children played together, and so it was that the Gounod family became part of the most conspicuous artistic milieu of all.

Rossini’s Otello at the Théâtre-Italien with Maria Malibran in 1831, and later Don Giovanni in 1833, inspired the young Gounod to become a composer. A private student of Reicha and subsequently, at the Conservatory, of both Lesueur and Halévy, Gounod won the first Grand Prix de Rome in 1839 with his cantata Fernand. The two years he spent at the Villa Medici were notable for his close friendship with Ingres, whose views (‘drawing is the most noble form of art’) taught him more than his studies in composition did, and also for his discovery—on listening to Lacardaire’s Lent sessions and the cantors of the Sistine Chapel—of the virtues of eloquence: another key aspect of Gounod’s aesthetic.

Upon his return to Paris in 1843, Gounod was appointed maître de chapelle at the Church of Foreign Missions. His attempts to force open theatre doors would remain so futile that he considered devoting himself entirely to church music, and indeed taking holy orders. Pauline Viardot gave him his chance, by making it a condition of his re-engagement with the Opéra that he compose a new opera with her as the heroine. Gounod was, however, wearied by the moderate success of his Sapho (1851), notwithstanding its sublime ending, and then of La Nonne sanglante (1854) at the Opéra, which made him doubt his own gifts as an operatic composer—until the premiere of Le Médecin malgré lui (1858), in the more intimate surroundings of the Théâtre-Lyrique, showed what he could bring to a genre slightly less monumental than that of grand opéra.

His librettists were Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, both keen-eyed and highly astute poets and men of the theatre. Thanks to these men, Gounod was able to bring to his works, and particularly their outpourings of love, an unexpected freshness and incomparable sureness of touch. Faust (1859) did not come about by accident: Gounod had carried it around with him for 20 years. He had discovered the play in 1839. ‘This work never left me,’ he observed in his Mémoires; ‘I carried it around everywhere with me, and in those scattered notes I documented the different ideas that I hoped to be able to use once the day arrived when I would try to approach this subject in operatic form.’

Gounod was less successful with La Reine de Saba (‘The Queen of Sheba’, 1862), despite the quality of its arias, but was able to make amends with Mireille, after Frédéric Mistral’s masterwork. In spring 1863, the poet urged him to spend some time in the work’s real-life locations—Les Baux-de-Provence, La Crau—in order to appreciate the context of the thwarted love affair between the daughter of the wealthy Ramon and Vincent, the humble basket-maker. For his composition of Roméo et Juliette, Gounod settled in Saint-Raphaël: ‘I worked either in my lodgings, or outside by the sea, which proves to be a true colleague. I hear my characters sing with as much clarity as I can see the objects that surround me, and this clarity transports me to a kind of bliss.’

Gounod’s last three operas, unlike Roméo, did not become immediate stalwarts of the repertoire: posterity only retained a single aria (‘Nuit resplendissante’) of Cinq-Mars (1877) until the work was recently rediscovered; Polyeucte (1878) is still waiting for its time to come, and for ‘Source délicieuse’ to be heard in its proper context; and lastly Le Tribut de Zamora (1881) was by no means the kind of flop at its premiere that might have explained its consignment to unjust oblivion ever since.

This chaotic career in the theatre can partly be explained by the fact that Gounod’s true penchant was for more intimate musical forms—and, indeed, as far as his legacy is concerned, his songs are every inch the equal of his dramatic music. Ravel declared that he was ‘the true father of French song … who rediscovered the secret of a harmonic sensuality that had seemed lost since the time of the harpsichordists.’

Gounod published over 550 songs, including almost a third of them in English and 15 or so in Italian, written during the years he spent in London from autumn 1870 to spring 1874. They are all interesting, for not only did he tend to select good poets—from Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Théophile Gautier and Lamartine to Racine, La Fontaine, Baïf and Ronsard—but moreover, he did them justice thanks to a lightness of touch that elevates the verse without weighing it down and manages to preserve the language’s fluidity.

Sacred music occupies a key place in Gounod’s output, at the start and at the end of his career. His—to all intents and purposes—only well-known Mass, the one he wrote for the feast of St Cecilia (1855), is not representative of his oeuvre. It is said to be a purely ceremonial, or at any rate a concert Mass, in which the handful of allusions to plainchant in the Kyrie and Benedictus seem to be there purely to heighten the effusions of warm, sunlit lyricism.

Three Requiem Masses (1842, 1873 and 1891) punctuated Gounod’s career, which was distinguished by his two symphonies—which, unlike his five string quartets, never fell out of favour—100 motets, several choruses and three oratorios: Tobie, Rédemption and Mors et Vita, the latter first performed in Birmingham on 30 August 1885 and whose title he explained as follows: ‘Death is but the end of an existence that dies a little every day. But it is the first moment and, indeed, the very birth of something that will never perish.’

Gounod crossed that threshold on 18 October 1893.

Gérard Condé / Opéra Comique 2018
Translations: Saul Lipetz


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