I guess there are two ways one can approach “Gothic Horror”. Either one takes its conventions at face value as in, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or one treats it tongue in cheek; Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey of the BBC Dracula from earlier this year. It’s no surprise that in La nonne sanglante Gounod very much takes things at face value and, equally unsurprisingly chucks in a fair amount of Catholic religiosity complete with the unlikeliest characters wandering off to Heaven at the end.
So what’s it about? Basically Rodolphe and Agnès belong to feuding families but are secretly in love (recognise that one?). To reconcile the feuding families an interfering hermit persuades Agnès’ father to marry her to Rodolphe’s older brother. There’s a big row and Rodolphe is banished. He plans to take Agnès with him. She is to disguise herself as the Bloody Nun that haunts the castle so no-one will try to stop her. Rodolphe sees what appears to be Agnès in disguise and promises eternal and undying love to her. Unfortunately he’s just betrothed himself to the Bloody Nun (as you do). Two acts later they do a deal whereby if Rodolphe takes revenge on her murderer she’ll release him from his vow but it’s only at the feast for Agnès’ and Rodolphe’s wedding (the brother has died along the way) that the nun reveals that the murderer is Rodolphe’s father. Rodolphe flees rather than do in his dad which offends Agnès’ clan who plot to ambush and kill him. The father hears of this and, worn down by remorse for his crime, falls into the ambush and is killed. The nun forgives everybody and wanders off to heaven with Rodolphe’s father who she is still in love with despite him murdering her. They all live happily ever after, except the ones who are dead.
The music is very 19th century grand French. There are big choruses and set-piece arias and ensembles; some rather lyrical, some a bit overwrought. The music is often rather more pretty than one might expect given the subject matter with lots of twiddly little tunes in the woodwinds and so on. There are also standard set pieces; a military march, a devotional hymn, a drinking son etc. To me it feels as formulaic as the plot but fans of the genre may feel differently.
The production, directed by David Bobée, presented at the Opéra Comique in 2018 takes a pretty straightforward approach. Sets are fairly abstract and monochrome. Costumes too are largely monochrome and fairly nondescript except for the nun and the blood and a peasant couple who for some reason are dressed in bright blue. It all works pretty well. Mostly Bobée avoids adding any more horror clichés though the nun haunts quite a few scenes. I guess one or two members of the chorus look a bit alarming but nothing too weird. The story gets told efficiently.
There’s some very good singing too. The unquestioned star is Michael Spyres as Rodolphe. He has an awful lot of music to sing and some of it is high and loud. The role is a bit like Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. You need an almost-Heldentenor with killer high notes. I knew Spyres would have the notes based on previous performances but I was seriously impressed by his heft and stamina. No-one else has nearly as much to do but there are some other good performances. Vannina Santoni is an appealing Agnès and is especially good in the duets with Spyres. Mezzo Marion Lebègue is quite powerful as the nun and she acts up a storm in a creepy sort of way. Bass Jean Teitgen as the hermit and Jérôme Boutillier as Rodolphe’s father both have a decent aria and make the most of it. There’s also a nice cheeky chappy cameo from soprano Jodie Devos as the page, Arthur. The chorus is accentus and they are really good. They can sing and they do some very decent menacing crowd scenes. The orchestra is Insula and they have a suitably big lush sound here. Conductor Laurence Equilbey seems at home with the idiom and manages to be dramatic while not covering the singers.
François Roussillon directed for video. It’s an efficient and effective job. It’s backed up by a very good picture and sound (LPCM 2.0 and DTS 5.1) even on DVD (Blu-ray is available). There are no extras on the disk but there’s good information in the booklet plus a synopsis and track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
I think this disk will appeal to fans of 19th century French Grand Opera but maybe not more widely. It’s well done but the piece has enough musical and dramatic clichés to turn off all but the hard core.