Jan 6, 2008

[La Nonne Sanglante] Genesis

Young Charles Gounod.

Synopsis in French here.
Libretto in French and in English here (or there, French only), also an interesting essay "Lewis/Gounod's Bleeding Nonne: An Introduction and Translation of the Scribe/Delavigne Libretto" by Anne Williams (University of Georgia) here.

In the beginning of the 1840s, the prolific librettist Eugene Scribe started a new project, surfing on the success of a play by Anicet-Bourgeois and Julien de Mallian (performances in the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin), La Nonne Sanglante, an adaptation of The Monk (1795) written by Matthew Gregory Lewis, very different from the original book (the play also inspired Donizetti's librettist Salvatore Cammarano, and became Maria de Rudenz, which premiered on Jan. 30 1838 in La Fenice).

The music was to be composed by Hector Berlioz (Memoirs of Berlioz, p309 here), who worked on it from 1841 to 1847 (two aria and a duet remain) before giving up.
Scribe had difficulties finishing the text (in July 1843, Berlioz refers to the project as "cette Nonne éternelle que Scribe ne finit pas" - "this eternal Non that Scribe can't finish"), and Berlioz had some personal issues with the Paris Opera directors Nestor Roqueplan and Duponchel (both of whom finally agree to stage the opera in 1847 under the express condition that rehearsals start immediately, which is impossible for Berlioz, first because the score isn't finished, and also because of his previous commitments as conductor in England). According to Berlioz, Scribe is delighted by the situation, as it means more time for him to complete the libretto.
The project is then proposed to David, Meyerbeer, Verdi, Halévy and Auber, only to be refused each time, and end up in Scribe's drawers for 4 years.

In 1852, a contract is signed with young and unknown Charles Gounod, whose first opera Sapho, created in Paris in 1851 was praised by critics (Berlioz, Adam and Ernest Reyer amongst others) despite a lack of public success. Scribe and fellow Germain Delavigne have agreed to finish the libretto in three months, and Gounod is to introduce the complete score to the Paris Opera on Dec.1, 1853.

An accumulation of failures (Halévy's Le Juif Errant, the French version of Verdi's Luisa Miller, Niedermeyer's La Fronde) results in the early scheduling of La Nonne Sanglante, and rehearsals start way before the original contract agreements stated (1856-57 season), in September 1853, even though the score is not finished.

The premiere is finally set for October 18, 1854.
Unfortunately for Gounod, a huge scandal breaks at the Paris Opera on October 9: the star soprano at the time, Sophie Cruvelli, cashes in her monthly check and disappears without notice. She's left with young baron Vignier without forgetting to bring along jeopardizing love letters from minister Achille Fould, and as soon as he hears that, Verdi threatens to cancel the premiere of his newest piece, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, in which Sophie Cruvelli is supposed to sing the leading role.

This episode is the final crack in the already very fragile Paris Opera administration, financially crippled for several years despite the drastic measures in place (the Opera is under direct funding from the State since the summer again).
Eccentric Roqueplan is forced to resign on Nov.6, 1854 and he's replaced by François Crosnier on Nov.11, former director of the Opéra Comique, who can't stand Roqueplan and immediately puts an end to the performances of La Nonne Sanglante, stating, according to Gounod, that as long as he will remain director of the Paris Opera, "pareilles ordures" (such trash) won't be tolerated (the libretto is the problem, not the music), hereby putting an end to the opera, whose 11th and last performance is played on Nov.17, 1854.

1854 critics about the libretto:
  • La France Musicale, Oct.22 1854
"Le sujet, il faut bien le dire, ne présente nulle part les éléments organiques d'un drame musical bien constitué; la vie est nulle part."
[One must say that the subject does not anywhere offer the organic elements of a well-constructed musical drama; there is no life in it.]
  • Anonymous parody, Le Mousquetaire, Oct.19 1854
" Eh bien! repentez-vous, ô Delavigne, ô Scribe!
Ou bien craignez Dieu la vengeance terrible.
Et si vous faites des opéras
Ne les faites plus comme ça. "
[Delavigne and Scribe, repent!, or else fear the wrath of God. If you're going to make operas, don't make them like this.]
  • Théophile Gauthier's opinion
" Le poème, combiné avec une maladresse et une négligence qui étonne chez un homme d'une habilité aussi proverbiale que M. Scribe, contenait cependant deux ou trois situations de nature à tenter un musicien, et dont M. Gounod a tiré le plus grand parti."
[The poem, a combination of awkwardness and carelessness astonishing for someone of M. Scribe's proverbial cleverness, nevertheless contains two or three situations that might tempt a musician, and M. Gounod has used most of them.]

Scribe is furious and blames Gounod for everything: "Pour le coup, j'en ai assez! Comment! Je vous donne le plus beau poème, le plus dramatique, le plus à effet que j'aie jamais écrit, et voilà les feuilletons qui le mettent en pièces, qui me crient que j'ai fait mon temps et qu'il ne me reste plus qu'à prendre ma retraite! C'est bien; je la prendrai. Ainsi ne comptez pas sur moi!".

My translation: "I've had enough of it! I give you the most beautiful poem, the most dramatic, the most trickery I have ever written, and the papers destroy it, yelling at me that I've done my time and the only thing left for me to do is to retire. That's settled; I will retire. Therefore don't count on me!".

1854 critic about the score: L'Académie Impériale de Musique, Castil-Blaze, p.302
" La Nonne sanglante, opéra en cinq actes , de MM. Scribe et Germain Delavigne, musique de M. Gounod, divertissement de M. Petipa.
Bel ouvrage où M. Gounod tient une bonne part de ce qu'il nous avait promis. L'intermède qui suit l'apparition de la nonne est une symphonie fantastique du plus grand mérite, l'imitation pittoresque y déploie ses magiques effets. La scène des morts , le chant de la croisade, le duo fort ingénieux où la croyante chante en mineur et l'incrédule en majeur, le pas des Bohémiens, l'apparition, les finales, beaucoup de traits de sentiment et d'esprit, que je ne puis signaler ici, font le plus grand honneur à M. Gounod. Son style gracieux, plus souvent énergique, il fallait adopter la couleur du livret, son style est toujours d'une clarté, d'une maîtrise précieuses. "

My translation: "Beautiful piece in which M. Gounod lives up to what he had promised us. The intermezzo following the arrival of the nun is a fantastic symphony with huge merit, the colourful imitation spreads out its magical effects. The death scene, the crusader aria, the very ingenious duet where the believer sings in minor and the incredulous in major, the Bohemian extract, the appearance, the finales, many flashes of wit and emotion that I can't all mention here, all concur to honor M. Gounod. His gracious style, more often energetic, but it had to adapt to the libretto, his style always shows exquisite clearness and skills."

Musical edition: published by Gounod; 12 extracts published by Brandus, Dufour et Cie (La France musicale, 24 Fevr. 1855, p. 56). Piano arrangement by Bizet (Choudens, 28 juil. 1855).

Further reading:
- Mille et un opéras, Kaminski, Fayard (p511), Les Opéras de Charles Gounod, Steven Huebner, Actes Sud (p53-58, 212-214)
- Dossier de ForumOpera (in French)
- review of the premiere in Osnabrück (Jan.19) in German, Opernnetz (pictures incl.)

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