I doubt if many music lovers, Catholic or otherwise, would know who composed the official anthem of Vatican City State; and if they did, they probably wouldn’t be over-excited to learn that this month marks the bicentenary of his birth. But Charles Gounod – for it is he – hasn’t fallen so profoundly off the cultural radar in his native France as he appears to have done everywhere else. And he’s the subject of an anniversary festival running right now in Paris under the auspices of Palazzetto Bru Zane, a foundation dedicated to the rediscovery of forgotten French Romantic repertoire.
With Gounod there’s a lot to rediscover. He may have written one of the world’s best-loved operas (Faust) and most hackneyed spiritual arias (the Ave Maria superimposed on one of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier numbers), but the rest of his work is largely ignored. And it’s an output that spans the divided personality of someone both devoted to the Church (Gounod once considered the priesthood) and steeped in sensuality and predisposed to shock. A dualism commonly observed in French composers, it’s the very stuff of Gounod’s operas.
This Paris festival unearthed an operatic rarity, hardly performed since it first premiered in 1854. The lurid title tells you everything: La nonne sanglante, or The Bleeding Nun. The story is preposterous, about a man who accidentally weds the gory ghost of a Religious, thinking it’s his girlfriend (there are sillier mistakes in opera). And the music does as Gounod tends to do: here, a feverish French high Romanticism that resolves its anxious moments into sturdily consoling, four-square hymns.
That aside, it has surprising force and it packed a punch in this production at the Opéra Comique. An outstanding cast was led with dazzling eloquence by the American bel canto tenor Michael Spyres, who took the taxing role of the apparently myopic (should have gone to Specsavers) Rodolphe. And the conductor Laurence Equilbey was equally impressive, with her period band Insula being a warm, responsive presence in the pit.
I wish I could be so enthusiastic about a concert of Gounod’s forgotten church music sung the next day by the Flemish Radio Choir under Hervé Niquet, in the atmospherically decaying theatre (famous as the former Paris base of the director Peter Brook), the Bouffes du Nord. It featured items from the 1840s/50s steeped in an aesthetic of three centuries earlier (which is to say, cod Palestrina); and we were invited to compare them with the way Gounod’s contemporary Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was, in the 1850s, reinventing Gothic architecture. The comparison is interesting, but what we heard was more like an exquisitely embalmed corpse. Well presented but, alas, still dead.
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