Opera in five acts.
Libretto by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne, based on an episode in The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1796).
First performed at the Paris Opéra on 18 October 1854.
Bohemia in the eleventh century: the castle of Baron Moldaw
There has long been enmity between the rival families of Baron Moldaw and Count Ludorf, and the curtain rises on a full-blown fight between soldiers of the two feuding camps. It is interrupted by Peter the Hermit, who wants to unite the two forces so that they can join the crusade against the Infidel. To this end, he proposes an alliance which is to be sealed by the marriage of Moldaw’s daughter Agnès to Théobald, the older of the two sons of Ludorf. Moldaw and Ludorf agree, and Moldaw invites Ludorf and his men into the castle. Ludorf’s younger son, Rodolphe arrives and asks Peter what is going on. When Peter explains the planned marriage, Rodolphe is stunned – he is in love with Agnès, and she with him. Peter tries unsuccessfully to console Rodolphe and leaves, and then Agnès herself rushes out of the castle – she has been told of the plan, and is horrified at being forced to marry a man whom she does not love.
Rodolphe tells her to meet him at midnight at the northern gate of the castle and they will elope. Agnès, however, is not too keen, because this is the night when the spectre of the Bleeding Nun is expected to appear, although this does mean that all the castle gates will be left open so that she can proceed unhindered on her ghostly wanderings. The Bleeding Nun is the ghost of a woman deceived and murdered by a faithless lover who cannot find peace until her murderer is punished. Rodolphe tells her not to worry about the fantasy, and suggests that if she disguises herself as the Bleeding Nun, she will be able simply to walk out of the castle unchallenged, making their escape even easier. Agnès is still not keen, but Ludorf, Moldaw and their men now emerge and find Rodolphe and Agnès together. Rodolphe defiantly refuses to give up his love for Agnès and his father consequently banishes him for this disobedience. As everyone discusses the matter, Agnès whispers the Rodolphe that she will go through with the plan.
On the road leading to Moldaw castle
A bout of merrymaking by the local populace celebrating the truce between the two families comes to an end, and Rodolphe’s squire, Arthur, dismisses the Bleeding Nun legend and praises his master for the noble exploit he is now embarked on. Arthur is sent to make sure that the coast is clear as midnight approaches. As the clock strikes, Rodolphe begins to have second thoughts, but he sees a figure coming down the outer stairs of the gate. But the figure is not Agnès – it is the Bleeding Nun herself.
The ruined Gothic castle which is the ancestral home of the Moldaws
Rodolphe has had to take the ghost of the Nun to his family’s ancestral home, now a ruin. But the ruin is magically transformed to its former glory – candelabras burst into flame and a banquet appears in the middle of the great hall: to the eerie sound of a muffled march, the ghosts of Rodolphe’s ancestors appear and take their places at the table. The Nun reveals her identity and tells Rudolphe that his ancestors have come to witness their marriage.
Arthur, searching for his master, interrupts a family of peasants enjoying a dance; they tell him that Rodolphe has been staying with them for several months, and when Rodolphe appears, Arthur tells him that his older brother Théobald has been killed in battle, so there is no reason why Rodolphe cannot now marry Agnès. Rodolphe explains his problem to Arthur: every night, the spectre of the Bleeding nun appears at his bedside and reminds him of their marriage vow. Arthur attempts to cheer Rudolphe up, but that night, as usual, the Nun appears. Rodolphe pleads with her to release him from the vow and she tells him that the only way that this can happen is for him to kill the man who caused her death. Although she refuses to reveal the identity of this man, Rodolphe agrees to kill him, thus releasing him of his obligation to the Nun.
The Ludorf family gardens
At the celebration of Rodolphe’s impending marriage to Agnès, Ludorf encourages the guests to eat, drink and be merry, and a ballet is performed for the general entertainment. But when the clock strikes midnight, the Nun appears again, although only Rodolphe can see her. She points accusingly at Ludorf as her murderer – Rodolphe’s own father. Rodolphe is horrified, and refuses to go through with the marriage ceremony. All the antagonism between the two families breaks out again.
A deserted place near Moldaw castle: the grave of the Bleeding nun and the chapel of Peter the hermit can be seen in the background
Ludorf muses ruefully on his predicament: he regrets his past actions and Rodolphe has refused to go near him. He is willing to accept punishment for his crime if only he can be reconciled with Rodolphe. As people approach, he hides, and he overhears Moldaw’s men discussing a plot to ambush Rodolphe near Peter’s cell and kill him.
Rodolphe appears, with a distraught Agnès: he tells her everything, explaining that he has no choice now but to go into voluntary exile in a far-off land: he cannot marry Agnès because he is married to the Nun, and he cannot face the thought of having to kill his father in order to escape the curse. Ludorf, deeply moved by his son’s loyalty, goes into Peter’s chapel himself, knowing that Moldaw’s men will mistake him for Rodolphe. And so it turns out. Mortally wounded, Ludorf manages to drag himself to the tomb of the Bleeding Nun, where he dies, in Rodolphe’s arms. Avenged at last, the spirit of the Nun rises towards heaven to seek divine forgiveness for Ludorf and for herself.
Other Opera Story articles can be found on
Charles Gounod’s life and his operas
The background to the writing of La Nonne Sanglante
Matthew Lewis and his controversial horror novel The Monk, which provided the story of La Nonne Sanglante.
The stories and the backgrounds of Gounod’s other operas
The life and librettos of Eugène Scribe, one of the most prolific of all opera librettists
Other ‘Gothic Horror’ opera stories, including Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable and Marschner’s Le Vampyr.
and many other aspects of Gounod’s operas.
© Roger Witts 2010