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Chapter Nine— Sex and Religion in French Opera
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Chapter Nine—
Sex and Religion in French Opera

Most operas that continue to hold the stage deal with "romance" (men and women falling in and out of love with one another) and either heroic or comic adventures: warfare and duels, quests, confusions of identity, tragic misunderstandings.

The romantic content of opera is frequently rendered more interesting (and more musically productive) by coyness, jealousy, divided loyalties, insecurity, hopelessness, or loss on the part of the lovers. Occasionally (Fidelio, The Magic Flute, I vespri siciliani ) the adventurous or idealistic portions of an opera plot may take on uncommon seriousness and depth.

But it was left for French librettists and composers, by and large, to convert operatic romance into physical lust; to take their characters and adventures not simply from legend, history, or "everyday life," but from the supposedly sacred mysteries of religion; and then to concoct for our delectation strange and steamy combinations of the two.

One mustn't be too assertive about national characteristics, in opera or anything else. As soon as I ventured to claim that French opera writers were more sex obsessed than others, someone would bring up the great humping themes of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk , or the epic lusts of Monteverdi's Nero and Poppea. The minute I suggested that French librettists and composers waded more deeply than others into religious waters, I'd be asked about Parsifal and all of Verdi's heroines' heavenly prayers. No opera that premiered in Paris quite equaled Strauss's Salome , a spicy stew that combines the Bible and Krafft-Ebing in almost equal parts.

But the French, once they got seriously into popular opera (around 1830), demonstrated a unique fascination with religious texts, plots, emotions, and paraphernalia; and, for the time, a uniquely free (uniquely "French"?) display of sexual passion.


Religion came first. Eugène Scribe, the phenomenally popular playwright and librettist who virtually invented French grand opera (with some help from Parisian designers and composers), enjoyed using superdramatic episodes taken, very loosely, from European history. And because medieval and Renaissance spectacles were very much in vogue—the first Meyerbeer/Scribe grand opera came out the same year as Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris —he opted for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century plots, which inevitably involved religious controversies.

La Juive (Halévy and Scribe, 1835) involves a Jewish father and daughter who stand heroically firm against the malevolent anti-Semitism of the Christians of Constance (Germany) at the time of the Church council of 1414, and the defeat of the Czech reformer Jan Hus. Les Huguenots (Meyerbeer and Scribe, 1836) pits Catholics against Protestants in the Paris of 1572 and climaxes—Scribe enjoyed bloody climaxes—with the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Le Prophète (Meyerbeer and Scribe, 1849) tells of a weird sect of Anabaptist rebels who briefly took over the city of Münster in 1534 and crowned one of their duped followers as prophet-king and son of God. Betrayed to his enemies, the prophet blows up a whole palace on his head and theirs in the final scene (rather like Saint-Saëns's Samson), as a challenge to the Paris Opera's stage crew and a treat for the hautbourgeois audience.

Given the Paris Opera's crowd-pleasing commitment to lavish stage spectacles, the religious settings and sentiments in these early French "grand" operas permitted not only onstage wars and the boilings-in-oil of heretics, but also an almost endless succession of gorgeous religious rituals and processions. These demanded recognizable and moving choral music and impressive church or cathedral sets.

The French were not the only opera makers to seize on this most familiar of all sources of scenic and musical extravaganza. Boris Godunov, Cavalleria rusticana, Die Meistersinger, Tosca , and Peter Grimes all include scenes set in or near Christian churches, with religious rituals in progress. (The protagonists are usually engaging in contrapuntal, secular goings-on in the foreground.) There are plenty of other operatic scenes, French and non-French, set in convents and monasteries, in which resident monks or nuns provide the background chorus. Jewish and pagan temple settings enlarge the list. All of these afford potentially spectacular, emotionally satisfying, and naturally choral surroundings.

But no nineteenth-century Italian, German, or English opera company came up with anything to equal the Münster Cathedral coronation scene in Le Prophète , or the parade of prelates in La Juive .

The cortège advances in the following order: the trumpeters of the Emperor, the flag-bearers and crossbow-men of the city of Constance, the masters of the different guilds and societies; the alderman, the archers of the Emperor; then the men at arms, the heralds, the trumpeters of the Cardinal, his crossbow-


men, his banners and those of the Holy See; all the members of the church council, their pages and their clerks; the Cardinal, on horseback, with his pages and his gentlemen; the halberdiers, the heralds of arms of the Emperor, carrying the banners of the Empire; then finally, the Emperor Sigismund, on horseback, preceded by his pages, surrounded by his gentlemen, his equerries, and followed by the princes of the empire. . . . The trumpets sound, the organ is heard, the crowd of people lift cries of joy. . . . At the appearance of Sigismund and the officials of the Empire, the bells of the Cathedral and of the other churches in the city are rung, and the sound of cannon is heard.

As one French critic wrote in 1835, "If one is not careful, the Opera will become a power capable of throwing its armies into the balance of power in Europe."

Without trying to clarify the tangle of church-state relations in France after the revolution, I should point out that in all of these operas the leaders of the established church come off as villains—an image apparently acceptable to the ardent anticlericals of Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. Scribe was willing to attribute the most passionately "religious" convictions ("Kill the Jews! Slaughter the Protestants! C'est le voeu de Dieu, le Dieu Vengeur!") to the most morally corrupt of men. The hysterical, sadistic professions of the Anabaptists in Le Prophète are worthy of the Reverend Jim Jones.

So far, though, not much sex. In French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business , William L. Crosten writes, "Melodrama viewed with righteous horror any portrayal of physical passion. . . . Homely, middle-class virtue held the field. Indeed, it could scarcely be otherwise in a libretto written by Scribe. . . . In his plays he constantly sustained the sanctity of marriage and the solid virtues of domestic life."

The Catholic Valentine readily switches religions to marry her Huguenot lover, but the only things she ever embraces are his feet and his faith. Jean the Prophet loves his mother more than the dear orphan Berthe, and Rachel ("La Juive")—although she accuses her Christian lover Leopold of "having commerce" (oh, the shame!) with her—is clearly less devoted to him than to her father and her religion.

One of the safer ways to mix sex and religion, French opera writers found, was to push back further into history, to Biblical or Early Christian times. Then, according to lascivious legend, our puritanical, flesh-denying forefathers (whether Christian or Jewish) were confronted and tempted on all sides by the devotees of orgiastic pagan religions, who were forever trying to seduce them into wicked ways. This gave Paris opera producers the chance to stage great pagan orgies and barbaric rituals in suavely decorative early Third Republic style. Composers and librettists got to write splendid sex versus religion duels between jezebels and saints.

In all three major works of this genre—Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila (1877), and Massenet's Hérodiade (1881) and Thaïs (1894)—although antipagan virtue even-


tually triumphs, all three of the male puritan heroes (Samson, John the Baptist, and Athanaël) find the sexual lures of their temptresses impossible to resist, thereby proving themselves solid nineteenth-century Frenchmen as well as sorely tried saints. (Richard Strauss's John the Baptist, you may recall, never once flinches before all of Salome's lures, which of course drives her mad.)

Saint-Saëns's Samson sings:

Despite myself, my steps have led me to this place;
I want to flee, but alas! I cannot.
I curse my love . . . and yet, I love still.
Fly, fly this place that my weakness adores. . . .
Your tears reawaken my grief. . . .
Delilah! Delilah! I love you. . . .
Let God's thunder strike me down,
Let me perish in His flame;
My love for you is so great
That I dare to love despite God Himself.

Dalila then sings her big aria. God sends the requested thunderbolt. Samson prays for strength to resist her wiles. She runs into her house (or tent). More divine thunder and lightning. "Samson lifts his arms to heaven, as if pleading to God. Then he runs after Dalila; stops; and finally enters her house." Doomed.

Massenet's olden-time heroes hold out, or at least pretend to hold out, a little longer. Most of the sex in his Hérodiade (as in Strauss's Salome ) is found in Herod's own sick daydreams and in the ambience of his pagan court. "As the curtain rises [Act II, Scene 1], Herod is nonchalantly reclining on the couch [white leather, covered with rich stuffs]. Nubian, Greek, and Babylonian slave girls lie around the back of the chamber, and around the king's couch, in lascivious and picturesque poses." ("Dans des poses lascives et pittoresques"—isn't that a lovely phrase?) They proceed to do naughty dances for him, and quench his thirst from an amphora full of aphrodisiac vin rosé.

At first, John tries very hard to convert Salomé's infatuation for him into a mystic or spiritual love for the one true God:

Love me then if you must, but as one loves in dreams, where in contemplation
of the ideal one is wrapped in a mystical flame which transfigures that love
which our sinful flesh enslaves. Banish all these transports of unholy desire!
Lift up your soul to heaven!

But Salomé will have none of it. And by Act IV, poor John is in a state, tormented by the image of her sinful flesh. He resolves his dilemma, en vrai


français , by presuming that God gave him this "intoxicating flower" to press to his lips: "Thou has given me a voice to praise Thee, O Lord—and a soul to love!"

Pre-Christian prophet and pagan courtesan offer themselves together to die, "clasped in a supreme embrace," singing:

Ah my dearest, it is good to die while loving,
When our days burn out like a dying flame,
Our love, in the shining radiant heavens,
Will solve the mystery and find life everlasting.

Tristan and Isolde couldn't have put it better.

The case of Athanaël in Thaïs is more perverse and peculiar still. A saintly desert fanatic, he spends two acts singing of the joys of self-denial, all the while lusting for the sex queen of Alexandria he's pretending to try to convert. Thaïs, meanwhile, is yielding to his arguments, which ruins his whole game. She renounces her lovers and their splendid gifts, sets fire to her palace, and becomes a desert nun, starving herself to death as repentance for all of the gorgeous sins we saw her committing in Acts I and II. Well produced and performed, this opera can still dramatize with terrific intensity the classic French warfare (cf. André Gide) between the seductive appeal of puritan austerity and the impulse toward total sensual abandon.

In her salad days, Thaïs had warned Athanaël (as Carmen warns her admirers), "Be careful not to fall in love with me." Athanaël burns with feverish jealousy of all of the men who have enjoyed her body, and talks her into the most dreadful acts of mortification. He transforms Alexandria's highest-paid whore into Saint Thaïs of the Bleeding Feet. Only then does he acknowledge the beast within:

In vain I flagellated my flesh, in vain I beat myself! A demon possesses me. . . .
Ah! to see her again, to make her mine! I long for her! Yes, I was mad, mad not
to have understood—that she alone was all I wanted, that one of her caresses
was worth more than heaven! Oh, I would like to murder all those who have
loved her.

Never has the natural intensity of French religious sentiment been so intimately fused with the natural intensity of French sensual passion. Athanaël is almost as demonic in his unholy lust as Claude Frollo, the evil priest of Hugo's Notre-Dame .

Devils and hell are as much legendary as they are specifically "religious"—Don Giovanni's fate is no more theologically "Christian" than Parsifal's. But when French composers invoke devils and hell, it is usually in a distinctly Catholic and


MASSENETThaïs , Beverly Sills and Sherrill Milnes, San Francisco Opera, 1976.
Photograph by Susan Ehmer.


sexual context. Their devils mock religious hymns, trample over pious believers, and are impotent in the face of crosses and holy water. And the three best-known devils in French opera—Meyerbeer's (in Robert le diable , 1831), Berlioz's (in La Damnation de Faust , 1846), and Gounod's (in Faust , 1859)—all display their diabolic natures most actively in conjuring up debauched female spirits and in trying to arrange for the sexual violation of virgins. The virgins (or ex-virgins), of course, end up in heaven, but not always before the devil has had his way with them—another instance of the unholy, uneasy means French opera writers found to satisfy warring Gallic urges.

The Meyerbeer-Scribe devil (named, of all things, Bertram) is a fairly soppy and ineffectual spirit. But he does, by means of a famous aria, summon up the "ghosts of faithless nuns" from the graveyard of a ruined convent, who abandon themselves to an orgiastic dance. His soil Robert later turns up in the bedchamber of his chaste beloved, threatening to rape her. Her angelic tears and pleas not only deter, but also reform him.

It's hard to tell how much hanky-panky actually goes on in Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust . On their first encounter, Faust and Marguerite sing of (and presumably act out) a wish to clasp each other gently in their arms. Later, deserted, she recalls one perfect kiss. This Marguerite is imprisoned, not, like Gounod's heroine, for murdering her illegitimate child (which would indicate she did more than kiss), but for killing her mother accidentally with a sleeping potion Faust gave the girl to keep her mother out of the way during his "visits of love." So perhaps more did go on than gentle clasping and perfect kissing.

In general, however, Berlioz plays down sex in the lives of his protagonists—their passion seems, on the whole, rather blissful and pure—and plays up religion. An Easter hymn recalls Faust to the "holy calm of peace" he once knew. Méphistophélès leads a mocking parody of "Requiescat in pace" ("Religious music touches me," he admits, "for sentimental reasons"). He and Faust ride over praying peasants on their final mad gallop to Hell.

One of the hardest things to take in Gounod's version is his smarmy blend of winking prurience and eau-bénite religiosity. The composer was a pious Catholic believer who wrote twenty-three masses, seventy-seven religious canticles and motets, hymns, church organ music, and sacred oratorios, including a tedious "redemption" trilogy that Victorian England adored. The vigorous Christianity of Meyerbeer and Halévy is here reduced to the thin, sweet prayers of a spineless and angelized female, who rather too easily succumbs to the jewels and wiles of the devil-driven Faust—a man who craves her primarily because she is chaste and pure. Virgin ravishing is an essential ingredient in the religio-erotic ragout of French opera, whether the virgin be male or female.

After Marguerite is discreetly deflowered during the Act II interval, she tries to pray for forgiveness (in one of opera's better-known church-and-choir scenes, for


which Gounod had to ask permission of the papal nuncio); is tormented by Méphistophélès and his hellish "voices"; and collapses from the strain. In the very next scene, Méphistophélès conjures up the "famous courtesans and queens" of antiquity in an attempt to melt whatever is left of Faust's virtue, by means of the usual lascivious operatic spectacle. Marguerite prays some more, dies, and goes to heaven, to another Easter hymn. This almost embarrassingly enduring opera—it does have some spirited and memorable music—may be the ultimate reduction of sick sexuality and denatured religion into a thin stream of lyrical sentimentality, a kind of music drama virtually unique to the French.

Other French composers, from Jules Massenet (Marie-Madeleine, Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame ) to Arthur Honneger (Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, Le Miracle de Notre-Dame ), wrote specifically "pious" works for the opera and concert stage or incorporated bits of religious kitsch into their works. Anita ("la Navarraise," in Massenet's 1894 opera of that name) wears a little lead figurine of the Virgin Mary about her neck. A lovesick girl accused of whoring, she prays to her little idol for her lover's safety ("Protect him, most holy Virgin, Viège purissime "); passionately kisses it when he returns; and, when he denounces her, is only stopped from stabbing herself to death by finding the little lead Virgin in the way.

The two most enduring French operas (along with Faust )—Bizet's Carmen (1875) and Massenet's Manon (1884)—may seem to have plenty to do with sex, but not very much with religion. Both have as their heroines women we are meant to admire (or at least forgive) for their sexual promiscuity. They may in the end be "punished" for it, but it is obviously intended to be part of their charm—for us, as for all of their onstage admirers. Both operas were roundly attacked by contemporary moralists when they first appeared. Writing of Carmen in 1885, Félix Clément denounced "the shame of such a subject, the like of which has never, in two centuries, dishonored a stage dedicated to the delicate pleasures and divertissements of polite society."

Manon is only fifteen when she runs off to live in sin with Des Grieux, and sixteen when she runs off with someone older and richer. Verdi's Violetta Valéry may be "la traviata" (the wayward one, the courtesan), but Massenet's Manon is infinitely looser, and more treasured by her creator for her sins. In her most winning air ("Profitons bien de la jeunesse"), he captures a poignant, Ovidian sense that all should be forgiven to a young, beautiful creature trying to fight the passage of time:

Let's make all we can of our youth,
These days that Spring leads in:
Let's love, and sing, and dance without stopping—
We'll never be twenty again!


Carmen's opposite number—equally charming, amoral, and characterizing—is the Habañera: "L'amour est enfant de bohème."

If you don't love me, I love you—
And if love you—look out!

Both women, we accept, sleep with the baritones as well as the tenors. Manon does retain, through it all, her love for Des Grieux, as Carmen does not for Don José. The dramatic difference is important (it helps make Carmen the tougher opera), but the moral difference is not. And in both cases, I think, something remains of the Thaäs/Dalila/Salomé syndrome, the French fascination for wicked women who manage to melt the virtuous resistance of holy men. Des Grieux is, after all, on the brink of Holy Orders when Manon rushes to his seminary to test her seductive powers. Her triumph lies in her de -converting the chevalier/abbé from the Church. It's one of the classic "sex and religion" scenes in French opera.

"O my God! Purify my soul with your sacred fire, and erase with its radiance the shadow that still rests at the bottom of my heart!" he prays before she arrives. Once before him again, in his priestly robes, Manon weeps, falls to her knees, begs his forgiveness and his love. He denounces her perfidy, insists his love is dead. Look at me, she pleads, listen to me, feel the touch of my hand!

"I love you!"

"Do not speak of love here; it is blasphemy!"

"I love you!"

"Ah, be still! Speak not of love!"

"I love you! . . . I will never leave you. . . . Come!"

"Ah, Manon! No longer can I struggle against myself."

Like Samson, he defies his God for a woman of dubious virtue. "Let the heavens collapse on my head; my life lies in your heart." And another one bites the dust.

Religion in Carmen is pretty well confined to Micaela's prayer, and to a general sense that life back home in Navarre was more God fearing and simple. In Prosper Merimée's short story, on which the libretto was based, José was originally destined for the Church, and made to study for the priesthood. If Bizet's librettists had picked up on this, it would have fit him nicely into my pattern of "seduced male saints" in French opera.

Even without this clue, Carmen retains, I believe, a great deal of the excruciating moral/sensual tension of the French opera tradition. José (this is, I grant, a very personal reading) is not only a mama's boy at heart (and a virgin—"Jamais femme avant toi"), his nature and values shaped by a naïve country Catholicism; he is also, by Carmen's well-informed standards, a hopelessly inadequate sexual partner. He moons over a withered flower and a chaste kiss from his mother, while Escamillo


stabs his bull right to the heart in a bloodstained arena, and Carmen lets out a shriek of joy and pride. Driven mad by a fundamental sense of male insufficiency, José—still more a "priest" (or an altar boy) than a free and adult man—finally penetrates Carmen the only way he can. Unfortunately, no self-respecting tenor is likely to accept my interpretation of the role of José—just as Jon Vickers violently rejected the concept of Peter Grimes as a tormented homosexual—so you probably won't see it enacted on stage.

It would be satisfying if could put forward some logical and persuasive explanation for this persistent, almost obsessive use of sex and religion (and more specifically, sex versus religion) in French opera. But a dozen operas, by half a dozen composers, don't represent a culture. And of course I'm leaving out all those (Lakmè, Pélleas, Louise , etc.) that don't fit my case.

Still, there is something unusual here, a play of dangerous forces rarely indulged in by non-French composers. The strange, divided nature of French Catholicism is certainly part of the explanation: on the one hand, Rabelais and Voltaire, ravaged monasteries, Jules Ferry and Emile Combes, Le Canard enchainé , priests as figures of fun; on the other, distinguished Catholic writers, elite Jesuit schools, convents full of holy nuns (cf. Les Dialogues des Carmélites ), all those sweet female saints, the great cathedrals, abbeys, and pilgrimage churches. Four separate apparitions of the Virgin Mary were reported in France during what historians still describe as the faithless nineteenth century.

The unique place of sexual passion and prowess in French culture is even harder to document and define. It may be enough to recall that, for several centuries, France, and especially Paris, was the place where frustrated or curious men from other countries and cultures inevitably went in their search for greater sexual freedom and adventure, and found women eager to help; and to recall as well the astonishing sexual candor (unique in Europe) of French literature and painting. I'm not sure how to interpret or explain either of these forces, but they have had a lasting effect on French opera.



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