I recently wrote about the last few minutes of the first act of Tosca, which is set in a church – Sant’Andrea della Valle. There are other operas which have scenes in a church or houses of worship, five are presented below.
Giacomo Meyerbeer was a German composer who tried to follow the style of Rossini. He came close to achieving this goal with Il crociato in Egitto (1824). He moved to Paris where he became the personification French Grand Opera. Robert le diable and Les Huguenots were spectacular successes. Le prophète which came next was also a hit.
The prophet is a fictionalized account of John of Leiden who led an Anabaptist rebellion which gained control over the German city of Münster. After his rebellion was suppressed he died a grisly death preceded by prolonged torture. In the opera he blows up the local palace killing everyone, including himself; not even a super survives. The orchestra is lucky to get out of the theater intact. Eugene Scribe’s libretto takes Jean (John) from peasant to would be emperor over five long acts.
The second scene of Act 4 takes place in the Münster Cathedral. It starts with the well known Coronation March. Jean has decided to make himself Emperor. His followers think him divine. When his mother, Fidès, recognizes him and calls out to him he realizes that he’s in danger of being revealed as an ordinary mortal, so he denies any relationship to her. He asks his followers to stab him if she repeats the claim. She understands what’s happening and withdraws the claim of kinship. Just below is a link to the entire scene. Marilyn Horne and Nicolai Gedda are the principals.
Le prophète Act 4 scene 2
Gounod’s Faust was the first work performed by the Metropolitan Opera when it opened in 1883. It was so popular the Met was dubbed the Faustspielhaus. Loosely based on Goethe’s play it has been criticized for being loosely based on Goethe’s play. A kind of learned idiocy particularly prevalent today. It’s an opera with a simple story that when well cast works very well – Goethe Smerthe. It’s got great tunes and one scene that dramatically works as well as any in opera. The last scene of Act 4 is in a church where poor Marguerite, her life ruined, goes to pray. Mephistopheles and a choir of devils intervene; the stricken girl faints when the head devil curses her. The Church Scene is a theatrical wallop. Victoria de los Ángeles and Boris Christoff are perfection in this 62 year old recording.
Act 3 scene 2 of Massenet’s Manon takes place in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Des Grieux, the testosterone addled tenor, has decided to take the collar after Manon dumped him for a rich man. He is now an abbé. He can’t get her out of his hormone possessed head. She appears after he’s given a sermon and sung a big aria and seduces him right there in church in front of man and God. Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann are the lovers. N’est-ce plus ma main?
Religion figures prominently in many of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas. He also wrote what is likely the greatest requiem mass yet conceived. All this from a non-believer who might even have been an atheist. He was a master student of the human condition and thus had to be interested in mankind’s spiritual dimension.
Verdi’s priests are never favorably depicted. Their behaviors are quite different, but never wise and effective. The enlightened intellectual of 19th century Italy was anti-clerical. Padre Guardiano in La Forza Del Destino is well meaning and ultimately ineffective. He’s part of a cast that gets everything wrong throughout the opera. In Act 2 scene 2 the soprano, Leonora di Vargas, seeks refuge in a monastery headed by the above padre. Why not a convent? Because Forza is an opera about people with really bad luck – destiny if you will. The scene ends with one of Verdi’s most wonderful inventions – a duet with men’s chorus. There aren’t many duets for soprano and bass. This one is at the top of the small list. Zinka Milanov is Leonora, Cesare Siepi is Padre Guardiano – from a 1958 Met performance. Or siam soli
Non-Christian priests don’t fare any better with Verdi than do their Christian successors. Ramfis in Aida is not a well of kindness. The second scene of the first act is in the Temple of Vulcan in Memphis. How Vulcan got to ancient Egypt thousands of years before the Romans conjured him has yet to be explained. After some dancing and chorale singing Ramfis (bass) installs Radames (tenor) as commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Army – Egypt is at war with Ethiopia. Radames wins the war and falls in love with the wrong woman, at least from a political perspective. They both die, but only after a beautiful duet. This clip is the end of the temple scene of Act one. Jussi Björling and Boris Christoff are the soloists. Mortal, diletto