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Sacred and Profane

Opera offers moments of rare spiritual grace in a secular setting.
By Rick Hamlin
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Sacred and Profane hdl 918
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
Samson et Dalila’s blatant mix of sex and religion was clearly a problem, although also a lure.

AS YOU MIGHT EXPECT of an opera drawn from the Bible, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila opens with a prayer—the Hebrew chorus entreating “Dieu, d’Israël” (God of Israel) to deliver them from the Philistines. The story is familiar enough. The audience knows that a muscular, long-haired hero will provide the Hebrews with salvation, despite his penchant for a Philistine temptress. (Those temptresses do turn up everywhere, don’t they?) But even if the subject weren’t from the Bible, is it such a surprise to get some old-time religion at the opera house?

We expect it in an oratorio, such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Passions. Handel’s switch from writing Italian operas to concentrating on his famous oratorios is a sure example of a gifted composer responding to changing tastes, going from secular to sacred because that’s what English audiences wanted. Italian opera just wasn’t as lucrative any more.But is the music really so different? The first time I heard Rinaldo, at its Met premiere in 1984, I found myself humming along to soprano Benita Valente’s luscious “Lascia ch’io pianga.” I knew the tune well, not from the opera but from church choir, where the words went “Hear us, O Father.…”

Not that that was ever Handel’s text. Still, I just don’t think the lines between sacred and secular can be so swiftly drawn. Kurt Vonnegut once said that people don’t go to church for preachments but “to daydream about God.” Many an opera offers the same pleasure, whether the plot is sacred or profane. Radamès, for example, sings of his earthly love in the aria “Celeste Aida,” but as he storms the heavens—his tenor reaching the upper balconies—it’s hard not to think of his song as a prayer. As the old chorister saying goes, “When you sing, you pray twice.”

Saint-Saëns thought Samson et Dalila would be an oratorio until his librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, convinced him otherwise. After all, an oratorio doesn’t usually have sets or costumes. Why would any nineteenth-century Frenchman give up the opportunity to see Dalila dressed seductively in “pagan” costume—not to mention the trembling columns of a Philistine temple? Samson’s Old Testament subject seems to have prevented it from being embraced in the Roman Catholic France of the time. Although parts of Samson et Dalila had been presented in Paris during the decade or so that Saint-Saëns worked on it, the opera’s first staged performance, sung in German, was at the Grand Ducal Theatre in Weimar, Germany, in 1877, with Franz Liszt conducting. The Paris premiere of Samson et Dalila finally arrived in 1892, at a time when the church’s grip on popular culture was loosening, beginning the opera’s acceptance into the international repertoire. 

Samson et Dalila’s blatant mix of sex and religion was clearly a problem, although also a lure. Several years later, when Richard Strauss chose to write his biblical opera, Salome, he was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s 1891 verse play. Although Wilde had a scandalous reputation, he was clearly a man of probing faith. In his play, Wilde created the complicated character of Salomé from a few lines in the gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, which both identify the girl only as the daughter of Herodias. Wilde’s play provides the first mention of the notorious dance of the seven veils (“la danse des sept voiles,” in the original French). Some have claimed it was the first striptease. When Strauss set Salome’s dance to music, he insisted that the dance be “thoroughly decent, as if it were being done on a prayer mat.” Fat chance. The first Salome, Marie Wittich, refused to perform the dance at the opera’s world premiere, in Dresden, in 1905, allowing a dancer to stand in for her. Salome was considered shocking enough at the 1907 Met premiere that it was dropped from the repertory after a single performance and didn’t make a return to the Met stage until 1934.

IN NINETEENTH- and early-twentieth-century opera, it was safer to tackle sex and religion in non-Biblical settings. The French composer Massenet was drawn to plots of divided loyalties. When we meet the title character in Act I of his 1884 opera Manon, she is headed to a convent. Alas, the lure of the world—or at least her attraction to her future lover, the Chevalier des Grieux—proves too strong. The lovers’ dreams of domestic bliss collapse, and by Act III Manon has become a well-kept woman, and des Grieux is the one seeking the solace of the church. His sermons at Saint Sulpice prove popular—pace Mr. Vonnegut—but the most memorable aria for this short-lived Abbé is “Ah! fuyez, douce image,” his plea for his very distracting love for Manon to go away. Was there ever a more fervently sung prayer?

Massenet’s less frequently seen opera Thaïs takes the theme of lust and faith even further. At the start of the opera, set in Egypt in the early years of Christianity, the Cenobite monk Athanaël is headed for a reckoning the minute his ascetic virtues are proclaimed. He’s had visions of the beautiful Thaïs, a priestess devoted to Venus, and believes this is a sign from God that Thaïs is destined to be converted by Athanaël to Christianity. As a member of the audience, you almost want to cry, “Watch out, buddy!” 

Athanaël, who has asked God to blind him to the beauty of Thaïs, manages to deliver Thaïs to a convent and the care of the Abbess. Alas, when Athanaël returns to his former ascetic ways, assured that he will never see Thaïs again, he plummets into depression and admits that he cannot escape his sexual longing. (So much for his prayers.) Athanaël rushes off to find Thaïs and reaches her at her deathbed, just as she’s ready to hear the angels sing. At the curtain we’re left to wonder what a severely troubled ex-monk is supposed to do next, beyond waiting a few millennia for some good psychotherapy.

Thanks to the Roman Catholic origins of French and Italian opera composers, monks and nuns do turn up frequently, along with angels singing. Verdi was not religious or particularly observant, but he certainly could put wings to song, not just in his sacred music, such as the magisterial Requiem, but in his operas, where the possibility of finding refuge in a convent or monastery is a given. In Il Trovatore—one of the most convoluted plots in opera—our heroine, Leonora, thinking her lover, Manrico, is dead, seeks to enter a convent, only to be rescued by him just before she takes her vows. Another Verdi Leonora—Leonora di Vargas, in La Forza del Destino—is more successful in her efforts to enter the monastery. At the end of Act II, ready for the hermitage, she sings one of the most beautiful prayers in all of opera, “La Vergine degli angeli,” which could easily be sung in a church. However impossible it is to pin down Verdi’s actual beliefs, he knew how to pen a prayer—whether it was the trio of entreaties at the end of Luisa Miller or the chorus of Hebrew slaves singing “Va, pensiero” in Nabucco, the text inspired by Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept….”

The whole of Puccini’s enthralling one-act opera Suor Angelica is set in a convent. When Sister Angelica is visited by a family member, her aunt the Princess, we get Angelica’s back story: she had an illegitimate son before entering the convent, seven years earlier. Angelica is shattered when her aunt tells her coldly that the boy died of a fever two years earlier. At her aunt’s request, Angelica signs away her inheritance to her soon-to-wed younger sister. Angelica has a vision that her son is calling her to meet him in heaven. She mixes a potent poison and drinks it, although by doing so she has committed the mortal sin of suicide. Fortunately, in Puccini, there is room for repentance and mercy—and deathbed song. Angelica has another vision, of the Virgin Mary, who appears with Angelica’s son. The boy runs to embrace his mother as she dies.

Opera composers are not dogmatists or theologians. Puccini knew about convent life firsthand from his sister, Iginia, who was a nun. What he shows in Suor Angelica is the emotional life that accompanies the spiritual life. No surprise that Angelica’s aria “Senza mamma,” outlining the fate of her son “without Mamma,” is at the heart of the opera. Only the Holy Mother can heal her pain. Is this not what opera does best—appealing directly to our emotions, and thereby addressing our spiritual side?

THEN THERE IS WAGNER . It’s impossible to leave him out of any essay on spirituality in opera. After all, taking in the Ring cycle or making a pilgrimage to Bayreuth—a sort of operatic Holy Land—feels like a religious experience. Yet it’s not always clear in Wagner what the object of worship should be—the sublime artist, the superb singers, the creative endeavor or some numinous presence behind it all. 

Parsifal is Wagner’s most explicitly religious opera, with its Arthurian references to the Holy Grail and the Holy Spear, relics of Christ’s Last Supper and Crucifixion, and a Good Friday setting. There is a communion scene with the knights drinking from the cup. Parsifal himself is the sort of holy fool that the Apostle Paul might have written about as one of God’s “fools for Christ’s sake.” But, as has been noted, Jesus is never mentioned by name, only referred to as the Redeemer—and why is it that the meadow and nature are renewed on Good Friday and not Easter?

Personally I find a mystic power in Wagner operas—if not the occasion for what a friend of mine calls “exalted repose” and I would call dozing off—but they don’t feel rooted in any conventional religion. Dare I say they represent a turning away from conventional religion?

In the end, the spiritually transporting power of opera comes to me in bits and pieces that don’t even have religion in their name, in which God remains anonymous. When the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro forgives the unforgivable behavior of her rapacious husband; when the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier lets her young lover Octavian off the hook to pursue his true love; when Colline pawns his only overcoat for the dying Mimì in La Bohème—these moments of self-sacrifice, grace and humility are as profound as any.

One of the most stunning moments of spirituality in opera combines sacred music, nuns and martyrdom all in one. At the end of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, the sisters in Revolutionary France are facing the guillotine. (So much for the convent as refuge.) As they sing the Salve Regina, one by one they are taken offstage and killed, the whack of the guillotine punctuating their music, until there is only one sister left, and then none. Silence.

It is one of the holiest sounds I have ever heard. spacer 

Rick Hamlin is executive editor of Guideposts. His most recent book is Pray for Me: Finding Faith in a Crisis.

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