Opera and the cloister

January 14, 2010

After watching Verdi’s La Forza del Destino this week, I was musing on the seeming incongruity of putting monastics on the operatic stage.  Opera is the flamboyant, histrionic, melodramatic art; monasticism is modest, quiet, and hidden from the world.  The two things would seem to be naturally at odds with one another.

It is interesting, therefore, to discover that the marriage of opposites has been attempted several times, and with considerable success.  There is La Forza, of course.  Another example is Puccini’s Suor Angelica, a wonderful short opera set entirely within a cloistered community of nuns.  There is also Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, about which I wrote a few months ago.  And we must not forget — and, really, how could we? — Messiaen’s monumental and magnificent Saint François d’Assise.  (While not, strictly speaking, about a monk, it is close enough for my purposes today.)  Another possible example is Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery, but I have neither seen nor heard that one and don’t know if it fits the theme.

I have just noticed that all of these examples are from twentieth-century operas.  Would you have expected that?  I’m trying, but I cannot think of an example that is not from the twentieth-century.  Even Wagner’s quasi-medieval settings don’t include monasteries or monastics, if memory serves.

I think that The Temptations of St. Anthony would make a splendid subject for an opera.

5 Responses to “Opera and the cloister”


  1. For some reason a lot of twentieth-century composers were fascinated by saintly figures. There are a few more examples: the temptation of St. Anthony is depicted in the climactic scene of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, which is a fictionalization of the life of the painter Matthias Grunenwald. (The scene is a fascinating ensemble mess in which Mathis’s own “tempters” – mostly political revolutionaries – begin to transform into the tempters in his own Isenheim altarpiece.)

    There’s also an opera by the Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti based on Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which I really want to see. And several Canadian composers have written works based on the lives of early Canadian religious: R. Murray Schafer and Healey Willan have both written cantatas on St. Jean de Brebeuf, and Istvan Anhalt wrote a fascinating opera about the 17th-century Ursuline Marie de l’Incarnation (La Tourangelle).

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks very much, Osbert. I have known only the orchestral Mathis der Maler, and didn’t know it was based on an opera, much less one about Grunewald. I guess my German is not very good. I had forgotten about Pizzetti’s opera; like you, I have never heard it.

    What you say about Schafer and Willan is very interesting. I see that Willan’s work is based on E.J. Pratt’s poem, which I have read and commented on before. I can’t find any recordings of either piece, and that is a pity.

    I’ve spent some time looking at your blog, and it is very enjoyable. The world ought to be safe for Messiaen, thuribles, and realist metaphysics, so it seems you are doing a good work.


    • The Canadian Music Centre now maintains a sound archive of Canadian compositions which is the best resource for finding compositions. The performances are mostly live radio broadcasts and are marred by cheesy announcers, coughing etc., but this is generally the only way to hear most Canadian music. (With the exception of a few major figures like Murray Schafer, most Canadian composers are exceedingly poorly represented on disc.)

      Both the Willan and Schafer compositions are available in the CMC archive. I’ve listened to one of the performances of the Schafer, which is enjoyable if a bit diffuse – haven’t had time to hear the Willan yet, but hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

      • cburrell Says:

        Thank you, again. I was not aware of that archive. I’ll create an account for myself soon, since I am really keen to hear the Willan piece.

  3. cburrell Says:

    I’ve just discovered another candidate: Dominique Probst’s opera Maximilien Kolbe. It is available for download at eMusic, but without texts I’m reluctant to go for it.


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