Thursday, 10 June 2010

Casanova in the Convent

It has always been widely believed that monks and nuns do not lead lives of consistent virtue, and thus their transgressions have frequently been portrayed in literature and art for the gratification of the prurient.

In literature there have been many great writers who have strayed near—or even crossed—the borders of pornography in recounting tales of goings on among the devout: Chaucer and Boccaccio (and Balzac who imitated the latter's style in Les Contes Drolatiques) are in an ancient tradition of story-telling of this kind. In art there are of course many illustrations of misbehaviour in the cloisters such as the erotic watercolours of a certain Viennese painter (I give no link to these: OMF is a family blog).

But in opera, improprieties committed by members of religious orders are seldom explicit: nun/monk love arias are rare and never sung in flagrante delicto. No doubt someone will remind me of exceptions to this, but I can think of only one example of a naughty musical nun, and even then she is probably only thinking about it, or trying not to. In an operetta called Casanova, written by Ralph Benatzky in 1928 to music by Johann Strauss II, there is a nun's chorus; the operetta is hardly ever heard, but a few years ago a recording of this chorus made in 1932 became hugely popular and after a period of deletion had to be restored to the HMV catalogue owing to public demand.

We first hear the nuns at their devotions; the music melts into a waltz rhythm, and presently a single nun (the one Casanova is after?) begins a seductive, swaying tune. As the others join in, she soars higher and higher in voluptuous ecstasy (though the words indicate that she is praying to the Virgin Mary) while a solemn bell tolls, until finally a prim chord on the organ reminds us that we are still in a holy place.

There is a later recording of it here by the Viennese soprano Hilde Gueden; others, including Gracie Fields and Joan Sutherland, have recorded this delicious piece of bad taste with varying degrees of reverence and sexiness.


Amanda said...

I do hope you'll be popping along to this:

Tony said...

Why? Because you suspect I am of a prurient disposition? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Deborah Mends said...

Hi there - one of your fans has been passing your articles along to me, and when I read this one I thought, right, here is my chance to show my erudition and recall how in the Middle Ages longing for the Divine was expressed in the terms of earthly love, etc etc, when I then listened to the music (which piece I didn't know) and found the libretto, below. Thank you for sharing this lovely, longing, lyrical aria to lost freedom!


Oh Madonna, shelter me
Down from heaven shield our pathway.
Kneeled in prayer we look at Thee.
Give us mercy, oh Marie.
Oh Marie, let me flee
convent and veil forever.
Oh Marie, gracious Thee,
Oh, forgive me now and ever.
Roses I will offer
To our holy Mother.
Greatful I'll be to you,
Help me Mary, do!

Tony said...

Thank you, Deborah. But I wonder how Casanova fits in to this. The prayer sounds a bit smarmy: Do you suppose the nun is about to give in to him and is making a pre-emptive prayer to the BVM, hoping to avoid eternal damnation?