Concerts & Opera

Meyerbeer's Le Prophète in Deutsche Oper Berlin

09.03.2020


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I originally saw Olivier Py’s production of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s epic five-act opera, Le Prophète, at Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2017 and found myself so glad to be revisiting it after a suitable interval of time. The staging of the opera forms part of a project that has seen new productions at Deutsche Oper over the past few years of Les Huguenots (2012) and Vasco da Gama (L’Africaine) (2015) while a concertante version of Meyerbeer’s opéra comique, Dinorah (formally entitled Le pardon de Ploërmel) was staged in 2014. As with Deutsche Oper’s production of Les Huguenots, Le Prophète was sung in French with German and English surtitles to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps after passages from the Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations by Voltaire.

The scenario of Le Prophète surrounds the political and religious intrigue charting the rise and fall of the rebellious Protestant Anabaptists who tried in vain to establish a communal sectarian government in the Westphalian city of Münster at the time of the Reformation while Les Huguenots focuses on religious bigotry culminating in the ugly St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 in which thousands of French Huguenots were slaughtered by French Catholics in an effort to rid France of Protestant influence.

However, the Anabaptists only held Münster for a short span of time from February 1534 to June 1535. Bernhard Knipperdolling was installed as mayor while the Anabaptist prophet who initiated adult baptism in Strasbourg in 1530, Melchior Hoffman, pushed the hard-line of eschatological Anabaptism that helped to lay the foundations for the dramatic events in Münster. Tragically, it turned out to be one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of the Reformation and Meyerbeer’s opera convincingly captures this important slice of politico-religious history.

At one time Meyerbeer’s operas were some of the most frequently-performed operas in the world with Le Prophète and Les Huguenots never far away from Opèra national de Paris’ stage. Sadly, his style fell out of favour and Le Prophète fell completely out of favour in the early part of the 20th century but slowly recovered its status with revivals at Zürich Opera in 1962 and, indeed, Deutsche Oper in 1966, both featuring Sandra Warfield and James McCracken in the leading roles. A revival at the New York Met in 1977 starred Marilyn Horne as Fidès while Vienna State Opera also brought it to the stage in 1998 in a production directed by Hans Neuenfels starring Plácido Domingo and Agnes Baltsa.

The overall action of Le Prophète, however, surrounds the real-life protagonist and the self-proclaimed ‘King of Münster’ and 16th-century Anabaptist leader, Jean de Leyde (based on John of Leiden) who leads a band of fundamentalists in an act of defiance against the despotic Catholic authorities but soon realises that the revolutionaries are seemingly corrupt as the rulers they have displaced.

Yet within the grandiose framework of this historical drama, Le Prophète is also a psychological battle between mother and son. In fact, the real adversary of Jean de Leyde is, in so many ways, his mother, Fidès, a strong, forthright and determined woman who could have jumped out of the pages of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. She spares no effort to re-establish her own control over her apostate son. It is a conflict that pervades the entire work right up to its bitter (and dramatic) end.

It’s a hell of a work for singers to master and American tenor, Gregory Kunde - an exciting singer harbouring a richly-textured and wide-ranging voice made his role début as Jean de Leyde in the original production of 2017 - put in a commanding and authoritative performance that would be hard to beat as, too, did the Russian soprano, Elena Tsallagova, reprising her role of Berthe, his fiancée. But in true 19th-century operatic style she’s coveted by another in this case Count Oberthal, ruler of Dordrecht, sung and acted in a suave, carefree and arrogant manner by Berlin-based bass-baritone, Seth Carico - also from the 2017 production.

Completing the trio of principal roles fell to French mezzo-soprano, Clémentine Margaine, as Fidès, who made her début in this role in 2017. A brilliant singer, I found her simply adorable to listen to with her voice hitting the mark radiating round the vastness of Deutsche Oper’s large (and comfortable) auditorium with consummate ease.

Olivier Py’s direction truly hit the mark, too, while Enrique Mazzola (who takes up the position of music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 2021/22 season) coached Deutsche Oper’s splendid orchestra to triumphs while he also spun his magic in the pit, too, when conducting Dinorah and L’Africaine.

There were so many good scenes to enjoy in this production but one that I found totally absorbing featured Clémentine Margaine and Elena Tsallagova singing the duet ‘Pour garder à, ton film le serment’ from act 2 concerning the fate of Jean’s whereabouts. Passionately and beautifully sung it gave way to a thrilling trio in the same act - ‘Loin de la ville’- with both singers joining Gregory Kunde as Jean de Leyde dreaming of bliss and happiness and their future together. But dreams very rarely come true especially in 19th-century opera!

The musical continuity of the work is engaging, too, inasmuch as a host of recurring themes underlie it. For instance, the principal theme, the well-loved Anabaptist hymn - Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, iterum venite miseri - heard to good effect in act 1 reappears in act 3 when Jean calms his troops having just suffered a massive defeat. The theme then rallies once more at the beginning of the final act as the three Anabaptists - admirably led by Taiwanese tenor, Ya-Chung Huang (also from 2017) - plot to betray their newfound ‘Prophet’.

Another recurring motif relates to the role of the ‘Prophet’ and is dramatically heard in a distorted form in act 2 is when Jean recounts the dream that haunts him while it is duly repeated - but with a very different tone and rhythm - in the Coronation March of act 4 during which the crown, the sceptre and the sword of justice and the seal of state is ceremoniously handed over to him. The Coronation ends spectacularly with a large crowd assembled heaping praises on the ‘Prophet’ - in this production seen healing the blind, the lame and the disabled in wheelchairs - at the miracles he has accomplished while bizarrely proclaiming him to be the son of God.

What a scene! What staging! It was 19th-century operatic grandeur in every sense of the word with the vastness of Deutsche Oper’s stage taken up by one of the largest choruses I’ve ever encountered (over 80 strong) so well drilled by Jeremy Bines and that’s without taking in account the children’s chorus trained by Christian Lindhorst. And talking of musical strength the orchestra numbered just over 120 - and that’s large by any stretch of the imagination. Under the baton of Maestro Mazzola they played brilliantly capturing in more ways than one the essence, splendour and excitement of Meyerbeer’s wonderful score.

However, in such a serious opera as this comedy also found its place with the trio in act 3 - notable for the original way in which a grave situation is set by Meyerbeer complemented by a comic situation - focuses on Count Oberthal arriving under the cover of darkness to the Anabaptist camp hoping to infiltrate their group and disrupt their plans.

In the trio that follows Oberthal swears to a jovial-sounding tune - ‘Sous votre bannière que faudra-t-il faire?’ - that he’s ready to execute as many aristocrats as he can while the Anabaptists, Zaccharias and Jonas - sung without a hitch by Derek Welton and Gideon Poppe - cheekily complement his actions. It’s not until Jonas holds a lamp to Oberthal’s face that he recognises his enemy whereby the two Anabaptists swear to kill him while Oberthal, in turn, expresses his hatred of them.

More often than not ballet proved a popular choice in 19th-century opera and in traditional productions of Le Prophète the music to Les Patineurs in the first scene of act 3 would feature dancers mimicking ice-skaters. But in this production the scene travelled far from the ice to a rundown, sacked and pillaged neighbourhood witnessing Oberthal’s castle on fire in the distance, the work of the Anabaptists. A brilliantly choreographed and directed scene, Olivier Py utilised the benefits of a revolving stage to extremely good effect. Matthew Bourne, I’m sure, would have approved!

Incidentally, the English composer, Constant Lambert, took the ballet music from Le Prophète with excerpts from the ballet music of Meyerbeer’s opéra comique, L’étoile du nord, to successfully create Les Patineurs for The Royal Ballet in 1937 choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton.

But what made this opera so absorbing and interesting was the modernistic setting. The director dumped the traditional framework of farmsteads, windmills and so forth turning the peasants into white- and blue-collar workers, occupants of high-rise flats. Sporting Trilby hats, the men were smartly dressed in two-piece suits and ties while the women were turned out in nicely-patterned day-to-day dresses tastefully created by costume designer, Pierre-André Weitz, who also engineered some rather imaginative, detailed and heavily-constructed sets especially for the scene incorporating the Bacchanalian feast in act 5 while Bertrand Killy’s excellent lighting effects fitted so well the overall stage picture.

The farmstead seemed very far away. And, of course, it was! And the farm-horse, too, as when Count Oberthal arrived on the scene he arrived in style pulling up in a smart chromium-trimmed black Mercedes-Benz limousine looking like a playboy, loaded and ready for action, shadowed by a coterie of henchmen with single-barrelled repeating shotguns at the ready.

The musical and theatrical influences of Le Prophète - so much admired by Berlioz who attended its Paris première - are enormous and relate not only to Liszt’s monumental ‘Fantasy and Fugue’ on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam for organ, based on the Anabaptists’ hymn and, indeed, dedicated to Meyerbeer, but also the duet between mother and lost child in Verdi’s Il trovatore. And the finale of Le Prophète - culminating in fire, destruction and death - closely mirrors the catastrophic ending of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

In fact, the tremendous success of Le Prophète also provoked a massive anti-Jewish attack on Meyerbeer by Wagner who in his essay Das Judenthum in der Musik attacks Jews in general targeting not only Meyerbeer but Mendelssohn as well. It was published under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik of Leipzig in September 1850 and reissued in a greatly expanded version under Wagner’s name in 1869. It is regarded by many as an important landmark in the history of German anti-Semitism.

Wagner wrote: ‘During that period I also saw the prophet for the first time - the prophet of the new world. It gladdened my heart. I felt uplifted inside and abandoned all my rabble-rousing plans which suddenly appeared so ungodly, seeing that divine humanity and sacrosanct truth in all its purity and noblesse had already nestled down warmly in our blessed present day.’

Such were the sentiments expressed by Wagner in a letter he wrote in 1850 describing a visit to the Opéra national de Paris to see Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. A year after its première, the performance he attended was already the 47th at this theatre. Wagner’s ironically over-egged eulogy betrays a realisation - hard to swallow for the ambitious young composer - that the grand master of grand opera, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and his body of work would be a force to be reckoned with for some time yet, especially in Paris, the epicentre of opera at the time.

It is no exaggeration to say either that Meyerbeer was the most successful composer of opera of his generation. Long before Wagner’s musical dramas - more informed by Meyerbeer than the maestro was ever willing to admit - were accorded their shrine on Bayreuth’s Green Hill, Meyerbeer was notching up triumphs in Paris and elsewhere that seemed quite impossible to equal, far less top. It was Le Prophète not Parsifal that French reviewers and art critics considered to be the paradigmatic work of the future, while audiences saw it, at least in France, as mirroring their own age of revolution and upheaval.

Anyhow, the opera (which was so lovely to revisit especially with so many key members of the original production reprising their roles) was a very serious and grand affair with no expense spared. To get such a large production as this to the stage doesn’t come cheap but the German government stepped in with monies set aside by the Bundestag to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Every euro, I feel, was well spent!

Tony Cooper

Photograph: Bettina Stöß

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