Concerts & Opera

Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots in Deutsche Oper Berlin



Within 48 hours after attending Olivier Py’s invigorating production of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s five-act opera, Le Prophète, I was back at Deutsche Oper Berlin to see the composer’s other epic five-act opera, Les Huguenots, directed by American director, David Alden, who also directed Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd for Deutsche Oper. In fact, I first saw Le Prophète in 2017 while Les Huguenots was new to me but I was seeing it in its revised version from November 2016 based on the history of the opera’s development from its première in 2012. As with Deutsche Oper’s production of Le Prophète, Les Huguenots was sung in French with German and English surtitles.
The staging of Les Huguenots forms part of a project that has seen new productions at Deutsche Oper over the past few years of Vasco da Gama (L’Africaine) (2015) and Le Prophète (2017) while a concertante version of Meyerbeer’s opéra comique, Dinorah (formally entitled Le pardon de Ploërmel) was staged in 2014.
Receiving its world première at the Opéra national de Paris in February 1836, Les Huguenots was written to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps. The latter-named was brought in by the composer to elaborate on the text to add more historical detail of the period than Scribe’s text offered whilst at the same time bringing a greater psychological depth to the characters.
Both Adolphe Nourrit and Cornélie Falcon - who created the central roles of Raoul de Nangis and Valentine - were particularly praised for their performances but, sadly, it turned out to be Falcon’s last major role before her voice so tragically failed. Meyerbeer also sought the advice of Nourrit to expand the love duet in act 4 which became one of the most famous numbers in the whole of the opera. He also consulted with the librettist of one of his earlier Italian operas, Gaetano Rossi, taking his advice to rewrite the part of Marcel.
Surrounding the French Wars of Religion, the scenario of Les Huguenots - partly based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1829 novel, Chronique du règne de Charles IX - found immediate success and is deemed to be one of the most popular and spectacular examples of the style of grand opera of the 19th century. The opera culminates in the historical and 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. Although the massacre was a historical event, the rest of the action surrounding the romantic liaison between the Protestant-Catholic couple, Raoul-Valentine, is, basically, a creation of Scribe.
Some five years in the making, Meyerbeer prepared carefully for Les Huguenots following the runaway success he received for his lavish production of Robert le Diable - the plot surrounding the medieval legend of Robert the Devil - widely regarded as one of the first grand operas at Opéra national de Paris.
But while Meyerbeer was writing Les Huguenots another opera with a similar setting and theme (Ferdinand Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs) hit Paris in 1832 four years before Les Huguenots got to the stage. But Meyerbeer’s work can lay claim of being the first work at Opéra national de Paris to notch up more than one thousand performances. It was produced there on a regular basis up to 1936, a century after its première.
Overall, Les Huguenots was well received and did so much to make Meyerbeer’s name not just in Paris but practically everywhere else, too. But Robert Schumann was scathing about it and loudly objected to the well-loved Lutheran chorale, Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) being used as a musical theme throughout the work. He also objected to the depiction the opera gave to religious fanaticism and sectarianism. He sternly wrote: ‘I am not a moralist but for a good Protestant it is offensive to hear his most cherished song being yelled out on the stage and to see the bloodiest drama in the history of his faith degraded to the level of a fairground farce. Meyerbeer’s highest ambition is to startle or titillate and he certainly succeeds in that with the theatre-going rabble.’
George Sand was more cautious, though. At first she refused to attend a performance saying that she did not want to watch Protestants and Catholics slit each other’s throats to music written by a Jew. Eventually, she relented and attended a performance and was overwhelmed by it.
Berlioz favourably commented: ‘The new libretto by Scribe seems admirably arranged for music and full of situations of undoubted dramatic interest while the work’s instrumentation surpasses everything previously attempted.’ However, the immense success of the opera encouraged many composers, including the likes of Liszt, to create virtuosic piano works based on its themes.
Interestingly, Opéra national de Paris mounted a new production only a couple of years ago, the first time since 1936. Overall, though, Les Huguenots has received so many performances at the world’s major opera-houses that it could well be said to be the most successful opera of the 19th century. Success breeds success, of course, and when Les Huguenots arrived in London in the summer of 1842 it captured the hearts and minds of operagoers at Covent Garden.
Sadly, as with Meyerbeer’s other operas, Les Huguenots fell out of favour but, as so often is the case, returned to fashion. A major force in the opera’s revival came through the husband-and-wife partnership of Richard Bonynge and Dame Joan Sutherland during the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, Sutherland chose the opera for her final performance at the Sydney Opera House in October 1990.
In the short orchestral prelude opening the opera (replacing the extended overture Meyerbeer originally intended) the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg was clearly heard and my thoughts immediately turned to Robert Schumann. Surely, this well-loved composer over-reacted to its use by Meyerbeer. By incorporating the chorale within the work, I felt it gave the opera a feeling of spirituality and honesty from the Protestant perspective.
However, the actual focus on the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre doesn’t show its ugly head until the end of the opera, a million light years away from the respectful courtly opening act in which well-heeled Catholics rubbed shoulders with their Protestant counterparts enjoying the pleasures and bounty offered by the Count of Nevers (Dimitris Tiliakos) throwing a bachelor party at his Touraine chateau.
In this act and, indeed, act 2 (Marguerite de Valois’ court), Alden’s direction focused on a vaudeville show inasmuch as the audience was treated to a trio of scantily-clad burlesque dancers adding greatly to the overall party atmosphere and the general bonhomie of Nevers’ party while a troupe of dancers (choreographed by Marcel Leemann) kept the party moving and swinging along quite nicely.
However, this carefree entertainment was seen in stark contrast to the more sedate atmosphere that surrounded members of the Catholic nobility who were seen on a divided stage, separated by a yellow and blue-grey tapestry-like curtain, deeply embedded in leather-upholstered sofas as befitting members of a London gentleman’s club attired in evening wear prominently (and proudly) displaying their military medals of honour and, no doubt, boasting of their victories.
And being egged on by the Catholics, Anton Rositskiy, in the pivotal Protestant role of Raoul, wildly entertained the assembled guests and sang the orgiastic song ‘Bonheur de la table’ with humour and vigour while later in the same act, dreaming of his future love, he sang so tenderly the aria, ‘Plus blanche que la blanche hermine’ gently (and effectively) accompanied by a solo viola d’amore with the player on stage.
But when it came to setting the stage alight it fell to Liv Redpath in the coloratura role of Marguerite de Valois. She was simply radiant in her delivery of her big number ‘O beau pays de la Touraine’ while Irene Roberts, over energetic as the page, Urbain, proved a winner, too, not just by the singing of her fine aria ‘Une dame noble et sage’ but by her general stage presence.
A show-stopper like no other, though, came with Ante Jerkunica as Marcel giving a brisk account of the famous Huguenot battle-song ‘Piff Paff’, emanating from the siege of La Rochelle, calling for the extermination of all Catholics. But sung within a Catholic stronghold it seemed quite bizarre. Attired from top to toe in black with bible/grenade in hand, Mr Jerkunica fitted the role so well commanding every inch of the stage while his bass voice was as deep as the deep blue sea!
Each and every act had something different to offer, of course, particularly in act 4, where a wall crammed with head-and-shoulder portraits of the ancestors of the Count de Nevers seemed to be conveying the message to keep out of the way regarding the massacre timed for St Bartholomew’s Day. He duly obliges his forebears and singing in their ‘respectable company’ Dimitris Tiliakos’s gave a lovely rendition of the aria ‘Je compte des soldats, et pas un assassin’ while in the same act the love duet between Raoul and Valentine ‘O ciel! Ou courezvous?’ was convincibly and passionately sung by Anton Rositskiy and Olesya Golovneva.
However, the real strength and guts of the opera comes in the last act when Valentine renounces her Catholic faith to join Raoul who refuses to convert to Catholicism while Marcel, over a makeshift altar furnished with a single flickering candle, acts as a priest in a mock wedding ceremony against the eerie and disturbing sound of a bass clarinet which summed up the mood and uncertainty of the dangerous situation the couple found themselves in.
The Catholic mob are on their heels and they soon cut down the newly-married couple (and Marcel, too) following their short-lived moment of happiness. Tragically, Saint-Bris - menacingly sung by Derek Welton, a ‘refugee’ from Le Prophète - in charge of the gang of murderers, killed, unbeknown to him, his own daughter. As the opera draws to a close, a chorus of soldiers, hunting for more Protestants, are heard fanatically chanting: ‘God wants blood.’
The overall stage design by Giles Cadle - helped no end by Adam Silverman’s good lighting effects - was Spartan to the core but adequate enough to offer Alden plenty of space to play around with, particularly with regard to the big scenes especially those that featured the chorus (eighty strong and well trained, may I add, by Jeremy Bines) such as the opening scene to act 3 set on the Pré aux clercs on the Left Bank. Imagination, however, was needed here as the setting is supposed to be a tavern with drinking, jollity and music going on as if there’s no tomorrow but in Alden’s realisation he had all the members of the chorus just seated in regimental fashion. The costumes designer, Constance Hoffman, dressed the Catholic noblemen in formal attire and uniforms (medals, epaulettes and all that) with the womenfolk looking pretty chic garbed out in brightly-coloured ball-gowns leaving the Protestants in black.
Russian conductor, Alexander Vedernikov (music director of the Royal Danish Opera and of the Mikhailovsky Theatre, St Petersburg) worked wonders in the pit. He certainly had a lot to do (that’s Meyerbeer for you!) and presided over a memorable performance managing to keep the correct balance between pit and stage. And that’s not always an easy thing to do. Bravo!

Tony Cooper

Photograph: Bettina Stöß



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