Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and his other once wildly popular grands opéras were neglected for most of the twentieth century, but as the recent revival under review here has shown, there’s nothing wrong with them that time and money cannot solve. Time, because when heavily cut to shoehorn them into a normal evening’s time frame, as recent revivals have done, they lose their musical and dramatic logic. Money, because all opera is expensive, and these blockbusters are especially so. Bard SummerScape produced a memorable Huguenots in 2009, but the activity has taken place almost exclusively in Europe. Now the Paris Opera, where all four of Meyerbeer’s grands opéras had their premieres from 1831 to 1865, lends strength to the burgeoning Meyerbeer revival with its own new production at the Opéra Bastille of Les Huguenots, the first opera ever to be performed one thousand times by the company, but one that has gone unperformed there since 1936.
Andreas Kriegenburg’s sweeping production gives ample evidence of the opera’s power to enthrall a present-day audience. Its subject of religious fanaticism, as represented by the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, resonates in any age, a point Kriegenburg apparently seeks to make by setting the action in an imaginary future in 2063. Meyerbeer and his librettist Eugène Scribe, working at a time when other operas were convention-bound, tell their story in a strikingly original and unfailingly theatrical way. Alluring vocal melodies ally themselves with novel orchestral colors. Musical numbers of various forms and sizes function within an over-arching structure. It all begins rather casually in introducing the Catholic and Protestant factions but gains tension as it zeros in on the plight of Raoul, a prominent Huguenot, and his beloved Valentine, a Catholic.
Andreas Kriegenburg’s sweeping production gives ample evidence of the opera’s power to enthrall a present-day audience.
Kriegenburg doesn’t make a lot of his futuristic setting, which is just as well, but shows proper concern for ensuring his production’s spaciousness and grandeur. Prominent among Harald B. Thor’s sets is an expansive three-tiered structure that looks especially frightening when, all aglow in red, the Catholics consecrate their swords. It also works well during the bloody climax by providing space to suggest the ongoing massacre without drawing attention away from the doomed principals.
Act II, set outdoors near the château of Chenonceau, looked intriguing with its leafless trees and creamy colors, but Kriegenburg ran into difficulties in Act III, set on the banks of the Seine River, where tensions mount between Protestants and Catholics. The act’s ballet sequence, a not insignificant part of the build-up, was omitted. And rather than suggesting urban Paris, the set is barely changed from what served for Chenonceau and alternates with an indoor scene relating to Valentine’s arranged wedding to the Count of Nevers. Despite the ballet cut and numerous others, we were in the theater nearly five hours.
Outstanding in the cast was Lisette Oropesa, who brought exquisite tone and a delightfully coquettish manner to Queen Marguerite of Valois. Oropesa, a late replacement for Diana Damrau, helps to make Act II, with its voyeuristic scene of ladies-in-waiting bathing in the River Cher, the evening’s high point. Another casualty of ill health was Bryan Hymel, who was replaced as Raoul for the run by Yosep Kang. Kang in turn was announced as under the weather on October 10 and had his ups and downs vocally, but Ermonela Jaho contributed an impassioned, richly sung Valentine.
Nicolas Testé was appropriately forbidding, even menacing, as Raoul’s servant Marcel, whose fanatical Protestantism can sometimes seem inadvertently comic. Karine Deshayes was engaging as the page Urbain, and Florian Sempey and Paul Gay were strong as the Counts of Nevers and Saint-Bris. The conductor Michele Mariotti propelled the lengthy opera ahead in fine fashion. A major revival of Les Huguenots at the Metropolitan Opera is long overdue. Here is one opera that the huge opera house is not too big for.