Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots: French Grand Opera Comes to Bard.

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Alexandra Deshorties as Valentine and Michael Spyres as Raoul in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Bard

Alexandra Deshorties as Valentine and Michael Spyres as Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at Bard

Les Huguenots

Music by Giacomo Meyerbeer
Libretto by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps
American Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
designed by Eugenio Recuenco
costumes by Mattie Ullrich

Marguerite de Valois – Erin Morley
Valentine – Alexandra Deshorties
Urbain – Marie Lenormand
Raoul de Nagis – Michael Spyres
Count de Nevers – Andrew Schroeder
Marcel – Peter Volpe
Count de Saint-Bris – John Marcus Bindel

The summer festivals have been proceeding creditably, but now the Important Events are beginning to turn up, mostly in New York State, it seems—not that a cycle of Beethoven violin sonatas by Christian Tetzlaff isn’t important! First came the Oresteia at Bard, then Rossini’s rarely performed Semiramide, and now, once again at Bard, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Probably the most popular opera of all during the nineteenth century (It exceeded 1,000 performances at the Paris Opera), it fell rapidly from favor with, it seems, the First World War. For example, in America it was performed during the first season of the Metropolitan Opera in 1884. From then until 1905 it was performed every season except for 1886-87 and 1904. Then there was a gap of seven years. Les Huguenots was revived in 1912 in a new production and continued through 1915, when it disappeared entirely from the repertory. Evolving taste and the huge expense of producing grand opera put a quick end to its vigorous life on the stage. The full-blooded romantic stories and the grand spectacle found a new life in film, a medium in which the elaborate sets could be built for the camera, and populated with elephants and camels if the director liked, to be distributed to paying audiences around the world—a more economically viable enterprise than a production in a single opera house. (In fact Meyerbeer’s story, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the unfortunate lovers, found a place in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, just as they disappeared from the Met.) There have been sporadic performances in Europe; Joan Sutherland was especially fond of Les Huguenots and the part of Marguerite de Valois; but the opera has remained something of a mystery. It was the quintessential grand opera, a genre with a bad reputation after Richard Wagner’s critique of the form eventually became part of the standard opera history. Since the early twentieth century it has been almost impossible to compare the reputation with the experience of an actual performance, and it has been easy to accept the belief that grand opera was no more than a musically and dramatically empty spectacle, created merely to pander to the lowest appetites of the Parisian audience.

It is no secret that Leon Botstein loves French grand opera. His affinity for this music was apparent at the Bard Liszt festival a few years ago in a rousing program of excerpts, but in introducing Les Huguenots into the Wagner festival this year, he has done so not merely to make Wagner roll in his grave, he wants to present Meyerbeer’s most famous work as a  great opera, a stage work of musical beauty, vigorous invention, and apt expression, with a powerful, direct way of telling its story, as well as an ambition to deal seriously with real moral and political issues. As he makes clear in his perceptive program note, Botstein does not deny the limitations of the genre observed by Wagner, but he does believe that both the genre and the composer offered both pleasure and substance to their audiences. A cast of first-rate singers, the splendid playing of the ASO under Dr. Botstein, and the brilliant, if not always convincing production of Thaddeus Strassberger, not to mention the handsome sets by fashion photographer Eugenio Recuenco and the striking costumes by Mattie Ulrich, made it eminently clear that Dr. Botstein’s opinion is correct. At the Met we could easily sacrifice a season or two of La Traviata or La Bohème in favor of this rich and engrossing opera.

Marie Lenormand as Urbain in Meyerbeer's Les-Huguenots

Marie Lenormand as Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots

Meyerbeer, while his style tends toward the tuneful and the seductive, had impressive musical and dramatic powers. However virtuosic or pleasing a melody might be, he always turns it toward character and the dramatic situation. He doesn’t settle into a beautiful aria for its own sake: there is always tension and uncertainty, whether it is in the music or conditioned by its context. Meyerbeer was a terrifically inventive orchestrator. This most often emerges in the most intimate sections of arias, when an obbligato solo instrument accompanies the voice, as if it were the aural equivalent of the character’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. Early in Act I, Meyerbeer amazes us with a highly original tenor aria for Raoul with viola d’amore obbligato. On a larger scale, a dark divided cello passage becomes a kind of leitmotif for the stolid, inflexible Marcel. In ensemble passages, he achieves marvellous timbres in chorus, soloists, and orchestra. However, in Botstein’s view, the crowning glory of the work is the direct, linear, and urgent way the narrative is pursued. Thaddeus Strassberger’s direction is taut and economical, while Botstein maintained a clear view of the the larger structure of each act and the cumulative shape of the entire opera. Eugenio Recuenco’s design was generally spare, focussed on the dramatic essentials, and free from distractions. In these respects the creative team served the composer and librettists’ aims most faithfully. I’ll discuss their alterations and “interpretations” later.

The nineteenth century was a period of immense material progress. So many inventions on which daily life depends today—I needn’t enumerate them—were made then. It was the century of significant development in British and American democratic institutions, of Karl Marx, Darwin, and the labor movement. But the nineteenth century was also a backward-looking age. Modern historiographical methods, philology, archaeology, the study of myth, art history and museology all emerged then. There were numerous correspondences in the arts: the historical novel, medievalism, historical narrative painting, a renaissance of interest in the artists who preceded Raphael in the Nazarenes and pre-Raphaelites. Richard Wagner, in creating his artwork of the future, relied on philologists and historians, found a model in Aeschylus, and sources in medieval German epics. Brahms looked to Schütz for inspiration and a model. Leon Botstein aptly points out the interrelationships between grand opera and the historical novel, and Meyerbeer’s grand operatic narration of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is to be seen in the context of the historical novels of the time. For that matter, this was the age of the grand historical narrative, and for historians like Michelet, the arts of prose and of story-telling would have remained in the foreground, even if it were accompanied by the historian’s interpretation and judgement of the events: telling the story was as important as interpreting it. Les Huguenots was produced in 1836 under the restored monarchy. The vast majority of the audience, who had been struggling to obtain tickets for months, would have been Catholic, I assume. All Meyerbeer and his librettists were prevented from doing was to bring in Catherine de Médicis, who was generally regarded as the instigator of the massacre. Blaming her on stage for the repudiated and abhorred act of intolerance would have reflected on the present royalty. Also the foreground of the the libretto is the love story of Valentine and Raoul, which also makes historical controversy recede into the shadows. The purpose of Meyerbeer, Scribe and Deschamps was to create a successful opera, not to emulate the historian or the moralist.

Strassberger’s production is very dark indeed, in mood, in outlook, and in appearance: most of the male costumes and those of the Protestant females are black. The presentation is steeped in violence. Both Catholics and Protestants look as bad as possible. Almost everyone is motivated by sectarian hatred. There is neither revelation nor inspiration to be found anywhere. It only reveals my own preconceptions, if the fact went over my head during some of the performance, that the Catholics look somewhat worse than their rivals…but of course I was in denial. What did the first audiences think of Luther’s hymn-tune in Meyerbeer’s occasionally blaring, but fragmented, and, from a contemporary standpoint, quite interesting treatment? They loved the opera, in any case.

Strassberger substitutes boxers of a brutal and ancient kind for the gentle, idle amusements specified in the libretto. Leather-girt, half-naked men, implicitly of a class whereby they are virtually slaves like ancient Roman gladiators, commanded to engage in what eventually appears to be a fight to the death. Scribe-Deschamps’ Catholic noblemen were idle and frivolous, but not sadistic in this way. On the other hand this supports and intensifies the violent impulses that led to the final massacre. That cuts to the quick and strikes a contemporary note, but we should understand that that is both more violent and perverse than the Dumas-esque spirit of the original. Did I just refer to Dumas Père? He only got started in the next decade. First and foremost a playwright himself, Dumas was anticipated on the stage, with some help from Shakespeare and Schiller. Still, Strassberger’s version is more severely moralistic and less comprehensive, than the spectacle that gave Parisians so much enjoyment in 1836.

In a different, but similarly anachronistic vein, Strassberger makes poor Valentine work very hard at her seduction of Raoul before the final catastrophe. She hugs and kisses him, takes off her dress, proffers her bare breasts—all to no avail. Clad in a ragged shift, she raises her skirts in what should have been an irresistible display by the pornographic standards of our own time—all to no avail. Raoul must help his brother Protestants and die with them. This is not very romantic, either, in the 1830’s sense or in ours (Pathos is more important than sex here), but it does stress Valentine’s desperation. After the encounter she appears haggard and drained, ready to do whatever Raoul wants, even a conversion to the faith of Calvin. A detail in the final scene—the bare-breasted female Jesuses tied to the backs of the dying Protestant women and clad only in loin cloths—should be noted as in bad taste: for my part it didn’t offend me particularly, but I can’t say that my mind was concentrated on the tribulations of sixteenth-century French Protestants at that point, or the fate of their souls. And I do know some educated people who would take offense.

The singers were superb all-round. Erin Morley sang the part of Marguerite de Valois: her voice was rich in body and sparkling in surface; her ornamentation was impeccable, and she created a most vividly convincing queen, between her long-term goals and her amorous distractions. Marie Lenormand sang the page, Urbain, with excellent musicianship and perky wit. Alexandra Deshorties sang Valentine with a lovely bright, but rich soprano and acted the part with insight, avoiding any undue pathos. (Wasn’t pathos what nineteenth century audiences liked?) The men were all excellent. John Marcus Bindel sang larger than life as Valentine’s father, the Comte de Saint-Bris. Andrew Schroeder contributed a most elegant, dark-rooted baritone to the Comte de Nevers, as well as a sympathetic portrayal. Peter Volpe acted the part of the loyal Marcel most affectingly and sang magnificently in his resonant bass-baritone. Michael Spyres sang the hero, Raoul de Nagis, with a handsome rich tenor, suggesting the leathery colors of a heldentenor without having quite that size and weight. The horrendously wide range of all the male parts was obvious, but poor Raoul had the worst of it. It was obvious that the extremely high tessitura of some of the passages were not easy for him, but he managed it well, going into a slightly whitish head tone/falsetto in pianissimo, a strategy he could bring off quite effectively. All of these singers understand how the traditional bel canto florid passages can be directed into expressivity. Not only did Dr. Botstein maintain the sweep and structure of the work, he elicited energetic and focused playing from the ASO, and the instrumental soloists executed their challenging obbligato parts most handsomely. Bravi tutti!

They and Leon Botstein have brought a masterpiece of nineteenth century opera back to life. We should recognize that Les Huguenots is essential to the basic operatic repertory. It’s ideal for the Met, of course, in a large-scale, but sensible, honest production which respects the sensibilities of the time in which it was created and makes us excited about it, as Strassberger’s succeeded in accomplishing, in most ways, at least. It’s been ninety-four years, Mr. Gelb!

And we still have to get at the heart of Rienzi in an uncut, or minimally cut, staged performance. According to the old story, it was “Meyerbeer’s finest opera.”

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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