198. Les Huguenots (Meyerbeer)

  • Opéra in 5 acts
  • Composer: Giacomo Meyerbeer
  • Libretto: Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps (with additional ideas, revisions and words by Gaetano Rossi, Adolphe Nourrit, and Giacomo Meyerbeer)
  • First performed: Théâtre de l’Opéra (salle Le Peletier), Paris, 29 February 1836

SETTING: Touraine and Paris, August 1572.

CHARACTERS

MARGUERITE DE VALOIS, queen of NavarreSopranoJulie Dorus-Gras
VALENTINE, Saint-Bris’s daughterSopranoMarie-Cornélie Falcon
URBAIN, the Queen’s pageSopranoMarie Flécheux
Two Ladies of HonourSopranoXX
RAOUL DE NANGIS, a Protestant gentlemanTenorAdolphe Nourrit
DE TAVANNES, Catholic gentlemanTenorA. Dupont
DE COSSÉ, Catholic gentlemanTenorMassol
DE THORÉ, Catholic gentlemanTenorWartel
BOIS-ROSÉ, Huguenot soldierTenorWartel
LE COMTE DE NEVERS, Catholic gentlemanBasse chantanteProsper Dérivis
LE COMTE DE SAINT-BRIS, Catholic gentlemanBasse chantanteJacques-Emile Serda
DE RETZ, Catholic gentlemanBasse chantantePrévost aîné
DE MÉRU, Catholic gentlemanBasse chantanteFerd. Prévost
MAUREVERT, Catholic gentlemanBasse chantanteBernadet
MARCEL, Huguenot soldier, Raoul’s servantBasse profondeNicolas-Prosper Levasseur

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,

And the Catholics hate the Protestants…

Tom Lehrer, NATIONAL BROTHERHOOD WEEK

At the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes takes Dr. Watson to the opera: “I have a box for Les Huguenots. Have you heard the De Reszkes?”

Bert Coules, writer of the BBC radio series starring Clive Merrison, goes one better, and ends the Canon with a plug for Meyerbeer. If you’ve enjoyed these mysteries, why not try some exciting, melodramatic French operas? (Someone was obviously a fan; “The Noble Bachelor” opens with the Catholic women’s litany from Act III of Les Huguenots. Startled? I nearly fell off my cross-trainer.) Surprisingly, the BBC’s Dr. Watson has not heard of Meyerbeer. In the 19th century, this would have been like not knowing who Beethoven or Wagner were.

Meyerbeer was called the Michelangelo, the Shakespeare, the Æschylus, the Goethe of music, while Les Huguenots may be the most successful opera of the nineteenth century. This powerful tale of religious bigotry, fanaticism, and mob violence in 16th century France was Meyerbeer’s second opera for Paris.

1888 vocal score

The opera is set in 1572, on the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s eve. 30,000 Huguenots (French Calvinists) were killed across France on the orders of Catherine de Medici’, the queen mother. The French princess Marguerite de Valois plans to bring peace to the warring Catholic and Huguenot factions by marrying Raoul de Nangis (Huguenot) to Valentine (Catholic), just as she will marry the Protestant Henri de Navarre. But the Princess’s well-intentioned intervention only makes matters worse: Raoul believes Valentine is the mistress of the Comte de Nevers, angrily rejects the proposal, and publicly insults Valentine. Raoul learns his mistake far too late. The French Catholics slaughter the Huguenots by the thousand; the fanatical Comte de Saint-Bris, Valentine’s father, organises the conspiracy. Raoul’s servant Marcel marries the lovers only moments before Saint-Bris’s assassins kill them all. (In Lofti Mansouri’s Sydney production, Saint-Bris starts to cross himself, then stops in horror, realising his faith has made him into a monster.)

Robert-le-Diable (1831) had made Meyerbeer into a European sensation overnight; Les Huguenots was an even greater success. It was the first work to be performed at the Paris Opéra more than a thousand times; the millennial performance took place in 1906, 70 years after the work premiered. It was performed worldwide, often in local translation, sometimes in revised, politically safe librettos (I Guelfi ed I Ghibellini, Die Anglikaner und die Puritaner).

Berlioz thought the “superb” work was “a musical encyclopaedia with enough musical riches for 20 operas”. Verdi called Acts III and IV stupendous, and Act V true theatre. Even the young Wagner was impressed: “Meyerbeer wrote world history, the history of heart and feeling; he burst the bounds of national prejudice in writing deeds of music.” (Even in old age, years after savaging Meyerbeer as a Jewish charlatan, he still admired Act IV.) Tchaikovsky considered it “one of the finest operas in the whole repertoire”, with its amazing love scene in Act IV – surely the greatest ever scene of the kind – its marvellous choruses, its strikingly original instrumentation, and ardently passionate melodies.

Meyerbeer amply provides all one could want from a 19th century opera: virtuoso singing, long vocal lines spun out by sopranos; passionate love duets; tempestuous ensembles; lively drinking choruses; crowd scenes; and heartfelt cavatinas, all in a musical idiom more advanced than anything known in France or Italy at the time. One finds the melodic brilliance of Rossini, the grace and delicacy of Mozart, and the powerful orchestration and learned harmonies of the Germans, while Meyerbeer anticipates the stirring, passionate drama of Verdi, the Gesamtkunstwerk (unified artwork) and breadth of Wagner, and the historical pageantry of Mussorgsky. Scenes in Un ballo in maschera and Don Carlos, in Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and in Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina have their origins here.

Meyerbeer and his librettist Eugène Scribe displayed an almost Shakespearean ability to vary moods and scenes, and to show characters caught up in the torrent of history. The opera encompasses both the intimate and lyrical – Raoul’s romance “Plus blanche que la blanche hermine”, Marguerite’s “O beau pays de la Touraine” – and the grandiose and powerful, such as the Blessing of the Swords, which Berlioz called “one of the most shattering inspirations in the whole of art”.


GENESIS AND RECEPTION

Robert-le-Diable had made Meyerbeer immortal, as Chopin put it; with Les Huguenots, he had to excel or outdo that triumph. “A little less applause, to remain only a few lines below that first pedestal was to fail and fall,” Le Constitutionnel noted; “the immense, unheard-of success of Robert-le-Diable could be as embarrassing a burden a premature fame.”

Les Huguenots was an epic five years in the making. Meyerbeer had considered other projects: Le Portefaix, an opéra-comique originally intended for Herold; a collaboration with Dumas, Les Brigands, before settling on Le Saint Barthélemy (the working title for Les Huguenots). Meyerbeer signed the contract in October 1832; the work was scheduled for December 1833 / early 1834. The opera administration had imposed a penalty clause: if Meyerbeer did not deliver the score within a certain time, he forfeited 30,000 francs. But Mme Meyerbeer was ordered to Italy for her health; her husband asked the premiere to be delayed by six months; the management refused, so Meyerbeer withdrew his score, paid the forfeit, and departed. Desperate to stage Meyerbeer’s masterpiece, the management later repaid the money.

Meyerbeer revised the libretto with the help of Gaetano Rossi in Italy and Émile Deschamps in France. The composer was concerned that Scribe’s libretto lacked a sense of the historical period, and wanted to develop the themes of religious conflict. He also remoulded the character of Marcel, “an uncomfortable mixture of true devotion and intransigent militarism” (Letellier: Studies). Contemporary critics including Berlioz and Georges Sand, were impressed by the originality of the role. Jules Janin (Journal des débats) drew attention to his “uncultivated grandeur, inflexibility of naïve conviction and a noble character, paternal feelings for his master’s son, and all the sublimity of religious enthusiasm”. The smallest characters – Marguerite, Nevers, Saint-Bris – were characterised types, and even these secondary roles called for first-rate artists, Bellaigue observed.

Julie Dorus-Gras as Marguerite de Valois

The complex opera demanded long rehearsals; some performers, Berlioz noted, complained that the opera was unperformable, that it made no sense. Meyerbeer calmly replied: “If it can’t be performed today, we will see what happens tomorrow. If my music lacks common sense, that’s because it has another sort.” By the last dress rehearsal, performers who had cursed the composer and his work a few days before were unable to resist the effect of the music; they cheered Meyerbeer.

The premiere on 29 February 1836 was eagerly awaited. The public expected another masterpiece from the composer of Robert. But for the creators, it was a serious, perilous affair, Le Constitutionnel wrote. Henri Duponchel, the Opéra’s managing director, had staked the splendour of his administration on the production; Meyerbeer needed to renew the glory of Robert-le-Diable, and maintain his position. To ensure the new opera’s success, a publicity campaign was organised: the morning papers carried little articles drawing listeners’ attention to this role or that idea; and rumours of the opera’s magnificence circulated.

Le Charivari (2 March 1836) suggests that the audience were impatient of the long delay and suspicious of too-zealous friends extolling the work. “When the conductor raised his baton for the overture, everyone exclaimed: ‘At last!’” The first three acts, Le Constitutionnel noted, were met with a mixture of applause and hesitation; it was neither a defeat nor a success. The last two acts, however, were a magnificent triumph: the Blessing of the Swords; the love duet; and the grand trio. Meyerbeer’s name was greeted with bravos as loud as thunder. Le Charivari jested that Les Huguenots did not find a single ‘Protestant’ in the theatre.

From there, Les Huguenots went onto enormous success. The six first performances took 54,622 francs at the box office – a figure unheard-of in theatre history, Berlioz noted, a third more than the first half-dozen performances of Robert-le-Diable.

Berlioz (Revue et gazette musicale, 6 March 1836) admired the truth and depth of the dramatic expression, the fresh colours, the warmth of movement, and the elegant forms; the instrumentation and handling of vocal masses surpassed anything that had been attempted to date. It was of a higher, more severe, more noble style, and above all more grandiose than Robert-le-Diable. Jules Janin called Les Huguenots the supreme effort by a man of genius who wanted to have the last word in his art.

If you ask me what the music to come will be, I will tell you that this seems to me the limits of all music. After this employment of all strength, intelligence, instruments, and voices to accomplish this work, no human imagination can foresee what is to come, if anything must come after.

But what does it matter? The future belongs to God, who makes the masterpieces. So let us surrender without further concern to the emotion of the present hour.

JOURNAL DES DÉBATS, 7 March 1836

But the musical richness and novelty of Les Huguenots were too much for some critics, more used to simpler Italian music. Some complained that the score was rich in science, but poor in melody. Le Charivari thought Meyerbeer had pushed his brilliant qualities – rich instrumentation, powerful and noble inspiration, originality of style and dramatic expression – to the extreme; originality degenerated into bizarrerie, and dramatic expression weakened the charm and clarity of the music. Meyerbeer did not grant melody a large enough place, or broke and abandoned it too often. Another critic (quoted in Le Ménestrel) said that the music was essentially Protestant: “It attacks the senses more often than the soul; the harmony of chords prevails over the melody of accents; everywhere we feel the pride of the chromatic dominating the humble and touching expression of the cantabile, and the note is always more ambitious in effect than in intimate power. This is science at the highest point, it is keyboard combinations and a profusion of musical resources hitherto unknown.” (For its part, Le Ménestrel was struck by the fecundity of cantabiles.)

As late as 1853, the painter Delacroix (like Stendhal, a lover of Cimarosa and Mozart) objected to the heaviness of the work, the oddity of the songs which came largely from exaggerated research into local colour. In 1847, the artist saw the first two acts: “Where is Mozart? Where is grace, expression, energy, inspiration, and science? The farcical and the terrible…? Surprising efforts emerge from this tormented music, but it is the eloquence of a feverish person, glimmers followed by chaos.” But Delacroix also found Beethoven and Berlioz confusing.


STORY AND MUSIC

Les Huguenots is almost a historical fantasy inspired by the Massacre. “The fable is almost invented, and only the epoch and the actual conclusion of the piece are historical,” Meyerbeer said of the libretto. Unlike Dumas’s Reine Margot (1845), it shows the events from the perspective of ordinary people, not the politicians. Scribe’s libretto originally called for Catherine de Médicis, not Saint-Bris, to organise the conspiracy and Blessing of the Swords in Act IV; for the attempted assassination of Coligny to be shown; and for Raoul in Act V to describe king Charles IX himself turning on the subjects he should protect. “Leader of our murderers, he is no longer our king!” But censors objected, and these elements were dropped. Even Marguerite passing over the stage at the end, horrified by the atrocity, caused problems.

The prelude is a fantasia on Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg’. It represents, Letellier (Operas) argues, “the spirit of religion in all its forms: solemn, loving, tender, inflamed, militant, deformed, rendered grotesque in militancy”. Schumann objected to hearing “his most cherished song being yelled on the stage”, but the hymn is used as a Leitmotif. Meyerbeer described the chorale as “an emanation from a better world, as a symbol of faith and hope, and always as a rallying call at times of danger or in moments of the highest exaltation… When a hymn is treated like that, it is my belief that it deserves to be called a consecration rather than a desecration.”

Les Huguenots starts deceptively lightly, almost as an opéra-comique. There is little sense of danger or menace in the first two acts. Act I takes place at Nevers’s château, where he is holding a party; it is boisterous, almost blokey; there is much quaffing of wine and chaffing new boy Raoul about his sex life. We can even hear ensembles that look forward to Offenbach. The Huguenot / Catholic conflict is in the background (references to the Huguenot leader Coligny, to the siege of La Rochelle, and to a peace that won’t last long); the stern figure of Marcel seems out of place and uncomfortable among the bantering, carousing noblemen, more dedicated to the true gods of pleasure than to his gloomy dogma and his hatred of Catholics and women. The only female voice is Urbain (a travesty role); Valentine crosses the stage, silent and unidentified (an aria for her was dropped).

Act I – Paris Opéra

Act II takes place in the château and gardens of Chenonceau, Marguerite de Valois’s haven from the gathering storm clouds of religious turmoil. It is elegant, sophisticated, serene; a place where Marguerite can revel in the beauty of her voice for 10 minutes; her ladies-in-waiting can disport themselves in the water; and where the princess can treat the peace arrangements as a leisurely flirtation. But the oath of eternal friendship sounds like the declaration of war, and the threat of violence erupts at the end, Marguerite only holding the factions apart with difficulty.

Bellaigue called these two acts “a charming tableau of aristocratic and princely life at the end of the 16th century”. Some critics complained that they lacked passion and drama. Fétis noted that the plot developed slowly, and the interest did not begin until the middle of the third act; until then, it is a demi-character opera, where the musician alone maintains attention in scenes devoid of action. L’Indépendant thought the first three acts were graceful and skilfully arranged for visual spectacle and contrasting music effects; and the catastrophe of the last two acts is more interesting because of this contrast; but the opera lacked the powerful dramatic unity of Robert-le-Diable. Le Ménestrel thought the opera started weakly because there was no dramatic interest; as the story moved toward its climax, the composer’s inspirations grew to a sublime denouement. But Bellaigue believes these acts provide a skilful contrast between the refined feelings and the wild passions of the Renaissance.

Act II décor

In Act I, the orgie ‘À table, amis, à table’ is splendidly extroverted and boisterous; Berlioz admired its verve and entrain, and the delightful freshness and rhythmic originality of the middle section. Raoul’s romance ‘Plus blanche que la blanche hermine’ is accompanied by the viola d’amore, giving it an archaic feeling; Janin called it “an aerial expression of virgin and prudish love”. Marcel entertains the Catholic noblemen with a rendition of Luther’s choral, and a Huguenot song, ‘Piff, paff’, imitating rifle fire and bombs; it is not attractive, but characteristic. Berlioz thought the flute and drum accompaniment was masterly. The finale includes the page’s cavatina ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’ – a perky coloratura number, and the first time a female voice has been heard.

Female voices dominate Act II, which Bellaigue called a musical sketch as delicate as the frescoes of Primaticcio or the bas-reliefs of Jean Goujon. The act opens with Marguerite’s aria ‘O beau pays’, a lovely Italianate bel canto showpiece that became one of Joan Sutherland’s specialities. It is languid, dreamlike, touched with melancholy.

A bathing chorus provides a pretty divertissement; the music is exquisite, scored for harps and strings. Urbain’s rondo ‘Non, vous n’avez jamais’ can be a show-stopper. Marguerite and Raoul’s duet is attractive: the first section depicts Raoul’s amazement in a slowly unfolding melody, while the mood quickly becomes elegantly coquettish. The finale contains a magnificent Entrée de la cour (minuetto maestoso); a powerful, imposing oath scene; and an enormous stretta; the vocal line flickers like lightning.

In Act III, a troubled city erupts into open strife. On the Pré-aux-Clercs, on the banks of the Seine, rough Huguenot soldiers mock the Catholics at prayer; Saint-Bris and Maurevert plot the assassination of Coligny; Raoul challenges Saint-Bris to a duel – which his enemy turns into a trap; and the populace comes to blows, insults hurled between Catholic and Huguenot burghers.

But the act also contains the heart of the opera: the duet in which the gruff, suspicious Marcel learns that a woman, and a Catholic woman at that, can be good. Janin declared that it was worthy of Mozart, in its elegant and rich orchestration, the limpid clarity of its ideas, and the profound feeling of its melodies. Act III contains much else to admire. Berlioz declared that an ensemble at the start was an astonishing display of counterpoint. Meyerbeer weaves together choruses of Huguenot soldiers, Catholic women, and students; each melody is heard separately, then all performed at the same time, without the slightest obscurity in the harmony. Nothing like this had yet been attempted in the theatre, Berlioz said; the three orchestras of Don Giovanni’s ball are in no way like it. There is a delightful gypsy dance; and a solemn, beautiful curfew. Nor should we overlook the once-famous Duel Septet, nor the massive ensemble of quarrelling townsfolk. (Wagner remembered the effect in Meistersinger.) The finale was not heard in its fullest form until Minkowski’s 2011 Brussels production, while Marcel’s monologue and choral was never heard at all until then. If this bass arioso were known in Meyerbeer’s lifetime, one would think it had influenced Mussorgsky.

From there, the massacre is inevitable; events hurtle to their grisly end. Act IV takes place in Nevers’s townhouse, where Saint-Bris gives orders to the conspirators: when the bell of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois strikes for the second time, the mob will fall on the Protestants assembled for Marguerite’s wedding at the Hôtel de Nesle. The God of vengeance demands slaughter, Saint-Bris cries. Raoul has heard all this; he tries to leave to warn his fellow Huguenots, but Valentine holds him back. She loves him, she declares. But the lovers cannot lose themselves in their feelings; the bell breaks in on their reverie. Raoul leaps out of the window, hurrying to his doom; Valentine collapses.

In Act V, the Huguenot guests at the ball are unaware of the horror outside, until Raoul bursts in, his clothes covered in blood, witness to the murders happening in the streets. Raoul and Marcel have found their way to a cemetery adjoining a Protestant church; inside, the women and children are praying. Valentine tries to save Raoul’s life, offering him a token of safe conduct if he becomes a Catholic, but he refuses to take this ignoble course. Very well, Valentine declares, she will adopt his faith, and die as a Huguenot. Marcel unites the pair at last, moments before all three are exterminated by the blood-crazed Catholic mob.

“Meyerbeer’s genius is awakened and raised to the most beautiful and the greatest inspirations,” Le Constitutionnel’s critic wrote. “Everything is deep, passionate, pathetic in the two acts that follow.” There are only two* numbers in Act IV – but what numbers! Decades later, Bellaigue called this act perhaps the most beautiful production of lyric art; no other opera contained such a half-hour of music.

*: Meyerbeer later wrote a romance for Valentine, ‘Parmi les pleurs’.

The centrepiece is the Conjuration and Bénédiction des poignards (Blessing of the Swords), an electrifying, terrifying scene in which religious fanaticism inspires murder; monks and priests bless the noblemen and the municipal officers who will soon become murderers. “The musician’s inspiration is as vast, as terrible, as dark as those implacable passions that are arming themselves, as this sinister event which is about to come true,” Le Constitutionnel said. Its tremendous majesty reminded Janin of a hurricane, of the ocean. L’Indépendant thought that the scene’s dramatic expression would never be exceeded, because human genius has limits which could not be exceeded. Berlioz called the Blessing of the Swords “one of the most shattering inspirations in the whole of art”; he amplified it for a concert performance in 1844:

I had multiplied the soli of this sublime piece by twenty, and consequently there were eighty bass voices for the parts of the three monks and of Saint-Bris. The impression it made on the performers and those nearest to the orchestra exceeded anything hitherto experienced. As for me, I was seized with such a fit of nervous trembling that my teeth chattered as though I were in a violent fever. Notwithstanding the acoustic defects of the place, I do not think that such an effect in music has often been produced, and I regretted that Meyerbeer was not present. This terrible piece, which one might say had been written with electric fluid, by a gigantic galvanic pile, seemed to be accompanied by thunderclaps and sung by tempests.

MEMOIRS OF HECTOR BERLIOZ FROM 1803 TO 1865 COMPRISING HIS TRAVELS IN GERMANY, ITALY, RUSSIA, AND ENGLAND, trans. Rachel (Scott Russell) Holmes and Eleanor Holmes, revised by Ernest Newman, Ch. LXIII

The Blessing of the Swords was originally meant to end the act; Meyerbeer capped it with one of the great love duets of the 19th century. The famous cavatine (andante amoroso) ‘Tu l’as dit’ is almost painfully tender; it anticipates the exquisite raptures of Tristan und Isolde’s Liebesnacht. As the bell tolls, the melody is already fading. It is thrilling theatre; unlike later love duets, this is dramatic as well as emotional; Raoul leaps out of the window to go to his death. “This alternately frenzied duo of rage and love, full of languor and chivalrous and religious exaltation, develops an incredible power of infinite emotions,” Janin (Journal des débats) wrote. “Neither Nourrit nor Mlle Falcon, carried away by tenderness or sustained by the same distress, have ever risen to such a height.”

In Act V, we pass over the scene at the ball and Raoul’s aria, perhaps the weakest number in the opera. The Grand Trio, with its choruses of terrified Huguenot women and murderers, is sublime. Here Meyerbeer introduced a new instrument, the bass clarinet. This finale, Berlioz declared, was a magnificent manifestation of the powerful gifts with which Meyerbeer was endowed; he depicted love, piety, religious exaltation, fanaticism, hatred, ferocity, the enthusiastic resignation of the three martyrs, and the hideous rage of the populace.


In Les Huguenots Meyerbeer showed himself the master of narrative pacing and symbolic colour. He emerges as the historical novelist of dramatic music, using sophisticated orchestral and choral mixtures and powerful characterisation to unfold both relaxed and vibrant narration. The apprehension of historical detail, the bold confrontation of themes of profound importance to human self-determination and liberty, established him as a great composer of serious opera.

Robert Letellier, THE OPERAS OF GIACOMO MEYERBEER

Les Huguenots is a watershed in musical history: the first truly modern opera. Robert-le-Diable and Auber’s grands opéras are transitional works between Rossini and something new; they are close cousins of the more serious opéras-comiques like Herold’s Zampa. Döhring considers it and Robert a revolution in the history of the genre; the second third of the 19th century was the era of Meyerbeer. The composer transformed dramatic music from a vehicle of emotions into a vehicle of ideas, just as, Letellier (Introduction) argues, he turned Scribe’s play of intrigue into a historical drama of ideas. Les Huguenots, Döhring argues, was “the model of a future form of music drama which made it possible to deal with the broad questions of history and society”.

Camille Roqueplan, RAOUL ET VALENTINE

Meyerbeer was a liberal humanist. His music, as Heine recognised, was “more social than individual”, in contrast to Rossini’s. While the Italians are concerned with specific emotions, the historical background merely a setting, Meyerbeer was interested in broader issues: politics, religion, and (in Vasco de Gama) imperialism. Unlike Wagner, whose operas, written under the influence of Schopenhauer and Buddhism, are introspective and mystical, Meyerbeer is concerned with worldly problems: how men and women can best live together in society. Unlike Verdi or Wagner, who want the audience to identify with the characters and be emotionally overwhelmed, Meyerbeer’s characters cannot lose themselves in their emotions, but must make socio-political choices; the tocsin of the Barthélemy breaks in on the love duet.

Les Huguenots attacks bigotry and all futile public fervour inimical to life. The work, according to Döhring, is a liberal-Jewish criticism of “the historical role of Christianity, whose warring parties – Catholics and Protestants – surrender their religion to considerations of power”. It pits religious intolerance and social prejudice against harmony and reconciliation; depicts religion affiliation as social and political identity, and religious partisanship as bigotry and fanaticism; and highlights the dangers of sectarianism, ideology, and identity politics. Religious tension erupts in murderous violence; ideology that loses sight of the individual, and sees people as members of a categorical ‘Other’ (whether based on religion, social class, or ethnicity), is destructive. Instead, Meyerbeer argues for universalism: a new world of individuals in harmony. He taught that, although our attitudes are coloured by the class and creed into which we are born, we can, with courage and compassion, rise above these divisions to recognise the humanity of others. (See Letellier, ‘Nexus’.) The ¨spiritual heart” of the opera, Letellier argues, is Marcel and Valentine’s Act III duet; Marcel’s “benediction of Valentine represents the triumph of a chastened and enlightened humanity over the unthinking demands and intransigent conditioning of race, clan, creed, class and politics”. Similarly, the Act V trio, Letellier states, “puts love and human worth above and beyond human pride, prejudice, and even principle”.

The Italian revolutionary politician Mazzini believed Les Huguenots showed “the triumph of good through human suffering, sacrifice, and love… That opera stands alone, a beacon to indicate to future composers the course through which music may be directed towards a high social aim.”


RECORDINGS

Of the many official recordings, the two best are the Bonynge/Sutherland set (Decca 430549), despite a weak Raoul in Anastasios Vrenios and the absence of native French speakers, and the Montpellier recording (MusicFrance 2292-45027-2), with its idiomatic French cast.

  • Joan Sutherland, Martina Arroyo, Huguette Tourangeau, Anastasios Vrenios, Nicola Ghiuselev and Gabriel Bacquier, with the New Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge, London 1969
  • Ghylaine Raphanel, Françoise Pollet, Richard Leech, Danièle Borst, Nicola Ghiuselev, Gilles Cachemaille and Boris Martinovich, with the Opera de Montpellier conducted by Cyril Diederich, Montpellier 1990.

The 1990 Opera Australia production (Joan Sutherland’s farewell) hooked me on Meyerbeer; from Act III, it’s an exciting performance that ratchets up the tension. However, it’s heavily cut, Anson Austin is seriously overparted as Raoul, and Sutherland (understandably) doesn’t have her voice of 20 years before.

  • Joan Sutherland, Clifford Grant, Amanda Thane, Suzanne Johnston, Anson Austin, John Pringle and John Wegner, with the Australian Opera Chorus and Australian Opera and Ballet-Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge, Sydney 1990

The 2011 Brussels production (pirate) is live but uses the new Ricordi critical edition; it expands the Act II Raoul/Marguerite duet and the Act III finale, and introduces Marcel’s chorale in Act III. The sound quality is not as good, but it may be the most rewarding version available.

  • Eric Cutler, Philippe Rouillon, Jean-François Lapointe, Jérôme Varnier, Marlis Petersen, Mireille Delunsch and Yulla Lezhneva, with the Orchestre symphonique and choeurs de la Monnaie conducted by Marc Minkowski, Brussels 2011.

Giacomo Meyerbeer Sohn, a Spanish enthusiast, assembled the most complete version of Les Huguenots from the various recordings available: https://soundcloud.com/giacomo-meyerbeer-son/gmeyerbeer_les-huguesnots_really-complete. His complete versions of other operas (including Robert le Diable and Le Prophète) are on YouTube.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Camille Bellaigue, “Revue musicale – le cinquantenaire des Huguenots à l’Opéra”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1886
  • Hector Berlioz, Revue et gazette musicale, 6, 13, 20 March 1836
  • A.C., Le Charivari, 2 and 15 March 1836
  • Anon., Le Constitutionnel, 2 March 1836
  • Eugène Delacroix, Journal : 1822 – 1863
  • Sieghard Döhring, “Giacomo Meyerbeer and the Opera of the Nineteenth Century” (1983, 1999) in Robert Ignatius Letellier (ed.), Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Reader, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007
  • Jules Janin, Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 7 March 1836
  • J.L., Le Ménestrel, 6 March 1836
  • [Lassailly ?], L’Indépendant, 3 March 1836
  • Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Volume 1 : 1791–1839, Associated University Presses, 1999.
  • Robert Ignatius Letellier, Meyerbeer Studies: A Series of Lectures, Essays, and Articles on the Life and Work of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. “Music’s Great Enigma: Giacomo Meyerbeer – Neglected Master of Grand Opéra”; “The Thematic Nexus of Religion, Power, Politics, and Love in the Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer.”
  • Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006
  • Robert Ignatius Letellier, An Introduction to the Dramatic Works of Giacomo Meyerbeer: Operas, Ballets, Cantatas, Plays, Ashgate, 2008
  • Robert Ignatius Letellier, Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Critical Life and Iconography, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018
  • Sergio Segalini, Diable ou prophète ?: Meyerbeer, Beba, 2005

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