10 Nov 2006

MEYERBEER: Les Huguenots

Les Huguenots, an opera in five acts.

Music composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864). Libretto by Eugéne Scribe and Emile Deschamps.

First Performance: 29 February 1836, the Opéra, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Raoul de Nangis, a Huguenot gentlemanTenor
Marcel, his servantBass
Margaret of Valois, betrothed of Henry of NavarreSoprano
Urbain, her pageSoprano
Valentine, daughter of the Count of St. BrisSoprano
Count of St. Bris, a Catholic noblemenBass
Count of Nevers, a Catholic noblemenBaritone
De Retz, a Catholic gentlemanBass
Cossé, a Catholic gentlemanTenor
Méru, a Catholic gentlemanBass
Tohré, a Catholic gentlemanBass
Tavannes, a Catholic gentlemanTenor
Bois-Rosé, a Huguenot soldierTenor

Setting: 1572 in Touraine (Acts I and II) and Paris (Acts III–V).

Synopsis:

Act I

Scene—House of the Count of Nevers

The Count of Nevers, who is entertaining a party of Catholics, seems so preoccupied that his guests ask the cause. He replies that another guest is coming, the Protestant, Raoul. “A Huguenot!” they exclaim. Although they know that Margaret of Valois, the betrothed of the King, is eager to reconcile Catholic and Protestant, and that he who furthers her purpose is apt to win royal favor, yet they receive Raoul with ironical politeness when he arrives. His frank open nature is undisturbed by this, and when Nevers toasts the ladies and proposes that each tell of some adventure with the fair sex, Raoul willingly complies, although he being the last to arrive is chosen to be first to respond. In a Romanza he tells them of the unknown beauty whom he rescued this very morning from some drunken revellers. He does not know her, but is wildly in love with her because of her beauty.

The applause which greets this romantic recital is interrupted by Raoul’s sturdy old Huguenot servant Marcel, who distrusts his master’s Catholic friends and sings the Lutheran chorale, “Ein feste Burg” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God). The guests accept Raoul’s apologies for his behavior and ask the old fellow to sing again. He responds with a vigorous Huguenot ditty against the “snares of Rome.”

The resulting rather constrained feeling is quickly forgotten when a servant announces that a veiled lady wishes to speak to Nevers, who at once retires to meet her amidst the banter of his friends. All are curious regarding the lady, and Raoul himself joins in peeping behind a curtain, ft is none other than the unknown beauty he rescued that morning; at once he believes that some disagreeable liaison exists between this woman and Nevers. Still another unexpected diversion occurs in the arrival of a page, who, in the very ornate but melodious “Page’s Song,” informs them that one of their number is addressed with the unusual request to go blindfolded in a carriage wherever his guide may take him.

Raoul, though highly puzzled when he learns that the message is addressed to him, gallantly accepts. He also wonders at the sudden respect with which he is treated, for he does not realize that the seal on the letter is that of Margaret of Valois.

Act II

Scene—Castle and Gardens of Chenonceaux

Margaret of Valois, surrounded by her maids of honor, rejoices in the pleasant sunny field of Touraine after the stress of life at court. Valentine, daughter of the Count of St. Bris, enters and tells Margaret news—she has succeeded in breaking her engagement to marry the Count of Nevers, news in which both rejoice, for Valentine does not love the man, and Margaret has other plans for her. Valentine and some of the ladies go away as Raoul is brought before Margaret and the bandage removed from his eyes; though astonished to find himself before Margaret of Valois, he gallantly offers her his sword and service. She tells him of her desire for him to marry Valentine and as he knows of Margaret’s ambition to reconcile Catholic and Protestant by this union, he consents. The nobles of the Court are summoned and when they appear they gather around the Queen and in commemoration of the union of Raoul and Valentine swear an oath of eternal truce between their parties. Valentine is brought in to be presented to her betrothed, Raoul recoils in horror and exclaims, “I her husband?” for he recognizes in Valentine the woman who called secretly on the Count of Nevers. All present are filled with the greatest consternation; Valentine is overcome with shame, and St. Bris, furious at the insult to his daughter, joins with Nevers in swearing vengeance. Margaret’s presence does indeed prevent immediate bloodshed, but her hopes of uniting the warring factions are forever shattered.

Act III

Scene—A Square in Paris

Near the entrance to a chapel on the banks of the Seine, a group of Catholic students has gathered about the doors of an inn; and at another inn across the way a number of Huguenot soldiers have met to drink and play dice. Townspeople of all sorts pass to and fro, their many-colored costumes adding glamour to the brilliant sunlight. A bridal procession passes—Valentine and the Count of Nevers are to be married. While the bridal party is in the chapel, Marcel enters with a message for St. Bris, from Raoul. The wedding over, Valentine remains in the chapel to pray alone and Marcel presents the message to St. Bris; it proves to be a challenge. The nobles re-enter the chapel.

Twilight falls, the curfew sounds, and the people disperse. Valentine comes from the chapel in deathly terror, for she has overheard the nobles plotting to kill Raoul. She finds Marcel waiting for his master, and warns him of the plan. It is too late for him to see Raoul before the hour of the duel, so he hastily gathers a group of Huguenot friends nearby. The two parties prove to be evenly matched, a serious fray is threatened and, in fact, is prevented only by the arrival of Margaret of Valois, who happens to be passing. Raoul also learns that he has deeply wronged Valentine, for her visit to Nevers was made at the request of Margaret merely to break off the engagement. His remorse comes too late, for now Valentine is married to this man she never loved, and a boat, gay with lanterns and music, has come up the Seine to take her to the Count’s home.

Act IV

Scene—A Room in Nevers’ Castle

Alone at her new home, Valentine still thinks of Raoul, who suddenly and unexpectedly appears. He so longs to see Valentine that he has entered the castle at the risk of his life; she warns him but he insists on remaining and scarcely has time to hide behind the tapestry before St. Bris, Nevers, and other leaders of the Catholic party, enter. Thus the young Protestant overhears the whole ghastly plot for the massacre of the Huguenots. Nevers alone among them refuses to swear allegiance to the plan; he is led away under guard. While all draw their swords, three Monks who have entered bless them.

The crowd having departed, Raoul comes cautiously from his hiding place; he would run to warn his friends. Valentine meets him, and fearing he may kill her father she will not let him go. They sing a surpassingly beautiful duet which is interrupted by the sinister tolling of the great bell of St. Germain, the preliminary signal for the slaughter. Raoul makes an effort to rush to the aid of his people; Valentine clings to him. Pointing to the street below he shows her that the massacre has already begun, then tears himself from her arms and leaps through the window.

Act V

Scene—Ballroom of the Hôtel de Nesle

The Huguenots are celebrating the marriage of Margaret to Henry of Navarre. Raoul enters calling his brethren to arms. He describes the murder of Coligny and the slaughter in the streets of Paris.

Valentine finds Raoul in a cemetery in front of a Protestant chapel. She implores him to convert. Raoul refuses. Valentine then decides to embrace Protestantism and asks Marcel to bless their union. Inside the church, women are singing the Lutheran chorale. The trio that follows is one of the highpoints of the opera. Marcel blesses the two lovers and asks them to confirm their faith. The scene culminates in the unison singing of “Ein feste Burg.”

Valentine and Marcel are supporting a mortally wounded Raoul. St. Bris arrives leading a group of soldiers. Recognizing Raoul as a Huguenot, they fire their muskets. Raoul, Vallentine and Marcel all fall to the ground. St. Bris only then realizes that he has killed his own daughter. Margaret arrives, putting an end to the massacre.

[Note: In many productions, because of the great length of Meyerbeer’s work, the fifth act is drastically cut, sometimes in its entirety. Also, “Ein feste Burg” is a Lutheran chorale that was not part of the Huguenot liturgy. Being Calvinists, tunes from the Geneva Psalter would have been more appropriate, the most famous of which is the Old Hundredth. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Hundredth]

Click here for the complete libretto