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28 Jun 2005

Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Liège

This performance must have been heart-warming for all diehards of traditionalism — no Spanish Civil War, no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, just plain religious warfare in France on the night of the 23rd of August 1572, the infamous ‘nuit de Saint-Bartholomée’ (St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre). One is now almost so used to the excesses of ‘das Regie-Theater’ that one almost is shocked to see such a realistic looking production where dozens of people move on the stage in magnificent authentic costumes all the time (300 of them during the whole opera). As a consequence director Lacombe had his singers act as realistically as possible with real sword fights instead of stylised ones, no squirming on the floor etc. Apart from the visual splendour, everything was concentrated on the music and the singing.

Didier Henry (Le comte de Nevens), Philippe Rouillon (Le comte de St Bris), Gilles Ragon (Raoul de Nangis), and Annick Massis (Marguerite de Valois) (Photo: Opéra Royal de Wallonie)

Liège: Les Huguenots

Annick Massis (Marguerite de Valois); Barbara Ducret (Valentine); Urbain (Marie-Belle Sandis); Gilles Ragon (Raoul de Nangis); Philippe Rouillon (St Bris); Didier Henry (Nevers); Branislav Jatric (Marcel)
Orchestre et choeurs de l'Opéra Royal de Wallonie
Conductor Jacques Lacombe - Director Robert Fortune
Costumes : Rosalie Varda - Sets : Christophe Vallaux

This performance must have been heart-warming for all diehards of traditionalism — no Spanish Civil War, no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, just plain religious warfare in France on the night of the 23rd of August 1572, the infamous 'nuit de Saint-Bartholomée' (St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre). One is now almost so used to the excesses of 'das Regie-Theater' that one almost is shocked to see such a realistic looking production where dozens of people move on the stage in magnificent authentic costumes all the time (300 of them during the whole opera). As a consequence director Lacombe had his singers act as realistically as possible with real sword fights instead of stylised ones, no squirming on the floor etc. Apart from the visual splendour, everything was concentrated on the music and the singing.

It is no mean feat of the Liège Opera to cast a big star (in Europe anyway) as Annick Massis in the small role of the Queen of Navarra: one aria, a duet and an ensemble and that's it. Massis has no scintillating voice; in fact it is more of a big lyric and the sound is not too richly coloured. But then she compensates for her lack of natural means by a formidable technique. Every kind of coloratura trick is in her trade and she can milk out the "O beau pays de la Touraine" till the last note. As her French is perfect, I even prefer her interpretation to Sutherland's well-known dazzling, but far less incisive, performance. Massis proved too that a small role is not something to be taken on as an afterthought and she acted the Queen with dignity, coquetry and irresistible charm.

Another winning performance was given by Marie-Belle Sandis as the page Urbain. She has the requisites for the role: a delicious mezzo-soprano the French call "une Falcon" (much like von Stade), a perfect pronunciation and with her small figure she was fully credible in this somewhat awkward role. Still another French soprano (indeed, this was almost an authentic French performance) was Valentine. Barbara Ducret is typical for the sweet/sour voices many a famous French soprano had though to my taste the voice is a little too sour, too charmless though she has all the notes and a house rattling volume.

The male singers were more of a mixed lot. Philippe Rouillon was a sonorous and utterly convincing St Bris. Indeed I wished he had been given the bigger role of Marcel. Didier Henry did his best as Nevers, acting with a sure touch, making a real person of this somewhat bleak figure. His baritone voice is neither beautiful nor ugly. The problem lies with Meyerbeer, however. As Nevers is such an important role in the play though without an aria, no real first class baritone will be cast in the role.

The only disillusion of the evening was veteran bass Branislaw Janic as Marcel. He had the looks of the part and acted a "vieux Huguenot" as the composer would have wanted it but the voice is worn, with a big wobble, almost no resounding top and his two impressive solos, the Luther chorale and the Pif paf, went for nothing.

And then there was the surprise of the evening: former baroque tenor Gilles Ragon. As Les Huguenots is so rarely performed one has not heard a lot of Raouls in the flesh and some legendary performances are deeply printed in any collector's consciousness. Monsieur Ragon therefore has to compete with some strong ghosts. I saw my first and up to now last Huguenots 38 years ago with the legendary Tony Poncet as Raoul, the last of the great French fort ténors. Most even elderly people in the house had never seen a performance but almost all knew the recording of one of the greatest singing feats ever heard on a scene: the amazing Raoul of Franco Corelli in the 1962 La Scala performance where every time one hears it one asks oneself how it's possible that a human throat can make such loud and at the same time such beautiful sounds. Well, Giles Ragon did well, very well. Though the sound is not particularly distinguished the voice is big with a gleaming edge and a good top. His aria was a tremendous success and he easily dominated the ensembles. Indeed one wondered how such a big voice had ever had a career in baroque. During the duet he too understood that he couldn't compete with Corelli and there he preferred some piano on the ascending phrases. But all in all a winning performance; acted well too, though he is a very small man. Indeed there was as to voice as to height a lot of resemblance with Tony Poncet (though that tenor was even 10 centimetres shorter).

Conductor Jacques Lacombe got some excellent playing from the orchestra and the lustily singing chorus which is always at its best when it can sing in the native language. Lacombe had a few moments where his tempi were rather too slow, to wrench out some pathos while during some choruses he was on the fast side. The ballet was cut and there were some very minor other cuts but on the whole we got more than three hours of music which passed as in a moment. I hope the Walloon opera will revive this production in a few years time with a cast as good as this one and I can only copy the famous words of the Michelin Guide for the many who have never seen a performance: "Vaut le voyage".

Jan Neckers

Click here for additional production photos.

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