Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

As I approach St Cyprian’s Church in Marylebone, musical sounds which are at once strange and sensuous surf the air. Inside I find seventy or so instrumentalists and singers nestled somewhat crowdedly between the pillars of the nave, rehearsing George Benjamin’s much praised 2012 opera, Written on Skin.

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017

Bampton Classical Opera’s third Young Singers’ Competition takes place this autumn, culminating in a public final at Holywell Music Room, Oxford on November 19. This biennial competition was first launched in 2013 to celebrate the company’s 20th birthday, and is aimed at identifying the finest emerging young opera singers currently working in the UK.

Peter Kellner announced as winner of 2018 Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera Voice Fellowship

Independent Opera (IO) was very present at the Wigmore Hall last week. On Thursday 5 October, IO announced 26 year old Slovakian bass Peter Kellner as the winner of the 2018 Wigmore Hall/IO Voice Fellowship, a two-year award of £10,000 plus professional mentoring from IO and the Wigmore Hall. A graduate of the Konzervatórium Košice Timonova and the Mozarteum University Salzburg, Peter is currently a member of Oper Graz in Austria where later this season he will sing the title role of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Colline in Puccini’s La bohème.

Back to Baroque and to the battle lines with English Touring Opera

Romeo and Juliet, Rinaldo and Armida, Ramadès and Aida: love thwarted by warring countries and families is a perennial trope of literature, myth and history. Indeed, ‘Love and war are all one,’ declared Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, a sentiment which seems to be particularly exemplified by the world of baroque opera with its penchant for plundering Classical Greek and Roman myths for their extreme passions and conflicts. English Touring Opera’s 2017 autumn tour takes us back to the Baroque and back to the battle-lines.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice opened the 2017–18 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Michelle DeYoung, Mahler Symphony no 3 London

The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen.

King Arthur at the Barbican: a semi-opera for the 'Brexit Age'

Purcell’s and Dryden’s King Arthur: or the British Worthy presents ‘problems’ for directors. It began life as a propaganda piece, Albion and Albanius, in 1683, during the reign of Charles II, but did not appear on stage as King Arthur until 1691 when William of Orange had ascended to the British Throne to rule as William III alongside his wife Mary and the political climate had changed significantly.

Elder conducts Lohengrin

There have been dozens of capable, and more than capable, recordings of Lohengrin. Among the most-often praised are the Sawallisch/Bayreuth (1962), Kempe (1963), Solti (1985), and Abbado (1991). Recording a major Wagner opera involves heavy costs that a record company may be unable to recoup.

Anne Schwanewilms sings Schreker, Schubert, Liszt and Korngold

On a day when events in Las Vegas cast a shadow over much of the news this was not the most comfortable recital to sit through for many reasons. The chosen repertoire did, at times, feel unduly heavy - and very Germanic - but it was also unevenly sung.

The Life to Come: a new opera by Louis Mander and Stephen Fry

It began ‘with a purely obscene fancy of a Missionary in difficulties’. So E.M. Forster wrote to Siegfried Sassoon in August 1923, of his short story ‘The Life to Come’ - the title story of a collection that was not published until 1972, two years after Forster’s death.

‘Never was such advertisement for a film!’: Thomas Kemp and the OAE present a film of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was premiered at the Dresden Semperoper on 26th January 1911. Almost fifteen years to the day, on 10th January 1926, the theatre hosted another Rosenkavalier ‘premiere’, with the screening of a silent film version of the opera, directed by Robert Wiene - best known for his expressionistic masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The two-act scenario had been devised by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and the screening was accompanied by a symphony orchestra which Strauss himself conducted.

Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

No sooner had I drafted my review of Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto,

Aida opens the season at ENO

Director Phelim McDermott’s new Aida at ENO seems to have been conceived more in terms of what it will look like rather than what the opera is or might be ‘about’. And, it certainly does look good. Designer Tom Pye - with whom McDermott worked for ENO’s Akhnaten last year (alongside his other Improbable company colleague, costume designer Kevin Pollard) - has again conjured striking tableaux and eye-catching motifs, and a colour scheme which balances sumptuous richness with shadow and mystery.

La Traviata in San Francisco

A beautifully sung Traviata in British stage director John Copley’s 1987 production, begging the question is this grand old (30 years) production the SFO mise en scène for all times.

The Judas Passion: Sally Beamish and David Harsent offer new perspectives

Was Judas a man ‘both vile and justifiably despised: an agent of the Devil, or a man who God-given task was to set in train an event that would be the salvation of Humankind’? This is the question at the heart of Sally Beamish’s The Judas Passion, commissioned jointly by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia Baroque of San Francisco.

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

A Verlaine Songbook

Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Marguerite de Valois
05 Aug 2009

Les Huguenots at Bard SummerScape 2009

Why — they always ask — why — present Les Huguenots?

Giacomo Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots

Marguerite de Valois: Erin Morley; Valentine: Alexandra Deshorties; Urbain: Marie Lenormand; Raoul: Michael Spyres; Nevers: Andrew Schroeder; Marcel: Peter Volpe; Saint-Bris: Jon Marcus Bindel. American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein. At Summerscape, 2009; Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, performance of August 2.

Above: Marguerite de Valois

 

On those rare occasions, to be sure, when it is ever given. (The last New York performance — a wonderful concert by the Opera Orchestra of New York — took place in 2001; the last New York professional staging was in 1915.) But if you must do it, why stage it? Or anything else by Giacomo Meyerbeer? Isn’t he elephantine, dramatically chaotic, insanely expensive to produce, musically absurd? Isn’t he the guy Wagner despised — even more than he despised anyone better paid than he was? And who but wry, witty Leon Botstein of Bard and the American Symphony Orchestra would stage Les Huguenots as the centerpiece of a colloquium on the influences on, and of, Richard Wagner?

You don’t hear this sort of thing, this casual contempt, from all sides (especially not from those who have actually attended a Meyerbeer opera), but you do hear it. “I can’t go to Les Huguenots,” one Wagnerite friend told me — “the Meister would not like it.” Joe Volpe, who gave the Met trash like Sly and Cyrano, operas that were never popular anywhere, had a fixed prejudice against the composer of the first piece ever to achieve one thousand performances at the Paris Opéra. (That work was Les Huguenots, by the way.) Meyerbeer is usually just … dismissed. It is rare (and, I think, thrilling) to hear one of his airs in an opera audition or recital program — for no one at the dawn of the era of grand opera knew better than he how to display the virtuoso voice to advantage, often in unlikely combination with an obbligato instrument or two — basso profundo and piccolo, anyone? (That’s from Les Huguenots, too.)

But how could operas popular throughout the world for almost a hundred years not be worth hearing? How could they not appeal to audiences whose ears are, to an extent, what the nineteenth century made of them? After each of the four professional live performances of Les Huguenots that I’ve attended, people on every side were saying, “This is such an exciting opera! Why do we never hear it? Is his other music as good?” or words to that effect. They say this even before the end, usually, because these works are long and uneven, and the end often arrives after pleasure capacity has reached overload. Meyerbeer’s works are much of a muchness, and his habit of tossing in afterthoughts at the request of new singers does not render them less unwieldy. On the present occasion, there was tremendous interest — a couple of the Bard performances were sold out.

Huguenots_Deveria.gifScene from "The Huguenots" by Giacomo Meyerbeer by Achille Deveria [Boston Harbor Museum]

Botstein says Parsifal is slightly longer than Les Huguenots, but Parsifal doesn’t feel as long — Wagner knew how to do much more with far less melodic material, partly because he had Meyerbeer’s example to teach him what pitfalls to avoid: Keep the story tightly focused, and don’t dissipate musical energy by pausing between numbers — in fact, do away with individual numbers — that was the Wagnerian revelation.

Huguenots can be draining if untrimmed. It is usually trimmed — in Berlin in 1988, they dropped Act III and a great deal else, permitting Pilar Lorengar to sing Valentine, a role otherwise beyond her powers. At Bard’s Summerscape this year Botstein was determined to present all of it, or very nearly. A ballet or two may have gone missing between scenes of mass murder.

Mass murder, yes. Les Huguenots follows the grand opera plan concocted by master librettist Eugène Scribe, the dramatic style later utilized by Hollywood films of setting the romantic problems of a few tormented “little people” against the throes of some historical convulsion. Without Scribe there would have been no D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. De Mille. But for Meyerbeer, the drama was subservient to musical requirements — each major singer needed a major solo to establish character and a duet or two to confront others, and where De Mille could cut away to scenery or a bit of local color, opera has dance, ritual, daily activity set to music in some sensational way. (Les Huguenots contains a notorious “bathing” scene in an onstage pool.)

Marguerite_de_Valois_Clouet.gifMarguerite de Valois, dite La reine Margot by François Clouet (1572) [Bibliothèque nationale de France]

Les Huguenots concerns the agonies of a fictitious love triangle set against the St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre of several thousand Protestants (Huguenots, in France) by the Catholics of Paris in 1572. There is one historical figure, Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX, whose marriage to the Protestant king of Navarre was the occasion for the bloodshed, an incident of the wars of the Reformation that ripped Europe apart for two centuries. Having endured that — and having realized that God just didn’t care who won — created the sentiment for religious toleration that is one of the happiest triumphs of Western civilization. The story of vicious wars among Frenchmen was, by 1836, exemplary: How far we’ve come! Thank heavens nothing like that could happen again! — or so Meyerbeer’s audience could tell themselves. Meyerbeer himself, a Jew from Berlin, mercifully died in 1864. Today, who can doubt that this tale of well-intentioned people trying to avert horror only to be destroyed by it in the end is relevant? As we know after the Holocaust, no nation is so civilized it cannot descend to barbarity.

The other reason, I believe, that Les Huguenots scares producers even more than other large-scale Meyerbeer operas, is its reputation, dreamed up by a Met press agent, as the “Night of Seven Stars” — you cannot put it on unless you have seven leading singers of spectacular attainment, plus a dozen capable minor ones. This is not quite true. While Meyerbeer wrote in a way that allowed singers of abnormal ability to show off their best shots, none of the seven lead parts is murderously long or difficult except those of Raoul and Marcel. Marcel, the gruff soldier whose voice plumbs the depths to affirm his bedrock Puritanism, sings a great warlike display piece (with piccolo) in “Piff! Paff! Pouf!” (that’s the sound of bullets shooting Catholics), a duet with Valentine, a trio in a besieged church, and he should be heard in ensembles, but it won’t kill any singer who has those low notes.

Raoul is another matter — a heroic but lyric tenor (Wagner imitated him with the far more unsingable Tannhauser) who must be romantic, flirtatious, outraged, stalwart and devout t by swift turns — and who must sing something important in each of the five acts. You can’t do Huguenots without a strong Raoul — don’t even think of it. Marcello Giordani boosted his career to the A-list by taking on Raoul in several productions.

In contrast, the Queen in this opera is a lesser figure (Valentine is the heroine) — Marguerite sings an enormous coloratura showpiece on her entrance in Act II, tossing out Es and Fs, but thereafter she barely appears — she can go rest her tonsils or change costume. The part is therefore a favorite with aging ladies who have kept a bit of top. I once heard Sills surf through it at length and with ease; Joan Sutherland, who had done it at La Scala (on horseback no less) at 35, could still sing it respectably a quarter century later in her final stage appearance.

Valentine, however, calls for a strong lyric soprano or a high mezzo, capable of matching the ardors of her Raoul. Urbain is a display role for mezzo-in-trousers, a high mezzo at that. Meyerbeer tailored his roles closely to unique singers, so that they sometimes fit awkwardly on ordinary ones; it is another reason why he was agreeable to writing new showpieces for new performers.

Then there’s a baritone, the Comte de Nevers, a suave French man-about-town who says no to friends plotting massacre. The Comte de St.-Bris is a caricature bass villain, needed for the curtain shocker: he has just slain three “Huguenots,” only to discover one is Valentine — his only child. Yes, Verdi knew this opera when he wrote Rigolettoeverybody knew this opera.

So: Les Huguenots is a crowd-pleaser, an erstwhile blockbuster hit, influenced everyone and has a story relevant to today’s headlines. It should be performed — with judicious snippage perhaps (because the music is of variable quality). Now, how did they do at Bard? To my surprise, surprisingly well — I’d give it a six and a half out of seven possible stars.

Michael Spyres has a lovely, liquid tenor, all honey for love duets and some metal for cries of outraged honor. His voice may not be large enough to sing this lyric but very long role in a major house — no way to be sure at Bard, where the Sosnoff Theater seats 900 — but it held up, remaining beautiful and on pitch well into Act V. You can’t do a Huguenots without a Raoul, and Bard had a winning Raoul.

Erin Morley sang the Queen, encumbered by preposterous costumes in gunmetal gray as if to emphasize her equivocal politics. She has a large, agile, clear soprano — no canary she, but then Meyerbeer knew how to spare his singers a fight with full orchestra — and her highly ornamented scene (rising to brilliant high F’s) was most gratifying. Alexandra Deshorties sang Valentine with supple phrasing and inexhaustible spirit. I have occasionally had the sense that this singer’s sizable instrument has a mind of its own, not fully under the singer’s control; there was little sign of that here. She can cut through a whole Meyerbeerian cast and chorus when necessary (as the only woman present — horrified — during the Oath of the Swords) but there were hints of a beat when she pushed too hard. She was tremendously affecting in quiet moments, such as her solo at the opening of Act IV or the trio in Act V, even manifesting a creditable trill. Marie Lenormand, looking no more masculine than do most trouser mezzos, tossed her bright, cocky soprano about charmingly, but lower notes gave her some trouble.

Andrew Schroeder gave a distinguished account of Nevers. A strapping figure with an engaging, solid baritone, he remained French in his insouciance and the ease of his singing. Peter Volpe scored a great success as gruff Marcel, always in character, agreeable if not startling with the famous low range of the role. His “Piff, Paff” would have been even more impressive if the director hadn’t undercut it. Jon Marcus Bindel, as Valentine’s wicked father, was the only singer who did not delight — when he sang with any power at all, they wobbled unpleasantly. The five Catholic nobles, all roles calling for high quality, were well cast, and the two gypsies in the Pré-aux-Clercs sang deliciously. It would have been nice to have a gypsy dance to the gypsy dance ballet that follows instead of a tawdry assault by Huguenots on girls in slips.

Meyerbeer’s orchestra is not enormous — he is notoriously kind to singers — but he needs power for the great explosions that cap the drama at its many high points. Botstein’s soloists accompanied the singers lovingly but sometimes lacked the concluding “button” that sets off applause — the audience did not always seem cued to apply it. The great scenes that build and include everyone — soloists, chorus, orchestra, the primal scenes of grand opera, were impressively carried off, at least when the staging did not distract.

The staging was by Thaddeus Strassberger, whose wrangle with the challenges of fitting it in the Sosnoff’s small but technically proficient stage was by turns inventive and perverse. The theme wasn’t exactly modern dress, but it was difficult to be sure what period it was set in — the women wore something old and bulky, the men something modern, the dancers something scanty. The Pré-aux-Clercs scene of Act III, set in a field near the Seine where Huguenots (forbidden to worship in churches) are holding a Sunday service beside the convent in which Nevers is marrying Valentine, was placed by Strassberger under the steel piers that support the elevated portions of the Paris Métro — far from bucolic or Renaissance, but intriguing for its echo of the nave of some great cathedral. The plot for massacre in Act IV filled a claustrophobic square of black leather chairs — and the sides of the set drew back when the conspiratorial chorus came to join in for the Oath. Indeed, the best of Strassberger’s work was his use of the great wooden panels that front the Sosnoff stage to segment the scene into smaller tableaux, allowing us to see what Raoul spies (and misinterprets) of Nevers and Valentine in Act I, or to give us a narrow glimpse of Marguerite’s ball in Act V.

But what beefs me, what gets me to want this guy barred from the opera house, is his lack of faith in the music. Naked wrestlers at a men’s stag party (while they sing of women and wine) — okay; but must they wrestle when Marcel is singing his great aria? If you know the piece, you’ll know enough to ignore the busyness upstage, but this is a piece strange to most of the audience. The eye will be caught, the ear will ignore. If Mr. Volpe were Pol Plançon, he’d refuse to sing until the wrestlers were canned, but nowadays singers don’t do that. The Oath of the Swords in Act IV, one of the great moments of Parisian opera, a scene that seldom fails to send chills by purely musical means, failed to chill on this occasion because of the bleeding naked fellow being attached to a chain in the middle (why? Do politicians usually have scenic tableaux while making top-secret backroom plans?) and the chorus dragging huge crosses across the stage. Yes — we get it — but we would get it from the music, if you’d let us listen to it. The great Act IV duet, a noble piece much admired by — yes — Wagner (and wittily parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in The Pirates of Penzance — they knew their Meyerbeer, too), was building beautifully in its tight space from the ardent throats of Mr. Spyres and Mme. Deshorties, but Strassberger, musically oblivious, abruptly had his soprano disrobe so the tenor could demonstrate his ardor (was this the time, I ask you? with a massacre to prevent?) by singing a stanza while between her legs. You could enjoy the music anyway — but if you have to shut your eyes to take pleasure in an opera, why are we spending money on a stage director? Strassberger is of the school that believes music is the last thing anyone cares about in the opera house. If Botstein wants to give an obscure work a chance — a noble aim — can’t he find a team that believes the piece is worth it?

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):