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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

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