Meyerbeer’s masterpiece, Les Huguenots, is a 5 act long French grand opera, with a very interesting dramatic development. The story is set against the background of the historical massacre of the French protestants (the Huguenots of the title), by the hand of Catholics, in 1572.
The opera is LONG, and I mean Wagner-long. The music, however, is really beautiful, and extremely engaging. The work matures and develops in a very interesting manner, during its length.
It starts as a silly comic affair: the first act is a party in a Catholic aristocrat’s castle (Nevers) with rowdy young noblemen drinking, singing and dancing. Raoul, a young handsome protestant officer, arrives, and tells the story of how he fell in love with an unknown beauty (Valentine) after saving her life. Juan Diego Florez had his debut in the role of Raoul in this production, and he was magnificent! He is in top form, and the role suits him like a glove. It was created for Adolphe Nourrit, a favorite of Rossini’s; the part requires everything JDF has in abundance: extremely high tessitura, ringing high notes, flawless legato, precision and passion. Raoul happens to see the unknown lady at the castle while she’s breaking off her engagement with Nevers’ himself (as she was as smitten as Raoul was, by their encounter), he completely misunderstands the situation, and decides that she is a harlot and unworthy of his love. In the first act we also make the acquaintance of Marcel, an old servant of Raoul’s, who is a fervent (fanatic) Protestant, always singing hymns, and badmouthing “papists” and women, who are the damnation of virtuous men. Marcel drives the whole dramatic action, he is the character who brings everything together. He was magnificently interpreted by Ante Jerkunica, a young Croatian bass with a booming, authoritative voice, which, on the other hand, manages to be always elegant and stylish. It is very easy to overdo this part, because Marcel is a bit crazy in his fervor, he gets enraged, he often shows inappropriate behavior, embarrassing his master Raoul. It is a part full of traps, and Jerkunica avoided them all, with a wonderful technique and a smooth, believable delivery. He got a show-stopping applause after his aria “piff-paff” where he managed to keep a very difficult balance: the aria really begs for screams and bad taste, but he successfully stayed clear of them.
The second act is all about the Queen of Navarra, who, with her ladies in waiting, is resting and chatting on the banks of a brook. She sings a fiendishly hard coloratura aria, a bravura piece, which Joan Sutherland absolutely and totally owned (she made this character her signature, choosing it for her farewell to the stage). What we got in Berlin was Patrizia Ciofi. She can do the coloratura, and her high notes are all still there (they’re not great, they never were, but they are reasonable). The problem is that, as soon as the voice goes below the very high register, it completely loses timbre and harmonics, and it becomes a scratchy whisper. It is very sad, because she doesn’t sing badly, it’s really the voice that is not there. The Queen of Navarra is a silly character, who summons Raoul to arrange his marriage with Valentine herself, who is the daughter of a prominent Catholic (Saint-Bris) as a gesture of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. In the process the Queen flirts like hell with him, and Raoul himself is smitten by her beauty, and he is on the rebound after the delusion of seeing his beautiful beloved stranger with another man. So they flirt and joke, and the whole act is funny and entertaining, until in the finale Raoul sees Valentine, refuses to marry her (because he thinks she’s a harlot, remember?) and everybody gets very angry, big words are thrown around and trouble is brewing.
The third act is set on a church square in Paris: Catholics and Protestants are bickering and fighting, and Valentine gets married to Nevers, given that Raoul doesn’t want her anymore (but she still loves him). The mood, in this act, gets darker: the music moves from a beginning of big choruses and mass scenes to a very moving duet between Valentine (who overheard the Catholics planning Raoul’s murder) and Marcel, where they talk about saving Raoul. In this duet Olesya Golovneva, as Valentine, gave us a taste of her qualities, which are truly remarkable. She has a very beautiful voice, well set, round and powerful. I liked her a lot. In the end of the act Raoul comes to know that she is innocent, she’s not a harlot after all: she is worthy of his love, but she just married another. Alas! Despair!
In the fourth act the tragedy takes form: at Saint-Bris’ palace the noble Catholics decide to wipe the Protestants out of France and plan a massacre for that very night. The scene is wonderful, from a musical point of view. The chorus and scene of the blessing of the swords is truly really emotional. Nevers, now Valentine’s husband, is the only one who refuses to participate in the slaughter of defenseless civilians. The baritone Marc Barrard was singing this part: he gave a very good interpretation, he managed to convey the change of this character from thoughtless young libertine to noble knight. Unfortunately his voice, although well supported by a good technique, gets very nasal in the higher register, and that’s a pity. Raoul, who is there, hidden in the castle, hears everything and wants to run to the aid of his friends. Valentine pleads that he doesn’t go to meet his death, and a magnificent love duet follows, where he is torn between his passion for her and his duty, she is torn between her passion for him, the terror of seeing him run to martyrdom, and the tiny detail that she is in fact married. Florez and Golovneva gave us an extremely emotional interpretation, the showed good chemistry, and their voices fit together very well. Here Florez seemed to reach almost beyond his limits: his voice made it to heights of romanticism and roundness that I truly never heard from him, not even as Romeo. It was great.
Eventually (the duet does drag a bit too long, in my opinion) in the fifth act he manages to run to the battle, she follows him, finds him in the middle of the fight, and embraces the Protestant religion. They get news that her husband got killed, so they get married to one another on the spot, in the midst of fire, bullets and death all around them. The Catholics arrive, kill them, and her own father realizes he killed his own daughter. The end.
All this was put together in a disastrous production, which qualifies as the most boring thing I have ever seen in an opera house. The chorus is ALWAYS still, they never move. The opera is full of crowd scenes, where people are supposed to chat, drink, eat, fight, discuss, go back and forth. None of this. In act 3, where the Catholic and Protestants are supposed to be in the square and fight, they are actually seated in a church. IN THE SAME CHURCH. Immobile, reading form the same prayer book. The music and the libretto suggest maidens in a procession with a Virgin Mary statue, gypsies who tell the future to people. None of that. Totally static.
A lot of “park and bark” goes on, characters come to the front of the stage and deliver. There are a few ballets in the opera, the music was not cut, but nobody was dancing. Ballet music from the orchestra, and NOTHING happens on stage. While in the duets the singers did give us some interpretation, and there was some sign of stage directions, as soon as more than 2 people were singing, we got porcelain dolls standing (or sitting) on stage with no movement at all. I positively hated it.
Everybody was dressed in XIX century clothes, for no apparent reason (as usual).
The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper was conducted by Michele Mariotti, who I love more and more!! He managed to keep everybody together, with a few small rhythm problems in the choir. His care of the details was admirable: the score is extremely interesting and complex (or so it seemed to me) and he really managed to highlight a lot of wonderful details. His support of the singers is always attentive, and the result was a great musical production.