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Les Huguenots

Les Huguenots is a French opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of the most popular and spectacular examples of the style of grand opera. The libretto was written by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps.

Background

Les Huguenots was some five years in creation. Meyerbeer prepared carefully for this opera after the sensational success of Robert le diable, recognising the need to continue to present lavish staging, a highly (melo)dramatic storyline, impressive orchestration and virtuoso parts for the soloists - the essential elements of the new genre of Grand Opera. Coming from a wealthy family, Meyerbeer could afford to take his time, dictate his own terms, and to be a perfectionist. The very detailed contract which Meyerbeer arranged with Veron, director of the Opéra, for Les Huguenots (and which was drawn up for him by the lawyer Adolphe Crémieux) is a testament to this.

Performance history

Les Huguenots was premiered at the Paris Opéra on 29 February 1836 (conductor: François Antoine Habeneck), and was an immediate success. Both Adolphe Nourrit and Cornélie Falcon were particularly praised by the critics for their singing and performances. It was indeed Falcon's last creation before her voice so tragically failed. Berlioz called the score 'a musical encyclopaedia'. Uniquely, Les Huguenots was performed at the Opéra more than 1,000 times (the 1,000th performance being on 16 May 1906). Its many performances in all other of the world's major opera houses give it a claim to being the most successful opera of the 19th century.

Other first performances included London (Covent Garden Theatre), 20 June 1842), and New Orleans on 29 April 1839. Due to its subject matter it was sometimes staged under different titles such as The Guelfs and the Ghibellines (in Vienna before 1848), Renato di Croenwald in Rome, or The Anglicans and the Puritans (in Munich), to avoid inflaming religious tensions among its audiences. (In Soviet Russia it was given a new libretto as Dekabristi (The Decembrists)).

The work was chosen to open the present building of the Covent Garden Theatre in 1858. During the 1890s, when it was performed at the Metropolitan Opera, it was often called 'the night of the seven stars', as the cast would include Lillian Nordica, Nellie Melba, Sofia Scalchi, Jean de Reszke, Édouard de Reszke, Victor Maurel and Pol Plançon.

Modern revivals

Like others of Meyerbeer's operas, Les Huguenots lost favor in the early part of the twentieth century and it no longer forms part of the standard operatic repertoire.

One reason for the lack of revivals is cost. Another is the extraordinary difficulty in casting the work. Les Huguenots has seven leading roles—two sopranos, one contralto, two baritones, a tenor, and a bass. Moreover, the tenor part, Raoul, is one of the most taxing in all of opera. He is onstage for large sections of all 5 acts and his music is filled with extremely difficult high notes. Certainly, there is lack of modern-day virtuouso singers capable of performing Meyerbeer's operas with the sort of grace, stamina and technical panache that they need to have lavished upon them, if the composer's musical intentions are to be fully realised.

Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge were the major force in the opera's revival during the second half of the 20th century. Sutherland chose the opera for her final performance - at the Sydney Opera House on 2 October 1990, Bonynge conducting Opera Australia. Sutherland, unfortunately, was past her peak years of the 1960s and '70s by then.

In recent years, the opera has sometimes been performed in concert form, and there have been occasional revivals by European opera companies, including Leipzig (1974), Royal Opera (London), Bilbao (1999), and Metz (2004).

Roles

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, February 29, 1836
(Conductor: François Antoine Habeneck)
Raoul de Nangis, a Huguenot tenor Adolphe Nourrit
Comte de Nevers, a Catholic nobleman baritone Dérivis
Marcel, Raoul's servant bass Nicolas Levasseur
Comte de St. Bris, father of Valentine Serda
Valentine, fiancée, later wife, of Nevers soprano Cornélie Falcon
Marguerite de Valois, Queen of France and Navarre soprano Julie Dorus-Gras
Urbain, a page soprano Flécheux
Chorus: citizens, soldiers, gypsies etc

Synopsis

The plot of the opera culminates in the historical St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 in which thousands of French Huguenots (Protestants) were slaughtered by Catholics in an effort to rid France of Protestant influence. Although the massacre actually took place, the rest of the plot, primarily concerning the love between the Catholic Valentine and the Protestant Raoul is wholly a creation of Scribe, the librettist.

Act 1

A short orchestral prelude, featuring the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg, replaces the extended overture Meyerbeer originally intended for the opera. We are at the chateau of the (Catholic) count of Nevers, who is entertaining his fellow noblemen. They await the arrival of Raoul, and are surprised to hear that this emissary of the Court is a Huguenot. After a drinking song at Raoul's entry, the newcomer is prevailed upon to give a tale of love. Raoul tells of an unknown beauty he has rescued and fallen in love with. (With a daring and unusual stroke of orchestration, Meyerbeer accompanies this aria with a solo viola d'amore). Raoul's Protestant servant Marcel is shocked to see his master in such wicked company and sings a hearty Protestant prayer (to the tune of 'Ein fester Burg'). He then sings a Huguenot battle song from the siege of La Rochelle, Pif, paf.

The arrival of a mysterious lady stranger to speak to Nevers (off stage) interrupts the proceedings. Raoul recognises her as his mysterious beauty. In fact she is Nevers's intended bride, Valentine (daughter of St. Bris), instructed by the Queen to break off her engagement. Enter the page Urbain, with a secret message for Raoul, daring him to come blindfold to a secret rendezvous.

Act 2

The chateau and gardens of Chenonceaux. Queen Marguerite looks into a mirror held by her enamoured page Urbain, and sings the virtuoso pastorale, O beau pays de la Touraine. Valentine enters and reports that Nevers has agreed to break the engagement. Marguerite's entourage of ladies enter dressed for bathing - cue for a ballet. Raoul enters blindfolded and the ladies tease him. With his sight restored, the Queen orders Raoul to marry Valentine to cement relations between the Protestant and Catholic factions. In a complex final ensemble, while a chorus of nobles swears friendship, Raoul, who believes Valentine is the mistress of Nevers, refuses to comply with the Queen's command. The nobles then swear revenge, and Marcel reproaches Raoul for mixing with Catholics.

Act 3

Paris, the 'Pré aux clercs' on the left bank of the Seine, at sunset. The act opens with extensive scene setting of citizens, soldiers, church-goers and gypsies. Valentine has just married Nevers, but remains in the chapel to pray. Marcel delivers a challenge from Raoul. Saint-Bris decides to attack Raoul, but is overheard by Valentine. A watchman declares curfew (the scene anticipating a similar one in Wagner's Die Meistersinger). Valentine, in disguise, tells Marcel of the plot against Raoul. The duel is interrupted by rival factions of Protestant and Catholic students, and only the arrival of the Queen stems the chaos. Raoul realises that Valentine has saved him and that his suspicions of her were unfounded - however, now she is wedded to his enemy. Nevers leads her away in a splendid procession.

Act 4

A room in Nevers' Parisian town-house. Valentine, alone, is surprised by Raoul who wishes to have one last meeting with her. The sound of approaching people leads Raoul to hide behind a curtain, where he hears the Catholic nobles, accompanied by three monks, who bless their swords, pledge to murder the Huguenots. Only Nevers does not join in the oath. This scene is generally judged the most gripping in the opera, and is accompanied by some of its most dramatic music. When the nobles have departed, Raoul is torn between warning his fellows and staying with Valentine, but finally duty triumphs over love. Valentine faints as Raoul makes his escape.

Act 5

Scene I

A ballroom. The Protestants are celebrating the marriage of the Queen to Henry of Navarre. The tolling of a bell interrupts the proceeding, as does the entrance of Raoul, who informs the assembly that the second stroke was the signal for the Catholic massacre of the Huguenots.

Scene II

A cemetery - in the background a ruined Protestant church. Nevers dies protecting Marcel, who is wounded; Valentine agrees to become a Protestant to marry Raoul and Marcel carries out the nuptials. A 'chorus of murderers' shoots all three, after they express their vision of heaven, 'with six harps'. They are finally murdered by St. Bris and his men, he realising only too late that he has killed his own daughter. (Cf. the closing scene of Fromental Halévy's opera, La Juive, libretto also by Scribe, produced a year earlier than Les Huguenots). The entrance of the Queen, and the chorus of soldiers singing 'God wants blood!', bring the opera to a close.

Influence

Following five years after Meyebeer's own Robert le diable and a year after Fromental Halévy's La Juive, Les Huguenots consolidated the genre of Grand Opera, in which the Paris Opéra would specialise for the next generation, and which became a major box-office attraction for opera houses all over the world.

Hector Berlioz's contemporary account is full of praise: with 'Meyerbeer in command at the first desk [of violins] [...] from beginning to end I found [the orchestral playing] superb in its beauty and refinement [...] The richness of texture in the Pré-aux-Clercs scene [act III] [...] was extraordinary, yet the ear could follow it with such ease that every strand in the composer's complex thought was continually apparent - a marvel of dramatic counterpoint'.

The immense success of the opera encouraged many musicians, including Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, to create virtuosic piano works based on its themes.

Selected recordings

There are several complete recordings extant. The first (near) complete recording is that made by Richard Bonynge (conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra) (Decca, 1970), with Joan Sutherland as the Queen, Anastasios Vrenios as Raoul, Martina Arroyo as Valentine, and Nicolai Ghiuselev as Marcel. The 1988 Erato recording features Ghiuselev in the same role. Another recording from 1971 (broadcast February 17, 1971 from the Grosser Konzerthaussaal, Vienna) has Rita Shane as Marguerite de Valois and Nicolai Gedda as Raoul de Nangis, conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. (See also the discography at the Meyerbeer Fan Club site).

Several late 19th-Century singers versed in the genuine Meyerbeerian performance style made acoustic gramophone recordings of arias from Les Huguenots and other works. Many of these early recordings have been remastered and reissued on CD recitals. They are valuable musicological research tools.

Scores

References

  • Harold Rosenthal and John Warrack, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera (Oxford, 1979), Huguenots, Les
  • Thomas Forrest Kelly, First Nights at the Opera, Yale, 2004. Chapter III, Les Huguenots.
  • Matthias Brzoska, tr. Christopher Smith, Meyerbeer: Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera ed. David Charlton, (Cambridge, 2003)

Notes

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