Giacomo Meyerbeer: Le Prophete (1849)

Grand Opera in five acts, Running Time 3 hours, 23 minutes. This is my favorite of Meyerbeer’s grand operas. The story, like Les Huguenots, of religious fanaticism and intolerance is so important for modern audiences and I am happy that Prophete like all four of Meyerbeer’s grand operas are being performed with greater frequency. May the twilight of the Wizard of Bayreuth lead more opera lovers to the works of the man who was the most successful opera composer of the 19th century. The orchestration also features many features which were then novelties such as a characteristically Meyerbeerian usage of odd instrumental combinations at certain moments in the score. The present recording is the RAI 1970 studio broadcast with Marilyn Horne as Fides and Nicolai Gedda as Jean with Margherita Rinaldi as Berthe.

PLOT: Holland, 1530s. Count Oberthal refuses to give permission to his serf Berthe to wed the freeman innkeeper Jean whose mother Fides accompanies her. The women are taken prisoner. Berthe escapes only to be sent back by her fiancee to the Count in exchange for his mother’s life. Meanwhile, a trio of Anabaptist con-artists (who incited the violent uprising against the Count which prompted the two women being taken captive in the first place) have convinced Jean to declare himself their new prophet and lead an army of religious fanatics to take the city of Munster. Berthe escapes successfully only to find Fides in the ruined city and learns that the notorious Prophet murdered her beloved Jean, prompting her to set up a complex system of bombs under the palace where unbeknownst to her Jean is partying as the prophet. In the end, everyone nihilistically either commits suicide or gets blown to bits.

ACT 1:Pastoral scene on the banks of the Meuse river before the castle of Count Oberthal. (32.30 minutes).

2: A sudden scamper, the preludes begins and stops, becoming two oboes that mirror each other, not quite hauntingly but also not happily either. A bassoon pops in just before the orchestra comes back and we have bells, flute flying around like birds. Very scenic, nice quite nature music before the chorus comes in at waltz time *. Four soloist villagers come up with a tuneful ditty on their way to work.

5: Berthe’s happy song of hope for her upcoming nuptials with Jean is slightly manic but very pretty with coloratura flourishes abound **. Yet I keep on thinking Meyerbeer is using the vocal line here to demonstrate that she is a manic-depressive with suicidal tendencies (as hinted at at least three times, here the reference to how Jean saved her from drowning in the river, in act three Count Oberthal will tell Jean that Berthe has died (untrue) by jumping from her prison window into the river, and eventually in act five she commits suicide after plotting to kill the prophet).

9: A hint of Les Patineurs (the act 3 ballet) before Jean’s mother Fides arrives with his engagement ring for Berthe. The duet is somewhat underdeveloped, more recitative than a proper number *.

14, 18: The three Anabaptist’s begin their trio of terror with the haunting and terrifying “Ad nos ad salutarem” ***, enticing the peasants to revolution against the regime of Count Oberthal. In its own bizarrely quiet way it is as bone chilling as Nightmare on Bald Mountain. The sinister element has entered the opera, and it will never leave it. Watch out especially before the chorus comes back around four and a half minutes in just before the trio has everyone really worked up and then the utterly terrifying explosion of Anabaptist brainwashing **. The peasants take up a militant chorus.

24: Oberthal arrives with his retinue and puts down the mini-insurrection. Fides and Berthe make their petition to Oberthal in a series of adorably haunting couplet **. Berthe is terrified at first, but Fides tells her she is with her and to take courage.

30: However, Oberthal refuses because he wants Berthe for himself (saying she is too beautiful for the innkeeper). The people are enraged but Oberthal is steadfast and he has the two women taken prisoner, leaving the people with the Anabaptist trio for one last spine-freezing go at their terrifying hymn ***.

ACT 2: The interior of Jean and Fides’ Inn. (34 minutes)

0: A choral-waltz, what else, before we are finally introduced to Jean **, who is waiting for his mother with news of how the wedding plans are going. The Anabaptists plot to convince Jean to become their “prophet” because of his uncanny resemblance to the glass window of King David in Munster Cathedral. He orders his friends out as night is falling.

6: Jean repeats to the Anabaptists what he has already told everyone twice before. The first trace of the coronation march is heard here as Jean recounts his dream ***. People kneel before him in a temple, then everything falls apart and we get traces of what will eventually become the fire motif in the last act explosion. The text is interestingly Jewish, with no reference to a trinitarian concept of God and Satan is referred to rather than “the devil” or “the demon”. The messiah of the dream is also very much the Jewish and not the Christian one, except for the equation of the messiah with the son of God.

10: Jean declines the Anabaptists urging that he rule in the most lovely way imaginable ***. A very lovely harp/flute accompaniment.

15: Jean is overjoyed when the trio leave but suddenly he hears a noise and Berthe rushes into the inn. She has escaped Oberthal, who is however in hot pursuit.

16: Berthe’s flight aria short but good **. Oberthal gives Jean the choice of keeping Berthe in hiding and his mother will be immediately executed or he hands over Berthe and Fides will be returned to him unharmed. Jean choses not to allow his mother to be killed, orders Berthe out and taken by the guards. Fides is left, free, with her son.

19: Fides’ amazing air ***, in which she blesses Jean for sparing her even at the cost of his beloved Berthe. A quiet but incredible number.

24: Jean is enraged over what he has just had to do. The Anabaptist trio come back, knowing they will now receive a more friendly hearing.

27: The Anabaptists are ready to declare Jean as the prophet. One of the Anabaptists brings up Joan of Arc and how Jean will apparently save Holland the way she did France (wishful thinking). Jean starts thinking about Fides, who he must leave without telling his plan to her *.

30: He decides against leaving with them and staying with his mother but then the three bring up how could he attain vengeance on Oberthal without becoming the leader of the Anabaptists **?

31: A nice bit from Jean here ***. Watch out for the high notes as he pleads for one moment with the militant trio.

ACT 3: Three scenes in the Anabaptist camp. (52.30 minutes)

0: A militant prelude leading to the Anabaptist chorus as they bring in a group of prisoner nobles and monks **.

4: Zacharie tells them not to kill the prisoners now but to wait for their ransom to be paid first in a rather agreeable couplet **.

10: Farmers arrive with food, skating the wares (purchased with money stolen from the victims of the Anabaptists) across the river. The chorus however is rather splended even if the situation is utterly horrifying ***. Notice especially how Meyerbeer uses the woodwinds to depict the act of skating.

13: The ballet, famously entitled Les Patineurs, in four movements all very tuneful (for once for an opera ballet sequence and mercifully short at about eight minutes too!).

a) Waltz **

b) Pas de la redowa **

c) Quadrille **

d) Galop **

Scene 2:

25: In the next scene there is much recitative in which the trio plot to attack Munster by night before the Imperial forces arrive to defend the city. Oberthal arrives in disguise and he and Jonas and Zacharie (Mathisen is off conducting the night attack) embark on a comic trio ** in three parts. The rest is not so amazing but the main tune is very, very good and the scene is also mildly funny as well.

33: Jean arrives in a pensive mood to the music from his dream monologue in act 2 *. Oberthal is brought back in injured and tells Jean that Berthe jumped into the river to escape his advances and is presumed dead. Jean refuses to have him executed, preferring to avoid further bloodshed.

Scene 3:

38: The Anabaptists have a bit of a militant choral * as we transfer back from the tent to the outdoor camp view of the scene 1. The attempt on Munster has failed and Mathisen blames Zacharie for the attack plans. He decides to shame Zacharie in public for this in a moody recitative.

42: Ad nos returns * spelling doom upon the entire scene.

43: Jean has to give the masses a major pep talk in order to undo what the trio have done to mess everything up after the defeat, and he starts slowly to some orchestral accompaniment that would make Wagner envious **. He gets the murderous bunch into a prayerful mode.

46: Suddenly he orders them back up and the sun starts to rise **

48: The climax: “King of Heaven and of the Angels!” Jean declares and suddenly we are in a choral-aria of epic stops *** as he orders the army of fanatical fundamentalists back to Munster.

ACT 4: (45:15 minutes)

Scene 1: Before the Town Hall of the city of Munster, in ruins.

0: The Anabaptists have this time successfully taken the city and their reign of terror has already begun, but you wouldn’t guess from this cheery opening number *.

2: Fides (!) arrives after more than an hour seeking alms to have a mass said for Jean, who she thinks is dead. It is touching **.

8: People are kind enough to donate and then Fides finds Berthe (!). Their duet starts off in intensity ***. Then Berthe seems to float around for a while on the coloratura. Fides’ tells her that Jean is dead and she is terrified. Everything goes quiet and then the two women (flute accompanied) mourn. Fides relates how she found her son’s bloodied shirt and an unnamed stranger told her that the Prophet ordered his murder.

16: Berthe vows to kill the Prophet for this outrage, heading to the palace as Fides (who continues to pray for Jean’s soul) tries unsuccessfully to catch up with her. It is strangely triumphalist but most lyrical ***.

Scene 2: The interior of the Cathedral of Munster.

19: The Coronation March ***, possibly one of the top five or so greatest marches in musical history and the finale galop is irresistible to all but the most washed Wagnerites.

23: The first chorus sounds just slightly, and oddly, Russian Orthodox for some reason. A cappella, it works well **.

24: To organ music, Fides curses the Prophet *, it gets better towards the end.

28: After an organ accompaniment (solo) to the theme from the Dream there is a boys chorus **. They are later joined by the adults as well.

32: Jean declares that he has been elected the Son of God and Fides bombs out to some modulation that is absolutely amazing ** and then she goes off into a tune that feels like discovering a water spring (it WILL come back!). Jean tells the crowd to kill him if the woman (Fides) repeats what she has said and does not retract her declaration.

35: Fides is in a bind, does she lie and save Jean’s life or tell the truth and watch him get hacked to death by the crowd? The Trio know she is telling the truth but the chorus is ambivalent **. Listen for the tension in the orchestration before….

37: Everything goes off like a mini Leiberstod *** with that spring melody. This is possibly one of the most advanced musical moments up to the point of the composition of this opera, which was actually around 1841-42 but Meyerbeer had issues with who would create Fides so the premiere was held up for seven years.

40: Jean goes chromatic (take that Wagner!) **. A bit that sounds like the prelude in the low woodwinds comes up about a minute later as Jean orders Fides to retract her accusation.

43: Fides retracts to some of the most beguiling flute/string accompaniment ever. Non! Non! She repeats, she has no son! The chorus goes into something close to a physical climax and Fides feels really terrible as the Trio does their thing. Fides thinks (Berthe wants to kill him!) and she tries to warn Jean but is stopped by the Trio as the curtain falls ***.

ACT 5: (39:15 minutes)

Scene 1: A vault in the palace, Munster.

1: After a brief bit of Ad nos, the Trio plan to hand Jean over to the Imperial Army in order to buy their own freedom from prosecution. Fides comes on to her spring tune * and then “O pretres de Baal!” she is conflicted. Jean has become the dreaded false prophet out of a nightmare horror story but he is still her son and she loves him.

4: She prays for redemption through death to release her from the misery of her life **.

6: The Prophet is going to arrive and Fides as a bit of hope coming to her *** as she produces amazing scales awaiting her son.

11: Fides orders Jean to his knees. “Prophet and Son of God, really?”. He begs her forgiveness. She has no son! Their reconciliation duet is very good **.

16: Fides’ air ** interrupted at times by Jean is very lyrical and strong dramatically.

19: Fides goes off on another bit with Jean **, this time to a jovial bit.

23: Berthe arrives, planning on igniting the gun powder located below the grand hall. She sees Jean and Fides and falls into the former’s arms. Her air as she gives up her vengeance is wonderful **. The strings here are like water just as a storm is about to begin.

24: A trio *** as the three think about living peacefully at the inn.

27: A soldier arrives with news that the Imperial troops (led by the Anabaptists) have arrived to take the palace. Berthe realizes that Jean is the Prophet and refuses to forgive either Jean or Fides for not admitting this to her. She curses both of them, goes mad and commits suicide right in front of them ***. Jean mourns Berthe and orders that the soldier take his mother to safety so he can execute those who are guilty. Fides cries out to her son as she is taken and Jean focuses on the explosives.

Scene 2: The Grand Hall above.

32: The last seven minutes ***, the play out as it were starts with a good chorus. Jean, knowing that the jig is up and that it is only a matter of moments before the explosives blow everything to kingdom come sings an amazing drinking song. What makes it so intense is knowing that the character knows that death is momentary, while the chorus is totally out of it on wine. The second verse is broken by the arrival of the Imperial army with the Trio and Oberthal. Suddenly the doors of the hall are locked, Fides is there and joins her son in death. They start up to the melody of the drinking song as the chorus, in terror, dread their impending deaths as the entire hall fills with smoke, collapses and everything and everyone gets blown up.

This opera is not for the faint of heart, what with an explosion at the end on par with Gotterdammerung. In fact more than likely Wagner was inspired by the end of this opera when writing his own immolation scene. It does have the odd storyline problems, but the music is unbelievably beautiful on a consistent basis and other than the ballet I can not think what could possibly be cut because it is all so good. What is also amazing is how incredibly great the libretto is and how rich in psychological symbolism the story is. It is a dark almost Byronic tragedy invoking the spirit of revolution in the mid-19th century. Jean is not a hero, but an anti-hero. Fides (the mother) and not Berthe (the lover) is the primary female character. Also, Berthe shows signs of mental disorder that are never fleshed out well enough before she commits suicide. The other characters represent either the old feudal Catholic system (Oberthal) and its corruption or the new revolutionary Anabaptist system (the Trio) and its own (possibly worse?) corruption. The work is also markedly anti-Christian, which is probably one of the reasons why both Schumann and Wagner hated it (the latter writing a certain notorious pamphlet as a result of the immense success of this opera). Unlike in Les Huguenots where sympathies may go to the Huguenots or to the lovers Raoul and Valentine, everyone in this opera (Fides excepted) is rather horrible and Fides (although a devoutly Christian character) symbolizes a religious ideal rather than a concrete reality. The Anabaptist trio obviously represents the trinitarian godhead of Christianity and demonstrates it to be an abhorrent instrument of hypocrisy, murder, and lies. Case in point, it is Zacharie (the father) who sends Mathisen (the son) for the failed night siege of Munster but all three plotted and agreed to the plan. Jonas, (the tenor in contrast to the bass/baritone of the other two) can be equated with the un-holy spirit here. In fact, it is the actions of the Trio to incite Oberthal’s serfs in act one that causes him to refuse Berthe’s request to marry Jean and starts the course of action leading to the deaths of all seven of the characters and countless others. I do not think that this opera was meant to be a vicious attack by Meyerbeer on Christianity, instead it is a warning of the dangers of religious fanaticism; the situation just happens to be one of the most bloody episodes in Western Christian history.  This is a lesson we could all learn from in our present age. It is also interesting how this opera is about as rich in symbolism, psychology, and warning as any opera by Wagner, and yet it does so without the philosophical theory or giving in to fantasy (the events of this opera, although fictionalized, actually occurred in the 1530s and Jan van Leiden was a real Anabaptist leader. Also, Scribes’ interpretation of Christianity is more accurate and frankly down to earth than Wagner’s fantastical take on it in Parsifal, even if it doesn’t flatter the religion any.

The opera also has good pacing for when the characters interact in the drama, that is, none of the four primary characters are on stage for huge periods of time. Jean is mostly restricted to the second and fifth acts with some in the second half of act three and the second scene of act four. Fides is important in act one, but has merely a single aria in act two and is not seen again until act four (albeit she is onstage for almost all of the last two acts). Berthe similarly is important in act one, but is only briefly involved in act two and does not appear again until act four scene one only to disappear again until around ten minutes before she commits suicide in act five. Oberthal is in the second half of act one, the middle parts of acts two and three, and then in the finale of act five. As for the singers in this recording: Gedda is basically flawless as Jean, even down to the French diction. Horne is fine, although I wonder if or if not her dramatic mezzo-soprano was what Meyerbeer intended, however I do not know what Pauline Viardot sounded like so I can’t say more. Rinaldi as Berthe is okay, and she seems to be interpreting the role as if to confirm that Berthe is borderline insane from the start. The other men are okay as well although sometimes the chorus and the minor soloists seem to think they are in an Italian opera (“sceptre” is pronounced the Italian way in the Coronation scene by the boys choir with a “ch” sound. The usage of motifs and dissonant orchestration to denote a sense of instability and edginess, along with everything I have already said about the story and libretto, must mean that Le Prophete be marked down as an A+.

5 responses to “Giacomo Meyerbeer: Le Prophete (1849)”

  1. AND the complete version – With all the music cut by Meyerbeer before the premiere:


    1. Can not right now. Moving.


      1. Drop me a line when you can.


  2. I’m interested by your reservations about Marilyn Horne in the role of Fidès. I find her immensely powerful, emotionally as well as vocally. I’ve only come to this opera recently and now I’m obsessed by it.


    1. I too love Le Prophete, it is probably my favorite Meyerbeer, even more so than Les Huguenots. I wouldn’t really say I have reservations about Marilyn Horne as Fides, more if her voice was similar or not to that of Pauline Viardot, for whom Meyerbeer expanded the role. Horne is an immense voice, a deep dramatic coloratura mezzo, who certainly added dramatic power to the role as a result. My comment was more about fidelity to Meyerbeer and his original intentions, not a criticism of Ms. Horne (who is frankly the greatest Carmen of the 20th century, in my opinion).


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