Grand opera en cinq actes et sept tableaux. Running Time: 3 hours 55 minutes.
(Camille Roqueplan’s portrait of the fourth act duet, pre-1855).
Here it is in all its splendour, the unparalleled fairy godmother of all opera! No, it isn’t Massenet’s Cendrillon. I knew that I would eventually have to review a much more complete recording of this opera, much as I like the 1962 recording, it is 80 minutes shorter. This is the greatest opera of all time, only Meyerbeer’s later Le Prophete and Verdi’s Don Carlos and Otello even hold a candle to it and yet Prophete is a much more intimate work and Otello, although musically superior in many ways because it is half a century younger, suffers from awkward character development. Huguenots is a very public work, even the love interest is a very public affair. Perhaps more so than in Wagner, this opera exists within its own eco-system. Apart from some similarities to Rossini, the score is oddly a combination of bel canto and something which at the time must have been totally new. Certainly Meyerbeer’s orchestral effects at times were novel, and then there is the fact that he had already started to breakdown the difference between recitative and aria. The recitatives, although obviously different from the numbers, are dramatically aroused in comparison to say Donizetti or even Bellini and at times the orchestra seems to be reacting to what is happening on stage.
I chose this 2016 performance with Juan Diego Florez as Raoul and Patrizia Ciofi as Marguerite at the last minute because it is by far the longest recording available, even than the performance conducted in 1989 by Cyril Diederich.
SETTING: France, 1572. The opera depicts fictionalized events leading to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in which Roman Catholics slaughtered Calvinist Huguenots in the streets of French cities.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Grand Hall in the chateau of the Count de Nevers, Touraine. (55 minutes)
0: The overture ***, or rather prelude is built around a singular theme, that of the Lutheran choral Ein Fest Borg ist unser Gott. I’m not completely certain how to read this because it is so regal that it glows. Does Meyerbeer use the hymn as a leitmotif, I am not sure although I for one have always laughed a little over the fact that he chose a Lutheran hymn (possibly one of the most famous German pieces of religious music) to introduce an opera about Calvinists.
4: Des beaux jours de la jeunesse Nevers and his guests celebrate ** (eventually the scene is labelled an orgie in the score so I suppose they org or whatever). A series of toasts from the Catholic noblemen leads in to the anticipated arrival of Raoul de Nangis. If Ein Fest Borg isn’t a leitmotif, this orgie tune definitely is repeated enough over the course of the act to be one.
9, 12: Non loin des vieilles/ Á table! The arrival of Raoul ** has a most dapper orchestral introduction. It is possibly the most elegant entrance in opera, and certainly one of the most subtle. Nevers and his guests make way to the fest rather furiously to their orgy tune.
18: Quelle spectacle echanteur Raoul’s romance *** is the sexy equivalent of Rienzi’s prayer. Utilizing a single period instrument (a viola d’amore, then still commonly used), he recounts how he rescued a beautiful maiden whose name he does not know (obviously Valentine, but we do not know this yet). Much of it is sung a cappella, or at least very close to a cappella, relying on the beauty of the tenor voice to present much of the psychology. Thank you Giacomo.
27: Seigneur, rempart et seul soutien Marcel’s grand hymn ***, admittedly it is Ein Fest Borg, which makes little sense because he is a Calvinist, not a Lutheran, but who cares really, it is wonderful!
31: Pour les couvents, c’est fini! Marcel’s war song about the siege of LaRochelle by the Catholics **, a very minimalist piece, accompanied essentially by flute, military drum, and finally the strings and brass. It goes into a second verse.
37: L’aventure est singulière! A silent woman arrives looking for Nevers. An ensemble develops *, mostly to string accompaniment, although it gets more ampt up as Raoul discovers the maiden he rescued earlier and Never informs him that she is his fiancée Valentine.
43: Honneur au conquérant Yet another “thinks” ensemble choral number this one very upbeat ** as we move into the act finale.
45: Nobles seigneurs salut! Urbain greets Raoul in waltz time *** and gives him the Queen’s message (a sealed document which is read aloud by Raoul). He is to be blindfolded and brought to Marguerite.
50, 52: Trop de mérite aussi A bit of agitated chromaticism as Raoul contemplates what the Queen might want with him * leading directly into the act finale which is lead by Urbain and makes for some grand act closure ***.
ACT 2: The gardens at Château Touraine. (49 minutes)
2: Ô beau pays de la Touraine! After a prelude in which the flute takes a primary solo we come upon la Reine Margot herself Marguerite de Valois and we get one of the grandest arias in all opera *** a fourteen minute long sequence of bel canto coloratura loveliness
8, 12: Urbain arrives to tell her that Raoul has been brought and they embark on a plus charmante duet *** about how love will triumph over religious rivalries (wishful thinking but it is lovely). Marguerite has one last outing (directly mentioning Luther and Calvin), bringing the aria to a magnificent flute and harp accompanied coloratura conclusion ***.
19: Jeunes beautés, sous ce feuillage And now, with all the delicacy of a medieval madrigal, the bathers chorus ***. Admittedly a divertissement, but a very beautiful one as Urbain spies Cherubino-style on the minimally clad female courtiers.
23: Le voici! Urbain presents Raoul to the Queen. He is still blindfolded. The female courtiers mock him mildly *.
27: Ah! Si j’étais coquette The Marguerite-Raoul duet starts off with the power of a movement from a Beethoven symphony ***. She convinces Raoul to marry a certain young woman (although she admits in an aside that she is tempted to seduce Raoul for herself). Raoul for his part is enraptured by the beauty of the castle gardens and of Marguerite, but promises to do as she asks. Marguerite wants Raoul to marry Valentine (the young maiden he fell in love with) in order to cement peace between Catholics and Huguenots.
35: Madame! – Honneur à la plus belle, honneur! The Catholics arrive *.
40: Par l’honneur, par le nom que portaient mes ancêtres Marguerite orders that they all swear peace amongst themselves. All except Marcel comply as he believes his master should not socialize with the wicked Catholics. A very solemn scene **.
45: Trahison, perfidie! The act finale *** as Raoul rejects Valentine (who makes her first actual appearance in the opera at this moment), believing her to be Nevers’ mistress and thus a hand-me-down. Everyone else is either stupefied or enraged, except Marcel who scolds Raoul for bothering to involve himself with those wicked Catholics.
ACT 3: The pre aux clercs, Paris. Taverns on either side and a chapel on the left. (59 minutes)
A long scenic divertissement starts the act:
1: C’est le jour du dimanche! Townspeople let us know that it is Sunday in a boisterous chorus! *
3: Rataplan, rataplan plan plan A chorus of Huguenot soldiers * comes on led by one Bois-Rosé.
6: Vierge Marie They get interrupted by a chorus of girls singing praises to the Virgin Mary **. Marcel comes on with a letter from Raoul to Valentine’s father Saint-Bris and interrupts the procession in order to give it to him which enrages the Catholics but the Huguenots defend him.
9: Venez ! – Vous qui voulez savoir d’avance Some Romani come on and defuse the situation with fortunetelling an a dance * (the only real ballet in the opera). This is an interesting example of Meyerbeer using a third party to defuse the tension between two warring factions (similar to a Jew=Meyerbeer writing an opera about religious bloodshed between French Catholics and Protestants?). Anyway enough theory, Marcel delivers Raoul’s challenge of a duel to Saint-Bris for trying to pass off his apparently soiled goods daughter on him. Meanwhile soiled goods has married Nevers in the chapel and comes out after praying to find her father plotting to murder Raoul.
18: Rentrez, habitants de Paris The Nightwatchman’s curfew scene **, the prototype of Wagner’s similar scene in Act II of Meistersinger.
22: Veille sur nous, grand Dieu du ciel After a brief introduction by a cello we get something I have never heard before: apparently a choral for Marcel *** in which he begs for divine mercy. Notice the striking cello solo (reminder of the viola d’amore from act 1, this cello effect returns in the recitatives of the fifth act as well). It continues as Valentine comes on in disguise and decides to warn Marcel. (Thanks to OperaScribe for identifying this for me, I hadn’t a clue!).
29: Dans la nuit Marcel experiences a transformation in a long duet with Valentine as she reveals her father’s murderous plan against his master and he realizes that this Catholic woman isn’t such a bad human being ***.
42: En mon bon droit j’ai confiance! Marcel informs Raoul of Valentine’s news about her rather dishonourable father. At first the duel ** is conducted to a septette of the most comedic of accompaniments (bright and sunny, one would never guess it was around seven in the evening).
48: Nous voilà, félons, arrière! The fight is brutal but eventually Marcel calls for Huguenot reenforcements (Bois-Rose’s men in the inn on the right) to Ein Fest Burg and Saint-Bris calls for Catholic reenforcements (from the inn on the left) along with some women to make for a rousing ensemble **. Everything is stopped by the arrival of Marguerite whose presence calls for immediate cease-fighting.
52: Ma fille! The act finale *** in which Saint-Bris and Raoul realize that Valentine informed Marcel. Divided reactions, Saint-Bris is enraged, Raoul realizes he has completely mistreated a woman who genuinely loves him. Nevers arrives to claim his wife (which sort of negates anything her father might want to do to her seeing that she isn’t his property anymore). The act ends with their bridal processional and the Catholics and Protestants once more passingly declaring their mutual hatred as the Queen leaves.
ACT 4: A room in Nevers’ Parisian town-house, the night of St. Bartholomew.
2: Parmi les pleurs mon rêve Valentine contemplates her miserable situation ***: married to Nevers but desperately in love with Raoul (made worse by the fact that Nevers really is a kind person). The aria is understated orchestrally but vocally the torment is all there. Raoul suddenly appears begging to just speak to her one last time. They hear voices and he hides behind a curtain.
8, 11, 16, 19, 22: Oui, ordre de la reine/Gloire, gloire au grand Dieu vengeur!/Des troubles renaissants We now enter into the best section of the opera *** which might be hyperbole given how great the rest of the opera is as Saint-Bris arrives with Nevers and other Catholic noblemen and they swear to kill the Protestants (all except Nevers who decides he will take no part in the killing). For some reason even Valentine gets in on this passively, probably because her father is the universally lauded leader of the murderers. Three monks arrive and bless the swords and daggers to be used for the slaughtering ***. It ends in a climactic death oath which is generally seen as the finest passage in the entire opera ***.
26, 31, 37: Ô ciel! où courez-vous ?/Le danger presse/ Tu m’aimes?/Etends-tu! The act ends with a seventeen minute long duet for Valentine and Raoul *** as she tries to keep him from leaving (and mostly likely getting killed by the bloodthirsty Catholics outside). After the opening recitative it consists of four parts: 1) Allegretto, in which Raoul begs her to release him and let him warn his fellow Huguenots but she refuses because she loves him. 2) This prompts a cavatina from Raoul which seems like a separate number entirely as he falls into total ecstasy over her confession ***. 3) Suddenly the bells of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois ring signally the start of the massacre and Raoul comes to his senses and realizes he needs to warn his friends and fight ***. 4) Valentine continues to struggle with him but fails and he jumps from the window as she passes out ***.
ACT 5: (27 minutes)
No twenty-seven minutes in opera have been more abused than these. Standard practice for almost a century was the cut this act completely as it was somehow seen as dramatically irrelevant. Later it was decided to reinstate around half of it. Although I think I know why this act was so frequently cut (it doesn’t portray Catholics in a positive light at all and one of the Catholic characters converts to Calvinism for love) this is based on an actual historical event. Since it is also musically great, get over it people!
Scene 1: Ballroom, Hotel de Nesle, the same night.
1: Aux armes, mes amis! The first scene consists of a ballet performed in the presence of Marguerite de Valois and Henri de Navarre as the massacre starts followed by Raoul bursting in and going into some rather horrific detail *** of the slaughtering that has already occurred outside. The Protestant nobles rush out to avenge their murdered brethren.
Scene 2: The cemetery of a Protestant church, stained glass windows.
8, 18: Savez-vous qu’en joignant Meyerbeer uses a single rushing theme to denote physical action in this scene ***. Basically from this point on the opera takes a post-apocalyptic turn. Raoul encounters an injured Marcel in the cemetery. He has brought the Calvinist women and children into the church for shelter. Valentine arrives and begs Raoul to wear a white band which will allow him to pass for Catholic. She also reveals that she has been widowed, Nevers having been murdered by the Catholics for not being willing to murder Protestants. When Raoul refuses to pretend to be a Catholic, Valentine makes one of opera’s most remarkably shocking religious conversions by immediately renouncing Catholicism and becoming a Calvinist for the man she loves. Marcel then marries them *** as the women and children can be heard in the church singing Ein fest burg. By the second time we hear this, the Catholic soldiers have arrived and broken into the church and they slaughter the women and children amid musket fire as our three overhear everything from outside. This is terrifying!
23: Le ciel s’ouvre et rayonne ! The trio realize that death is imminent *** and believe they can see heaven. The Catholic soldiers invade the cemetery and capture them, dragging them into the nearby street.
Scene 3: A street in Paris, the night of 23-24 August, 1572 some time before dawn.
25: Par le fer et par l’incendie The last three minutes *** are the play out: The three are brought before Saint-Bris (who does not at first recognize his daughter) and orders that they all be shot as Calvinists. After the two men are instantly killed and Valentine is dying, he realizes he has just murdered his own child but she promises to pray to God for his soul as she also dies. Urbain arrives announcing that Queen Marguerite is coming and the Catholics sing “God wants blood!” as she fails to stop the massacre and they continue killing long after the curtain falls.
Since I already wrote a tome when I reviewed the Sutherland/Corelli performance from 1961 I will be relatively brief here:
Although Prophete is both more psychologically compelling and musically advanced, Huguenots is the measure by which all other tragic operas must be judged. (It has practically everything, except possibly a long ballet sequence (we are treated to two helpings totalling just five minutes). The scenario provides a uniquely regal experience which future operas would attempt to emulate but even Meyerbeer failed later to repeat. Gone are the somewhat awkward naked high notes found in the score of Robert le diable, here Meyerbeer even out does the Italians in terms of sheer vocal ornamentalism. And yet in spite of all the greatness, I keep feeling, am I overblowing how good this opera is? I mean there is a point where adulation becomes idiotic. It is an incredibly apocalyptic work: all the good guys get slaughtered and by the end this opera which started off with an amusing sequence entitled an orgy ends in a level of literal carnage that makes hell seem like a vacation to Aruba. This recording in particular alerted me to elements of the score I didn’t recognize before, such as the usage of the cello in recitatives as well as the incredibly dark chromatic elements. In any case an A+.