Sat 27 Apr 2013
Giacomo Meyerbeer - Die Hugenotten
Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1991 | Stefan Soltesz, John Dew, Angela Denning, Lucy Peacock, Richard Leech, Harmut Welker, Camille Capasso, Martin Blasius, Marcia Bellamy, Lenus Carlson, David Griffith, Otto Leuer, Friedrich Molsberger, Iván Sárdi, Josef Becker | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray
Poor Giacomo Meyerbeer. The once highly regarded titan of the 5-Act Grand Opéra is now not only long out of fashion, but on the rare occasion when his work is revived it is scarcely treated with the seriousness and sincerity in which it was undoubtedly composed. I didn’t see the Royal Opera House’s recent widely derided production of Robert Le Diable, but judging it on the merits of the performance alone via its broadcast on Radio 3, it at least sounded interesting and probably deserving of a more sympathetic staging than the one devised by Laurent Pelly. Meyerbeer’s follow-up to Robert Le Diable (1831) was another beast of an opera, Les Huguenots (1836) and, unfortunately, it’s another work that - even more so now - that most opera houses would consider too expensive to risk putting on and no doubt also difficult to cast. This performance, dating back to 1991 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, casts the work well and tried a novel approach to the difficulties of staging the work.
Conducted by Stefan Soltesz and directed by John Dew, this is inevitably not a version that will satisfy purists (should such a thing as a Meyerbeer purist exist in this day and age). As imperfect as it is in some respects, the Deutsche Oper Die Hugenotten is at the moment the only opportunity you have to see one of the big important opera works of yesteryear, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. The first thing you will note about this Blu-ray release however is that the title has been rendered in German (unlike its previous DVD release) to reflect the fact that it is a German-language edition of the original French Les Huguenots performed here. That’s not so much of an issue, since Meyerbeer was actually of German origin and this version dates from an 1837 edition prepared by Ignatz Franz Castelli, so it should be close enough to the original work.
Les Huguenots does actually suit the German tongue surprisingly well, but of more concern is the fact that Castelli’s version to a large extent played down the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants that is critical to the work’s historical account of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 during the reign of King Charles IX. That historical content is furthermore all but abandoned in the German version of Castelli’s translation prepared by John Dew for the Deutsche Oper, which sets the work in the Berlin of the period that was then divided by the Berlin Wall. This recording of the production dates from 1991 after the breaking down of the wall, but even then it still dates from a period when the imagery still held real significance to the people of Berlin.
Quite how the situation in divided Berlin corresponds with religious conflict in Les Huguenots is however difficult to establish. In Meyerbeer’s opera - with a libretto from the illustrious team of Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps - Marguerite de Valois is to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarra as a gesture of peace between the two sides. To further strengthen this union, the Count de Nevers accordingly invites the Huguenot Raoul de Nangis to his castle in Touraine and offers him marriage to Valentine de Saint-Bris, but Raoul has already seen a beautiful vision of loveliness and fallen in love unwittingly with Marguerite de Valois herself. After some romantic complications Raoul agrees to marry Valentine, but when he gets wind of a plot by the Catholics to massacre the Huguenots it only deepens the conflict between his duty and his heart.
How do we know this? Because just in case we miss it, Raoul tells us directly - “Duty… my heart… a difficult battle“, and Meyerbeer’s scoring only emphasises the obvious conflict even further. When there is something of a lack of subtlety (or taste), you can see why modern directors feel the need to play up the unintentional campness of Meyerbeer’s work. How else, for example, are you meant to stage Marcel’s “Piff, paff, poff!” aria nowadays other than having everyone skip around the stage in a half-dance? I’m not sure, but I think I’d like to see a more serious-minded director try it and not necessarily in a traditional context, since even in this shortened version (only two and a half hours for a 5-Act Grand Opéra?) Meyerbeer’s management and control of the number opera is evidently masterful, presenting a broad scope of melodrama, romance and entertainment in its varied situations with an abundance of melody and drive.
Are the Royalist Catholics meant to represent the Communist forces of East Germany and the Protestants the small population of the surrounded West Berliners? How will a marriage smooth relations in such a situation? The production might not correspond perfectly to its Berlin setting but neither does it really detract from the strength of the work or indeed from the performances in this production. The singing is exceptionally good from all the main performers. Richard Leech has the right kind of strong, resonant lyrical voice for Grand Opéra, reminding me a little of Roberto Alagna in places. He copes well with all the high-Cs thrown his way, but it’s Angela Denning who has the difficult role of Marguerite de Valois. Her opening Act II aria is fiendishly difficult and it shows her limitations, but she is good elsewhere. Lucy Peacock’s Valentine is marvellous and there’s good work also from Harmut Welker as the Comte de Saint-Bris and Camille Capasso as the Page. Only Martin Blasius’ Marcel isn’t up to the mark. To say the least.
Brian Large directs the production for the screen. I’m not sure what technology was available at the time in 1991, but the widescreen image is certainly HD quality and it looks excellent. The audio isn’t quite so good. Only a PCM stereo option is available and the lower-frequencies can be a little booming if you are playing this at any volume using a subwoofer. On headphones, the sound dynamic is better distributed to the L-R channels. The detail in the orchestration is there, if it’s not as clean and precise as we’re now used to with HD recordings, and the singing is relatively clear also. There are no extra features on the Blu-ray. The disc is all-region with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.