Meyerbeer Les Huguenots
The Opera Bastille perform Meyerbeer's 'Les Huguenots', a no expenses spared, high octane sequel to 'Robert le Diable'.
'Fairground farce' : Robert Schumann
Martin Handley presents this performance from the Opera Bastille in Paris - home of Grand Opera - with expert Sarah Hibberd. Robert Schumann's criticism came from Meyerbeer's use of the Lutheran chorale 'Eine feste burg' to associate with the Huguenot characters in the opera, but it certainly didn't put Paris audiences off, racking up 1,000 performances by the end of the century.
Les Huguenots was a no expenses spared high octane sequel to 'Robert le Diable' Meyerbeer's huge success from five years before in 1831. Indeed this was a return of the dream team - Robert le Diable had made the reputations not only of Meyerbeer, but Librettist Eugene Scribe and Louis-Désiré Véron, the director of the Paris Opera.
This time the top team were back after five years of preparation and 'Les Huguenots' promised an epic Melodrama set against the historical backdrop of the St.Bartholemew's Day Massacre, in which French Protestants were murdered in huge numbers by their Catholic countrymen. Five Acts, good tunes, a huge cast and lavish settings it had all the signs of success before the curtain even opened for Act One.
Marguerite de Valois ..... Lisette Oropesa (soprano)
Raoul de Nangis, a Huguenot gentleman ..... Yosep Kang (tenor)
Valentine, daughter of the Count of Saint-Bris ..... Ermonela Jaho (soprano)
Urbain, Marguerite's page ..... Karine Deshayes (soprano)
Count of Saint-Bris ...... Paul Gay (bass)
Marcel, Raoul's servant ..... Nicolas Testé (bass)
Maid of honour ..... Julie Robard-Gendre (soprano)
Cossé / Catholic student ...... François Rougier (tenor)
Count of Nevers ..... Florian Sempey (baritone)
Tavannes / First Monk ..... Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
Méru / Second Monk ..... Michal Partyka (baritone)
Thoré / Maurevert ..... Patrick Bolleire (bass)
de Retz / Third Monk ..... Tomislav Lavoie (baritone)
Coryphée / Young Catholic woman / Bohemian ..... Élodie Hache (soprano)
Bois-Rosé / Servant ..... Philippe Do (tenor)
Archer of the watch ..... Olivier Ayault (bass)
First Noble ..... John Bernard (tenor)
Second Noble ..... Cyrille Lovighi (tenor)
Third Noble ..... Bernard Arrieta (bass)
Fourth Noble ..... Fabio Bellenghi (bass)
Paris National Opera Chorus
Paris Opera Orchestra
Michele Mariotti, conductor
Scene—House of the Count of Nevers
The Count of Nevers, who is entertaining a party of Catholics, seems so preoccupied that his guests ask the cause. He replies that another guest is coming, the Protestant, Raoul. “A Huguenot!” they exclaim. Although they know that Margaret of Valois, the betrothed of the King, is eager to reconcile Catholic and Protestant, and that he who furthers her purpose is apt to win royal favor, yet they receive Raoul with ironical politeness when he arrives. His frank open nature is undisturbed by this, and when Nevers toasts the ladies and proposes that each tell of some adventure with the fair sex, Raoul willingly complies, although he being the last to arrive is chosen to be first to respond. In a Romanza he tells them of the unknown beauty whom he rescued this very morning from some drunken revellers. He does not know her, but is wildly in love with her because of her beauty.
The applause which greets this romantic recital is interrupted by Raoul’s sturdy old Huguenot servant Marcel, who distrusts his master’s Catholic friends and sings the Lutheran chorale, “Ein feste Burg” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God). The guests accept Raoul’s apologies for his behaviour and ask the old fellow to sing again. He responds with a vigorous Huguenot ditty against the “snares of Rome.”
The resulting rather constrained feeling is quickly forgotten when a servant announces that a veiled lady wishes to speak to Nevers, who at once retires to meet her amidst the banter of his friends. All are curious regarding the lady, and Raoul himself joins in peeping behind a curtain, ft is none other than the unknown beauty he rescued that morning; at once he believes that some disagreeable liaison exists between this woman and Nevers. Still another unexpected diversion occurs in the arrival of a page, who, in the very ornate but melodious “Page’s Song,” informs them that one of their number is addressed with the unusual request to go blindfolded in a carriage wherever his guide may take him.
Raoul, though highly puzzled when he learns that the message is addressed to him, gallantly accepts. He also wonders at the sudden respect with which he is treated, for he does not realize that the seal on the letter is that of Margaret of Valois.
Scene—Castle and Gardens of Chenonceaux
Margaret of Valois, surrounded by her maids of honor, rejoices in the pleasant sunny field of Touraine after the stress of life at court. Valentine, daughter of the Count of St. Bris, enters and tells Margaret news—she has succeeded in breaking her engagement to marry the Count of Nevers, news in which both rejoice, for Valentine does not love the man, and Margaret has other plans for her. Valentine and some of the ladies go away as Raoul is brought before Margaret and the bandage removed from his eyes; though astonished to find himself before Margaret of Valois, he gallantly offers her his sword and service. She tells him of her desire for him to marry Valentine and as he knows of Margaret’s ambition to reconcile Catholic and Protestant by this union, he consents. The nobles of the Court are summoned and when they appear they gather around the Queen and in commemoration of the union of Raoul and Valentine swear an oath of eternal truce between their parties. Valentine is brought in to be presented to her betrothed, Raoul recoils in horror and exclaims, “I her husband?” for he recognizes in Valentine the woman who called secretly on the Count of Nevers. All present are filled with the greatest consternation; Valentine is overcome with shame, and St. Bris, furious at the insult to his daughter, joins with Nevers in swearing vengeance. Margaret’s presence does indeed prevent immediate bloodshed, but her hopes of uniting the warring factions are forever shattered.
Scene—A Square in Paris
Near the entrance to a chapel on the banks of the Seine, a group of Catholic students has gathered about the doors of an inn; and at another inn across the way a number of Huguenot soldiers have met to drink and play dice. Townspeople of all sorts pass to and fro, their many-colored costumes adding glamour to the brilliant sunlight. A bridal procession passes—Valentine and the Count of Nevers are to be married. While the bridal party is in the chapel, Marcel enters with a message for St. Bris, from Raoul. The wedding over, Valentine remains in the chapel to pray alone and Marcel presents the message to St. Bris; it proves to be a challenge. The nobles re-enter the chapel.
Twilight falls, the curfew sounds, and the people disperse. Valentine has overheard the nobles plotting to kill Raoul. She finds Marcel waiting for his master, and warns him of the plan. It is too late for him to see Raoul before the hour of the duel, so he hastily gathers a group of Huguenot friends nearby. The two parties prove to be evenly matched, a serious fray is threatened and, in fact, is prevented only by the arrival of Margaret of Valois, who happens to be passing. Raoul also learns that he has deeply wronged Valentine, for her visit to Nevers was made at the request of Margaret merely to break off the engagement. His remorse comes too late, for now Valentine is married to this man she never loved, and a boat, gay with lanterns and music, has come up the Seine to take her to the Count’s home.
Scene—A Room in Nevers’ Castle
Alone at her new home, Valentine is thinking of Raoul when he unexpectedly appears. He so longs to see Valentine that he has entered the castle at the risk of his life; she warns him but he insists on remaining and scarcely has time to hide behind the tapestry before St. Bris, Nevers, and other leaders of the Catholic party, enter. Thus the young Protestant overhears the whole ghastly plot for the massacre of the Huguenots. Nevers alone among them refuses to swear allegiance to the plan; he is led away under guard. While all draw their swords, three Monks who have entered bless them.
The crowd having departed, Raoul creeps out from his hiding place. Valentine meets him, and fearing he may kill her father she will not let him go. The great bell of St. Germain rings, the preliminary signal for the slaughter. Raoul makes an effort to rush to the aid of his people; Valentine clings to him. Pointing to the street below he shows her that the massacre has already begun, then tears himself from her arms and leaps through the window.
Scene—Ballroom of the Hôtel de Nesle
The Huguenots are celebrating the marriage of Margaret to Henry of Navarre. Raoul enters calling his brethren to arms. He describes the murder of Coligny and the slaughter in the streets of Paris.
Valentine finds Raoul in a cemetery in front of Protestant church. She implores him to convert. Raoul refuses. Valentine then decides to embrace Protestantism and asks Marcel to bless their union. The trio that follows is one of the highpoints of the opera. Marcel blesses the two lovers and asks them to confirm their faith. The scene culminates in the unison singing of “Ein feste Burg.”
Valentine and Marcel are supporting a mortally wounded Raoul. St. Bris arrives leading a group of soldiers. Recognizing Raoul as a Huguenot, they fire their muskets. Raoul, Vallentine and Marcel all fall to the ground. St. Bris only then realizes that he has killed his own daughter. Margaret arrives, putting an end to the massacre.