Les Huguenots (in German)
Denning, Peacock, C. Capasso; Leech, Carlson, Blasius, Welker; Chorus and Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin, Soltesz. Arthaus 102 302, 156 mins., subtitled
We always seem to experience the grands opéras of Giacomo Meyerbeer in compromise editions. Deutsche Oper Berlin's live 1991 performance of the composer's 1836 Parisian blockbuster Les Huguenots is sometimes quite compelling, but it is heavily cut — including crucial scenes of Act III — and performed in the German translation that the Prussian-born composer had commissioned for the opera's Berlin premiere, in 1842. When John Dew's production had its first performances, in 1987 (with Pilar Lorengar in a late-career triumph as Valentine), it divided opinion; the staging incorporates imagery of the Berlin Wall and the Holocaust and some flamboyantly campy touches that Brian Large's video direction avidly captures. By today's standards, Dew's clever Regie seems remarkably tame — cheerleaders marked "K" and "P" for the Katholic and Protestant religious denominations notwithstanding — and often hits its mark. Stefan Soltesz's enlivening conducting reveals the considerable theatricality and appeal of more of the music than some commentators deem worthwhile.
American tenor Richard Leech has said that the initial Huguenots run marked for him a change to international status. His Raoul (styled as a naïve playboy) preserves in very good estate the reasons Leech drew, early on in his career and briefly, vocal comparisons to Björling. Surely no one since the even more daring Gedda has sung this treacherous part with such attractive tone. It is good to have this souvenir.
Much was also expected from Australian-born Deutsche Oper mainstay Angela Denning, one of several "new Joan Sutherands" over the years. If her scena "O beau pays" is hardly vocalized on the Sutherland level, her vocal presentation does have very good sections, including the flirtatious duet with Raoul — which here ends up, predictably, in a liplock on the floor — and she captures Dew's flouncing characterization of Marguerite de Valois as a Madonna-wannabe vamp with delightful aplomb. Texan soprano Lucy Peacock made most of her career in Europe, with lyric parts in Vienna and a Bayreuth Eva. She acts Valentine well and sings capably, though her tone, slightly pressed on top, is not individual. Merola-trained mezzo Camille Capasso's scruffily bearded page Urbain, slightly resembling Harry Potter, offers some aural charm if occasional spiky notes.
Lenus Carlson — a Met Valentin and Guglielmo who began three decades as a Berlin Staatsoper house artist in 1982 — goes unmentioned on the DVD cover, although he sings a major role (Valentine's original fiançé, de Nevers), which he embodies heartily with solid, occasionally bluff tone and idiomatic German. Hartmut Welker's legato-free St. Bris (Valentine's venegeful father) recalls his shouty Met Pizarro and San Francisco Kurwenal the same year. But he's outdone in total absence of Gallic charm by lowering bass Martin Blasius, whose Marcel can't stay on pitch for more than a few bars running. The many small parts include cameos by house veterans (Hungarian bass Ivan Sardi as De Retz) and future luminaries (Warren Mok as Bois-Rosé); some sing well (among them U.K. mezzo Marcia Bellamy in several cameo roles) and others not at all. The chorus and orchestra get firm direction from Soltesz, who makes a good case for Meyerbeer's often exciting and occasionally truly inspired score. That Les Huguenots inspired much imitation is beyond question; even rabid Wagnerites must concede that the Parsifal–Flowermaidens–Kundry interaction has roots in the arrival of Raoul in Marguerite's garden, here boasting a swimming pool.
Arthaus's issue is not an ideal version of Huguenots, but it has its pleasures — Leech's performance high on the list.
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