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Les Huguenots

STRASBOURG
Opéra National du Rhin
3/14/12

In Review Strasbourg Huguenots hdl 612
Playful dramatic energy: Py's staging of Les Huguenots in Strasbourg
© Alain Kaiser 2012

An uncut staging of Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots is the dream of many a lover of nineteenth-century French opera. Olivier Py's staging, a coproduction with La Monnaie in Brussels, had its French premiere on March 14 at Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg, conducted by Daniele Callegari.

Py believes in this sprawling five-act opera, wholeheartedly embracing the work's libretto and its religious confrontation between Huguenots and Catholics. Pierre-André Weitz's raked metallic stage relied on strong lighting to make its points and was more evocative of a Py­–Weitz production than of any anecdotal historical backdrop. There were plenty of the director's familiar mannerisms to love or hate, including gratuitous nudity and an awkward exploration of physicality that would no doubt have surprised Meyerbeer and his librettist. Py is a consummate professional, however: it would be hard to imagine another director who could bring such playful dramatic energy to the work. The only added symbol, which could have been left to the audience's imagination, was the Holocaust reference at the moment of the final massacre of the Protestants.

The opera was composed in 1836, just seven years after Rossini's Guillaume Tell, and is a fascinating musical bridge between Rossini and the works of Verdi and Wagner. Verdi admired Meyerbeer, and there are rumbustious rataplan echoes in La Forza del Destino. Like Verdi, Meyerbeer writes music that blossoms from the workaday into the sublime, notably in the great Act IV duet between Valentine and Raoul. There are some clumsy musical effects, but Meyerbeer's striving for dramatic verisimilitude and grandeur is irresistibly forward-looking. Wagner could not have been insensitive to the fact that the musical driving force of the work is a prototype of a leitmotif, the Huguenot chorale "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A mighty fortress is our God).

One of the reasons for the scarcity of Huguenots revivals is the difficulty of the central tenor role, Raoul de Nangis— a part that was the property of Jean de Reszke, Caruso, Martinelli and Corelli. Initially, Gregory Kunde sounded defeated by the exposed "Plus blanche que la blanche hermine," accompanied by just a viola d'amore, but he triumphed in the more dramatic music, singing tirelessly in commendably clear French. He was especially fine in duet with Mireille Delunsch's Valentine. Meyerbeer may stretch Delunsch's soprano resources, but she is a moving artist who brought a touching integrity to the role. 

The best singing of the evening came from Karine Deshayes as the page Urbain; the French mezzo offered exemplary playful attack, perfect diction and exultant virtuosity. American soprano Laura Aikin was not far behind in terms of technical precision as Marguerite de Valois, a role that disappointingly fades away in Meyerbeer's opera. "Ô beau pays de la Touraine" was effortlessly dispatched, although a little less vocal discretion might have brought the house down. The great humanitarian outpourings of Raoul's servant Marcel were delivered with smooth bass tone by Wojtek Smilek in rather curious French, unlike that of baritone Marc Barrard, as the Comte de Nevers, whose diction and style remain impeccable. Philippe Rouillon's straight-voiced baritone rode over the orchestra with implacable force as Comte de Saint-Bris, while his two tenor sons, Xavier and Arnaud, creditably took on the roles of Cossé and Retz. 

Callegari conducted the marathon four and a half hours with growing authority after some rocky ensemble at the beginning of the evening. This was not the subtlest of readings, but it was one with its heart in the right place, with a correct singer-friendly balance. With lusty singing from the Strasbourg chorus and some fine brass in the orchestra, the work moved forward with irresistible force and a typical Gallic mix of humor and tragedy. spacer 

STEPHEN J. MUDGE



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