Deutsche Oper Berlin
Juan Diego Flórez's Raoul in David Alden's new production of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Bettina Stoess
Patrizia Ciofi's Marguerite and Flórez
© Bettina Stoess
THE LAST TIME Deutsche Oper Berlin tackled Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots was in 1987, when the wall that slashed this city in two was recreated onstage in John Dew’s now-famous production. Almost thirty years later, there’s a new Huguenots in town, part of DOB’s current starry Meyerbeer cycle. Unlike Dew’s staging, there’s nothing overtly political about David Alden’s handsome production, except perhaps the timing.
It was difficult to ignore how last season’s premiere of Vasco da Gama (L’Africaine) at DOB coincided neatly with the twenty-fifth anniversary of German Reunification. Now, with Germany marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the company’s present staging of Meyerbeer’s epic about sectarian bloodshed in seventeenth-century France seemed similarly prescient—a sobering reminder of the dark side of European history during this time of jubilation.
Les Huguenots, which was first heard in Paris in 1836, remained a popular example of French grand opera for more than a century after is premiere. In the 1890s at the Metropolitan Opera, premium-priced evenings featuring Les Huguenots were called “The Night of the Seven Stars,” delivering New York audiences international-caliber singers on the order of Melba, Nordica, Victor Maurel and the de Reszke brothers for each of the seven principal roles—Marguerite de Valois, Valentine, Urbain, Raoul de Nangis, Marcel, Le Comte de Nevers and Le Comte de Saint-Bris. In 1962, La Scala mounted a now-legendary revival of the opera with Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, Giulietta Simionato and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Stars are still crucial to jumpstarting a contemporary Meyerbeer revival. As it did last season for Vasco da Gama, DOB succeeded in lining up a high-powered cast for Huguenots, an opera that has been a rarity for the past fifty years: Juan Diego Flórez (Raoul), Patrizia Ciofi (Marguerite) and Olesya Golovneva (Valentine) were engaged to sing the Protestant and Catholic protagonists in Meyerbeer’s religious epic.
Certainly many in the sold-out auditorium had shown up to hear the Peruvian tenor, who is an infrequent guest to this city. In interviews with German television before the premiere, Flórez expressed his deep love for the character of Raoul de Nangis and said he was glad to participate in the rediscovery of this work. Just before curtain on November 17, the second performance of the run, Flórez was announced as having a slight cold, sending gasps rippling through the audience. This didn’t seem to impair his performance significantly: though he proceeded with some caution in spots, Flórez sang audaciously and with evident gusto, tackling this marathon role with a lyric instrument imbued with heft and durability.
In recent years, Flórez has ventured away from the bel canto parts for which he remains best known, with appearances in La Favorite and Rigoletto and an upcoming Hoffmann. I can think of no better gift to both Meyerbeer and Les Huguenots than the complex, rounded tones of Flórez’s maturing voice, bright on top with thrilling high notes, but fuller-bodied and warmer than ever before. Raoul is a demanding role, and Flórez—a singer who often makes singing difficult music seem like child’s play—embraced its challenges. Raoul is probably the longest part that Flórez has ever tackled, and towards the end of the evening—especially in the expanded Act IV duet with Valentine from the new critical edition used for the performance—the tenor sounded (understandably) tired.
Ciofi sang the short-ish yet memorable role of Marguerite de Valois with manic glee and high-flying coloratura, her interpretation a far cry from Sutherland’s famously regal performance. In this staging, the queen was insane—one of Alden’s few revisionist touches—and Marguerite’s Act II entrance at the Château de Chenonceaux, with the famous pastorale “O beau pays de la Touraine,” resembled a mad scene. As Valentine, Golovneva matched Flórez’s intensity, bringing righteous fury and searing passion to the fiercely determined bride-to-be. House stalwart Ante Jerkunica blazed as the old Huguenot zealot Marcel, while a DOB newcomer, American mezzo Irene Roberts, made an alluring, witty Urbain. Among the Catholic noblemen, Derek Welton and Marc Barrard were standouts as Valentine’s father, Saint-Bris, and Nevers, Valentine’s fiancé.
The young Italian maestro Michele Mariotti made a somewhat disappointing debut on the DOB podium, conducting this hefty work with somewhat slack grip, and highlighting the work’s Italianate qualities in ways that were intriguing yet uneven. One often wished for a more pointed attack, and greater sensitivity to the excellent DOB chorus, with whom Mariotti struggled for ensemble during much of Act I. His orchestra played with poise and supported the soloists with finesse, but this music needs to leap and sizzle at regular intervals.
Alden’s staging was an effective and elegant presentation case for this dramatically seething work—and a huge improvement over last year’s incongruous Vasco. This Huguenots offered closely observed dramatic detail to enhance a long evening that was never dull. This Huguenots is one of three productions of the work in Germany this season. Let’s hope more opera houses—especially abroad—are inspired to follow suit. —A. J. Goldmann