OPERA NEWS - Les Huguenots
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Les Huguenots

Opéra National de Paris

In Review Les Huguenots Paris hdl 1218
Les Huguenots at the Bastille, with Yosep Kang, Lisette Oropesa and Ermonela Jaho
© Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris

THE PARIS OPERA'S eagerly awaited new production of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Huguenots opened on September 28 following a series of well-publicized casting setbacks. Soprano Diana Damrau, originally cast as Marguerite de Valois, withdrew from the production in August, before rehearsals began; just a few days before the dress rehearsal, in late September, American tenor Bryan Hymel, the scheduled Raoul de Nangis, bowed out of the cast. The production, directed by Andreas Kriegenburg and conducted by Michele Mariotti, was the first staging of Les Huguenots presented by the Opéra de Paris since 1936, when Georges Thill’s Raoul led the starry cast that celebrated the centenary of the opera’s premiere.

The libretto specifies that the action is set during the time of anti-Huguenot violence that culminated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August 1572. Kriegenburg set the present Huguenots in a timeless distant future haunted by continuing religious conflicts, but Harald B. Thor’s tiered set did little to clarify the action. The gardens of the chateau of Chenonceau have rarely offered so little charm, with stumpy white trees and an overused paddling pool. The violence of the work was underplayed, and this grandest of all French operas, a five-hour show, was low on spectacular stage effects. In lieu of presenting an elaborate historical fresco of late-sixteenth-century France, a modern staging of Les Huguenots needs to establish a contemporary equivalent of the love story between the Protestant Raoul de Nangis and Valentine, the daughter of the Roman Catholic Comte de Saint-Bris. Kriegenburg’s production delivered a monochrome approach and a fatal lack of dramatic clarity, not helped by stereotyped playing from most of the cast. (A successful modern staging is not impossible; director Olivier Py achieved impressive coherence in his 2012 Strasbourg production of Les Huguenots, conducted by Daniele Callegari.)

Meyerbeer’s vocal writing is of legendary difficulty. During the 1890s, when the Metropolitan Opera gathered casts of virtuoso singers to fill the seven principal roles, Les Huguenots was known as “The Night of the Seven Stars.” The high-flying tenor role of Raoul is particularly difficult to cast, and Paris was especially lucky to secure the services of Korean tenor Yosep Kang at the eleventh hour. Kang’s performance was dramatically anonymous, and he sounded vocally challenged at the top of his range. His Valentine was Ermonela Jaho, a popular artist cast in a role written for Cornélie Falcon, a dramatic soprano of prodigious range. The role lies low for Jaho, and, despite her usual moving commitment, Valentine needs more weight in mid-range and a cleaner vocal attack. 

The best singing in the cast came from soprano Lisette Oropesa as Marguerite. Oropesa’s faultless technique made “Ô beau pays de la Touraine” the finest display of coloratura singing heard at the Opéra in recent years. Close trills and a soaring altissimo, coupled with a charming stage presence, earned the American soprano the warmest applause of the evening. Karine Deshayes, cast in a role that suits her high mezzo perfectly, was a nifty Urbain. It’s a shame that Urbain’s second rondo aria—which Meyerbeer added in 1848, for the star contralto Marietta Alboni—was not performed here, especially since Deshayes had sung it with such success in the Strasbourg performances.

After an unfortunate musical mishap in his Huguenot battle song “Piff paff, piff paff,” Nicolas Testé brought noble tone and humanity to the role of Marcel, Raoul’s servant, who sings the opera’s leitmotif, the Lutheran chorale “Ein feste Burg.” Baritone Florian Sempey brought all the busy stage confidence of his Figaro to Comte de Nevers, contributing perfect diction and fluent florid singing. Bass-baritone Paul Gay had the right towering authority for the Roman Catholic fanatic, the Comte de Saint-Bris.

Despite fine singing from the all-important chorus, a few dissenting voices were heard for conductor Mariotti on the first night. Mariotti delivered a discreet, smoothly played reading, which lacked strong contrasts and—in terms of dramatic excitement—sounded as muted as the production looked. —Stephen J. Mudge

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