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In Review > International

Le Prophète

Deutsche Oper Berlin

In Review Berlin Prophete lg 318
Clémentine Margaine, Fidès in Le Prophète in Berlin
© Bettina Stoess

TWO YEARS AGO, Deutsche Oper Berlin embarked on an ambitious Meyerbeer cycle, returning the German–Jewish granddaddy of French grand opéra to his native city for the first time in almost three decades. The opening salvo, Vasco da Gama (better known as L’Africaine), starring Roberto Alagna and Sophie Koch, gave the Meyerbeer renaissance a much needed jumpstart, despite Vera Nemirova’s inept staging. Meyerbeer’s most famous work, Les Huguenots,had its turn the following autumn, with some serious stars—Juan Diego Flórez and Patrizia Ciofi—again headlining the long evening in David Alden’s elegant production. In late October, the Anabaptist potboiler Le Prophète (seen November 30) completed the house’s Meyerbeer cycle on a frustrating note. 

With no big international names in the cast, this was a less glamorous affair than either Vasco or Huguenots, though the DOB ensemble singers and guests did fine work. American tenor Gregory Kunde heroically tackled the punishing near-heldentenor role of Jean de Leyde, but he did not provide the artistic or commercial jolt that a more luxurious voice could have brought to the proceedings.

The main vexation of this Prophète was Olivier Py’s gray, industrial staging. The Dutch setting of the first two acts became a soulless banlieue with billboards displaying underwear ads and massive concrete apartment blocks looming in the distance. Oberthal, the tyrannical count who snatches Berthe from Jean (the outrage that leads Jean to assume the mantel of prophet, and later king, of the Anabaptists) was a slick gangster whose pistol-wielding lackeys maintained order while he raped Berthe on the hood of his black Mercedes. The subsequent scenes in the Anabaptist’s camp and in Münster were set in drab anonymity. Harsh lighting, scaffolding and rusty metal shutters were all-too-briefly enlivened by the DOB’s sensational chorus—dressed as nineteenth-century factory workers—waving tricolors or the deep red tablecloths of Jean’s inn. Red was also the dominant color in a megasleazy orgy, which seemed to show that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and even religious zealots love to flaunt their kinky side. 

The orgy was considerably less outrageous than the Act III ballet in the Anabaptist camp, “Les Patineurs.” This festive music describes peasants skating on the ice (at the 1849 Paris premiere, the dancers reportedly wore roller skates!), but I have no idea what Py, who was also listed as choreographer, possibly heard in this music. For almost twenty minutes, a dancer standing in a bucket blithely bathed himself, while the stage rotated to reveal a kaleidoscope of chaos, including rape, an overturned car set on fire and lots of spastic fighting. When the ballet was over, the crowd rewarded the performers with some of the heartiest boos I’ve heard in a long time. 

The fine cast mostly surmounted the production’s inanities and restored focus to Meyerbeer’s gripping music. Kunde’s voice often resonated with cantorial weeping, and he invested the role’s most dramatic scenes—such as the Act IV finale, in which Jean denies his mother—with furious emotional power. Clémentine Margaine, an alluring young French mezzo who is a former ensemble member here, was shattering as Fidès. 

This production marked the first use of the revised historical/critical edition edited by Matthias Broska. While numerous substitutions have been made, not a single number has been deleted. In this performing version, Fidès seemed to have more to do than anyone else. Especially in the final two acts, Margaine owned the evening with her imposingly full voice. It was a magnificent performance that augured well for her upcoming Carmen in the company’s new Ole Anders Tandberg staging 

Ensemble members filled out the remaining roles, with Elena Tsallagova making a particularly fine impression as Berthe. I’ve heard Seth Carico in far better form than he was here; perhaps Oberthal’s cartoonish villainy in this production stood in the way of a full-fledged interpretation. Derek Welton, Andrew Dickinson and Noel Bouley were effective as the shrewd, Latin-chanting Anabaptists. Italian maestro Enrique Mazzola, who led the Vasco performances, returned for a bold and energetic account that highlighted Meyerbeer’s sophistication in unifying music and drama. Over the four-and-a half-hour-long evening, the music never once stagnated.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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