Les Huguenots

Opera Orchestra of New York
Carnegie Hall
April 23, 2001
By Giacomo Meyerbeer
In the original French by Eugène Scribe and Émil Deschamps
Eve Queler, Conductor

Last evening was a totally unexpected pleasure.  A friend offered me his ticket over the weekend because he was not up to going.  I was . . . and am glad I did!  In some of the copious literature accompanying the program and libretto, Eve Queler writes that this work had "always been high on the list of operas (she) wanted to conduct," but that "finding a suitable cast took...a long time."  After performing Halévy’s La Juive two seasons ago, written for the same singers who had appeared in the Meyerbeer opera, she planned last evening.  In the interim, some of the singers had to be replaced.  Those we heard last evening represent some of the finest choices for their roles from among the up-and-coming stars of tomorrow, even if many of the voices are lighter than those on the pirate recording of the La Scala performance (Gala GL100.604) in Italian, from which many have "learned" this rarely performed work, on both LP and CD.

Les Huguenots features twenty-seven soloists plus chorus. Here, I shall discuss only the seven major roles.

Le Comte de Nevers, a Catholic nobleman   
Raoul de Nangis, a Huguenot nobleman   
Marcel, a Huguenot soldier, servant to Raoul   
Urbain, page to Marguerite de Valois   
Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre   
Valentine, daughter of St. Bris, betrothed to de Nevers   
Le Comte de St. Bris, a Catholic nobleman   
Kamel Boutros
Marcello Giordani
Luiz-Ottavio Faria
Maria Zifchak
Olga Makarina
Krassimira Stoyanova
Gary Simpson
The scene is set in Touraine and Paris, France, in August 1572
* * * * *

Very few of us know about the history of France during the 16th century. For those who do, August, 1572 was the time of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, during which French Catholics decided upon a "final solution" for the Protestants, or Huguenots. They did this by organizing and attacking all Protestants they could find—young and old, male and female—with knives, swords, bullets and fire. We might look upon it today as an "instant Holocaust." One would imagine that society and its various established churches would learn from their failures in such battles. Apparently not, since they’re still going on today.

But we’re not here to discuss mankind’s religious foibles. We’re here to report on a fabulous evening of opera. The first singer, Kamel Boutros, a young Egyptian-born Juilliard-trained lyric baritone, exhibited a most attractive voice that cried out for an aria or two. Alas, Meyerbeer did not oblige. Boutros and his Catholic nobleman friends in the first act all displayed smooth and attractive, if somewhat lightweight but well-trained, tenor and baritone voices. These gentlemen are in the early stages of their careers, and several will probably develop into important singers.

From the moment Marcello Giordani started to sing, the audience was aware it was in the presence of a highly gifted tenor with a wide range as well as a beautiful voice. I remembered having heard him at the Met as des Grieux opposite Renée Fleming’s Manon several seasons ago and being very impressed with him at that time. Furthermore, with the exception of some oddly pronounced "silent e’s," his French is very fine -- as is his diction. Throughout the evening, he thrilled us with numerous high C’s and D’s that were produced without a hint of strain, as well as an intense and heartfelt interpretation.

Brazilian basso, Luiz-Ottavio Faria, who has appeared with OONY several times, also impressed with his interpretation of Raoul’s servant, Marcel—especially with his masterfully performed "Piff paff pouf."

The Metropolitan Opera is currently employing American mezzo, Maria Zifchak, in comprimario roles, as they so often do with young singers who have recently joined the company. She is also singing major roles with smaller opera companies throughout the United States. Her bravura performance in this opera should catapult her into the reknown she so justly deserves. Her great range, lovely voice, brilliantly executed coloratura and fine acting skills should soon make her a major magnet for opera cognoscenti all over the world.

The last time Russian-born lyric-coloratura, Olga Makarina, sang with OONY was as Princess Eudoxie in La Juive. Since Meyerbeer wrote all his principal roles in this opera for the same soloists who had created the Halévy opera, it is only fitting that she be chosen to sing Marguerite de Valois. This young singer, who graduated from The Mannes School of Music and holds a master’s degree in piano and voice from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, easily overcame all the many coloratura hurdles presented by the role; and did so with charm, grace, and an effective dramatic interpretation. I remember having heard her as Olympia in NYCO’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a few seasons back, and being duly impressed.
If her voice is somewhat small and "tweety," it is so focused as to cut through the large orchestra and clearly reach every corner of the theatre. Future plans include the assumption of various bel canto roles as well as Verdi’s Desdemona and Bellini’s Norma.

Perhaps the most exciting singing came from Bulgarian soprano, Krassimira Stoyanova, who was making her New York City début in the role of Valentine. Although listed as a soprano, Ms. Stoyanova sounds more like a lyric mezzo to me. She has sung many of the standard lyric soprano roles, such as Micaëla, Mimí, the Figaro Countess, and Rachel in La Juive. I automatically identified her as a mezzo because, in the Italian language La Scala pirate from 1962, Giulietta Simionato sang this role. In any event, whether classified as a lyric or a mezzo, this young woman was a paradigm of operatic passion and vocal acuity. Act IV was her chance to shine, and shine she did, to the point of having the audience on its collective feet, screaming and cheering. I wonder if the Met has had the foresight to engage this talented performer before her busy schedule, and the passage of years start wearing away her voice.

When I read of the accomplishments of American baritone Gary Simpson (Macbeth, Scarpia, Nabucco, Iago, Donner, Kurvenal, Germont, and Rigoletto, among others), I wonder why he was the least exciting and impressive of all the evening’s soloists. He appeared to be going through all the correct motions as Valentine’s father, the Count de St. Bris, but it all came out rather pallid and lifeless. It might have been a bad evening for him. I look forward to hearing him elsewhere, when he is at the top of his form.

The chorus sounded rich and well-trained, doing a fine job of maintaining the festive mood of the evening. It also provided soloists for the minor roles.

The orchestra under music director Eve Queler was highly supportive of the singers and helped maintain the level of excitement created by them.

This was a memorable evening of opera in concert form. Now, if we could only get to see it staged at an opera house!

-- Howard in Griswold Hall   

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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