DVD Review:  Les Huguenots

By Giacomo Meyerbeer

Stage Director. . . . . . . . . .
Settings & Costumes. . . . . . .

Marguerite de Valois. . . . . . . . . .
Valentine de Saint-Bris. . . . . .
Urbain, Marguerite’s Page. . . . .
Raoul de Nangis. . . . . . . . . .
Marcel, Raoul’s Servant. . . . .
Comte de Saint-Bris. . . . . . . . .
Comte de Nevers. . . . . . . . .
John Dew
Gottfried Pilz

Angela Denning
Lucy Peacock
Camille Capasso
Richard Leech
Martin Blasius
Hartmut Welker
Linus Carlson
Conductor. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Stefan Soltesz
* * * * *

Having attended a sterling concert performance of this opera sung in the original French at Carnegie Hall earlier in the season, I hesitated to purchase this German language version, which moved from 15th century France (Touraine and Paris) to 20th century Berlin.  But, considering the fact that Richard Leech was singing Raoul, the role that brought him international reknown, I decided to buy it, despite what I considered its rather high price.

I was not very disappointed! It was filmed in performances from August and September, 1991, to celebrate Meyerbeer’s bicentenary.  The performances are generally world-class and the sets and costumes do work.  Because of the type of haute-couture style of the dresses and hats worn by Marguerite and her ladies in waiting, I took the period to be the mid to late 1930s or even early 1940s.  The outer walls of the buildings appear scarred with the windows protected either by boards or pull-down metal shutters.  At street level there is graffiti that brings to my mind people lined up to be shot or people in a gas chamber.  During the overture, people begin to line up to enter a door, checking the location in a newspaper article.  When they come out they are wearing stickers on their chests with a yellow cross (a Protestant one).  They are all puzzled at having to wear these stickers.  Some are even embarrassed.  One of them is so upset, he not only tears off his sticker, but also those of other people.  A fight starts; men wearing loose slate-colored Eisenhower jackets, boots and red berets enter and attack the Protestants (Huguenots), chasing them away.  Then, the opera starts.

The attackers are the Comte de Nevers and his circle of Catholic friends and allies.  They enter his home to prepare for a party featuring wine, gourmet food, talk of their prowess with women and, apparently, an evening of dalliance.  In his attempt to obey the orders of his king and mediate between the Catholics and the Huguenots, Nevers has invited Huguenot Raoul de Nangis to his party.  Although unaccustomed to this type of gathering, Raoul expresses his gratitude at the invitation and his pleasure at being with the group.  Nevers’ two servants enter following a group of women in hot pants, but otherwise dressed as storm troopers.  To answer their questions about his love life, Raoul then tells them that he has given his heart to an unknown lady he rescued from a band of marauding students.  His servant Marcel, whom he introduces as his brother in the German version, pushes his way into the party to keep Raoul safe.  Instead of joining the others in a drink, he sings the famous "Piff, Paff, Pouf," an anti-Catholic Huguenot battle song.

It is announced that an unknown lady has come to speak to Nevers.  He thinks her to be one of his sexual conquests, as do his friends, and goes into the next room to speak with her.  Curious about whom she might be, Nevers’ cronies all look through a peep-hole in the door, but no-one recognizes her.  I find this odd, since she is the daugher of their most powerful anti-Huguenot friend.  They convince Raoul to take a look; he recognizes the woman to whom he had given his heart, and is very upset.  What none of the men know is that, following the orders of Queen Marguerite de Navarre, Valentine has come to beg Nevers to release her from the promise of marriage her father made to him, especially since her heart belongs to another.  An honorable gentleman, he grants her wish, but is troubled by her request, especially since they were to be married the following day.  Urbain arrives to invite Raoul to an “assignation” with an unknown lady.  He must, however, allow himself to be blindfolded and have his wrists bound.  Both Nevers and his cronies recognize the handwriting and seal of Marguerite de Navarre.  Seeing that Raoul is in her good graces, they fawn all over him.  As Raoul is led away protected by his “brother,” Marcel, Nevers allows his friends to believe he has a date with the lady who came to see him.

Act II takes place at the palace of Marguerite de Navarre.  She has invited some of the ladies of the court to enjoy a pastorale in which she plays a shepherdess and, in a rather stylized performance, sings the well-known coloratura aria, "O beau pays de ma Touraine." Pastoral in nature, the aria tells how the strife between the Catholics and the Protestants could disappear if only they concentrated on love.  It is accompanied by a dumb show of two boys playing the Pope and Martin Luther, fighting at first and, finally, becoming the best of friends at the end of the vocal fireworks.  Overheated by all that singing and acting, Marguerite invites her guests to join her at the swimming pool to cool off.  Marguerite enters with a towel around her head and wearing a lovely one-piece bathing suit covered by a terry robe.  Other ladies enter in robes and reveal their one- and two-piece suits.  They throw a beach ball around the pool and are interrupted by Urbain who wants to bring in Raoul.  The queen tells her friends to leave and orders her page to bring in the visitor.  Meanwhile, she leaves to quickly change into something more appropriate.  When she returns Raoul, who has been seated with blindfold and tied wrists is freed of his restraints and begins a most courtly conversation with Marguerite.  She sees how Valentine could fall for him and, were she not a woman with duties and responsibilities, would, herself, take him as a lover.  They fool around a bit, but are interrupted again by Urbain who announces the arrival of the local lords and ladies who wish to pay homage to her.  Among the new arrivals are both Nevers and Saint-Bris, to whom she announces that her brother, King Charles IX, wishes to see them in Paris.  She then presents Valentine to Raoul who refuses to marry her, thinking she is a mistress of Nevers, thereby insulting everyone present.  Valentine does not know why Raoul is acting that way and is, herself, very hurt.  The act ends in a mass of confusion.

Act III, usually the “divertissement” act in French grand opera of the mid-nineteenth century, here consists of a rally between the Protestants (Huguenots) and Catholics.  The chorus is divided into two groups, one with a K (in German, Catholic is spelled with a “K”) on its back, the other with a P.  Cheering on each group are cheerleaders, each group with a K or a P on their backs, the Catholics having red pom-poms and the Protestants having blue ones.  Each of the groups hurls insults at the other’s religion, with continuous taunting and posing.  At one point, a Catholic attempts to make peace.  His efforts appear to be working when one of the Protestants hurls insults at the Pope and a Catholic reposts with insults to Martin Luther.  Another riot starts, with everyone running off at the sound of a gunshot, leaving the Catholic lying on the stage, dead.  (Some divertissement!)

Act IV takes place at the palace of St.-Nevers.  Valentine and Nevers are now husband and wife.  Alone, in an impassioned aria, Valentine sings of her love for Raoul, even though she is married.  Raoul enters wanting to see her a final time before he dies.  He plans to confront Nevers, St.-Bris and the Catholic nobles, but is hidden by Valentine as Nevers returns home.  He is accompanied by a group of Catholic conspirators led by St.-Bris who explains his plan for a massacre of the Huguenots.  Everyone agrees to follow St.-Bris but Nevers whose honor (a very important element in French drama) prevents him from being a party to such an action.  He is detained by St.-Bris and taken away as the Catholics—including a priest and nuns--look forward to the upcoming massacre “ordered by God.” As they leave, black bands with a white cross on them are handed out as Catholic “badges.”  After a long duet about love, suffering, duty and honor, Raoul leaves Valentine to warn his brethren.  She follows with two armbands.

The booklet for the DVD describes the first scene of Act V as “the wedding feast of Marguerite de Valois and Henri de Navarre.” No such scene exists in this performance.  Instead, the scene is the same as in the opening act of the opera, with two dumb shows: a wounded Marcel fleeing with several Huguenots and a blindfolded and bound Nevers being led off to be shot as a traitor by his fellow-Catholics.  The graffiti-covered buildings then move apart to display an open street with a low wall on one side whose graffiti reads: Ein fester Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God), the start of the Protestant hymn woven through every act of this opera.  Protestants assemble behind some barriers and begin to pray.  Marcel and Raoul run in, followed by Valentine who wants Raoul to save himself by wearing the Catholic armband she brought along.  He refuses to abandon his brethren.  When he refused to become a Catholic, she announces that she will become a Protestant because she is now free to marry him, since Nevers was shot as a traitor.  They have Marcel marry them.  The Protestants sing their hymn as the Catholic nobles run in demanding that they recant their religion.  They refuse and are shot down.  The nobles then address themselves to Marcel, Valentine and Raoul who, as St.-Bris approaches, announce that they are Huguenots.  The three are shot down on the order of St.-Bris who then runs in and recognizes his daughter.  It is too late.  Dying, Valentine tells her father that he is guilty of her death and she will pray for him in heaven, as the Catholic forces stand across the front of the stage announcing their success.

* * * * *

Although he had enjoyed a high level of success in lyric tenor roles throughout the United States, Richard Leech gained international fame as Raoul in the 1987 premiere of this production.  Here, his acting is intense and his voice sounds very fresh and even throughout the role’s very wide range.  What’s more, he sings its highest notes with apparent ease.

Petite American lyric mezzo, Camille Capasso, started work with the Deutsche Oper, Berlin as a scholarship student in the 1989/90 season.  The following year she became a company member.  Made up with a moustache and beard, Ms. Capasso excelled in the Cherubino-like role of Urbain, page to Princess Marguerite de Valois.

Australian born and trained Angela Denning started her career at the Sydney Opera House.  She was engaged by the Deutsche Oper, Berlin during the 1986/87 season and, in addition to Marguerite de Valois, has regaled the Berlin opera public with her Fiordiligi, Lucia, Donnas Elvira and Anna, and Gilda.  Her voice is probably not to everyone’s taste because of the almost detached, "other-worldly" manner in which she produces her coloratura, but she dispatches the role with the appropriate intensity and charm.

A Texan by birth, Lucy Peacock began her operatic career at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.  Her Valentine provided us with a most moving portrait of the tragic heroine.  Her voice is rich and almost “mezzoish” in quality and has a tendency to develop a slight beat in the most dramatic and intense sections of her arias.  Her repertoire includes Pamina (Magic Flute), the Countess (Marriage of Figaro), Marie (Bartered Bride), and Rosalinde (Fledermaus).

The German bass Martin Blasius, a member of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Duesseldorf, portrays Marcel.  He is, in my estimation, the weakest link in this performance.  I may have pictured wrongly, but have always considered him a middle-aged retainer of the de Nangis family who shared their religious beliefs and was eager to fight for them and fight along with Raoul to watch over his young master.  As portrayed here by Blasius, Marcel has become Raoul’s watchdog, an officious religious fanatic along to make sure the young Count does not stray from the Protestant “straight and narrow path.” Marcel forcibly stops Raoul from drinking with his Catholic hosts or even dancing with them.  This interpretation makes Raoul appear to have no willpower and a rather weak belief in the religion in which he has been brought up, despite the dedication he so often expresses.  I do not know if this is attributable to the stage director or to the singer’s lack of dramatic talent.  Furthermore, his voice often took on what I can only describe as a colorless quality and was occasionally off-pitch.

Hungarian born conductor, Stefan Soltesz, has worked with some of the master conductors of the previous generation, having studied with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy for Music and Performing Arts and assisted Karl Boehm, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival, as well as having spent time on the conducting staff of the Vienna State Opera.  His conducting was never intrusive and always supported the singers in achieving both their vocal and histrionic goals.

In conclusion, if the performance of Mr. Blasius is the weakest in this cast, the DVD is worth owning because of the artistry and talent of the rest of the singers described above.

-- Howard of Griswold Hall   

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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