Les Huguenots at Bard SummerScape 2009

On those rare occasions, to be sure, when it is ever
given. (The last New York performance — a wonderful concert by the Opera
Orchestra of New York — took place in 2001; the last New York
professional staging was in 1915.) But if you must do it, why stage
it? Or anything else by Giacomo Meyerbeer? Isn’t he elephantine,
dramatically chaotic, insanely expensive to produce, musically absurd?
Isn’t he the guy Wagner despised — even more than he despised
anyone better paid than he was? And who but wry, witty Leon Botstein
of Bard and the American Symphony Orchestra would stage Les Huguenots
as the centerpiece of a colloquium on the influences on, and of, Richard

You don’t hear this sort of thing, this casual contempt, from
all sides (especially not from those who have actually attended a
Meyerbeer opera), but you do hear it. “I can’t go to Les
,” one Wagnerite friend told me — “the
Meister would not like it.” Joe Volpe, who gave the Met trash
like Sly and Cyrano, operas that were never popular anywhere,
had a fixed prejudice against the composer of the first piece ever to achieve
one thousand performances at the Paris OpÈra. (That work was Les
, by the way.) Meyerbeer is usually just … dismissed. It
is rare (and, I think, thrilling) to hear one of his airs in an opera audition
or recital program — for no one at the dawn of the era of grand opera
knew better than he how to display the virtuoso voice to advantage, often in
unlikely combination with an obbligato instrument or two — basso profundo
and piccolo, anyone? (That’s from Les Huguenots, too.)

But how could operas popular throughout the world for almost a hundred years
not be worth hearing? How could they not appeal to audiences whose ears are, to
an extent, what the nineteenth century made of them? After each of the four
professional live performances of Les Huguenots that I’ve
attended, people on every side were saying, “This is such an exciting
opera! Why do we never hear it? Is his other music as good?” or words to
that effect. They say this even before the end, usually, because these works
are long and uneven, and the end often arrives after pleasure capacity
has reached overload. Meyerbeer’s works are much of a muchness, and his
habit of tossing in afterthoughts at the request of new singers does not render
them less unwieldy. On the present occasion, there was tremendous interest
— a couple of the Bard performances were sold out.

Huguenots_Deveria.gifScene from “The Huguenots” by Giacomo Meyerbeer by Achille Deveria [Boston Harbor Museum]

Botstein says Parsifal is slightly longer than Les
, but Parsifal doesn’t feel as long
— Wagner knew how to do much more with far less melodic material, partly
because he had Meyerbeer’s example to teach him what pitfalls to avoid:
Keep the story tightly focused, and don’t dissipate musical energy by
pausing between numbers — in fact, do away with individual numbers
— that was the Wagnerian revelation.

Huguenots can be draining if untrimmed. It is usually trimmed
— in Berlin in 1988, they dropped Act III and a great deal else,
permitting Pilar Lorengar to sing Valentine, a role otherwise beyond her
powers. At Bard’s Summerscape this year Botstein was determined to
present all of it, or very nearly. A ballet or two may have gone
missing between scenes of mass murder.

Mass murder, yes. Les Huguenots follows the grand opera plan
concocted by master librettist EugËne Scribe, the dramatic style later utilized
by Hollywood films of setting the romantic problems of a few tormented
“little people” against the throes of some historical convulsion.
Without Scribe there would have been no D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. De Mille. But
for Meyerbeer, the drama was subservient to musical requirements — each
major singer needed a major solo to establish character and a duet or two to
confront others, and where De Mille could cut away to scenery or a bit of local
color, opera has dance, ritual, daily activity set to music in some sensational
way. (Les Huguenots contains a notorious “bathing” scene in an
onstage pool.)

Marguerite_de_Valois_Clouet.gifMarguerite de Valois, dite La reine Margot by FranÁois Clouet (1572) [BibliothËque nationale de France]

Les Huguenots concerns the agonies of a fictitious love triangle set against
the St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre of several thousand Protestants
(Huguenots, in France) by the Catholics of Paris in 1572. There is one
historical figure, Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX, whose
marriage to the Protestant king of Navarre was the occasion for the bloodshed,
an incident of the wars of the Reformation that ripped Europe apart for two
centuries. Having endured that — and having realized that God just
didn’t care who won — created the sentiment for religious
toleration that is one of the happiest triumphs of Western civilization. The
story of vicious wars among Frenchmen was, by 1836, exemplary: How far
we’ve come! Thank heavens nothing like that could happen again!
— or so Meyerbeer’s audience could tell themselves. Meyerbeer
himself, a Jew from Berlin, mercifully died in 1864. Today, who can doubt that
this tale of well-intentioned people trying to avert horror only to be
destroyed by it in the end is relevant? As we know after the Holocaust, no
nation is so civilized it cannot descend to barbarity.

The other reason, I believe, that Les Huguenots scares producers
even more than other large-scale Meyerbeer operas, is its reputation, dreamed
up by a Met press agent, as the “Night of Seven Stars” — you
cannot put it on unless you have seven leading singers of spectacular
attainment, plus a dozen capable minor ones. This is not quite true. While
Meyerbeer wrote in a way that allowed singers of abnormal ability to show off
their best shots, none of the seven lead parts is murderously long or difficult
except those of Raoul and Marcel. Marcel, the gruff soldier whose voice plumbs
the depths to affirm his bedrock Puritanism, sings a great warlike display
piece (with piccolo) in “Piff! Paff! Pouf!” (that’s the sound
of bullets shooting Catholics), a duet with Valentine, a trio in a besieged
church, and he should be heard in ensembles, but it won’t kill any singer
who has those low notes.

Raoul is another matter — a heroic but lyric tenor (Wagner imitated
him with the far more unsingable Tannhauser) who must be romantic, flirtatious,
outraged, stalwart and devout t by swift turns — and who must sing
something important in each of the five acts. You can’t do
Huguenots without a strong Raoul — don’t even think of it.
Marcello Giordani boosted his career to the A-list by taking on Raoul in
several productions.

In contrast, the Queen in this opera is a lesser figure (Valentine is the
heroine) — Marguerite sings an enormous coloratura showpiece on her
entrance in Act II, tossing out Es and Fs, but thereafter she barely appears
— she can go rest her tonsils or change costume. The part is therefore a
favorite with aging ladies who have kept a bit of top. I once heard Sills surf
through it at length and with ease; Joan Sutherland, who had done it at La
Scala (on horseback no less) at 35, could still sing it respectably a quarter
century later in her final stage appearance.

Valentine, however, calls for a strong lyric soprano or a high mezzo,
capable of matching the ardors of her Raoul. Urbain is a display role for
mezzo-in-trousers, a high mezzo at that. Meyerbeer tailored his roles closely
to unique singers, so that they sometimes fit awkwardly on ordinary ones; it is
another reason why he was agreeable to writing new showpieces for new

Then there’s a baritone, the Comte de Nevers, a suave French
man-about-town who says no to friends plotting massacre. The Comte de St.-Bris
is a caricature bass villain, needed for the curtain shocker: he has just slain
three “Huguenots,” only to discover one is Valentine — his
only child. Yes, Verdi knew this opera when he wrote Rigoletto
everybody knew this opera.

So: Les Huguenots is a crowd-pleaser, an erstwhile blockbuster hit,
influenced everyone and has a story relevant to today’s headlines. It
should be performed — with judicious snippage perhaps (because the music
is of variable quality). Now, how did they do at Bard? To my surprise,
surprisingly well — I’d give it a six and a half out of seven
possible stars.

Michael Spyres has a lovely, liquid tenor, all honey for love duets and some
metal for cries of outraged honor. His voice may not be large enough to sing
this lyric but very long role in a major house — no way to be sure at
Bard, where the Sosnoff Theater seats 900 — but it held up, remaining
beautiful and on pitch well into Act V. You can’t do a
Huguenots without a Raoul, and Bard had a winning Raoul.

Erin Morley sang the Queen, encumbered by preposterous costumes in gunmetal
gray as if to emphasize her equivocal politics. She has a large, agile, clear
soprano — no canary she, but then Meyerbeer knew how to spare his singers
a fight with full orchestra — and her highly ornamented scene (rising to
brilliant high F’s) was most gratifying. Alexandra Deshorties sang
Valentine with supple phrasing and inexhaustible spirit. I have occasionally
had the sense that this singer’s sizable instrument has a mind of its
own, not fully under the singer’s control; there was little sign of that
here. She can cut through a whole Meyerbeerian cast and chorus when necessary
(as the only woman present — horrified — during the Oath of the
Swords) but there were hints of a beat when she pushed too hard. She was
tremendously affecting in quiet moments, such as her solo at the opening of Act
IV or the trio in Act V, even manifesting a creditable trill. Marie Lenormand,
looking no more masculine than do most trouser mezzos, tossed her bright, cocky
soprano about charmingly, but lower notes gave her some trouble.

Andrew Schroeder gave a distinguished account of Nevers. A strapping figure
with an engaging, solid baritone, he remained French in his insouciance and the
ease of his singing. Peter Volpe scored a great success as gruff Marcel, always
in character, agreeable if not startling with the famous low range of the role.
His “Piff, Paff” would have been even more impressive if the
director hadn’t undercut it. Jon Marcus Bindel, as Valentine’s
wicked father, was the only singer who did not delight — when he sang
with any power at all, they wobbled unpleasantly. The five Catholic nobles, all
roles calling for high quality, were well cast, and the two gypsies in the
PrÈ-aux-Clercs sang deliciously. It would have been nice to have a gypsy dance
to the gypsy dance ballet that follows instead of a tawdry assault by Huguenots
on girls in slips.

Meyerbeer’s orchestra is not enormous — he is notoriously kind
to singers — but he needs power for the great explosions that cap the
drama at its many high points. Botstein’s soloists accompanied the
singers lovingly but sometimes lacked the concluding “button” that
sets off applause — the audience did not always seem cued to apply it.
The great scenes that build and include everyone — soloists, chorus,
orchestra, the primal scenes of grand opera, were impressively carried off, at
least when the staging did not distract.

The staging was by Thaddeus Strassberger, whose wrangle with the challenges
of fitting it in the Sosnoff’s small but technically proficient stage was
by turns inventive and perverse. The theme wasn’t exactly modern dress,
but it was difficult to be sure what period it was set in — the women
wore something old and bulky, the men something modern, the dancers something
scanty. The PrÈ-aux-Clercs scene of Act III, set in a field near the Seine
where Huguenots (forbidden to worship in churches) are holding a Sunday service
beside the convent in which Nevers is marrying Valentine, was placed by
Strassberger under the steel piers that support the elevated portions of the
Paris MÈtro — far from bucolic or Renaissance, but intriguing for its
echo of the nave of some great cathedral. The plot for massacre in Act IV
filled a claustrophobic square of black leather chairs — and the sides of
the set drew back when the conspiratorial chorus came to join in for the Oath.
Indeed, the best of Strassberger’s work was his use of the great wooden
panels that front the Sosnoff stage to segment the scene into smaller tableaux,
allowing us to see what Raoul spies (and misinterprets) of Nevers and Valentine
in Act I, or to give us a narrow glimpse of Marguerite’s ball in Act

But what beefs me, what gets me to want this guy barred from the opera
house, is his lack of faith in the music. Naked wrestlers at a men’s stag
party (while they sing of women and wine) — okay; but must they wrestle
when Marcel is singing his great aria? If you know the piece, you’ll know
enough to ignore the busyness upstage, but this is a piece strange to most of
the audience. The eye will be caught, the ear will ignore. If Mr. Volpe were
Pol PlanÁon, he’d refuse to sing until the wrestlers were canned, but
nowadays singers don’t do that. The Oath of the Swords in Act IV, one of
the great moments of Parisian opera, a scene that seldom fails to send chills
by purely musical means, failed to chill on this occasion because of the
bleeding naked fellow being attached to a chain in the middle (why? Do
politicians usually have scenic tableaux while making top-secret backroom
plans?) and the chorus dragging huge crosses across the stage. Yes — we
get it — but we would get it from the music, if you’d let us listen
to it. The great Act IV duet, a noble piece much admired by — yes —
Wagner (and wittily parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in The Pirates of
— they knew their Meyerbeer, too), was building beautifully
in its tight space from the ardent throats of Mr. Spyres and Mme. Deshorties,
but Strassberger, musically oblivious, abruptly had his soprano disrobe so the
tenor could demonstrate his ardor (was this the time, I ask you? with a
massacre to prevent?) by singing a stanza while between her legs. You could
enjoy the music anyway — but if you have to shut your eyes to take
pleasure in an opera, why are we spending money on a stage director?
Strassberger is of the school that believes music is the last thing anyone
cares about in the opera house. If Botstein wants to give an obscure work a
chance — a noble aim — can’t he find a team that believes the
piece is worth it?

John Yohalem

image_description=Marguerite de Valois
product_title=Giacomo Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots
product_by=Marguerite de Valois: Erin Morley; Valentine: Alexandra Deshorties; Urbain: Marie Lenormand; Raoul: Michael Spyres; Nevers: Andrew Schroeder; Marcel: Peter Volpe; Saint-Bris: Jon Marcus Bindel. American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein. At Summerscape, 2009; Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, performance of August 2.
product_id=Above: Marguerite de Valois