Les Huguenots at the Deutsche Oper
What today is the appeal of the old warhorse Les Huguenots, an example of the now largely neglected species, French grand opera, and one which was adored by our Victorian forefathers? There is the subject-matter: drawing on momentous events in French history the plot centres on hatred between Catholics and Protestants. There is the spectacle with large forces filling the stage. Above all there are the leading roles making huge demands on singers: heroic high-lying passages combined with brilliant coloratura and lyrical sensitivity.
For the current revival at the Berlin Deutsche Oper, two international stars had been engaged and did not disappoint. Patrizia Ciofe as Marguerite de Valois was predictably superb. Her creamy soprano, spinning out delectable, beautifully phrased, soft notes, was equally impressive in the louder, more exciting passages. Her musical skills served also dramatic purposes; as the imperious aristocrat who yet has idealistic notions of religious harmony and whose emotions are touched by her encounters with the Huguenots. Juan Diego Flórez has indeed phenomenal vocal attributes familiar from his exploits with Rossini: a fearless attack on, and perfect production of, the high notes; purity of tone throughout the register; and precision in the ornamentation. Whether heroic French opera is entirely right for him is another matter. The endless cheering after his major arias may have reflected what the Berlin public expected from him more than what he had actually delivered. Olesya Golovneva was an appropriately passionate and moving Valentine but she needs to bring more colour to her vocal delivery. Ante Jerkunica offered a sonorous Marcel but never broke through the conventionality of the character and his utterances. In contrast, Irene Roberts as Urbain and Derek Welton as St-Bris made much of their roles. Michele Mariotti offered vigorous support from the pit.
I was disappointed with David Alden’s production which only came to life in Act Four when the intensity of the scene between Raoul and Valentine could be appreciated without the distraction of excessive business on the stage. Dull, rather than radical, it communicated little about religious persecution, power and even love. In his programme note Alden interestingly regards Les Huguenots as the “Grandfather of Broadway Musicals” in that it was one of the first operas written to please a broader bourgeois audience, rather than a cultural and social elite. And true to that observation there were elements of musical theatre in the jazzy movements of chorus and minor characters, somewhat trivialising the serious drama. The whole made me ruefully recall the truly epic staging of the piece by Olivier Py a few years ago in Brussels. This latter staging, rather than that at Berlin, had demonstrated that the tradition of French grand opera can be successfully revived.