Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète in Essen

It sometimes happens that you leave an opera house with a sense of irritation gnawing away at you. This occurred last night at Essen after a performance of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. No, it was not the staging, though in many cases this would have been the cause. Rather, it was at an injustice perpetrated by the audience. They cheered to the rooftops when the mezzo soprano Marianne Cornetti appeared for her bow. True she has a powerful voice, particularly rich and colourful in the lower register and, her soft singing was a joy. However, when pulling out all the stops to engage our emotions at her plight as the mother of the eponymous Jean de Leyde, she sang far too loudly with a disagreeable vibrato. And her stage movements were, shall we say, unprepossessing. Contrast this with their cooler reception of John Osborn, the tenor who sang the murderously long part of Jean with, throughout, beautiful tone, agility and brilliant top notes. Dramatically, too, he offered an interesting profile of an emotionally immature individual who was politically ambitious but also naïve.

The three intriguing Anabaptists gave characterful interpretations, idealistically devout when it suited their purposes, pleasure-seeking when the opportunity arose. Amongst them, Tijl Faveyts impressed with his sonorous bass. As Jean’s would-be bride, Lynette Tapia produced some lovely sounds, but the voice is not yet full enough for this repertory. Meyerbeer’s score has some very inventive passages, but too often recedes into convention. Nor was it quite capable of sustaining engagement for almost five hours in the theatre. Nevertheless, it had a persuasive advocate in conductor Giuliano Carella. Although he could let loose when necessary, he exerted careful control over the quieter moments, thus enabling the cast to communicate easily the nuances of the vocal line.

I had mixed feelings about Vincent Boussard’s production. It contained some good ideas, as the characters moved round the compartmentalised revolving stage. And he did not over-interpret the piece, allowing its main themes, political and psychological, to speak for themselves. Yet some of the movements were clumsy, particularly those of the chorus, who were crammed into too small a space. The cluttering of props and the presence of a number of gratuitous images did not help.

An operatic evening, then, combining elements both satisfying and disappointing.