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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Les Huguenots (1836) [230.12]
Ghylaine Raphanel (soprano) - Marguerite de Valois; Richard Leech (tenor) - Raoul de Nangis; Boris Martinovich (baritone) - Saint-Bris; Françoise Pollet (soprano) - Valentine; Danielle Borst (soprano) - Urbain; Nicolai Ghiuselev (bass) - Marcel; Gilles Cachemaille (baritone) - Nevers; Jean-Luc Maurette (tenor) - Tavannes; Christian Jean - Cossé, Bois-Rosé, 1st monk; Marc Barrard (baritone) - Thoré; Antoine Garcin (baritone) - Retz; Hervé Martin (baritone) - Méru, 2nd monk, Watchman; Christian Boulay (bass) - Maurevert, 3rd monk; Véronique Bauer and Elina Boudray (sopranos) - Catholic women, Gypsies, Maids of honour; Andrée Didier (soprano) - Valet, Maid of honour; Juan Otchando, Frédéric Varennes and Pascall Gardell (tenors and basses) - Huguenot soldiers
Montpellier Opera Chorus, Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra/Cyril Diederich
rec. Montpellier Opéra, September and October 1988
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 66212-5 [4 CDs: 57.26 + 46.25 + 52.07 + 74.14]

Meyerbeer’s best opera Les Huguenots was an instant success at its première in Paris. It maintained a firm foothold in the repertoire up to the time of the First World War. Since then it has fallen on hard times. Even at the height of its nineteenth century popularity it was often heavily truncated. Typically, the whole of the Fifth Act was omitted and cuts were inflicted elsewhere.

In the modern era it has only ever received two recordings which could be regarded as substantially complete. One was conducted by Richard Bonynge in London in 1970. The other is the present recording taken from live concert performances in Montpellier in 1988.
 
This Montpellier recording has been generally regarded by critics as the better of the two, notably by Alan Blyth in his Opera on CD and the Viking Opera Guide and by the Rough Guide to Opera; the Penguin Guide tends the other way. It has not been available for some time, so its reappearance is welcome. It must be said however that the balance of advantage between the two recordings is far from being clear-cut. I will return to the matter of comparisons continually during the course of this review.
 
The other sets drawn from live performances which have been intermittently available often feature some superb individual singing. All are heavily cut and many are sung in Italian translation, so they need not detain anyone who is looking for a primary recording of this quintessentially French grand opéra.
 
One of the reasons most commonly cited for the neglect of Les Huguenots during the twentieth century has been the sheer difficulty of finding singers of the right calibre to do justice to the music. The performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the early 1900s were dubbed “the night of seven stars”, and indeed one needs seven very good singers to fill the major roles. The greatest difficulty of all lies in finding a tenor who can sing the sometimes stratospheric role of Raoul. It was originally written for Adolphe Nourrit, who had, some years before, created the role of Arnold in Rossini’s William Tell. His sweetly lyrical voice was certainly what Meyerbeer had in mind when he wrote the Romance in the First Act with its accompaniment for solo viola d’amore. Towards the end Meyerbeer seems to be writing for a much more robust singer, and he clearly had in mind the voice of Gilbert-Louis Duprez who had taken over the role of Arnold in William Tell and startled Parisian audiences with his top Cs delivered from the chest - of which Rossini thoroughly disapproved.
 
When Bonynge made his recording he prefaced the sessions with a concert performance of the whole opera at the Albert Hall. By all accounts Anastasios Vrenios then gave a solidly powerful rendition of the role. By the time he came to make the recording something had gone drastically wrong with his voice. The sound that comes across, while it delivers all the notes precisely and correctly, is almost totally lacking in heroic strength. He completely fails to rise to the challenge of the great duet in Act Four. Richard Leech on the other hand has plenty of punch in his voice, but he finds difficulty in fining down his tone for the Romance in the First Act. This robs the music of the delicacy it really needs at that point. However he is superbly dramatic later on, particularly in the nearly always omitted opening scene of Act Five. Earlier this year I reviewed a highly unrecommendable German-language DVD with the same singer which cut this scene entirely, as well as making horrendous large-scale truncations everywhere else. He is a major asset to this recording.
 
The other role which causes real problems for any casting director is that of Marguerite de Valois. Here the balance of advantage between Bonynge and Diederich lies decidedly in the other direction. Ghyslaine Raphanel in this set has all the accuracy of coloratura that is required, but by comparison with Joan Sutherland in the Bonynge set her tone is almost totally lacking in either tonal warmth or regal splendour. With Sutherland you are always conscious of a Queen who is well aware of her power and determination to make peace between the warring religious factions - a gross travesty of historical accuracy, but never mind. With Raphanel you are simply given a canary-like soubrette going through her coloratura motions. As her page, Danielle Borst is similarly an accomplished singer, but again she lacks the sheer sense of warmth and personality that one gets with Huguette Tourangeau for Bonynge. On the other hand, Borst, a soprano, manages to sound slightly more convincingly masculine than the mezzo Tourangeau. She is deprived of her second aria in Act Three (included by Bonynge) but nevertheless she is less obviously a weakness than her mistress.
 
As regards the remainder of the casting, honours between the two sets are much more evenly divided. Martina Arroyo as Valentine for Bonynge was luxury casting, not ideally suited to the more elaborate sections of the role but creamy in tone and exuding womanly concern. Françoise Pollet in this Diederich set is just as good, and rather more at ease with the more rapid passagework despite some moments of shrillness at the very top. The extremely taxing end of her Act Four aria is omitted; Arroyo gave it complete.
 
As Marcel, Nicolai Ghiuselev is common to both sets: in firmer voice for Bonynge, but sounding more properly like the old soldier for Diederich and bringing out the character with more assuredness even if with some roughness of tone. The two Catholic noblemen, Saint-Bris and Nevers, are well taken for Bonynge by Gabriel Bacquier and Dominic Cossa. For this Diederich set, Boris Martinovich is not quite a match for Bacquier’s subtleties of inflection, but Giles Cachemaille is more suave and characterful than Cossa in his depiction of the playboy nobleman with a conscience. The small parts here are all adequately taken, although Bonynge scores with some luxurious casting such as Kiri te Kanawa, Alan Opie and Arleen Augér in minor roles.
 
All of this brings us to the matter of the conducting. At the time of his Decca recording, Bonynge does not always seem to have come to terms with Meyerbeer’s score. The sometimes wayward nature of Meyerbeer’s juxtapositions between sections of the music seem to find him at somewhat of a loss. Diederich has a more fiery approach to the opera, and generally gets more drama out of the action, although the Blessing of the Swords might have been more ominous if it been paced somewhat slower. Those who are allergic to such things should note that the generally very well-behaved audience give generous rounds of applause to the singers at the end of their various arias, which this recording preserves at full length - over a quarter of an hour in total. Meyerbeer would have expected this and the audience never interrupt the flow of the music. The applause is only faded out at the end of Acts Four and Five and otherwise sometimes continues for half a minute or more at a time. It is a shame that the dramatic tension which Diederich generates should be dissipated in this way. On the subject of dramatic presentation, we get the fusillade of shots offstage during the final scene of the massacre, but oddly not the final one onstage when Saint-Bris orders the soldiers to gun down his own daughter. It sounds as if she simply drops dead of her own accord, which is not quite what Meyerbeer and Scribe had in mind.
 
This brings us to the real problem with this Diederich set, which lies in the recording itself. Meyerbeer’s score has a huge dynamic range, from the whispering solo bass clarinet which accompanies the trio in the last scene to the large ensemble plus stage band which bids fair to out-volume the Triumph Scene from Aida at the end of Act Three. It is clear perhaps that some compression of this dynamic range is inevitable and desirable for domestic listening, but the French radio engineers responsible for the balances seem to have gone overboard in smoothing out the levels, with the results that some of the most exciting passages - clearly being delivered by the performers with full-throated enthusiasm - sound simply under-powered, as the performance recedes into the middle distance. Nor are the balances always consistent; for much of the time the singers are clearly in front of the orchestra. At other times they are submerged by it and the chorus are often almost out of the picture altogether. Twenty years earlier the Decca engineers managed to obtain a much more satisfactory compromise between delicacy and Meyerbeerian vulgarity than we are given here. Decca too made a few small cuts in the music - mainly repeated passages in finales - but their text is more complete than that used at Montpellier. Meyerbeer may have his dull passages, but it is important to appreciate how they fit into the context.
 
In the past I have had reason to complain about the paltry documentation which accompanies Warner’s reissues; here we are at least given a brief two-page synopsis (in three languages) of the action, but this can hardly do justice to the considerable complexities of Scribe’s plot. Anyone purchasing this set will need to look elsewhere for texts and translations. The piano score can be obtained online complete with English translation. The sung text is given in Italian only; there is an alternative version with French text, but no translation. I was unable to locate a libretto which could be downloaded online. One should obviously note that the 2001 CD reissue of the Bonynge set does come with full texts and translations, and this may well be the final consideration that weighs the balance one way or another. 
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 


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