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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Les Huguenots - sung in German [156.00]
Angela Denning (soprano) - Marguerite; Lucy Peacock (soprano) – Valentine; Richard Leech (tenor) - Raoul; Hartmut Welker (baritone) - Saint-Bris; Camille Capasso (mezzo) – Urbain; Martin Blasius (bass) - Marcel; Lenus Carlson (baritone) - Nevers; Otto Heuer (tenor) – Tavannes; Warren Mok (tenor) - Bois-Rosé; David Griffith (tenor) – Cosse; Friedrich Molsberger (baritone) – Thore; Klaus Lang (baritone) – Guard; Iván Sardi (bass) – Retz; Josef Becker (bass) – Meru; 1st Monk; Miomir Nicolic (bass) - Maurevert, 3rd Monk; Bengt-Ola Morgny (mezzo) – Leonard; Klaus Lang (baritone) – Guard; Raemond Martin (baritone) - 2nd Monk
Deutsche Oper Berlin/Stefan Soltesz
rec. Deutsche Oper, 30 August, 2, 5, 8 September 1991
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 302 [156.00]

The booklet with this DVD claims that John Dew’s production of Die Huguenotten was “greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm” by the critics. Well, not when the production was imported to Covent Garden and given in Meyerbeer’s original French it wasn’t. The performance here is based on the German version prepared by Ignatz Franz Castelli for the Vienna production of 1837. It contains later amendments by Meyerbeer – changing the casting of the page Urbain from a male to a female travesti role – made in 1844. One presumes that Meyerbeer approved the German translation - although a different translation was made for a later Munich production in 1838. He most certainly would not have approved the fact that this performance is ‘edited’ by John Dew, whose editorial functions appear to be limited to the wholesale cutting of the score, of which most of the Third Act goes missing with disastrous consequences for plot continuity; four whole numbers are omitted here, and what remains last a mere ten minutes. Scribe may not have been the most consistent of librettists, but his dramatic design cannot possibly begin to make sense when it is treated in this cavalier fashion.
Part of the reason for Dew’s cuts clearly lie in his desire to render the work more ‘relevant’ to modern audiences by updating the historical milieu. Meyerbeer and Scribe set the opera in the period of the French religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, culminating in the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day massacre when the Catholics of Paris set about butchering their Huguenot neighbours. Dew relocates the plot to the Berlin of the 1980s with the conflict between Catholic and Huguenot re-imagined as a conflict between the West and East German regimes - although it is not at all clear which is which. This might have been highly topical in Berlin in 1987 when this production was new, but by 1991 it would already have become out of date following the fall of the Berlin Wall; perhaps a more apposite modern setting at that time would have been Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Meyerbeer and Scribe were not really that interested in the political aspects of the plot - the Jewish Meyerbeer would presumably have viewed Christian religious conflicts with some disdain - as in the consequences that the political and religious disputes have on the principal characters, torn asunder by factional disputes. The modern staging also contradicts the words at many points, a fact noticeable almost immediately when the obviously twentieth century bourgeois Raoul describes how he rescued an unknown lady love with the use of his sword.
Before the music of the overture actually begins we have some three minutes of dumb show which portrays the Huguenots being labelled with crucifixes - overtones of Nazism of the 1930s - but when the action proper begins it is apparent that Drew has a reluctance to take the plot seriously. The manservants prance around the stage with mincing gait like some horrible vaudeville act, and the women are dressed like a cross between Cabaret and The Rocky Horror Show. The Catholics appear to be a rowdy lot – Raoul is nearly raped by the serving women in their fishnet stockings – and the singing is often boisterously cavalier, to put it mildly. Richard Leech delivers his romance, described by Kobbé as “suave and elegant”, in stentorian verismo tones with hardly the slightest hint of mezza voce. He receives an uproarious reception from the audience for doing so. It is a thrilling sound, but it is not what Meyerbeer had in mind when he wrote the role. Martin Blasius renders his war song with an almost apologetic manner, and when Camille Capasso appears – despite some very effective coloratura singing – it is impossible to take her character seriously when her false beard very clearly contradicts the page’s unbroken voice. Stefan Soltesz beats his way mechanically through the music, and the chorus are ragged and sometimes almost drowned out by the orchestra.
The Second Act opens with Marguerite de Valois’s big coloratura aria, made famous by many prima donne over the years. Angela Denning has a very heavyweight voice for the role, and she is relieved of much of the more elaborate passage-work by some cuts. She does not make a very good fist of what is left. The much older Joan Sutherland on the rival Australian DVD demonstrates exactly what is required (and missing) here. Denning clearly finds the fioriture far too much of an effort, and she is not helped by being required to act like a vamp. The bathing scene is fully staged, but whereas Meyerbeer caused a scandal by his implication that the offstage ladies are naked while being spied on by the page, here the effect of the ladies round a rather small swimming pool in very decorous bathing costumes lacks any edge of dangerous prurience whatsoever.
So it goes on. After the truncated Third Act - which leaves gaping holes in the plot – how does Valentine know of the mooted plot to kill Raoul and the Huguenots, and why has Raoul’s attitude towards her changed so drastically? - we move quickly towards the dénouement. Here at last Dew begins to take the plot more seriously, and we get the chance to hear some extended singing from Lucy Peacock – who is, after all, the heroine. She has the best-suited voice for Meyerbeer in the cast, and presents a real character; but Hartmut Welker leads the blessing of the swords in rather rough tone and yields points to Lenus Carlson in style. Here Soltesz is very brusque and abrupt with the music, in what is after all one of the most horrific depictions of mob violence before Peter Grimes; he hustles the chorus along, robbing them of the chance to develop full tone. The extended duet between Raoul and Valentine which follows is given uncut, and Peacock and Leech work up a real storm between them. Sadly, it all comes a bit late.
The whole of the opening scene of Act Five is omitted, but the booklet note does not seem to be aware of this fact and gives us a full synopsis of the action - as it does of the cut sections of Act Three. Don’t the writers of these notes watch the video? The author, Guido Johannes Joerg, is also allowed to refer the septet in Act Three as one of the “musical highlights” of the score – but not here, where it is one of the items that Dew cuts.
I suppose we should be grateful to hear any of Act Five at all – it used to be cut regularly in performances in the nineteenth century, but it is essential to round out the plot. Dew spares us none of the brutality, but before the final massacre the trio between Valentine, Raoul and Marcel is very moving. Cecil Forsyth in his book on orchestration points out that the sinister bass clarinet accompaniment to this trio anticipates Wagner’s use of the same instrument in King Mark’s lament in Tristan. Here one really feels the emotional parallel, with some incandescent acting from the three principals. For some reason Brian Large’s video direction does not let us see the curtain calls but I think I can hear some booing towards the end, presumably for the production team.
There is an alternative DVD version of this opera, which enshrines Dame Joan Sutherland’s farewell stage performance from Australian Opera in 1990. Although this is also far from ideal - the subsidiary casting leaves something to be desired - it is nevertheless preferable to the release under consideration here. It maintains Meyerbeer’s historical milieu and gives us much more of the score although still not without some truncations. It is given in the correct language, and Bonynge has a feel for the music that largely eludes Soltesz. If you want a version of Les Huguenots for your DVD collection – and I suppose it is hardly an essential acquisition – that is the version to go for. Otherwise this is a release for German-speaking viewers and aficionados of ‘director opera’ only. Maybe not even for them, when well over an hour of the music has simply gone missing.
Paul Corfield Godfrey