Meyerbeer's opera Les Huguenots: containing the Italian text, with an English translation, and the music of all the principal airs

J. Church

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J. Church
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Dec 31, 1888
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This huge exploration of faith, tolerance, hatred, extermination, love, loyalty, self-sacrifice and hope in despair, is the first panel of a central diptych on the Reformation, and the heart of the wider tetralogy of Meyerbeer’s grand operas, where issues of power, religion and love are examined in a variety of modes.

For five years after the sensational première of Robert le Diable, Meyerbeer was thought to be resting on his laurels. Instead, he was drudging over a gigantic drama, partly adapted by Scribe from Merimée's Chronique de Charles IX. It was hardly believed possible that the esrlier success could be repeated. Most of the vivid details gleaned from every available document related to the time, were the composer's contribution to Les Huguenots. The music for this sombre tapestry of the Saint Bartholomew Massacre springs from the core of the vivid action and creates a panoramic alternation of moods, that capture the tragedy of religious intolerance and personal anguish in one of the most fraught events in history when some 30,000 French Protestants were murdered during the night of 24 August 1574. Meyerbeer’s music rises to occasion, and reaches sublime heights of music drama, especially in the fourth and fifth acts, with the Benediction of the Catholic Daggers—one of the most electrical scenes in all opera—the more powerful Love Duet, and the trio of martyrdom in the last moments of the opera. Spectacle was incorporated in the plot, in Meyerbeer’s concern to conjure up the couleur locale of those heroic times. The evocation of Marguerite de Valois’s court at Chenonceaux, the recreation of late Medieval Parisian life with its Gypsy revels and the religionists' riots in the Pré-aux-Clercs, the wedding fete in the Hotel de Nesle, all grow out of the central idea. Meyerbeer was also very successful in his characterizations of individuals: the dreamy idealist Raoul, the passionate and self-sacrificing Valentine, the fanatical and implacable St Bris, the rough stolid Marcel, the elegant and capricious queen, the somewhat flamboyant but always honorable Nevers. All come to life in this score.

The opera became enormously popular, its various arias a touchstone of operatic lyricism, and by 1936 had been performed 1120 times in at the Paris Opéra alone. In spite of its overwhelming dramatic power and instrumental riches of the score, the most significant aspect of the work came to regarded the supremacy of the vocal parts. Performances at the Metropolitan Opera in new York during the 1890s were among the the most famous in operatic history. Here performances attained a legendary status, the so-called nuits des sept étoiles (“the Nights of the Seven Stars”), as in 1894 with Nellie Melba, Lillian Nordica, Sofia Scalchi, Jean de Reszke, Edouard de Reszke, Pol Plançon, and Victor Maurel

Once again George Sand summed up with incomparable insight the essence of Meyerbeer’s musico-dramatic achievement.

“From stone floors that no Protestant knee ever warms, solemn voices seemed to resound, the tones of a calm, secure triumph and the expiring sighs and murmurings of a tranquil end, resigned, confident, without death-rattle or lamentation. It was the voice of Calvinist martyrdom, a martyrdom without ecstasy or delirium, a torment where suffering is stifled by austere pride and august certainty... These imaginary hymns naturally assumed in my mind the form of that fine canticle in your opera, The Huguenots; and, while I dreamt I heard the cries of Catholic indignation and a sharp volley of musketry outside, a tall figure passed before my eyes, one of the noblest dramatic figures, one of the loveliest personifications of the idea of faith that art has ever produced in our time: Meyerbeer's Marcel. And I saw that bronze statue standing clothed in buffalo hide, quickened by the divine fire the composer had brought down upon him. I saw him, Maestro, forgive me my presumption, just as he must have appeared to you when you sought him at the uncompromising and steadfast hour of noon under the glowing arches of some Protestant church, vast and luminous as this one. Though you are a musician, you are more a poet than any of us! In what secret recess of your soul, in what hidden treasury of your mind did you find those clear, pure features, that concept, simple as antiquity, true as history, lucid as conscience, strong as faith? ....”

The facsimile edition of the manuscript of this famous work, for so long kept private and then thought lost after the Second World War, enables lovers of opera to examine for themselves the compositional procedure of its great and often misunderstood creator. One can see the extent to which curtailment of the original conception was needed on the eve of the premiere: in the ensembles of both act 1 and 3 Meyerbeer’s complex developments had to be reduced. The ever present problem of censorship also meant that the original idea of depicting Catherine de’ Medici on stage as the instigator of the massacre had to be radically altered and her role substituted by the Comte de Saint Bris. The famous viola d’amore accompaniment to Raoul’s rhapsodic act 1 romance (“Plus blanche que la blanche hermine”) was originally conceived for the cello. The extraordinary Andante amoroso for the central part of the love duet also indicates Meyerbeer’s preparedness to act on a good idea: in this case Adolphe Nourrit’s suggestion that the cantabile be expanded. To see the MS of such a famous opera is both a moving and stimulating experience.

Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of the most important and influential opera composers of the 19th century, enjoyed a fame during his lifetime unrivalled by any of his contemporaries. His four French grand operas were in the standard repertory of every major opera house of the world between about 1835 and 1910. But his stage works went into an eclipse after World War I, and from then until about ten years ago were performed only occasionally. Now a rediscovery and reevaluation of his music dramas seems to be under way. More performances of his operas have taken place since 1993 than occurred during the previous twenty years. And this presents a problem for anyone who wants to study the texts of his operas. Libretti of his early stage works are held by very few libraries in the world and are almost impossible to find, and libretti of his more famous later operas, when found, are invariably heavily cut and reflect the performance practices of a hundred years ago.

This five volume set represents the first time that all of the composer’s texts have been made available in one collection. Over half of the libretti have not appeared in print in any language for more than 150 years, and one libretto has never been in print before; all of the libretti are offered in the most complete versions ever made available, many with supplementary material appearing in adenda; each libretto is accompanied by a modern English translation; and the entire work is prefaced by an introduction written by renowned Meyerbeer authority Robert Letellier.

This is the most comprehensive and up-to-date edition of Meyerbeer’s operas available. Translations and originals are placed on facing pages so that ease of use is maximised.

Le Prophète is the second panel of Meyerbeer’s Reformation diptych, his darkest and most mysterious opera. It explores issues of power and religion, fanaticism and faith, betrayal and trust, the demonic forces of history and the witness of little people caught up in them—the ultimate and enduring sacrificial power of love. In some ways it is almost like a political pamphlet or religious tract, and its oppressive but fascinating world can cast a compulsive spell.

The plot is based on the revolt of the Westphalian Anabaptists under the leadership of the Leyden tailor Johann Bockholdt in 1537-38. Meyerbeer, as usual, studied the historical period carefully, and the opera is especially remarkable for its vivid human portraiture, its psychological realism mixed with religious mysticism, prophecy, dreams, unconscious promptings, telepathy, aspiration, conversion, rich in mythical resonance. The composer created a sustained atmosphere of menace and gloom by his dark orchestral colouring. This is contrasted with the pastoral escapism and orchestral brilliance of the famous Skaters’ Ballet, a contersign to the actions of cruelty and betrayal that characterize the action.

The draft of a letter by Scribe of 23 April 1836 gives the first clue to a the new opera and its theme: the original title of Les Anabaptistes. However, it was held back in favour of another new project, L’Africaine (1865), for which a contract was signed, but dissatisfaction with the libretto, as well as the vocal difficulties of Marie-Cornélie Falcon meant that in the summer of 1838 Meyerbeer decided to give Le Prophète immediate attention. Performances planned for the winter season of 1841-42 came to nothing because Meyerbeer could only prepare a provisional score by the stipulated contractual delivery date (27 March 1841). All further efforts by the director of the Opéra, Léon Pillet, to conclude a contract came to nothing because in June 1842 Meyerbeer was appointed Prussian Generalmusikdirektor and was consequently tied to his duties in Berlin most of the time.

In December 1843 Meyerbeer further had the opportunity to convince himself that Guilbert Duprez was no longer suitable for the role of Jean. Only on 1 July 1847, with the departure of Pillet, and under the joint new directorship of Nestor Roqueplan and Edmond Duponchel, was contact with the Opéra resumed. Eventually Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Gustave-Hippolyte Roger were chosen for the principal roles. Meyerbeer began a revision of the libretto with Scribe in early 1848 (focusing especially on the psychological nuances in the tripartite relationship between Jean, Fidès and Berthe, while hardly touching the depiction of the Anabaptists and the masses). and in early 1848, Emile Deschamps, who was sworn to secrecy, began putting Meyerbeer’s special requirements into verse. Meyerbeer himself composed new pieces for the opera (while revolution raged on the streets of Paris), and then began a thorough overhaul of the score.

In actual history, the "Prophet" was a complete wretch whose profligacy cast a stigma on his sect that deprived it of further political status, Yet his rise from a tailor's bench to the throne of "Zion" and his subsequent execution in the Münster market place are the stuff of drama. Scribe's character is, in his own right, an extremely interesting figure, spiritually speaking: he is a genuine man of faith, but also an imposter who is ruthless but not entirely despicable. The depth of his human dilemma is successfully realized. George Bernard Shaw described him as alive and romantic, and there can be no doubt that the composer succeeded in heightening the effect of the drama by his deepening of the hero's psychology. The heart of the action lies in the mysterious, indeed ambiguous nature of the Prophet, and his relationship with his peasant mother, Fidès. Meyerbeer forged a magnificent maternal role, a deeply interesting fictional character, a pious woman, tenderhearted and yet energetic, seeking to save a son she believes she has lost, drawn through torment and abjection, betrayal and scandal, to the exercise of supreme forgiveness and ecstatic self-sacrifice. The composer achieved his master portrait here, and Fides was the progenitor of a line of operatic mothers who are among the noblest conceptions of the lyric stage.

Le Prophète is powerful in other ways. The psychology of mass indoctrination is explored. The three Anabaptists are interesting in that they do not seem to have individual personalities, they speak as one person, something psychologically very accurate; true religion enables individuals, even in a community, to develop to the fullest and best of their potentiality; sects seek to stamp out individuality and replace it with a controlling idea. This notion really comes over in the score.

The opera was another worldwide success. The beauty of the Breughelesque recreation of sixteenth century Netherlandish scenery and costumes, as well as the glory of the Cathedral Scene, constituted nothing less than an apotheosis in the history of theatrical mise en scène. It was performed 573 times in Paris until 1912, and some individual numbers like the famous Coronation March, the Skaters’ Ballet and the two arias of Fides became extremely popular. The high seriousness of the subject, and the dark sublimity of the music, won for this opera a unique regard: “People of my father’s generation would rather have doubted the solar system than the supremacy of Le Prophète over all other operas” (Reynaldo Hahn).

The manuscript once again shows how Meyerbeer the pragmatic dramatist had to make many musical _adaptations_ to fit in with the stringent temporal regulations of the Paris Opéra, and the exigencies of his soloists. Jean’s role in act 3 was considerably reduced to conserve the singers’ stamina, as was the full version of Berthe’s suicide in act 5, to save on performing time. Several scenes of real historical interest (like, the requisitioning of young girls for the polygamous Anabaptists in act 4), or dramaturgical importance (the longer form of the Bacchanale in act 5 which develops the Anabaptist treachery against their leader) had to be sacrificed. These scenes, and the dark-hued but brilliantly virtuosic overture, should be restored in future performances.

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