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.