I have for some time now wanted to enter into the world of Giacomo Meyerbeer. I have heard selections from his operas here and there, and there is an excerpt from "Les Prophets" which appears in the 1st Gekeler Oboe Method book and which I have heard students play for years. But until now have never sat through an entire Meyerbeer opera. And so the opportunity has come since I recently happened on a YouTube recording of "Les Huguenots" from Australia Opera. And this is no run of the mill performance though. This was Dame Joan Sutherland's final farewell performance at Australia Opera, so it is an important event in opera history. She plays the Queen of Navarre who is not a major character and who disappears from the opera after act 3. But even so she has some very spectacular singing and Dame Joan turns in a wonderful performance. As always, her husband, Richard Bonynge conducts.
I found the entire (long) opera to be a mixed experience. A lot of it was the production and the singing. Aside from Dame Joan and the tenor, the rest of the cast were mixed. A couple I think were included because they had some connection or friendship with Dame Joan and her husband even though they were way past their prime. The chorus and orchestra are however terrific. But the other reason for my mixed reaction is the production itself. This production is traditional. Very traditional! Excessively traditional! And I found it completely tedious. Maybe I am not so used to such traditional productions anymore, but I can see why this kind of traditional staging is no longer popular. I would actually love to see this opera staged by a creative current director who could get at the core of the meaning of the opera and minimize all the distracting fluff.
But of course the fluff is a part of the opera. This is yet another problem with this opera: the libretto is tiresome. I realize that in the mid-19th century there had to be a love plot. But this love plot is so irrational and tedious that I found it at times unbearable. At the heart of this opera is the horrific massacre of the Huguenots - 300 French protestants murdered by Royalist Catholics in the 16th century - a religious crime against humanity! And a theme that is unfortunately timely as our world continues to see crimes of this kind perpetuated in the name of God by several different groups of religious fanatics - including Christians! This is the heart of this opera and this is what needs to be emphasized. Perhaps it is impossible to redeem this opera, but a production that could focus on that would be worth seeing. But, IMHO, the love plot needs to be cut drastically. For example: the scene at the end of act 4 - Valentine (the Catholic daughter of the leader of the Catholics) and her beloved Raoul (a Huguenot) have just overheard the plot and then Valentine spends the entire rest of the scene preventing and imploring Raoul to not do anything to save his fellow Huguenots. Her selfishness and lack of compassion I found hard to stomach. Right, it's an opera. But it is not a great opera and that scene needs to be cut or reduced. Also, the confusion about her relationship with the Count of Nevers which leads to all of the conflict is also rather tedious. Of course we don't turn to opera to learn history, but really, the massacre does not have roots in a confused love triangle. And in a way it kind of trivializes this crime against humanity.
For me, I guess the fact that our world is wracked with such horrible violence, and much of it religious violence, makes me less tolerant of the tedious shortcomings of this libretto. Certainly other operas do the same thing, but this one seems particularly bad and besides, as I said above, it is not a great opera musically, so I was rarely swept along through the difficult scenes by the music. Certainly there is some great music in this opera, but they are moments or short sections or scenes rather than entire acts. Raoul's aria in act 1, accompanied only by a viola (viol d'amore in the original) is one of the highlights of the opera. Also the conspiracy scene and the blessing of the swords in act 4 is a terrific scene. I also liked the music for the massacre scene. The Queen's Page has a great aria (accompanied by horns) and there is a terrific extended bass clarinet solo. But out of an opera that is 3 and a half hours long that doesn't amount to much. Still I think this opera might have a life if it is edited and refocused. Maybe...
I am not done with Meyerbeer, yet. I would like to watch "Les Prophetes" next. And then maybe a couple of the others which have been revived lately - "Robert le Diable" and "L'Africaine." But they are long, so it may take me a while. This is worth watching for Dame Joan and to ponder the issues of religious violence. In closing: The Count de Saint Bris tells his men that they are compelled to this act of violence because it is ordained and approved by God. Too many use the same argument down through history and into our own times. And they are all wrong. They have misunderstood and projected their own hate and fear upon God and the result will be, as it is for Saint Bris in the end of the opera, a complete loss of everything that is beautiful, and indeed a loss of one's humanity!