Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Strong individual performances in the revival of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Meyerbeer Les Huguenots; Olesya Golovneva, Anton Rositskiy, Liv Redpath, Ante Jerkunica, dir: David Alden, cond: Alexander Vedernikov; Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 March 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Powerful solo performances in this bring out the intimate side of this grand opera

The Deutsche Opera, Berlin has revived its 2016 production of Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots alongside two of the composer other operas, Le prophete [see my review] and Dinorah, for a mini-Meyerbeer festival.

We caught David Alden's production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin on Sunday 1 March 2020 conducted by Alexander Vedernikov with Anton Rositskiy as Raul, Olesya Golovneva as Valentine, Liv Redpath as Marguerite of Valois, Ante Jerkunica as Marcel, Dimitris Tiliakos as Nevers and Derek Welton as Saint Bris.

Les Huguenots has not retained the extreme level of popularity which the opera had in the 19th century  but productions are becoming somewhat less unusual. The work's length and tone are perhaps both somewhat off-putting for audiences and opera houses. At the Deutsche Oper we had well-over four hours of music, which when you include two intervals is a long time in the theatre. And the work's tone is not consistently tragic, despite the historical background of the piece (the St Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris in 1572 when Catholic slaughtered Protestants) and the tragic dénouement, the opening acts have a lighter feel. In fact, Meyerbeer gives each act a different feel, letting the mood gradually darken.

David Alden's production was set in a roofed hall which provided all the settings, giving a suitably oppressive atmosphere. The drawback was the lack of space for the large chorus, resulting in a very static feel to many of the great scenes. Act III's opening scene on the Pré aux clercs is intended to combine multiple choruses to visually and musically dazzling effect, but also to demonstrate the simmering tensions between groups. Here, the chorus remained seated as if in church. Here, and elsewhere, Alden relied only on the dancers to add movement. But at times, such as the nuns fondling phallic swords during the blessing of the swords (in Act Four) or the waiters handing out champagne during the duet (in Act Three), you felt Alden was using the dance to send up the music.
The first two acts were staged as pure Offenbach, all music and movement. A valid response, perhaps, and when neatly executed as here, an audience pleaser (and it has to be admitted that Meyerbeer knew what he was doing in this long opera). But Alden created no feeling of the underlying tensions between Catholic and Protestants. Act Two, at Marguerite de Valois' court, should seem like an idyll away from strife, not party time in paradise.

When we came to the real fighting at the end of Act Three,  this was poorly staged with little sense of rival groups attacking each other, and the chorus was largely kept off-stage in Act Five, leaving it to the principals and the dancers.

Thankfully the strong solo performances, notably the intense relationship between Valentine (Olesya Golovneva) and Raul (Anton Rositskiy), made everything worthwhile.

Liv Redpath was a delightful Marguerite de Valois, deliberately played as a drug-ridden air-head, but still Redpath captivated with her endless roulades and effortless stage presence. The role of Valentine is tricky, it was written for Cornelie Falcon whose voice had a strong middle and lower register. Alongside La Traviata, Olesya Golovneva has also sung Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito (another problem role), and she displayed a lovely even tone across the role's wide range, and proved a fine Valentine. Intense, dramatic and with a strong personality.

It helped that Golovneva and Anton Rositskiy as Raul developed a powerful relationship, pulled together by thrilling attraction, and apart by religion which embodied the tension lacking in the wider staging. Rositskiy combined a lovely mezza-voce (on display in his fine aria with viola d'amore in Act One and in his scene in Act Two with Redpath's Marguerite) with an element of steel in the more dramatic moments. Perhaps this latter veered towards hardness, but he was admirably lyric whilst having the stamina for a long role. Rositskiy also created an appealing sense of Raul being out of place in the Catholic environment.

The third figure to come into focus as Ante Jerkunica as Raoul's servant Marcel. A forbidding figure in Act One, prone to singing Protestant hymns, almost a figure of fun. But Jerkunica provided a powerful anchor in Act Five, including the astonishing marriage scene accompanied just by a bass clarinet. In these final scenes Golovneva, Rositskiy and Jerkunica brought the opera to its suitably intense climax. For once, you sensed David Alden really believed in his material and allowed his performers to capture the stage.

Dimitris Tiliakos made a delightful Nevers, a shame the character evaporates as the opera progresses though Tiliakos brought a nice gravity to Act Three where he declines to follow his co-religionists in swearing to kill the Protestants. Derek Welton as Saint Bris (Valentine's father) was suitably fearsome and unbending, leading to the dénouement where he realises he was killed his own daughter.

The supporting roles were well taken with Irene Roberts as a very charming Urbain, Marguerite de Valois' page, and Paul Kaufmann, Jorg Schorner, Padraic Rowan, Alexei Botnarcluc and Stephen Bronk as a group of Catholic noblemen formed a generally comic chorus of approval for Nevers and Saint-Bris though they brought dignity to the blessing of the swords.

Constance Hoffman's costumes were problematic, basic black for the Protestants, 19th century formal dress and uniforms for the Roman Catholic men, yet 1950s ball gowns for the Roman Catholic women. This latter, plus a tendency to use female dancers as objects, and a semi-striptease for two bridesmaids in Act Three all contributed to a feeling of objectification of women.

The chorus was on strong forum, producing thrilling sounds even if hardly required to act.

Alexander Vedernikov, who is music director of the Royal Danish Opera and of the Mikhailovsky Theatre, St Petersburg, kept the music moving (very necessary in this long opera) and ensured a lightness of touch in the orchestration despite Meyerbeer's huge orchestra.

I am still awaiting a perfect production of Les Huguenots, and perhaps it does not exist. David Alden seemed best when addressing the smaller, more intimate issues and less comfortable with the work's large scale ensemble and chorus scenes. But this was a revival memorable for the extremely fine solo contributions which brought out the strength of Meyerbeer's writing.

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Les Huguenots
Libretto - Eugene Scribe and Emile Deschamps
Conductor - Alexander Vederenikov
Director - David Alden
Stage design - Giles Cadle
Costume design - Constance Hoffman
Lighting - Adam Silverman

Marguerite of Valois - Liv Redpath
Raul - Anton Rositskiy
Marcel - Ante Jerkunica
Valentine - Olesya Golovneva
Saint-Bris - Derek Welton
Nevers - Dmitris Tiliakos
Urbain - Irene RobertsTavannes - Paul Kaufmann
Cosse - Jorg Schorner
Meru - Padraic Rowan
Thore / Maurevert - Alexei Botnarciuc
De Retz - Stephen Bronk
Bois-Rose - Andre Danilov
Night Watchman - Timothy Newton
Court ladies / Catholic girls - Jacquelyn Stucker, Karis Tucker
Viola d'amore - Katharina Dargel

Elsewhere on this blog
  • His message still resonates with us today: artistic director Marios Papadopoulos discusses the Oxford Philharmonic's year-long Beethoven Festival  - Interview
  • Still in fine form: Meyerbeer's Le prophète returns to the Deutsche Oper, Berlin with Gregory Kunde back in the title role (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Pianist Iyad Sughayer in Khachaturian, Mozart and Liszt for the City Music Foundation (★★★★) - concert review
  • Spareness, clarity, quirkiness: William Howard plays Howard Skempton (★★★★) - cd review
  • The cello sonata from early Beethoven to Shostakovich: Anglo-French duo Lydia Shelley & Nicolas Stavy at Conway Hall - concert review
  • The shipwrecked world, and nature extinct: Musica Antica Rotherhithe gives the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale in aid of Operation Noah  - concert review
  • The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music  - interview
  • The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite (★★★★) - concert review
  • Wild Waves & Woods from Sweden: the Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ductus est Jesus: music from the Portuguese Golden Age from Gramophone Award-winning Portuguese ensemble Cupertinos (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Welcome rarity: Verdi's Luisa Miller receives a strong musical performance in Barbora Horáková's new production at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Extinction, Nature overwhelmed and toxic masculinity: music by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Laurence Osborn, Liza Lim from the Riot Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
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