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An overwhelming mass spectacle that keeps you glued to your seat for five hours with its historical tableaux, ballets, choral scenes, musical inventiveness, and intense drama and romance: Les Huguenots is, without a doubt, one of the greatest blockbusters in the entire history of opera. The piece was performed more than a thousand times at the Paris Opera alone, until it disappeared from the bill in the 20th century. In 2011, La Monnaie helped its revival with a successful production that you will soon be able to rediscover.
Grand, grander, grand opera
Paris, 1831. After the July Revolution, the new administration in France wanted to get rid of most of the costs and responsibilities of the Paris Opera, which until then had always been an affaire d’état. Louis-Désiré Véron – a doctor, journalist, and entrepreneur who made his fortune selling cough drops – saw the potential and applied for the exploitation. In the four years that followed, he would achieve as the Opera’s first director-manager what few would be able to imitate: turning an opera house into a profitable business. His business model? With some of the greatest talents of his time, he developed a new opera genre that was perfectly tailored to the new (paying!) audience of the Parisian bourgeoisie: the grand opera.
That audience yearned for more ‘believable’ stories, in which human emotions drove the drama rather than a series of divine interventions or the logic of goodness and justice. They wanted heroes they could identify with, a theatrical language that spoke to them more directly. A host of young composers from Paris were ready to serve them, but no one could match the popularity of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). The Jewish banker’s son, born in Berlin, unerringly sensed the permanently revolutionary spirit of his time and, together with librettist Eugène Scribe, wrote a number of operas that were ‘grand’ in every respect.
First and foremost, the Scribe-Meyerbeer duo invariably chose socially charged subjects. Their first triumph, Robert le diable (1831), with its "Ballet of the dead nuns" entered the sphere of religious taboo. Their next opera went a step further and actually used political and religious segregation as a theme: after all, Les Huguenots, sketches out the story of the Catholic lady-in-waiting Valentine and the Protestant nobleman Raoul, who fall in love with each other during the Titanic-esque period of the French Wars of Religion, in five major acts. With Queen Marguerite’s blessing, their mixed marriage can take place, but political ambitions on both sides of the religious divide lead to irreconcilable positions and statements. Against the background of Bartholomew’s Night (1572), when Catholics massacred Protestants, Valentine converts to Protestantism. It leads to the lovers’ downfall: shortly thereafter, they are killed by Count de Saint-Bris, leader of the Catholics… and Valentine’s father.
Grand stories require grand means, and as that other 19th-century figure, Oscar Wilde, already knew, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” All the stops were pulled out for Les Huguenots: there was the cast of over twenty soloists, including the absolute opera stars of the time in the leading roles. There were the spectacular special effects, made possible by a state-of-the-art stage machinery. There were the crowd scenes, with easily a hundred choristers and extras, that make films like Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Hur, or Spartacus pale in comparison. There was ballet. There was, of course, also the nearly four hours of brilliant music, about which Hector Berlioz would say that there is enough material for twenty operas. Meyerbeer’s score brought together the elegance of the Italian bel canto, the full orchestral sound of German Romanticism, and the light touch of the French style into a fascinating mix that often surprises and always charms. No wonder Les Huguenots was a success right from the start, as ‘grand’ as its conception…
Fast-forward to 2011. Apart from a few grainy VHS recordings or heavily condensed performances, Les Huguenots seems to have completely disappeared into the fog of opera history. Rival composers such as Richard Wagner – whose ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk is nevertheless largely indebted to Meyerbeer – had successfully discredited the grand opera in their pamphlets, making houses more wary of taking on the immense cost of a performance. Moreover, there was the idea that it is difficult to find singers who are stylistically and vocally skilled enough to handle the grand opera. Its rediscovery was not imminent…
Enter Olivier Py. The French director, actor, singer, playwright, theatre director (and much more), together with conductor Marc Minkowksi, has spent the last decade trying to find a large European opera house that has the courage to stage Les Huguenots again. La Monnaie will be the house to finally take up that challenge. “The fact that Les Huguenots is so rarely performed and the historical importance of this piece excite me,” Py notes in our magazine. “All the more so because the theme of the religious wars is not treated here in a simply historicising way – perhaps because this opera was written at a time when the Jews were starting to have a hard time in France.”
Olivier Py’s staging is not ‘simply historicising’ either. “I like to combine different time periods; it feels like the only proper approach. Some may prefer to transfer everything to the present-day Middle East, but I am not able to do so. I would feel like I was tearing up the score, that I was making it less powerful. Nor can I reconstruct the world at the time of the July Monarchy. It always remains a contemporary reverie, both about the time in which the work was written and about the time in which it is set, the French Renaissance. I compose. I always look where they seem to have the most to offer me. My version of Les Huguenots is an unusual composition, with formal outliers and even Renaissance costumes, but also with an execution that resembles a summary execution in the 1940s. I see in Les Huguenots, fundamentally, a story about intolerance. And that is the story I want to tell.”
One last time in La Monnaie
That story has lost none of its relevance eleven years later. And so the idea came to La Monnaie director Peter de Caluwe to give Brussels over to the splendour of rediscovering this grand Meyerbeer opus one more time in 2022. With a new conductor and a new cast! Conductor Evelino Pidò has already demonstrated his feeling for Meyerbeer’s music in a 2019 concertante version of Robert le diable, but some of the singers are also well known. For example, three-time ‘Artiste Lyrique de l’Année’ Karine Deshayes and Italian tenor and MM Ambassador Enea Scala have everything they need to master the challenging parts of the star-crossed lovers Valentine and Raoul. Together with more than 79 musicians, 56 choristers, 20 dancers and extras, and all the gathered forces of La Monnaie’s backstage teams, they are ready to transport you into the five-hour-long, tender and merciless, poetic and erotic universe of Olivier Py’s Les Huguenots. A once-in-a-lifetime opera experience, which proves that a little bit of excess isn’t always a bad thing.