- Reading time
- 5 min.
Les Huguenots is the story of an impossible love affair between a Catholic woman and a Protestant man against the backdrop of the French religious wars of the 16th century, with the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day massacre as its lowest point. Read the synopsis of the opera here.
France, August 1572
The Count of Nevers holds a lavish party on his estate for his friends, all of whom are Catholic nobles. They are expecting one last guest, Raoul de Nangis. He is a Huguenot, but Nevers asks his guests to welcome him kindly because their king, Charles IX, has made a truce with the Protestant leaders. In the orgiastic party frenzy, the guests want to hear about each other’s amorous adventures. When Raoul arrives, he has to go first, telling about the unknown beauty in Amboise he recently rescued from the hands of aggressive students.
Marcel, Raoul’s old servant, sings a hearty Lutheran chorale to warn his master of the debauched company he is in. Marcel declines the invitation to join in the drinking, but he does acquiesce to sing, choosing a Huguenot battle song.
A servant reports that an unknown lady wishes to speak to the Count in private. The other nobles try to see from a distance who Nevers’s latest conquest may be, but Raoul recognises her as his beautiful stranger from Amboise. She has come to secretly break off her engagement to Nevers. Raoul is shocked by her presence at Nevers’s estate and draws the wrong conclusion about her visit to this notorious libertine.
The page Urbain enters with a secret message for Raoul, daring him to come blindfolded to a secret rendezvous with an unnamed woman. The letter is passed around among the guests and everyone recognises the coat of arms of Margaret of Valois, except Raoul, who does not understand why they suddenly start to teasingly flatter him. He allows himself to be led away by masked men…
Margaret and her ladies-in-waiting are spending a sultry afternoon on the banks of the river in the park at Château de Chenonceau. The young women are getting ready to bathe as the page Urbain secretly spies on them.
Margaret arranges a marriage between Raoul and her favourite lady-in-waiting, the Catholic Valentine, who has just broken off her engagement to Nevers for this reason. Margaret decides to seduce Raoul in Valentine’s place, since he is a sworn enemy of Valentine’s father, the Count of Saint-Bris. Margaret sends everyone away so she can be alone with Raoul. He is instantly captivated by her beauty and offers her his services. She herself is not immune to the Huguenot’s charms… But the arrival of a noble company, including Nevers and Saint-Bris, reminds her of the reason for Raoul’s presence. Through his marriage to Valentine, she wants to bring Catholics and Protestants closer together. Raoul, Saint-Bris, and Nevers agree and swear a solemn oath of friendship. But the moment Raoul recognises Valentine as his beautiful (and, according to him, unreliable) stranger, he indignantly rejects her. Everyone feels wronged by this incomprehensible turn of events and Margaret can only prevent bloodshed by sending Saint-Bris and Nevers away to the court in Paris, where the king is expecting them. They take the stricken Valentine away with them.
Paris, near the Pré-aux-Clercs. It is Sunday evening and many people are strolling through the streets. Protestant soldiers sing a defiant Huguenot song. Catholic students hang out in a pub down the road. The celebrations for Nevers and Valentine’s wedding are being held this evening; Saint-Bris and Nevers accompany the young woman during the wedding procession that leads them to the chapel. Marcel wants to speak to Saint-Bris, but refuses to respect the pious procession. The bystanders are outraged at his insolence and at the Huguenot song that is resounding ever louder. The arrival of a group of singing and dancing gypsies distracts from the tension for a moment.
The wedding ceremony is being held in the chapel at the same time. Valentine wants to pray alone in the chapel until nightfall and Nevers says he will come and get her later that evening. Although Raoul’s unexplained affront is now offset by Saint-Bris’s daughter’s marriage to Nevers, Saint-Bris still resolves to kill Raoul at the first opportunity. When Marcel informs Saint-Bris that Raoul has challenged him to a duel, this is the opportunity for Saint-Bris and his friend Maurevert to trap Raoul. But Nevers must know nothing of the plot.
Valentine just happens to hear them plotting this plan. Outside, a curfew is imposed: the people go home, the Huguenot soldiers continue their drinking binge in the pub, and Marcel waits for his master to duel. Without revealing her identity, Valentine tells Marcel of the trap against Raoul because she still loves him despite what he has done to her. Raoul arrives with Saint-Bris and witnesses, and preparations for the duel begin. But Marcel is attacked under a false pretence. Raoul and Marcel are cornered and call for help from the Huguenot soldiers, while Saint-Bris calls out an alarm to the Catholic students. Margaret arrives with her retinue and interrupts the fight; both sides accuse each other. The woman who reported the plot to Marcel is now unmasked as Valentine, to the horror of her father, who feels betrayed. Margaret clears up the misunderstanding about Valentine and Nevers for Raoul. But Valentine is still married to him… In the distance, the husband’s wedding party is approaching: Nevers comes to pick up his wife for the wedding reception. Groups of Catholics and Protestants continue to challenge and threaten each other, despite Margaret’s attempts to calm things down.
Valentine’s room, at the Nevers House. Valentine struggles with the feelings she still has for Raoul. He suddenly enters her room, despite the danger of being discovered and killed. She hides him when Saint-Bris, Nevers, and the other Catholic nobles arrive. Saint-Bris discusses the plan to exterminate the Huguenots in Paris that very night with them. All the conspirators swear a solemn oath, except Nevers, who refuses to take part in the massacre. He is taken away while the other Catholics discuss the details: Admiral Gaspard de Coligny must die first, after which the alarm bell will sound to signal the further attack. Before the Catholics go out into the night, the weapons are blessed.
Raoul hears everything from his hiding place. He wants to inform the Protestants but Valentine fears for his life. In an attempt to keep him with her, she finally confesses her love to him. However, the first signs of the massacre can be heard from outside… Raoul forces Valentine to watch the atrocities taking place outside and then flees into the night.
A grand ball is being held at the Hôtel de Nesle in the presence of Margaret of Valois, her husband Henry of Navarre, and the entire Protestant nobility. Raoul rushes in and calls on the Protestants to fight against the murderers.
Raoul and Marcel find each other again later that night. They seek refuge in a church along with praying women and children. Valentine arrives: Nevers has been killed and she is free to marry Raoul if he converts. Marcel pressures him into refusing this rescue. Valentine then decides to adopt the Protestant faith herself and follow Raoul into death. Marcel blesses their marriage. The singing in the church is suddenly interrupted: the murderers have entered the church and are killing anyone who does not renounce their faith. Valentine, Raoul, and Marcel are surrounded by Catholic soldiers. Ecstatic in their faith, they defy their torturers, but shortly afterwards, Raoul is seriously injured. While trying to flee, they meet a company of soldiers led by Saint-Bris, who asks them who they are: “Huguenots!” Then the soldiers open fire and Valentine collapses. Too late, Saint-Bris recognises his own daughter. When Margaret leaves the ball, she tries to stop the soldiers, but her efforts are in vain. The carnage continues until the morning.