La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 26 2011.
Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production: Olivier Py. Sets and costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Killy. Marguerite de Valois: Marlis Petersen. Valentine: Mireille Delunsch. Urbain: Yulia Lezhneva. Raoul de Nangis: Eric Cutler. Comte de Saint-Bris: Philippe Rouillon. Comte de Nevers: Jean-François Lapointe. De Retz: Arnaud Rouillon. Marcel: Jérôme Varnier. Cossé: Xavier Rouillon. Tavannes: Avi Klemberg. Thoré: Marc Labonnette. Méru: Frédéric Caton. Dame d’honneur: Camille Merckx. Une coryphée: Tineke Van Ingelgem. Deux bohémiennes: Camille Merckx, Tineke Van Ingelgem. Orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie.
La Monnaie decided to end the season with a grand gesture, pulling out all the stops to stage Les Huguenots for the first time since the 1930s, with as strong cast as it could muster under a famous conductor, directed by a famous producer and so, as they say in French, “creating an event,” with people searching the web for spare tickets. It must have cost a lot of money, as people remarked during the afternoon.
The expensive-looking staging might be summed up simply as “black and gold.” The sets were a complex and ingenious 3-D puzzle of highly-mobile, interlocking renaissance façades, with pedimented doors and many-paned windows, cut out of sheets of brassy gold metal, sometimes blackened. The different, perfectly-fitted shapes slid in and out silently across the glossy black floors, joining and separating between two octagonal turrets to form internal or external spaces varying in shape and size or reveal, in the generally dim, golden lighting, flights of glossy black stairs or a glossy black bridge (for Chenonceau).
Costume periods varied. The Protestants were mostly in black: top hats and coats for the men, with black breastplates for the more warlike moments; black dresses buttoned up to the neck for the women. The Catholics were jackbooted from the start but had little white ruffs recalling the renaissance and their breastplates, for the more warlike moments, were gold; the women had the same little ruffs and long white veils. The page wore a black “Buttons” outfit. For the massacre, the Catholics above had white armbands on their coat sleeves marked with a cross, while the Protestants wore mid-20th-century street clothes. So the production, which also included the odd, anachronistic automatic rifle, dealt with religious persecution through the ages, not just in 16th century France.
It was also a show that, at first, looked like it might involve quite a lot of bare skin. It opened with an extra quite clearly chosen for his body, bare-chested and holding a cross in both hands above his head. As he advanced, he spread his arms, revealing that there were in fact two crosses not one. (Later, the same plain wooden crosses would be wielded like wooden swords; fortunately the threatened duel was staved off, avoiding actual ridicule.) The Chenonceau scene opened with a brief ballet between a male dancer, stark naked apart from antlers (and antlers hide nothing), and a female one with just a tiny crescent moon on her head, hiding no more. While the ladies-in-waiting, in long white nighties, bathed (in real water, in a black channel in the black floor under the black bridge), the Three Graces, equally naked, more or less vogued in classical poses. But there’s a progression in Les Huguenots from nearly frivolous to deadly serious: the act three ballet, very neatly done on a broad, black staircase, was only half naked again, and the bare skin and posing faded out as bickering escalated to massacre.
As you can see from the names, the cast was, as I said, strong. I was very glad to hear Marlis Petersen for the first time, having seen her name often; her glamorous timbre was what people often call “creamy” and her Marguerite was about as flawless, vocally and scenically (she is charismatic and totally at ease) as you are likely to get. Mireille Delunsch was on form, making the most of her current means and artfully disguising any vocal difficulty as dramatic effect, as experienced singers do, with her familiar “wounded” sound at the top, well-known presence and acting skills (the acting throughout was well directed, though perhaps unexpectedly conventional, as if the sheer length of the thing had, in the end, exhausted the producer’s imagination). Yulia Lezhneva scored a popular hit as the page, and Eric Cutler is, as I already noticed in King Roger at the Bastille, a very remarkable high tenor, slipping easily and convincingly from full voice to falsetto. Marc Minkowski, in the pit, drove the score forward in his usual forceful, sometimes brutal manner.
But Les Huguenots was composed for the likes of Marie Cornélie Falcon, Nourrit and Levasseur, and revived by Joan Sutherland and Bonynge. Can it be made to work without performers of that calibre? This was my first experience of Meyerbeer live and in the theatre. I know how risky it is to express an opinion on that brief (albeit it this case not so brief) encounter; I also know there will be Meyerbeer fans out there ready to call me stupid, bitter, small-minded and so on. But to me, though Meyerbeer undeniably occupies a special place in opera history, what I saw and heard seemed awkwardly positioned between Rossini and Verdi, with the melodic gift of neither, none of Rossini’s fascinating delicacy and inventiveness in his accompaniments (viola d'amore or solo bass clarinet notwithstanding) and, in terms of story-telling, none of Verdi’s gift for breathing life into characters and driving the plot forward with urgency. Probably because of both the duration (5 hours) and the religious theme, Don Carlo(s) came to mind: a comparison, it seemed to me, unflattering to Meyerbeer. “Sterile,” said the man behind me; “rambling,” thought I, and judging by the glassy, “gorblimey” look in the eyes of people staggering out at the intervals and the end, I wasn’t alone in finding it a trial.
But I'm no professional, and it seems to have gone down well with the press.