Friday, November 18, 2016

Splendidly sung, astutely referenced and never dull: Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Deutsche Oper Berlin

On opening night at Deutsche Opera's new production of Meyerbeer's grand French opera, Les Huguenots, the bravos and boos rang out as director David Alden and his creative team took to the stage. Thankfully the bravos outweighed the boos in Alden's brazenly teasing, astutely referenced and edgy staging. Over its more than four-hour duration, however never dull, it didn't come without a few sidestepping oddities and a little derrière discomfort.

Juan Diego Flórez (centre), Act 1, Les Huguenots
Amongst the epic orchestral grandeur of Meyerbeer's score and irony housed in Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps' libretto, little flecks of comic additive surface that also comment on religious hypocrisy raised by the 'pleasure-seeking' Catholics at odds with the 'pious' Huguenots, each accusing the other of blasphemy. The Protestant Huguenots don't emerge without being harmed. As tensions increase, "Dieu le veut" or "God wills it" is signposted in large letters above the stage, giving sickening justification for what culminates in a religious assault and the bloody massacre of thousands on St Bartholomew's Day. In Meyerbeer, Scribe and Deschamps's work that premiered in 1836, the historical drama (set in the actual time of the events of 1572) plays out while misinterpreted circumstances surrounding a cross-religious love between the Protestant Raoul and Catholic Valentine ends in a tragic mess.

Alden resets the events unhistorically with hints of fin-de-siècle flair that combine opulence and austerity in a series of handsome and eye-catching strokes with the creative team coming to the party magnificently. An open trussed roof lingers above the stage for many a scene in set designer Giles Cadle's numerous scene changes that not only impart legibility but give Alden utilisation of the stage's entire volume to mix intimate fore-stage scenes with mid-to-deep spatial variations. Costumes by Constance Hoffman clearly delineate the Catholics as distinguished top-hatted and tailed gentleman and elegant-gowned ladies alongside the Huguenots who are drably garbed in grey, like an infestation of rats needing extermination. Adam Silverman's lighting paints a masterpiece of atmospheric appropriateness.

Olesya Golovneva, Patrizia Ciofi and Juan Diego Flórez
Cadle responds freshly and dutifully to the drama many a time, including reference to Act 1's song to the wine of fair Touraine with the Count of Nevers's chateau hall festooned in burgundy and Act 4's lofty-walled salon covered with Nevers's brave predecessors as he sings of his refusal to participate in the massacre as a murderer.

For the first three acts of the five-act work, Alden's playful approach pushes the envelope with showy entertainment that tends to divert attention from the long dramatic arc. Poor-mannered gents singing arias from tabletops, synchronised foot-moving from the gentlemen's sofa, a jaunty cabaret-like banquet with orgiastic tones featuring balloon-clad beauties, then two pretty maids feather-dusting the leading man - Alden's touch teases but it's neither destructive nor crass.

On the other hand, the final two acts do a complete turn as Raoul arrives to meet Valentine, overhears the plot to murder the Huguenots and is torn between cautioning his people and remaining with Valentine. This shift, with all the pathos and sensitivity that Alden exposed between the amorous pair, did more to strike the historical heart of the drama than all the politicking surrounding them.

Olesya Golovneva and Juan Diego Flórez in Act 4, Les Huguenots
But without such a talented and resilient cast as the work demands, time could crawl and, here, every one of the long list of soloists clearly demonstrated their worthiness, both in solo and ensemble display. Juan Diego Flórez luxuriously outfitted the Protestant gentleman Raoul with breathtaking chiaroscuro and dynamic sensibility in voice, sensitive and courageous in action. Opening in superb form to the accompaniment of the solo viola d'amore with "Plus blanche que la blanche hermine” was only a blimp on what was to come. Throughout, note after note provided tantalising listening as the voice reached poignantly deeper while punctuating the air gloriously higher with its delicately serrated vibrato and caressing with its warm viscous tone.

It takes some time before femininity slips in and when it does it arrives in two gorgeously contrasting forms. Angelic and pure-toned soprano Olesya Golovneva's Valentine (daughter of Count de Saint-Bris) began primly and reservedly before becoming more determined and finally heroic in a suitably measured performance. Convincingly heartfelt alongside Flórez, her tormented state of love, faith and duty were masterly brought together with fluidity and force in Act 4's room in Nevers's Parisian town-house.

Oppositely, Patrizia Ciofi dazzles with her slightly zany and playful yet commanding Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. Ciofi opened with sensuous appeal before singing with a lusciously crazed elegance, providing one of the night's early highlights as she comically took her agile coloratura descent while undressing for a regal change in "O beau pays de la Touraine".

Derek Welton and ensemble in Act 3, "Dieu le veut" Les Huguenots
Immense bellowing bass Ante Jerkunica preceded Ciofi in a compelling portrayal of anti-Catholic sentiment in the ricocheting "Piff Paff" aria as Raoul's servant and Huguenot soldier, the loose gun Marcel. In every appearance Jerkunica loomed high as a rough diamond while not only belting out brilliant strength but capturing the quiet, doleful and fine-edged voice of the inner soul. Other noteworthy performances came from Irene Roberts, with her spritely and beautifully ornamented soprano, as the Queen's Page Urbain, Marc Barrard's permeating resonant baritone as the Count of Nevers and Derek Welton's knock-out. clear and authoritative Count of Saint-Bris. Suffering from disunity, the mens chorus lacked the dignified sound of their appearance early on, but transformed marvellously alongside their refined female colleagues.

With Les Huguenots comes an intricate tapestry of music that conductor Michele Mariotti steered commendably, perfectly alternating exposed orchestral showpiece passages with attention to and support of his massed cast. By the time the horrific massacre ends, carried out with dark stylistic theatricality, the eyes and ears have absorbed a walloping great artistic achievement that you're likely to want to see a second time for so many reasons.

Deutsche Oper Berlin
Until 4th February 2017

Production photographs: Bettina Stöss 

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