Les Huguenots: a neglected gem
German born Giacomo Meyerbeer reigned as the most popular opera composer in Paris during the first half of the 19th century. After being out of favor for nearly 150 years, his masterpiece, Les Huguenots has begun to regain popularity largely through the dedication of singers and conductors who have “rediscovered” the beauty of Meyerbeer’s music.
Adolphe Nourrit Julie Dorus-Gras Cornélie Falcon Nicolas Dérivis Nicolas Levasseur Adolphe Nourrit Gilbert Duprez Marietta Alboni
In the original cast of the premiere production in 1836 at the Paris Opera the lineup of stars was nothing but impressive.
Julie Dorus-Gras was the French-born and trained soprano who starred in Les Huguenots as Marguerite de Valois. By age 30 she had had a fine career in Belgium, but she had to flee the chaos of the Belgian Revolution and arrived in the French capital armed with nothing but a great coloratura soprano voice and recommendations from French conductors with whom she had worked at La Monnaie in Brussels.
After a spectacular debut as the Countess in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory she starred in a number of leading roles in the French capital’s opera houses.
Meyerbeer wrote the part of Valentine for Cornélie Falcon, a very young, very gifted, but very insecure singer who, by age 21 had become the highest paid singer – male or female – of her time and who, by age 25 had lost her voice largely due to a faulty vocal technique and the demands of a repertoire not suitable for such a young singer. A look at the score of Les Huguenots will make it more than clear that the role of Valentine is neither for the young nor for the technically insecure singer.
After a successful debut in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable the year before Les Huguenots premiered, Marie-Louise Flécheux became a go-to house soprano at the Paris Opera, ideally suited to trouser-roles, due to her petite size and silvery voice. The aria, Noble Seigneurs, Salut! is clearly soprano stuff, with its frequent above-the-staff notes. But when Les Huguenots was revived again in 1848 at the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Mademoiselle Flécheux had died from tuberculosis in her mid-twenties.
Meyerbeer had at his disposal the formidable Italian contralto Marietta Alboni, for whom he transposed the role of Urbain and added the aria, Non, non, non, non, non, non! Vous n’avez jamais je gage.
The role of Raoul in Les Huguenots defies categorization. Adolphe Nourrit, the tenor who reigned as a Paris Opera superstar for more than fifteen years sang the premiere at the age of 34. Three years later, Nourrit, despondent over the ill health that had taken a toll on what had once been a great voice, jumped to his death from the balcony of a hotel in Naples.
Most of the repertory Nourrit sang is largely neglected these days, but it is still possible to draw some conclusions about how Nourrit’s voice may have sounded and by extension, what kind of tenor is required to sing the role of Raoul in Les Huguenots.
Regardless of changing tastes, a high C is a high C, and, in Nourrit’s world, the tenor high C was still sung in a kind of beefed-up falsetto. As Nourrit’s arch-rival, Gilbert Duprez began to move into what had been exclusive Nourrit territory, the high C with the Italianate sound that we are used to hearing these days was just starting to gain popularity. In our time, tenors ranging from Franco Corelli in the 1960’s to today’s Michael Spyres have essayed the role with varying degrees of success, but most always with a full-throated high C.
Rossini, grumpy and short of patience in his dotage, was told that Tamberlik, the Italian tenor famed for his high C sharp sung full-out was coming to one of his soirées, he told the messenger to tell Signor Tamberlik to leave his damned high C# hanging in the foyer with his hat and coat, adding, He can take it away when he leaves !
Simply told, the use of a full-throated sound in the upper reaches of the tenor repertoire back then was considered in bad taste. But high notes aside, Raoul de Nantes is the kind of role that demands both quality and quantity. The aria Plus blanche que la blanche hermine calls for the stylistic finesse and lyric sweetness in the upper range that only tenors such as Alain Vanzo (https://youtu.be/rh6QamIQGgg ) can summon. On the other hand, the big Act IV duet with Valentine is pure heroic tenor territory.
Nicolas Levasseur and Nicolas-Prosper Dérivis were two of the great French basses of the 19th century, creators of a tradition of singing that continued well into the recorded era of the early 20th century with the great basses Marcel Journet and Pol Plançon.
Levasseur, sang the part of Marcel, with its unusual demands on the low range (an optional low C at the end of the Lutheran Chorale in Act I) and agility in the Piff Paff aria. Dérivis, the higher voiced bass-baritone, was given the important role of the Count of Nevers.
But why has this opera been kept out of the repertory of many opera houses throughout the world?
The economics of Opera have a great deal to do with what is included in the season of an opera company and what is not. In the case of Les Huguenots, there are, first of all, the casting requirements.
In Meyerbeer’s masterpiece there are fourteen named roles to be filled, of which six must be assigned to first-tier singers. Then, as with most French Grand Operas, there is a ballet, a chorus, multiple set changes. But then, just looking at the repertory for the MET’s 2016-2017 season, there is plenty of large-scale operas there, even though one cannot think of one Verdi or Puccini or Mozart or Rossini or Donizetti or Bellini opera with fourteen principal roles. And most all operas have a chorus, many have a ballet and just about all have multiple sets.
The problem with Meyerbeer’s operas is in the casting. Suppose, for instance, that you – the Opera House Head Hunter – manage to hire a tenor either with Les Huguenots in his bag of tricks or one willing to learn that huge role. Now you contract him for the 2020-2021 season, hopeful that your tenor, you and all of us will still be around then.
Now you have another six roles to cast. If you are Peter Gelb and you can have your pick of the finest of the fine in the world, you will be foolish not to try to engage a first-rank dramatic soprano for the role of Valentine. Ah yes, Sally Soprano, now engaged as the leading Hoch-Dramatische Sopran in Kleinburg, Germany recently did a production of Die Hugenoten in Hamburg and she received marvelous reviews for it! Hire her and pray that she will still have a functioning voice in 2020-2021.
If Ms. Soprano falls by the wayside or she has to cancel half-way there due to vocal troubles, who is there to take over in a few day’s notice?
It’s not like you need to replace an ailing Mimi for your La boheme or a hoarse mezzo for your Carmen. We are talking about an opera that has not received a major, fully-staged, first-tier U.S.A. production in many, many years. How many singers out there have Les Huguenots in their resumes?
Now, multiply the above scenario times six and you begin to get an idea as to why productions of Meyerbeer’s operas are as rare as hen’s teeth.
For more on this subject, check out:
- Rossini: A study in Tragi- Comedy – Francis Toye
- The Great Singers – Henry Pleasants
- The Last Prima Donnas – Lanfranco Rasponi
On You Tube: Here are several special exponents of the elusive French style:
Eidé Noréna (1884-1968) – Au beau pays de la Touraine – Les Huguenots – 1930 https://youtu.be/3lHg-Ctkm4A
Sigrid Onegin (1889-1943) – Nobles Seigneurs – Les Huguenots -1929 https://youtu.be/VlW_Y0EG1xs
Pol Plançon (1851-1914) – Piff Paff – Les Huguenots -1902 https://youtu.be/tEzFrPgCeLI
Nicolai Gedda (born 1925) – Plus blanche que la blanche hermine – Les Huguenots https://youtu.be/pF3XFUSaKX8
…And, to hear some of this music LIVE, come to the Music for All Seasons concert on October 2, where you will hear soprano Ashley Fabian, mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Decker, and tenor Allan Palacios Chan singing several arias from Les Huguenots. Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org More information: http://www.musicforallseasonscincinnati.com
Rafael de Acha