Friday, July 13, 2012

Meyerbeer and Bastille Day

Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, his hymn to religious tolerance portrayed as a vast historical drama, was the work for which he had prepared all his life.
courtesy of Wikipedia
Now considered the touchstone of grand romantic opera, as it became codified and immensely popular at the Paris Opera; it was the product of a hybrid personality. A cosmopolitan talent that none the less is now considered quintessentially French and the perfect work for this Bastille Day weekend. Born in Germany, educated in Italy and reaching his fame in Paris he moved easily between all three worlds. Thus Jacob Liebmann Beer, became in time Giacomo Meyerbeer fusing the names of both sides of his family and his Italian opera education. He had been a great child prodigy and for a time found it difficult to choose between being a pianist or composer. Moscheles considered him one of the great virtuoso’s of the day and Clementi had been among his teachers as had been Salieri. He was wealthy and worldly and he knew everybody who was anybody; this circle included Rossini, Wagner and Berlioz just to name a few and envy was perhaps inevitable. Berlioz coined the phrase “He was lucky enough to be talented and talented enough to be lucky “. We in our time see him through the distorted historical lens of Wagner’s brutal polemics and the rarity of live performances of his work.

As Les Huguenots will prove this has nothing to do with the quality of his work and everything to do with the demands of his talent and the works that sprung from it, most notably this one. By the way, it was the first opera in Paris Opera history to reach a thousand performances and is considered by historians to be the most popular opera of the nineteenth century; it was the work that opened the present Covent Garden and when performed at the Met, because of the immense demands on singers, was known as “The Night of Seven Stars “. Making immense vocal demands as it does on the three leading sopranos, a tenor, a bass and two baritones! 
courtesy of Wikipedia

The plot of the opera is a fusion of all that he had learned as a musician from his youth, education and mature travels and studies. Berlioz called it an encyclopedia of music. The plot combines a real event, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, August 23, 1572. Historical figures of the time: Marguerite de Valois, De Retz, Maurevert and historical speculation as to who was responsible and how that tragedy that took up to 30,000 lives (there is to this day no agreement) unfolded. Meyerbeer constructs five massive acts on his vast historical canvas and overlays history with operatic romance. The work moves freely between the private lives of two lovers Valentine and Raoul and historical figures bent on statecraft using love as an object of policy - the result is disaster.

The work portrays an attempt at religious reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in the Reformation and a threesomes misunderstanding each other. The plot escalates from romantic confusion to political machinations then accidental humiliation, a near duel, an impossible reconciliation and finally concludes with a great historical catastrophe. There are endless beautiful arias, duets, trios and ensembles. Which is the problem - needing seven superb singers and weighing in at almost four hours in the modern theatre it’s almost impossible to mount. What survives in the popular imagination is a single, stunning aria:

                             O beau pays de la Touraine!

                                 Riants jardins, vert fontaine,

                                                                                                  Oh lovely land of Touraine!

                                                                                    Smiling gardens, green fountain,

                                                                      Gentle stream that scarcely murmurs,

                                                                   How I love to dream on your banks…

The problem is you need Dame Joan Sutherland to sing it, and luckily we have her.

Tune in to this Bastille Day special for Meyerbeer’s monumental and rarely heard Les Huguenots, this Saturday at noon on KPAC and KTXI.

by Ron Moore

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