The opera was first performed by the Paris Opera at the Salle Le Peletier on 16 April 1849. The creators of the three main roles were Anaïs Castellan as Berthe, Pauline Viardot as Fidès, and Gustave Roger as Jean. The second city to hear it was London, at Covent Garden on 24 July of the same year. It was given all over Germany in 1850, as well as in Vienna, Lisbon, Antwerp, New Orleans, Budapest, Brussels, Prague and Basel. Its tremendous success continued throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century.
Since the Second World War there have been few notable productions: Zurich in 1962, Deutsche Opera Berlin in 1966 (both starring Sandra Warfield and James McCracken) and the Metropolitan Opera in 1977 with Marilyn Horne as Fidès, directed by John Dexter.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 16 April 1849
(Conductor: Narcisse Girard)
|Jean de Leyde||tenor||Gustave-Hippolyte Roger|
|Fidès, Jean's mother||mezzo-soprano||Pauline Viardot|
|Berthe, Jean's bride||soprano||Jeanne-Anaïs Castellan|
|Jonas, an Anabaptist||tenor||Louis Guéymard|
|Mathisen, an Anabaptist||bass or baritone||Euzet|
|Zacharie, an Anabaptist||bass||Nicolas Levasseur|
|Oberthal, a feudal count||bass||Hippolyte Bremond|
|Nobles, citizens, Anabaptists, peasants, soldiers, prisoners, children|
Jean de Leyde (based on the historical John of Leiden), whose beloved, Berthe, is coveted by Count Oberthal, ruler of Dordrecht, is persuaded by a trio of sinister Anabaptists to proclaim himself king in Münster.
Meyerbeer originally wrote a long overture for the opera which was cut during rehearsals, along with various other sections of the work, due to the excessive length of the opera itself. The overture survives today only in arrangements for piano solo or duet, made at Meyerbeer's request by Charles-Valentin Alkan.
Before Oberthal's castle
Berthe explains to Fidès that she needs the Count's permission to marry Jean whom she has loved ever since he rescued her from the Meuse. Three Anabaptists enter, Jonas, Matthisen and Zacharie, singing their chorale, Ad nos ad salutarem (to a tune created by Meyerbeer) and arouse the interest of local peasants in their revolutionary ideas. Oberthal emerges from his castle and recognizes Jonas as a former steward and orders soldiers to beat the three men. Taken by Berthe's beauty, he refuses her request and arrests the two women. The people become angry, and with the returning Anabaptists, threaten the castle.
Jean's inn at Leyden
The Anabaptists enter with merrymaking peasants and try to persuade Jean that he is their destined leader, claiming that he closely resembles the picture of King David in Münster cathedral. Jean recounts to them a dream in which he was in a temple with people kneeling before him. Berthe hurries in, having fled Oberthal; the Count next arrives and threatens to execute Jean's mother Fidès unless Berthe is returned to him. In despair, Jean gives in and hands over Berthe to Oberthal. When the Anabaptists return Jean is ready to join them in vengeance against Oberthal; he goes, without letting Fidès know.
The camp of the Anabaptists in a Westphalia forest
The first scene includes a 'skating' ballet interlude set on the ice of a lake. Jean has been proclaimed to be a prophet. The Anabaptists determine to seize Münster; their decision is overheard by Oberthal who has entered the camp in disguise. On his detection he is arrested; but when he informs Jean that he has seen Berthe alive in Münster, Jean cancels the order for his execution. An attack on Munster led by the three Anabaptists fails, and the returning rabble are rebellious. However, Jean, as Prophet and Leader, inspires the Anabaptist troops with a celestial vision of their impending success.
In the first scene Jean, who wishes to make himself Emperor, has taken the city, whose citizens are in despair at his rule. Berthe recognises Fidès begging in the streets; she has been shown the bloody clothes of Jean whom she believes is dead. Berthe, when told that her love has been killed, determines to kill the wicked Prophet. The second scene is Jean's coronation in the cathedral and is preceded by a Coronation March. Fidès is determined to carry out Berthe's plan for revenge but when she hears Jean say that he is anointed by God, she recognizes his voice and cries out "my son!". This threatens Jean's plan and he pretends not to know her. He calls on his followers to stab him if the beggar woman claims again to be his mother. This forces Fidès to retract, saying her eyes have fooled her.
John's palace in Münster
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The Anabaptist trio resolve to hand over Jean to the German Imperial armies to buy their own protection. Fidès has been summoned by Jean to his palace, and he implores forgiveness for what he has done. The mother finally forgives her son when convinced that he has acted only in revenge for the wrongs committed against Berthe. Berthe now enters intent on killing the prophet whom she thinks killed her love. She has set a slow fire to the palace which will soon reach the powder magazine. When she realises that Jean is the Prophet she has come to destroy, her joy is swiftly followed by realization that Jean and the murderous Prophet are the same, she stabs herself. During the banquet to celebrate his coronation, Jean and Fides join the revelers, determined to die with them in the fire, which, as the magazine explodes, brings the palace down in smoke and flames on all within.
The musical and theatrical influences of the opera can be felt in, amongst others, Liszt's monumental Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" for organ which is based on the Anabaptists' chorale, the duet between mother and lost child in Giuseppe Verdi's Il trovatore, and the catastrophic finale of Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung. The tremendous success of Le prophète at its Paris première also provoked Wagner's anti-Jewish attack on Meyerbeer, Das Judenthum in der Musik.
- Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Jerome Hines; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Henry Lewis, c.1976 (Sony).
- Kobbé, Gustav, Harewood, Earl of. Kobbé's Complete Opera Book 'Le prophète'. Putnam, London and New York, 1954, p700-706.
- Giacomo Meyerbeer: Le prophète. In: Kaminski, Piotr. Mille et Un Opéras. Fayard, 2003, p945-949.
- Huebner, Stephen, "Le prophète", in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1992) ISBN 0-333-73432-7
- Le prophète: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Overture: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project – arranged for piano four hands by Charles-Valentin Alkan
- "Fantaisie sur Le prophète": Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project – for piano by Henri Herz
- "Fantasy and Fugue on 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam' from Le prophète: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project – for organ by Franz Liszt