Les Huguenots (pronounced [lɛ.yɡˈno]) is a French opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of the most popular and spectacular examples of the style of grand opera. The opera is in five acts and premiered in Paris in 1836. The libretto was written by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps.
Les Huguenots was some five years in creation. Meyerbeer prepared carefully for this opera after the sensational success of Robert le diable, recognising the need to continue to present lavish staging, a highly (melo)dramatic storyline, impressive orchestration and virtuoso parts for the soloists - the essential elements of the new genre of Grand Opera. Coming from a wealthy family, Meyerbeer could afford to take his time, dictate his own terms, and to be a perfectionist. The very detailed contract which Meyerbeer arranged with Louis-Désiré Véron, director of the Opéra, for Les Huguenots (and which was drawn up for him by the lawyer Adolphe Crémieux) is a testament to this. While Meyerbeer was writing the opera, another opera with a similar setting and theme (Le pré aux clercs by Ferdinand Hérold) was also produced in Paris (1832). Like Meyerbeer's, Hérold's work was extremely popular in its time, although it is now forgotten.
Les Huguenots premiered at the Paris Opera on 29 February 1836 (conductor: François Habeneck), and was an immediate success. Both Adolphe Nourrit and Cornélie Falcon were particularly praised by the critics for their singing and performances. It was indeed Falcon's last important creation before her voice so tragically failed in April of the following year. Hector Berlioz called the score "a musical encyclopaedia". Les Huguenots was the first opera to be performed at the Opéra more than 1,000 times (the 1,000th performance being on 16 May 1906) and continued to be produced regularly up to 1936, more than a century after its premiere. Its many performances in all other of the world's major opera houses give it a claim to being the most successful opera of the 19th century.
Other first performances included London (Covent Garden Theatre), 20 June 1842, and New Orleans (Théâtre d'Orleans) on 29 April 1839. Due to its subject matter it was sometimes staged under different titles such as The Guelfs and the Ghibellines (in Vienna before 1848), Renato di Croenwald in Rome, or The Anglicans and the Puritans (in Munich), to avoid inflaming religious tensions among its audiences.
Les Huguenots was chosen to open the present building of the Covent Garden Theatre in 1858. During the 1890s, when it was performed at the Metropolitan Opera, it was often called 'the night of the seven stars', as the cast would include Lillian Nordica, Nellie Melba, Sofia Scalchi, Jean de Reszke, Édouard de Reszke, Victor Maurel and Pol Plançon.
The critic Arthur Elson wrote in 1901, "Les Huguenots contains many passages of supreme beauty. Marcel's powerful battle song ("Piff Paff"), the bright gaiety of the garden scene, the "Rataplan" of the Huguenot soldiers, and the impressive "Benediction of the Poignards" are made of truly dramatic material, while Raoul's farewell to Valentine affords a climax that remains undimmed by the lapse of years." But like others of Meyerbeer's operas, Les Huguenots lost favor in the early part of the twentieth century and it no longer forms part of the standard operatic repertoire.
One reason for the lack of revivals is cost. Another is the extraordinary difficulty in casting the work. Les Huguenots has seven leading roles—two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, two baritones, a tenor, and a bass. Moreover, the tenor part, Raoul, is one of the most taxing in all of opera. He is on stage for large sections of all five acts and his music is filled with extremely difficult high notes. Certainly, there is lack of modern-day virtuoso singers capable of performing Meyerbeer's operas with the sort of grace, stamina and technical panache that they need to have lavished upon them, if the composer's musical intentions are to be fully realised.
Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge were the major force in the opera's revival during the second half of the 20th century. Sutherland chose the opera for her final performance - at the Sydney Opera House on 2 October 1990, Bonynge conducting the Opera Australia Orchestra.
In recent years, the opera has sometimes been performed in concert form, and there have been occasional revivals by European opera companies, including Leipzig (1974), Royal Opera (London), Bilbao (1999), Metz (2004), Liège (2005), and Brussels (2011). In 1975, the New Orleans Opera Association staged the epic, with Marisa Galvany, Rita Shane, Susanne Marsee, Enrico Di Giuseppe, Dominic Cossa, and Paul Plishka heading the cast.
Bard Summerscape in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, presented the opera in a fully staged production in August 2009, conducted by Leon Botstein, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger and designed by Eugenio Recuenco (decor), Mattie Ullrich (costumes) and Aaron Black (lighting). The cast included Alexandra Deshorties, Michael Spyres, Erin Morley, Andrew Schroeder, Peter Volpe, Marie Lenormand and John Marcus Bindel.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 29 February 1836
(Conductor: François Habeneck)
|Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre||soprano||Julie Dorus-Gras|
|Valentine, daughter of Count de Saint-Bris||soprano||Cornélie Falcon|
|Urbain, the Queen's page||soprano||Maria Flécheux|
|Raoul de Nangis, a Protestant gentleman||tenor||Adolphe Nourrit|
|Marcel, a Huguenot soldier, Raoul's servant||bass||Nicolas Levasseur|
|Le Comte de Nevers, a Catholic gentleman||baritone||Prosper Dérivis|
|Le Comte de Saint-Bris, a Catholic gentleman||baritone||Jean-Jacques-Émile Serda|
|Bois-Rosé, a Huguenot soldier||tenor||François Wartel|
|Maurevert, a Catholic gentleman||baritone||Bernadet|
|Tavannes, a Catholic gentleman||tenor||Alexis Dupont|
|Cossé, a Catholic gentleman||tenor||Jean-Étienne-Auguste Massol|
|Thoré, a Catholic gentleman||tenor||François Wartel|
|De Retz, a Catholic gentleman||baritone||Alexandre Prévost|
|Méru, a Catholic gentleman||baritone||Ferdinand Prévôt|
|Two Maids-of-Honor||soprano||Gosselin and Laurent|
|Chorus: Catholic and Huguenot ladies and gentlemen of the court, soldiers, pages, citizens, and populace; night watch, monks, students|
The story culminates in the historical St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 in which thousands of French Huguenots (Protestants) were slaughtered by Catholics in an effort to rid France of Protestant influence. Although the massacre was a historical event, the rest of the action, which primarily concerns the love between the Catholic Valentine and the Protestant Raoul, is wholly a creation of Scribe.
The chateau of the Count
A short orchestral prelude, featuring the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg, replaces the extended overture Meyerbeer originally intended for the opera. The Catholic Count of Nevers is entertaining his fellow noblemen. They await the arrival of Raoul, and are surprised to hear that this emissary of the Court is a Huguenot. After a drinking song at Raoul's entry, the newcomer is prevailed upon to give a tale of love. Raoul tells of an unknown beauty he has rescued and fallen in love with. (With a daring and unusual stroke of orchestration, Meyerbeer accompanies this aria with a solo viola d'amore). Raoul's Protestant servant Marcel is shocked to see his master in such wicked company and sings a hearty Protestant prayer (to the tune of 'Ein feste Burg'). He then sings a Huguenot battle song from the siege of La Rochelle, Pif, paf.
The arrival of a mysterious lady stranger to speak to Nevers (off stage) interrupts the proceedings. Raoul recognises her as his mysterious beauty. In fact she is Nevers' intended bride, Valentine (daughter of St. Bris), instructed by the Queen to break off her engagement. The page Urbain enters with a secret message for Raoul, daring him to come blindfolded to a secret rendezvous.
The chateau and gardens of Chenonceaux
Queen Marguerite looks into a mirror held by her enamoured page Urbain, and sings the virtuoso pastorale, O beau pays de la Touraine. Valentine enters and reports that Nevers has agreed to break the engagement. Marguerite's entourage of ladies enter dressed for bathing. This leads to a ballet. Raoul enters blindfolded and the ladies tease him. With his sight restored, the Queen orders Raoul to marry Valentine to cement relations between the Protestant and Catholic factions. In a complex final ensemble, while a chorus of nobles swears friendship, Raoul, who believes Valentine is the mistress of Nevers, refuses to comply with the Queen's command. The nobles then swear revenge, and Marcel reproaches Raoul for mixing with Catholics.
The act opens with extensive scene setting of citizens, soldiers, church-goers and gypsies. Valentine has just married Nevers, but remains in the chapel to pray. Marcel delivers a challenge from Raoul. Saint-Bris decides to attack Raoul, but is overheard by Valentine. A watchman declares curfew (the scene anticipating a similar one in Wagner's Die Meistersinger). Valentine, in disguise, tells Marcel of the plot against Raoul. The duel is interrupted by rival factions of Protestant and Catholic students, and only the arrival of the Queen stems the chaos. Raoul realises that Valentine has saved him and that his suspicions of her were unfounded. However, now she is wedded to his enemy. Nevers leads her away in a splendid procession.
A room in Nevers' Parisian town-house
Valentine, alone, is surprised by Raoul who wishes to have one last meeting with her. The sound of approaching people leads Raoul to hide behind a curtain, where he hears the Catholic nobles, accompanied by three monks, who bless their swords, pledge to murder the Huguenots. Only Nevers does not join in the oath. This scene is generally judged the most gripping in the opera, and is accompanied by some of its most dramatic music. When the nobles have departed, Raoul is torn between warning his fellows and staying with Valentine, but finally duty triumphs over love. Valentine faints as Raoul makes his escape.
Scene 1: A ballroom
The Protestants are celebrating the marriage of the Queen to Henry of Navarre. The tolling of a bell interrupts the proceeding, as does the entrance of Raoul, who informs the assembly that the second stroke was the signal for the Catholic massacre of the Huguenots.
- [A performance tradition existed in some centres of ending the opera with Scene 1 and its suggestion of the massacre])
Scene 2: A cemetery: in the background, a ruined Protestant church
Nevers dies protecting Marcel, who is wounded; Valentine agrees to become a Protestant to marry Raoul and Marcel carries out the nuptials. A 'chorus of murderers' shoots all three, after they express their vision of heaven, 'with six harps'. Wounded, they are finally murdered by St. Bris and his men, he realising only too late that he has killed his own daughter. (Cf. the closing scene of Fromental Halévy's opera, La Juive, libretto also by Scribe, produced a year earlier than Les Huguenots). The entrance of the Queen, and the chorus of soldiers singing 'God wants blood!', brings the opera to a close.
Following five years after Meyerbeer's own Robert le diable and a year after Fromental Halévy's La Juive, Les Huguenots consolidated the genre of Grand Opera, in which the Paris Opéra would specialise for the next generation, and which became a major box-office attraction for opera houses all over the world. Hector Berlioz's contemporary account is full of praise, with 'Meyerbeer in command at the first desk [of violins] […] from beginning to end I found [the orchestral playing] superb in its beauty and refinement […] The richness of texture in the Pré-aux-Clercs scene [of act III] […] was extraordinary, yet the ear could follow it with such ease that every strand in the composer's complex thought was continually apparent – a marvel of dramatic counterpoint'. The immense success of the opera encouraged many musicians, including Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, to create virtuosic piano works based on its themes. A military slow march based on the prelude to Les Huguenots is played every year during the ceremony of Trooping the Colour at Horse Guards Parade in London.
Several late 19th-Century singers versed in the genuine Meyerbeerian performance style made acoustic gramophone recordings of arias from Les Huguenots and other works. Many of these early recordings have been remastered and reissued on CD recitals. They are valuable musicological research tools.
Urbain, Raoul, Marcel,
Opera house and orchestra
New Philharmonia Orchestra,
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
|CD: Decca 430 549-2|
Orchestra & Chorus of the Austrian Radio
(Broadcast 17 February, Grosser Konzerthaussaal, Vienna)
|CD: Opera D'Oro 1464|
Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier
|CD: Erato 2292-45027-2|
|DVD: Opus Arte OAF 4024D|
Deutsche Oper Berlin
(German translation by Ignatz Franz Castelli)
|DVD: ArtHaus Musik 100 156|
American Symphony Orchestra
|CD: 2010 American Symphony Orchestra|
- Vocal/piano score of Les Huguenots: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Réminiscences des Huguenots, S.412 for piano by Franz Liszt at IMSLP
- Grande Fantaisie sur l'opera de Meyerbeer 'Les Huguenots', Op.43 for piano by Sigismond Thalberg at IMSLP
- A Huguenot, a painting inspired by the opera
- Kelly 2004, pp. 201–206.
- Pitou 1990, pp. 451–452.
- Brzoska 2003, p. 206.
- Wolff 1962, pp. 116–117.
- Brzoska 2003, p. 207.
- This Dekabristi is not to be confused with the better-known Yuri Shaporin opera of the same name.
- Elson, Arthur, pp. 192–195
- The names, descriptions, and order of the roles are from Meyerbeer, Arsenty, and Letellier 2009, p. 2. Chorus roles are from Kobbé 1976, p. 726.
- The role voice types are from the Benoit edition of the piano-vocal score (Meyerbeer, ca. 1900), except that "baritone" is used in place of basse chantante and "bass" in place of basse profonde. Sources sometimes differ with regard to role voice types. For example, Kobbé 1976, p. 726, lists Maurevert as a bass, while Huebner 1992, p. 765, lists Saint-Bris, De Retz, Méru, and Thoré as bass roles and omits Maurevert altogether.
- Cast surnames are from the Benoit edition of the piano-vocal score (Meyerbeer, ca. 1900), and forenames, from Kutsch and Riemens 2003. There is some disagreement among the sources concerning the singers of the minor roles. Chouquet 1873, p. 399, lists Ferdinand Prevôt as de Retz, Alex. Dupont as Cossé, and Massol as Tavannes. Wolff 1962, pp. 115–116, lists Trévaux as Tavannes. Wolff also lists four minor roles not found in the other sources: Gosselin and Laurent as the two Maids-of-Honor, Charpentier as Léonard, and [Adolphe-Joseph-Louis] Alizard [bass] as the Crier. Alizard was a student at the time and made his real house debut on 23 June 1837, when he took over the role of Saint-Bris (Kutsch and Riemens 2003, p. 61; Chouquet). Later in his career Alizard created the roles of Father Laurence in Berlioz's dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839) and Roger in Verdi's Jérusalem (1847) (Kutsch and Riemens).
- Letellier 2006, p. 131.
- Although the role of Urbain was originally designated for a soprano, Meyerbeer transposed it for contralto and added the aria "Non! – non, non, non, non, non! Vouz n'avez jamais, je gage" in 1848, when it was performed by Marietta Alboni at the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden (Jander, Owen/Steane, J.B./Forbes, Elisabeth, Contralto, in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, I, p. 934).
- Kelly 2004, p. 191.
- Berlioz 1969, pp. 396–397.
- Paget, p. 48
- Recordings of Les Huguenots on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- the Meyerbeer Fan Club site
- Berlioz, Hector; Cairns, David, translator (1969). The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz. London: Gollancz. ISBN 978-0-575-00181-7
- Brzoska, Matthias; Smith, Christopher, translation (2003). "Meyerbeer: Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots" in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera (David Charlton, editor). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-64118-0.
- Chouquet, Gustave (1873). Histoire de la musique dramatique en France depuis ses origines jusqu'à nos jours (in French). Paris: Didot. View at Google Books.
- Elson, Arthur, "French Grand Opera" in A Critical History of Opera, Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1901.
- Huebner, Steven (1992). "Huguenots, Les" in Sadie 1992, vol. 2, pp. 765–768.
- Kelly, Thomas Forrest (2004). "Les Huguenots" in First Nights at the Opera. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10044-0.
- Kobbé, Gustav (1976). The New Kobbé's Complete Opera Book, edited and revised by the Earl of Harewood. New York: Putnam. ISBN 978-0-399-11633-9.
- Kutsch, K. J.; Riemens, Leo (2003). Grosses Sängerlexikon (fourth edition, in German). Munich: K. G. Saur. ISBN 978-3-598-11598-1.
- Letellier, Robert (2006). The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-4093-7.
- Meyerbeer, Giacomo (n.d. [ca. 1900]). Les Huguenots (piano vocal score). Paris: Benoit. IMSLP file #72250, OCLC 497239303.
- Meyerbeer, Giacomo; Arsenty, Richard, translation; Letellier, Robert Ignatius, introduction (2009). The Meyerbeer Libretti: Grand Opéra 2 'Les Huguenots'. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84718-965-3.
- Paget, Julian, Discovering London Ceremonials and Traditions, Gutenburg Press Limited 1989 ISBN 0-7478-0408-7
- Pitou, Spire (1990). The Paris Opéra. An Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers: Growth and Grandeur, 1815–1914. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-26218-0.
- Rosenthal, Harold; Warrack, John (1979). "Les Huguenots", The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-311318-3.
- Sadie, Stanley, editor (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (4 volumes). London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-56159-228-9.
- Wolff, Stéphane (1962). L'Opéra au Palais Garnier (1875–1962). Paris: l'Entr'acte. Paris: Slatkine (1983 reprint): ISBN 978-2-05-000214-2.