Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera “Les Huguenots” was a box-office sensation when it premiered in 1836 at the Paris Opera, where it had more than 1,000 performances. And then, it seemed to disappear from the repertory.
Bard SummerScape didn’t spare a sou this week to present what is considered the world’s first grand opera. Sunday afternoon was the show’s second performance.
WHERE: Fisher Center, Bard College, Route 9G, Annandale-on-Hudson
WHEN: 3 p.m. Wednesday and 7 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: $75, $55, $25
MORE INFO: (845) 758-7900 or www.fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape/
Everything about the opera seemed huge: The length is more than four hours, the cast has more than 50 people and the full-size pit orchestra even included an ophicleide (a kind of tuba). The vision of the libretto written by Eugene Scribe and Emile Deschamps had a mammoth landscape: to re-create the brutal St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 when a group of ultra-Catholics butchered thousands of Protestants (Huguenots) in a political power play. Scenes of almost gruesome reality were frightening and reflected the sins of sectarian violence, religious intolerance and the hypocrisy of both sides claiming God’s truth — all timely concerns. To sell the historical angle, a fictional love story was added.
In fine voice
Wed all this together and you get a tremendously theatrical experience that on Sunday was supported by an experienced group of singers. Arias of much lyricism were difficult and plumbed each singer’s range.
Tenor Michael Spyres, as a Protestant nobleman, had a sparkling, clear, ringing voice with excellent French diction. He sang with passion and urgency as did soprano Alexandra Deshorties as his lover, Valentine, a Catholic. Soprano Erin Morley as the Queen showed wonderful agility and finesse; bass Peter Volpe as a Protestant soldier was smooth and forceful. Soprano Marie Lenormand as a page and baritone Andrew Schroeder as a Catholic nobleman were also excellent, as was the 28-member male chorus.
Visually, however, the show was out of focus. Eugenio Recuenco put the singers in a set like a Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square painting lit by Aaron Black’s primary colors (Acts 1 and 2) or with giant girders (Act 3). Huge squares descended as the Queen’s boudoir (lit in lime green) or as a U-shaped table. Interesting, but Mattie Ullrich’s more period costumes in mostly black or pale blue seemed out of place.
Thaddeus Strassberger’s blockings were sometimes as exquisite as 17th century oil paintings, but none of the singers connected to each other as actors. Just to stand and sing is no longer enough.
The American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein was enthusiastic and adroit in a score that spotlighted a cappella solos from a bass clarinet, a double bass, a flute.