Interviewed in the programme for his Deutsche Oper production of Les Huguenots, director David Alden describes Meyerbeer as “the first commercial composer in the modern sense”; the interview is entitled “The Grandfather of the Broadway Musical”. And what you get from this archetypal French Grand Opéra is spectacle. It may lack the classical elegance of Mozart, the dramatic tautness of Verdi or the catchy tunefulness of Rossini (although Meyerbeer melodies were staples of Victorian music boxes). But what you do get is consistently lovely music and big set pieces, dramatic moments and vehicles for star singers to show off what they can do. (You also get dance, although this was dropped here, as often happens in modern productions). And strangely enough, at the end of an opera in which Meyerbeer has spent most of four hours mixing serious action with comic relief, this production gave us a final act with genuine tragic heroism and pathos.

Derek Welton, Patrizia Ciofi, Irene Roberts, Olesya Golovneva and Marc Barrard © Bettina Stöss
Derek Welton, Patrizia Ciofi, Irene Roberts, Olesya Golovneva and Marc Barrard
© Bettina Stöss

Deutsche Oper provided some big stars to perform the big numbers and they duly delivered. First up, Juan Diego Flórez's Raoul describing his unknown beloved in “Plus blanche que la blanche hermine”, accompanied only by a solo viola d'amore on stage. Flórez showed us everything that makes him the top bel canto tenor of the moment: clarion voice projected with ease, utter security of hitting top notes and the ability to surprise you by shifting up a gear just when think he's sung a phrase somewhere around his limit. Patrizia Ciofi may not have quite as much in reserve as Flórez – she certainly lacks his crystalline French diction – but the tricky coloratura of Marguerite's pastorale “O beau pays de la Touraine” was delivered with relish and a creamy timbre that never approached the brittle. In between, another fine piece of coloratura from Irene Roberts in the page Urbain's cavatina “Une dame noble et sage”. But my favourite of all is Marcel's show-stealing “Piff Paff” aria, where the elderly Protestant retainer, at a banquet in polite Catholic company, is taunted into singing and duly produces a violent anti-Catholic misogynist rant: the towering figure of Ante Jerkunica, clad in black, bible and carbine in hand, took charge of the stage and delivered a superb piece of bass singing.

Juan Diego Flórez (Raoul) and Ante Jerkunica (Marcel) © Bettina Stöss
Juan Diego Flórez (Raoul) and Ante Jerkunica (Marcel)
© Bettina Stöss

It's a real showstopper and the uncomfortable shuffling of Catholic nobles, who realise that they may just have chosen the wrong target to taunt, was a fine example of Alden's excellent Personenregie: here was a production in which every singer knew exactly what they had to do at every moment to deliver maximum effect. I was less than convinced, however, by Alden's choices of setting. Giles Cadle's sets felt very familiar from Alden productions of very different operas: we're set in the inside of an austere, darkly lit, wood-panelled building which could easily be a Huguenot church. But the whole point of the first four acts of the opera are that the Huguenots are on Catholic territory and very much out of their comfort zone, pitting the setting against the mood of the action. Act IV worked better – the array of portraits of the Comte de Nevers' forebears provided the perfect backdrop to his nobly refusing to join in the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre – in those forebears, he sings “Je compte des soldats, et pas un assassin” (there are soldiers, but not one murderer). It's another of those fine, if isolated, dramatic moments that pervade Les Huguenots, and was ably dispatched by Marc Barrard.

Irene Roberts (Urbain) and Patrizia Ciofi (Marguerite de Valois) © Bettina Stöss
Irene Roberts (Urbain) and Patrizia Ciofi (Marguerite de Valois)
© Bettina Stöss

Alden is energised by the merciless parodying of Meyerbeer in Gilbert & Sullivan and Offenbach and he chooses to costume the whole piece in the style of Victorian/Edwardian music hall, with a fair chunk of song-and-dance routines. This plays adequately early on, where much of the action is pretty light-hearted. But Scribe's libretto has a fair amount of its own irony, and Alden's humour seemed often to work against the piece rather than with it. It also mis-served some of the big chorus numbers: in a mixed crowd scene, if all the chorus are facing the audience in uniformed ranks, it becomes very difficult to get the sense of who is who. It wasn't helped by the Deutsche Oper Chorus being distinctly off-colour for the first couple of acts.

Olesya Golovneva (Valentine) and Juan Diego Flórez (Raoul) © Bettina Stöss
Olesya Golovneva (Valentine) and Juan Diego Flórez (Raoul)
© Bettina Stöss

Scribe's libretto is an utterly formulaic “take great historical events and drop in a standard love triangle” and it's best not to think too hard about the way the horrors of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre are made contingent on a romantic misunderstanding between Raoul and Valentine. But Act V was electric. Olesya Golovneva's Valentine had been somewhat muted earlier in the opera, but as she renounces her Catholic faith to join Raoul and Marcel as they await the closing in of the Catholics who will murder them, her singing took off, as did that of the chorus. Staging, singing, acting came together to produce real drama and send us into the cool Berlin night with lumps in our throats.