In 1999, Peter Konwitschny directed a production of the operetta Die Csárdásfürstin, by Emmerich Kálmán, which turned into a scandal and a lawsuit, when the director of the Semperoper Dresden decided to cut two of the most controversial scenes. Twenty years later, Konwitschny’s return was much awaited, and the atmosphere at this premiere of Les Huguenots was of eager anticipation. His production, however, was something of an anti-climax: those who entered the theatre expecting challenge, outrage and scandal were sorely disappointed (hence some boos at the curtain call).
Meyerbeer’s masterpiece is a vast tableau exploring the themes of religious fanaticism, tolerance and, of course, love. The plot revolves around the events of August 1587 in Paris, when a Catholic mob (probably instigated by Caterina de’ Medici) slaughtered thousands of French Protestants. In the opera, the Catholics are portrayed as bonne vivantes, dedicated to drinking, singing and womanising, while the Protestants are stern, self-righteous and fanatics. On a semi-historical background, two fictional lovers are chosen to represent the clash of religions: Raoul de Nangis, Protestant, and Valentine de St Bris, Catholic. Their love is doomed: Valentine’s father is one of the leaders of the Catholic extremists, and Raoul’s own narrow-mindedness leads him to believe she is “impure”. Konwitschny, surprisingly, did not opt for any visual updates and presented the characters in period clothing: the Catholics in red velvet, the Protestants in black (costumes by Johannes Leiacker). The Queen Mother was in modern clothes during her speech rallying the Catholic troops; during the massacre, everybody wore modern clothes, making the visual impact of the slaughter universal and poignant.
At the beginning of each of the five acts, the curtain opened on Leonardo’s Last Supper; each time the picture became smaller, further from the viewer, less coloured, less visible. On three occasions, 13 characters seated themselves at a table, in a re-enactment of the painting, each time growing bleaker and more disturbing, perhaps symbolic of Christianity becoming lost in fanaticism. The path towards doom is highlighted by a progressive darkening of the stage, from the very bright opening two acts to an oppressive total black in the last. Despite the disappointment of those who were hoping to feel outraged, the production was both beautiful and effective. The direction of the singers was accurate and precise, which gave a sense of unity to the work.
This successful production supported a magnificent cast. John Osborn is one of the world specialists of this repertoire, his voice perfectly at ease in the stellar heights of Raoul’s music. His approach was bold yet thoughtful, his powerful, focused high notes softening during more lyrical phrases. Jennifer Rowley sang Valentine with a smooth, full soprano, showing beautiful high notes, great breath control and interpretative skills. Her grand scene during the fourth act was heart-breaking: she threw herself into the character and managed to describe every emotion of the unfortunate Valentine. The following duet with Osborn was magic, their love and desperation coming through the pitch-dark stage, where only the white details of their clothing (bright under ultraviolet light) made us aware of where they were positioned. It was an outburst of pure musical emotion, a very successful idea of the director.