All French Grand Opéra, of which Les Huguenots, Meyerbeer’s retelling of the 1572 Massacre of St Bartholomew, is a defining example, presents the viewer with a certain level of contradiction. On the one hand, the genre is blatantly about spectacle: we should be wowed by the magnificence of the sets and the opulence of the costumes, thrilled by feats of coloratura or high wire top notes from the principal tenor, excited by the dancers. But the single most important thing, as in any opera, is the portrayal of emotion through the human voice, and for that, you need context and dramatic action. In Hamlet’s words: the play’s the thing.

Achieving that balance is not easy, and the première of János Szikora’s new production for Hungarian State Opera, staged to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, made a good fist of it. The principal driver of this was a truly excellent orchestral performance, conducted by Oliver von Dohnányi. Meyerbeer asks a lot of the orchestra – Berlioz described Les Huguenots as “a musical encyclopaedia with enough material for twenty ordinary operas” – requiring dizzyingly rapid changes of tempo and mood and giving the woodwind players some fearfully exposed solos: several crucial vocal passages are accompanied only by a single woodwind line. In every department, the orchestra excelled, playing with shape and purpose.

Top honours went to Klára Kolonits as Marguerite de Valois. Kolonits sparkled and dazzled with her coloratura, gave us creamy soft timbre in the lyrical passages, and turned on a sixpence to shift moods: she could be light-hearted, coquettish, formal, friendly or regal as demanded. The audience bayed for an encore after “Au beau pays de la Touraine”, to no avail. Gabriella Balga was bright and pert as her page Urbain, Gabriella Létay Kiss was pleasantly pretty-voiced as Valentine but rather eclipsed by Kolonits.

At his best, in Raoul’s most important solo numbers, Gergely Boncsér produced smooth legato, a pleasant timbre and good characterisation, but he tended to fade out when singing in ensemble which, to be fair, was largely the result of some excellent, high power singing from the ensemble. Marcel, Raoul’s faithful elderly retainer, always has a chance of stealing the show, and Gábor Bretz, while looking noticeably more youthful than the part demands, did exactly that, nailing his barnstorming “Piff Paff” and then remaining the pivotal figure on the Protestant side throughout Acts 4 and 5. On the Catholic side, Zsolt Haja looked good, sounded good and accurately portrayed the charming, honourable but ill-fated Comte de Nevers, while in Act 4, Antal Cseh’s St Bris seized his chance to command proceedings as the Catholics plot their massacre, ably supported by the quartet of Catholic gentlemen.

In the programme, Szikora explains that the story stands up well to modern scrutiny and that he feels no need to transplant it to some different conflict – an approach with which I’m more than happy. Sets alternate between full-stage-sized cut out lithographs of the period, dropped at different depths to give a decidedly retro flair to proceedings, and giant letters spelling out the defining emotion for the act – “Bacchus” for the drinking scene, “Amor” for the love scene, “Irgalom” (Hungarian for “mercy”) in Act 5, and so on. Both types of set are attractive and the period costumes are lavishly magnificent, with good delineation between the pleasure-loving Catholics in white and the austere Protestants in black.

As a piece of dramaturgy, it could have been effective, but it didn’t work as I would have hoped. The proscenium arch at the Erkel is relatively low and the stage is not especially deep. With no rake, that makes for proceedings in a flat, two-dimensional space, so it needed exceptional acting and stage movement to give life to the production and that didn’t happen. I can understand a fear of ham acting here – it’s good that things have moved on from the hideously overacted Tosca I saw a couple of decades ago – but this was too tame, with crowds going through the motions rather than surging and swirling. And if the Act 2 ballet is to be danced by eight pretty girls in diaphanous Greek-nymph costumes, I would have hoped for more exciting choreography than the modest walking-around-pillars that was provided.

Still, the overall performance worked well on both a historical and a human level. The genuine fear of the Catholics at the Huguenot menace was well evoked, as was their historically well-documented sense that the massacre was utterly justified. Raoul’s dilemma felt real and the worst excesses of Eugène Scribe “make it all about improbable coincidences and a historically non-existent love triangle” were placed in the background. The opera progressed effectively from happy, light-hearted spectacle in Act 1 through to genuine horror and regret in Act 5, with superb playing and some wonderful singing along the way. And that, surely, is what Meyerbeer is all about.

[Update: an earlier version of this review supposed that the choreography in Act II was by Sebestyén Csaba, the choreographer credited on the programme. Hungarian State Opera have informed us that this is not the case, so this reference has been removed; our apologies to Mr Csaba].