After David Alden took an abstract, stylised approach to his production of Les Huguenots at the Deutsche Oper last season, the French director Oliver Py’s take on Meyebeer’s next grand opéra, Le Prophète, feels relatively straightforward. Admittedly he takes the action from 16th-century Germany – the prompt box was done up as a memorial stone to the historical figure the work was based on – and plonks it somewhere in the late 20th century.

Noel Bouley (Mathisen), Gregory Kunde (Jean), Derek Welton (Zacharie), Clémentine Margaine (Fidès) © Bettina Stöß
Noel Bouley (Mathisen), Gregory Kunde (Jean), Derek Welton (Zacharie), Clémentine Margaine (Fidès)
© Bettina Stöß

A programme interview suggests we’re in some poor French suburbs. But, the occasional appearance of a tricolour notwithstanding, we could be anywhere where poverty and a lack of opportunity make a population ripe for demagogic exploitation – take your pick. The people work in a factory rather than in the rural idyll Meyerbeer’s lilting compound time evokes in Act 1. Among the movable grey apartment blocks of Pierre-André Weitz’s malleable set, we see billboards advertising unattainable designer underwear and holiday escapes.

Violence – sexual and otherwise – is a constant presence. The cardboard wings of an intermittently appearing topless male angel serve, along with a few rather less subtle symbolic touches, to underline the flimsiness of the sort of beliefs being touted by this puppet-prophet, his strings pulled by the threatening trio of Anabaptists.

Noel Bouley (Mathisen), Andrew Dickinson (Jonas), Seth Carico (Oberthal), Derek Welton (Zacharie) © Bettina Stöß
Noel Bouley (Mathisen), Andrew Dickinson (Jonas), Seth Carico (Oberthal), Derek Welton (Zacharie)
© Bettina Stöß

Py has a tendency to throw too much into the mix, and he pushes his dancers into action rather too often. Not all will approve of the innovations he adds to the action, though some give extra edginess to a plot that Meyerbeer and his librettist, Eugène Scribe – neither man apparently keen to rock the boat politically – were keen shouldn’t come to close to inciting any sort of political insurrection itself when the work was premiered in 1849.

Despite its busyness, it’s also a production that is resolutely grey and grim, with the only colour coming in the representation of debauchery that shows the Anabaptists as hypocrites in the final act – a riot of bums, tits and todgers viewed in a red-light glow upstage. The ballet is staged on the revolve that plays a large role throughout the evening, dancers weaving in and out through the doors of a building. The skating chorus sees potatoes handed out to the needy, while the nearest thing we get to the sunrise that wowed the first audiences – the first time electric light had been used on the stage of the Paris Opéra – comes in blinding search lights pointed our way towards the end of Act 2 as the Anabaptists sing their ominous chorale.

Elena Tsallagova (Berthe) and Clémentine Margaine (Fidès) © Bettina Stöß
Elena Tsallagova (Berthe) and Clémentine Margaine (Fidès)
© Bettina Stöß

Add in trench coats, camouflage and toy machine guns, and it’s certainly a staging with its fair share of clichés. It’s also a production that could be more focused in the way it makes its point. On the plus side, though, it’s an effective show, and one whose interventions don’t greatly impede or muddy the opera’s narrative. If the opera’s four and half hours didn’t exactly fly by, I at least found myself constantly engaged.

This was no doubt also, however, due to a fine performance of Meyerbeer’s ever-inventive score. Enrique Mazzola conducted a well-prepared Deutsche Oper orchestra excitingly, always alive to the music’s fizz and sparkle. The Deutsche Oper’s chorus sang with gutsy commitment.

The large cast was very respectable, too, with Gregory Kunde singing powerfully and impressively as Jean, a character who, in the opera’s unconventional dramaturgy, remains strangely elusive. It’s also a role that sits uneasily between bel canto and more dramatic requirements, and Kunde was more convincing in the latter. It was a similar case with Clémentine Margaine’s performance as his mother, Fidès. In an unflattering grey wig, she brought chocolatey tone and big heart to the part, and her grand, baleful lower register made up for some fraying in the coloratura.

Gregory Kunde (Jean de Leyde) © Bettina Stöß
Gregory Kunde (Jean de Leyde)
© Bettina Stöß

Elena Tsallagova was bright-toned and mellifluous as poor Berthe, Jean’s unfortunate betrothed. Derek Welton, Andrew Dickinson and Noel Bouley made an imposing, implacable trio of Anabaptists, each making the most of their individual moments in the limelight. Seth Carico was a dangerously charismatic Count Oberthal, swiftly restored to power, in a deft directorial touch, at the close as if nothing had happened.