With the exception of the virtuoso coloratura aria “Ombre légere”, Meyerbeer’s Dinorah (1859) more or less vanished from the general operatic consciousness after WWI. The single concert performance of this opéra comique by the Deutsche Oper Berlin was thus a rare chance to hear live something other than Les Huguenots by the most popular opera composer in the 19th century. In fact, Dinorah marks the beginning of an extended Meyerbeer project by this company, with fully-staged versions of three of his biggest works planned over the next few years. Given that Meyerbeer was born in Berlin (a plaque went up only last year on his birth-place near the Brandenburg Gate), it is appropriate that the city should take the initiative in reviving his memory in this, the 150th anniversary of his death.

Enrique Mazzola © Martin Sigmund
Enrique Mazzola
© Martin Sigmund

All this granted, I still found it hard to warm to Dinorah. This was not on account of any deficiencies in the performance, which on the whole was satisfactory and at times very good indeed. No, it came down to a combination of dramaturgical flimsiness and that most elusive of measures – musical quality. Taking the latter point first, there is no question but that Meyerbeer knew what he was doing – the music was tuneful when tunefulness was needed, and dramatic where this was called for. However, while individual numbers were appealing, en masse they felt rather undistinguished. And while greater familiarity might lead to greater enjoyment, the weaknesses of the libretto were such that it would be hard to invest in this opera other than as a vehicle for singers. With plot elements drawn from Freischütz and Lucia, a complex back-story involving a cursed treasure that ultimately turns out to be just a MacGuffin, and in Act III, a series of dramatically irrelevant numbers for the comprimari (those in smaller roles), this justified Wagner’s strictures about contemporary operatic norms in his Zurich writings (though not his scurrilous anti-Semitic diatribes against Meyerbeer specifically, of course).

Where Meyerbeer was particularly effective was at creating varied and imaginative orchestral textures. The opening string music in the Overture – fleet broken chords and runs in the two violin parts, returning many times later on when it is identified with the heroine’s wandering wits – anticipates the beginning of Smetana’s Vltava by 15 years. Later in the Overture, there was an attractive alternation of a more martial idiom (with rhythms that sounded like something from Star Wars) with an ethereal passage featuring flowing harps. One of the choruses in Act II saw the female singers accompanied by a hummed male part. And most magical of all, in Act III, the unaccompanied choir barely breathed the Sancta Maria music from a seated position, something which vividly recalled the “Auferstehen, ja Auferstehen” choir entry in Mahler’s much later Resurrection Symphony.

Most opera loses when performed without staging, and several plot points were rendered unclear (for instance, it was only in the subsequent dialogue that I realised that the tenor, Corentin, was supposed to be playing the bagpipes during the clarinet-soprano imitative exchanges). Moreover, the genuinely innovative involvement of the unseen chorus during the overture was rendered null by the fact that they were visible as if for any other choral number.

The title role was taken by Patrizia Ciofi, a coloratura soprano experienced in this type of repertoire. This was perhaps an off-night for her: she sounded hoarse to start with, and for almost the entirety of the opera she under-projected. Her coloratura was generally very good indeed, although the top notes sounded rather strained. The comic tenor part of Corentin was sung by Philippe Talbot. He possesses a pleasant, light voice, which only very rarely lost its natural ease. He made valiant attempts to capture the humorous cowardice of his role, but the laughs were few and far between. Étienne Dupuis, playing the baritone Hoël, had a fine strong sound, and was the most authoritative singer, although perhaps the least visually engaged of the three.

Of the four singers who had their moment in the sun in Act III, the pick was Seth Carico, last seen in a bloody loin-cloth as Cassandra in Xenakis’s Oresteia. As the hunter, he brought a welcome swagger to proceedings, but also demonstrated the ability to modify his stentorian sound and blend sensitively when singing as part of the quartet. The orchestra, directed with authority and precision by Enrique Mazzola, was very tight and disciplined. Released from pit duty, the sizable group of strings remained sensitive to the question of balance, playing down so that the audibility of the singers was never in question. The choir was also solid although their role wasn’t particularly extensive.

To sum up, then: great to have had a chance to hear Dinorah, but sadly, it’s not an unjustly neglected gem.