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).

John Osborn (Raoul de Nangris) © Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah
John Osborn (Raoul de Nangris)
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

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.

John Osborn (Raoul de Nangris), Chao Deng (De Retz), Magnus Piontek (Méru) © Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah
John Osborn (Raoul de Nangris), Chao Deng (De Retz), Magnus Piontek (Méru)
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

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.

Venera Gimadieva (Marguerite de Valois) © Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah
Venera Gimadieva (Marguerite de Valois)
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

Venera Gimadieva was the Queen of Navarre, a somewhat silly character who tries to bring peace between the two religious sects. It is a classic coloratura soprano role, and Gimadieva dazzled with the agility of her voice and her ease on the high notes. The phosphorescent quality of her top register, which flutters in a myriad of colours, was perfectly suited to the character’s flirty nature.

Raoul’s old servant, Marcel, is the stereotypical religious fanatic, always singing hymns and cursing against “papists” and women, the source of all evil (the subtitles were purged of such unbecoming opinions, a very questionable fad that is taking over more and more). John Relyea was perfect in the role, managing to express the loyalty and the simple-mindedness of Marcel with his booming, pleasant, elegant bass. Štěpánka Pučálková, in the breeches role of the page Urbain, convinced with a warm, bronzed mezzo, in the only aria she was left with (“Noble seigneures, salut!”).

Jennifer Rowley (Valentine) and Christoph Pohl (Le Comte de Nevers) © Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah
Jennifer Rowley (Valentine) and Christoph Pohl (Le Comte de Nevers)
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

Stefan Soltész found the necessary brutal sound with the Sächsische Staatskapelle: Les Huguenots requires flashes of excitement and sharpness, together with great lyricism. The main complaint is about the massive cuts: about one hour of music disappeared. While it is understandable, in a work of Wagnerian length, it is still disappointing. The chorus is on stage for most of the action: their performance was exemplary, always on point and exciting. This includes the children’s chorus, which performed admirably. The highlight of the evening was in fact the “blessing of the swords” before the massacre, in Act 4, where the chorus prepares for battle in an emotionally charged scene.

****1