As Grand Opéra goes, it doesn’t get much darker than Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. Olivier Py’s production for Deutsche Oper Berlin builds the dramatic tension and maintains it, unflagging, for nearly four hours of music.

Gregory Kunde (Jean de Leyde), Deutsche Oper Berlin 2017
© Bettina Stöss

In Voltaire’s history of medieval Europe’s wars of religion, he briefly charts the “Anabaptist rebellion” of 1534, in which tailor’s apprentice Jean de Leyde declares himself divinely inspired and becomes King of Münster. His reign lasts for a year before the rebellion is put down. Voltaire is scathing about the rebels, describing them as peasants “who believed themselves to be prophets and who knew nothing about the Scriptures other than the requirement for the pitiless massacre of all the enemies of the Lord”. Librettist Eugène Scribe deploys his usual modus operandi of taking the historical background and blending it with an invented personal story, but in contrast to many Scribe libretti, this is no conventional love triangle. The protagonists Jean and his mother Fidès are nuanced and the narrative is full of unexpected turns.

As Fidès, Clémentine Margaine gave us a masterclass in mezzo-soprano singing. She reaches the highs effortlessly. The lows in this role are cavernous, but Margaine’s voice never falters as she descends. All points in between are rich and warm; the smoothness and character of the phrasing took my breath away more than once. Gregory Kunde was also breathtaking in the great scene in Act 3 where Jean rallies the rebels, who are flagging and on the point of desertion. Kunde’s voice was strong, honeyed and persuasive as he spun Meyerbeer’s bel canto-like lines. Kunde seems to get better every time I hear him. The soprano role of Berthe, Jean’s fiancée whose abduction by the local nobleman is what impels him to lead the rebellion, is a lesser role. Elena Tsallagova provided strong support, her Act 4 duet with Margaine providing a blissful moment of operatic escape.

Clémentine Margaine (Fidès), Deutsche Oper Berlin 2017
© Bettina Stöss

But it’s the ensemble and crowd scenes that distinguish Le Prophète, particularly its most innovative group of characters, the sinister trio of Anabaptists. They can be scary, they can be violent, they can be blackly comic. Derek Welton, Gideon Poppe and Thomas Lehman navigated the ups and downs of their roles with expertise. The Deutsche Oper Chorus were on blistering form in their various guises as peasant rabble, rebel army or embittered townsfolk.

Olivier Py’s staging is strong in its fundamentals and infuriating in many of its details. Le Prophète’s basic premises are rendered faithfully: Jean is an ordinary man who suffers an extreme and brutal injustice and finds the opportunity for revenge in the religious credulity of the people around him; rebellions are as brutal as the régimes against which they rebel; religious fundamentalists who come to power reveal their the paper-thinness of their faith and the hypocrisy of their pronouncements. But with two Dramaturgs to help Py, there are too many ideas dropped into the staging and never developed. What was the airliner image for? Or the angel who shows up at regular intervals? Py is frequently happy to distract the audience from important passages of music and displays an almost casual disregard for matching stage action to the libretto. There are irrelevant people on stage who shouldn’t be there, and one occasion when a character is addressing a crowd... but the stage is empty.

Elena Tsallagova (Berthe), Clémentine Margaine (Fidès), Deutsche Oper Berlin 2017
© Bettina Stöss

I’m also unconvinced by the aesthetics. Pierre-André Weitz’s sets are unremittingly grey and I missed any consistent sense of period or context. I wasn’t taken with the assault-rifle-toting topless soldiers in fatigues and combat boots, or by their gyrations and playfights in the camp gym. Meyerbeer’s original ballet – supplies brought to the rebel camp by farmers skating on rollerblades – at least had the benefit of novelty. Py seems frightened of spectacle, which is a shame when doing Grand Opéra. The grim apartment block rotating at high speed on the stage revolve just didn’t cut the mustard for the scene of Jean’s coronation, one of the great spectaculars of opera of the period. And why wimp out on the final dénouements of Berthe’s suicide and the conflagration of the palace?

But annoying as the details were, they didn’t cause undue damage to the fact that this is an immensely dramatic opera. The dark characters were compellingly sung, the rule of the mob convincingly portrayed, the personal dilemmas and misunderstandings vividly portrayed. And while the synopsis of Le Prophète looks over-complex on paper, it made complete sense in the telling, powered by a superb orchestral performance under Enrique Mazzola which lit up the details of Meyerbeer’s orchestration and drove the action forward at every moment.

In sum, this production makes a persuasive case that Le Prophète firmly deserves its place in the operatic repertoire.