Religious conflict is bloody, eternal and doomed to be repeated. For Les Huguenots, Meyerbeer’s loose retelling of the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, director Andreas Kreigenburg avoids the obvious choices of the 16th century, Meyerbeer’s times or our own, preferring to conjure up an imagined future. Harald B. Thor’s angular sets are in gleaming minimalist white, regularly flooded with blood; Tanja Hoffman’s costumes are vaguely reminiscent of Star Trek (with added ruffs and touches of The Handmaid’s Tale). It’s all stylish and suitably sci-fi.

Lisette Oropesa (Marguerite de Valois) © Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney
Lisette Oropesa (Marguerite de Valois)
© Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney

It’s a big première for Opéra de Paris in their 350th anniversary season and the supporting cast contains much of the cream of French singing. The three top roles, however, go to foreigners and there won’t be much debate over who was the star turn of the evening. In Act 2, Lisette Oropesa stopped the show with dazzling coloratura as Marguerite de Valois. It’s an unashamed showpiece and Oropesa pulled out all the stops: girlishly carefree throughout (Marguerite was only 19 at the time of the action, a few days after the wedding which made her Queen of Navarre), elegantly romantic in “Ô beau pays de la Touraine” and extremely naughty in “Ah! Si j’étais coquette”. Oropesa comprehensively conquered the hearts of the Paris audience, a particularly extraordinary performance given that she was a late replacement for Diana Damrau and only had three weeks to learn the role.

Ermonela Jaho (Valentine), Yosep Kang (Raoul de Nangis) © Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney
Ermonela Jaho (Valentine), Yosep Kang (Raoul de Nangis)
© Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney

Oropesa was well supported by the vivacious and creamily smooth mezzo of Karine Deshayes as the page Urbain, who can’t take his eyes off the ladies-in-waiting (not unlike the Jockey Club members of 1830s Paris, whose principal objective was to look up the dancers’ skirts). Kriegenburg doesn’t bother with actual ballet, but he emulates the original levels of titillation, with plenty of naked bosoms for Urbain to ogle. Clearly, his view of 2063 doesn’t include much progress from the #MeToo movement, since the Catholic gentlemen in Act 1 spend much of their feast groping women who are naked under their black see-through gowns.

Karine Deshayes, Yosep Kang, Florian Sempey, Cyrille Dubois © Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney
Karine Deshayes, Yosep Kang, Florian Sempey, Cyrille Dubois
© Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney

Ermonela Jaho makes a living out of playing women tortured by fate, and Valentine is a perfect addition to her roster. She uses too much vibrato for my taste, but you can’t fault the way she throws her heart and soul into every note. Yosep Kang was an even later replacement than Oropesa, whose fellow-Louisianan Bryan Hymel withdrew from the lead role of Raoul des Nangis just a week ago. Kang gave a creditable performance: he has a clear tenor with excellent French elocution, nice sweep and plenty of brightness, especially in mid-range, but he doesn’t project easy confidence at the top of the register. So while it was pleasant to listen to his voice, especially in duet, there wasn’t the same feeling of no-holds-barred thrill as from Oropesa or Jaho. The usually reliable Nicolas Testé got off to a nightmare start as the loyal retainer Marcel, losing the opening lines of his big aria “Piff Paff”, but had fully recovered by Act 5. The two Catholic Counts, Nevers and St-Bris, were admirably sung by Florian Sempey and Paul Gay. In the pit, Michele Mariotti provided plenty of pace and forward motion, but the overall string sound was on the thin side: it fell to the horns and brass to add richness and to some excellent woodwind solos to add the majority of the colour.

Act 1 set, with Yosep Kang (Raoul) © Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney
Act 1 set, with Yosep Kang (Raoul)
© Opéra de Paris | Agathe Poupeney

Eugène Scribe was the most successful librettist of his time, but he is horribly frustrating to our modern eyes, and Les Huguenots shows him at his best and at his worst. He is a master at setting up a crucial situation and at creating the right dramatic flow for constructing and resolving tension. What’s disappointing is that the basic premise is so naff: Scribe can’t resist the urge to take the great events of history and make them the result of some lovers’ tiff or contrived misunderstanding. By the time we reached the meeting of the lovers in Act 4, when Valentine pleads unsuccessfully for Raoul to save himself and then chooses to espouse his Protestant faith and die with him, the action had begun to drag. By Act 5, Kriegenburg had run out of new ideas (or possibly money) and was recycling the sets from Act 1. It’s a difficult act to stage, since what’s required is to stop time for singers to expound their innermost feelings while everything around them is mayhem and slaughter: I’ve seen it done much more persuasively than here.

Five stars for Act 2: Oropesa, I fancy, has booked herself as many return trips to Paris as she cares to make. For the rest: entertaining stuff, but not quite on the nail.

***11