In taking up Les Huguenots by Giacomo Meyerbeer, an opera set during the sombre hours of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, Andreas Kriegenburg brings a contemporary resonance to the work. Here he explains his vision of the work.
Les Huguenots is one of the emblematic works of Grand Opera in the French style. As such, it takes up an historical subject. Now your aim is to give this work a contemporary and universal resonance. How have you gone about it?
The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is one of
the most striking traumas in the history of France, and also in all of European
history, in which it plays a profoundly seminal role. The massacre contributed
to the forging of our cultural identity and showed that Europe could be a
fertile territory for religious fanaticism, the expression of all kinds of
excesses, of monstrous violence. Today we are living in a period in which the
manipulation of the masses by the use of supra-religious motifs is more
relevant than ever. My objective was therefore to liberate myself from the
original historical context that surrounds the work and thus distances it from
I didn’t seek to transpose Les Huguenots
to a period closer to our own than is the reign of
Charles IX. Rather, I wanted to situate
these events beyond the frontiers of France in a timeless future in which
humanity would be on the verge of disappearing. In fact, we observe that
fashion, politics and even horror and outrage seemed doomed to repeat
themselves. I’ve imagined then a kind of endless ritornello, as if History were
forever beginning again, as if what we are living through now were an ominous
foreshadowing of what is to come.
Against a backdrop of historical events, Meyerbeer’s opera also presents a love story, that of Raoul and Valentine. How have you woven their story into the broader context of History?
A.K.: In Les
Huguenots, the tragedy is born out of a misunderstanding lying at the heart
of the opera: an excess of religious faith and, paradoxically, a lack of trust.
Raoul, a Huguenot, holds the Catholics responsible for the fact that his
beloved Valentine is the mistress of another man. His reason seems to have been
hi-jacked by the boundaries imposed by his religious convictions. Love fails to
override these preconceived ideas. What is touching is that, later on, the
lovers succeed in extricating themselves from these shackles, of demolishing
the ideological walls that confine them. At this point one is aware of a kind
of contrast between the violence and stupidity of the easily manipulated masses
and the lovers’ life-affirming moment of intimacy as they create their own
weapons to combat religious domination and adopt a position both ethical and
moral. I believe that one has to start from the cliché of the pure love that
unites Raoul to Valentine. One cannot tell this story if one does not defend
this love. When Raoul sees Valentine with Nevers, he is wounded to the depths
of his being. It is difficult to show this wound in such a brief passage in the
drama, but it is essential for me to make it apparent.
In opting for an austere scenography, you seem to have pushed historical colour aside. Could you elaborate on this choice?
A.K.: The world we represent on stage seeks to follow
the libretto whilst also adapting it: the feast scene, the garden... Splendour
subsides into horror, elegance into rigidity and brutality. A realistic set
would give the impression that the characters take part in this reality. If we
take away the colour, we modify our perspective on this world. The environment
recedes before the characters who take part in the action. Scenography becomes
a laboratory in which human beings are more present, as if laid bare, and
within which one can observe their relationships. One can then measure and
expose the mechanisms of manipulation.