Perspectives

Ten anecdotes about Les Huguenots

The day Meyerbeer’s opera premiered — By Simon Hatab

Since it contributed greatly to defining the contours of a genre – Grand Opera – Les Huguenots is one of the most important works in the history of the Paris Opera. But are you familiar with a work that enjoyed colossal and uninterrupted success only to drift into oblivion for almost a century?


CULTURAL MELTING POT

Giacomo Meyerbeer was born near Berlin, Germany in 1791. After a debut that did not go unnoticed in Darmstadt and then Vienna, he knew success in Italy, composing in the style of Rossini whom he considered to be his mentor. He then came to Paris where, in the space of just three operas, he became the most performed composer of the 19th century.

DIABOLICAL

Prior to Les Huguenots, Meyerbeer was famous for having composed Robert le Diable, one of the Paris Opera’s most acclaimed works: first performed at the Le Peletier theatre in 1831 and based on the legend of the Duke of Normandy who was supposedly the spawn of the Devil, the work helped to make the French capital one of the most important places for opera during the era. It was Robert le Diable, before Les Huguenots, that defined the rules of Grand Opera that composers like Verdi and Wagner would bow to in order to conquer Paris.
  

FEAR OF FAILURE

       The huge success of Robert le Diable had unexpected consequences: it paralysed Meyerbeer: Fearful of nor reproducing the same success he kept delaying the composition of Les Huguenots.   

Portrait de Giacomo Meyerbeer, dessiné d’après nature par Nicolas E. Maurin, 1840
Portrait de Giacomo Meyerbeer, dessiné d’après nature par Nicolas E. Maurin, 1840

DELAY

In addition to the fear of failure, the first version of Eugène Scribe’s libretto did not satisfy Meyerbeer. Furthermore, his wife’s illness forced him to interrupt the composition: as a result, the completion of the work was considerably delayed to the point that the director of the Opera forced the composer to pay 30,000 francs for non-compliance with the contract that bound him to the institution. The premiere of Les Huguenots almost did not take place.

SCRIBE

And yet Eugène Scribe knew his craft: both a dramatist and a novelist, he was the principal librettist of Grand Opera, writing some of its greatest texts: Auber’s La Muette de Portici, Halèvy’s La Juive, Donizetti’s La Favorite and, of course, Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes.

OBSTACLES

Les répétitions des Huguenots furent houleuses, la partition étant jugée inexécutable. L’œuvre fut finalement créée le 29 février 1836 dans une mise en scène fastueuse qui coûta 160 000 francs, chiffre astronomique pour l’époque.

SUCCESS

The rehearsals for Les Huguenots were turbulent for many people deemed the score unplayable. The work finally had its premiere on February 29 1836 in a lavish production that cost 160,000 francs—an astronomical figure for the times.

CONTROVERSY

The opera tells a love story set against a backdrop of religious tensions which culminate in the Saint-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Since the subject of religious conflict was a sensitive one, the action was often transposed to enable the opera to be performed abroad. One had to wait until 1848 for the censors to loosen their grip and allow more faithful versions of the work to be performed.

VOICES

Staging a production of Les Huguenots demands the joint collaboration of seven exceptional performers: for the premiere, the cast brought together the greatest voices of the day. The difficulty of assembling such a cast explains in part why the work was so rarely staged during the 20th century.

CONTINUOUS MELODY

Berlioz, who chronicled the premiere, noted among other musical innovations, the appearance of an intermediary form between aria and recitative: it presaged the continuous melody which would later be developed by Wagnerian opera.

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