Times: Leon Botstein Revives "Les Huguenots" - Meyerbeer's Hit Opera About Religious Violence

Drawing on what we have seen over the years, our own opera criticism framework anticipates that German operas will alternate the themes of war, love and war, while Italian operas will fluctuate the action between love, war and love.

Now we have a new thesis to factor in. The French grand opera a la Meyerbeer presents us with the thematic content of religion, love and religious violence.

The Times reviewed the Bard Opera Performance that we enjoyed and endured for four hours on Sunday. Leon Botstein revived "Les Huguenots" - Meyerbeer's massive hit opera about religious violence in general and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 in particular.

That outbreak of European violence serves as a quintessential textbook example of religion at work at its worst in support of bloodshed and hatred. That historic event triggered the continuing slaughter over several months of thousands of French Calvinist Protestants by the Roman Catholic forces of Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici.

The opera's composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer was a German Jew who wrote the opera in French, the language of this production.

Botstein, who holds multiple jobs as music director of several orchestras and president of Bard, will present the work of the notorious Richard Wagner in a few weeks up at Bard. Botstein is a secular Jew himself, but a self-respecting Jew, and in that context perhaps bears some guilty feelings about touting Wagner. So, we speculate, partially as a corrective for Wagner, and partly because of his concern for the spreading religious violence in our current day and age, he valiantly resurrected "Les Huguenots".

In his program notes, Botstein does make note of Meyerbeer's influence on Wagner and of the theme of religion and violence which is so utterly obviously the point of the opera.

It's may be precisely because the theme is so overbearing that the opera fell out of favor in the past century. We found it oppressive at times during the opera to hear religious hatred set to grand music and sung by such talented baritones and sopranos. But judging the popularity of the work, that apparently was a great attraction to the French in the nineteenth century. Go figure.

As everyone points out, including the Times, Meyerbeer did put everything but the kitchen sink into his grand opera, including in this instance much bloodshed (and be warned, in the Bard production there is a smattering of tasteful nudity).

The Times' review is mixed but mostly positive. Bard suffers from its proximity to the city and hence to the Met and from the inevitable comparison to the unmatchable competition. If this production had been staged in say Minneapolis, the critics would have fallen all over themselves to praise it to the sky.
Music Review | 'Les Huguenots'
Rediscovering an Opera of Love and Slaughter

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — There have been many cases of historically momentous operas that claimed the public in their day, then fell into neglect. But the near disappearance of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s French grand opera “Les Huguenots” is especially baffling.

For nearly 100 years after its astonishingly successful 1836 premiere in Paris, the opera was a mainstay of the repertory, especially in France. It was the first work in the history of the Paris Opera to reach the milestone of 1,000 performances.

“Les Huguenots” was last performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1915, in an Italian translation with a cast that included Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel and Emmy Destinn. It is amazing to read a review of that performance from The New York Sun in which the opera is referred to as “the familiar old work.” What happened?

Once again the conductor Leon Botstein, a champion of neglected works, has leapt into the breach, presenting a production of “Les Huguenots,” which opened on Friday night in the SummerScape festival at Bard College here. (It is linked to the Bard Music Festival’s Wagner and His World series, which will offer two weekends of concerts, lectures and panels this month.) For the second performance of this four-hour, five-act opera on Sunday afternoon, the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts was packed. Renaud Machart, the music critic of Le Monde, had come from Paris to see his first production of the work, an indication of how far the opera has fallen from view...more...

The WSJ has a review-essay of some substance about the opera in which the author notes that Wagner in fact, "devoted a chapter in his book “Opera and Drama” to “The Nadir of Opera: Music by Meyerbeer.”"

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