Stunning Singing, High Drama and Profound Emotions Make for a Terrific Le Prophète

GermanyGermany Meyerbeer, Le prophète: Soloists, Aalto-MusikTheater Choruses, Essener Philharmoniker / Giuliano Carella (conductor), Aalto-MusikTheater, Essen, 14.5.2017. (RP)

John Osborn in Le prophète © Matthias Jung

Jean de Leyde – John Osborn
Fidès – Marianne Cornetti
Berthe – Lynette Tapia
Le comte d’Oberthal – Karel Martin Ludvik
Zacharie – Tijl Faveyts
Mathisen – Pierre Doyen
Jonas – Albrecht Kludszuweit

Director – Vincent Boussard
Set – Vincent Lemaire
Costumes – Vincent Boussard & Elisabeth de Sauverzac
Lighting – Guido Levi
Chorusmaster – Jens Bingert
Dramaturgy – Christian Schröder

Two scenes stick in my mind. The first is of John Osborn’s Prophet King, prostrate before his mother, Fidès, in the formidable form of Marianne Cornetti. Her love and devotion knew no bounds. Thinking her son Jean was dead, she was startled to recognized the voice of the self-proclaimed King of Münster, a blaspheming tyrant with blood on his hands, as that of her son. His horrific deeds she might have forgiven, but not his denial that she was his mother. Fidès had retracted her words to save his skin, not hers; one blast of her voice or a swing of her ever-present handbag would have mowed down his debauched followers. Jean, hugging his crown, did not cower in fear but from shame.

The other was of Lynette Tapia as Berthe stringing a lengthy fuse throughout the castle to destroy it and the tyrant who occupied it. She had been told that her beloved was dead, indeed she had been shown his bloody clothes. Jean had chosen her when she was just a poor orphan girl to be his wife, but Oberthal had thwarted those plans. Berthe’s mind, shattered from grief, could not comprehend that Jean lived, and that he was the tyrant she despised. Her transformation from the gentlest of creatures to one whose only salvation was through destruction was harrowing. Tapia’s focus on the fuse was mesmerizing.

Together they account for a few minutes of Meyerbeer’s grand opera, so what about the other three-plus hours of music. In a word, it was pretty terrific, with the stars, planet and moon all aligned for this, the final performance of the run. From Giuliano Carella’s first downbeat, the atmosphere in the house crackled with anticipation, which never abated. The Aalto-Musik Theater had assembled a cast capable of setting their voices on stun, and they did just that.

Nature endowed Tapia and Cornetti with voices at the extremes of the female range – light and lyrical with crystalline high notes versus a dramatic mezzo endowed with a rich, cavernous lower range and a blazing top. In Act I, Tapia was innocence personified; her voice sparkled as she expressed her love for Jean in ‘Mon couer s’élance et palpite’. By the next act, Jean had chosen to save his mother’s life by ceding Berthe to Oberthal, who lusted after the innocent girl. Cornetti lavished her rich voice on Fidès’ great aria, ‘Ah, mon fils’, where she despairs that her son was forced to make such a choice. In Act IV the women are reunited. Fidès has been reduced to begging on the street, and Berthe is intent on killing the king. Tapia and Cornetti voiced their emotions in a duet that displayed their consummate musicianship. They sang as one, tossing off Meyerbeer’s demanding coloratura with ease and building each phrase with fleet dynamic shadings and ever-increasing intensity. It was great singing.

And what of the man who inspired such devotion? John Osborn embodied the Prophet, melting hearts in expressing his love for Berthe with gentle lyricism in ‘Pour Berthe moi je soupire’; and inspiring souls with bravura vocal acrobatics as he rallied the people of Münster. He was undaunted by the role’s stratospheric tessitura, tossing off a sustained, brilliant high D with aplomb. As king, Jean donned a crown and trailing cape, and a castle became his home. It was never a good fit. Honor came only when he lit the fuse that would destroy them all. (A far less grisly fate than that of the actual Jean, whose bones hung in a basket high on the Münster Cathedral’s steeple for 50 years. The baskets are still there.) Throughout, the richness of Osborn’s voice impressed me, never more so than in those final moments when Jean became truly noble.

There are no minor roles in the opera. The three Anabaptists –- tenor Albrecht Kludszuweit, baritone Pierre Doyen and bass Tijl Faveyts –- appear throughout, cynically orchestrating both Jean’s rise to power and his downfall. They were vivid characterizations, especially Faveyts’ Zacherie. With goggles on his face and his lanky frame draped in a long overcoat, Faveyts brought to mind Mad Eve Moody in the Harry Potter tales, albeit with a resonant bass voice. Karel Martin Ludvik’s Oberthal was a privileged lout and a bit of a dandy with a fox stole, dyed blue, draped around his neck, which suited his voice, a fine lyric baritone.

Vincent Boussard’s production was minimalist. The set was a series of revolving silvery gray chambers. Musicians appeared on stage – a solo clarinetist during the brief prelude and brass and percussion during the Coronation Scene – creating visual interest and varying the musical texture. A long trestle table dominated Act II where the Anabaptists celebrated. Brightly colored choristers topped by the children’s choir dressed in stylized clerical garb lent grandeur to the Coronation Scene. Guido Levi’s sophisticated, subtle lighting and projections also added texture and depth. It was understated but effective. The orchestra and choruses were excellent.

At first, the audience was either stunned into silence, or just did not want to break the mood. No one stirred; even Fidès’ great aria, ‘Ah, mon fils!’, did not elicit applause. The stillness was profound but short-lived, with bravos and applause soon punctuating the performance. By the time Osborn appeared for his solo bow during the curtain calls, the entire audience was standing.

Whatever your preconceived notions about Meyerbeer’s operas may be, toss them out the window. They are full of high drama and wonderful music. And if you think that there are no singers around who can do justice to the music, think again. The Aalto-MusikTheater found them for this terrific Le prophète.

Rick Perdian

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