Germany Meyerbeer, Le Prophète: Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Enrique Mazzola (conductor), Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 16.12.2017. (JMI)
Jean de Leyde – Gregory Kunde
Fidès – Clémentine Margaine
Berthe – Elena Tsallagova
Zacharie – Derek Welton
Jonas – Gideon Poppe
Mathisen – Noel Bouley
Oberthal – Seth Carico
Director – Olivier Py
Sets and Costumes – Pierre-André Weitz
Lighting – Bertrand Killy
Choreography – Olivier Py
Berlin’s Deutsche Oper has continued their rediscovery of Meyerbeer’s operas with a new production of Le Prophète. Two years ago, they staged Vasco da Gama (or L’Africaine review click here), and last year it was Les Huguenots (review click here). On all three occasions the casts have been outstanding: it will suffice to recall the presence of Roberto Alagna and Juan Diego Flórez in the two previous years. One hopes the Deutsche Oper will keep going with this program – Meyerbeer has been generally, and unjustly, forgotten in the last 50 years.
Le Prophète, which had its premiere in Paris in 1849, is one of Meyerbeer’s late works; only L’Etoile du nord, Dinorah and the posthumous L’Africaine were to follow. The Prophet was a great success at its premiere and in the following years, and was performed frequently in major opera houses around the world. Unfortunately, from the 1950s on there have been few opportunities to see his operas. Le Prophète was most recently performed at Toulouse’s Capitole, where it closed the 2016-2017 season, and was staged earlier in Essen and Karlsruhe.
This is one of the operas that best represents the genre of nineteenth-century French Grand Opera, and both musically and vocally it deserves to be better known. The drawback is that it requires a trio of singers at a very high level, and that was fully achieved here.
The Deutsche Oper has commissioned a new production by Olivier Py, whose designs are somewhat iconoclastic. He brings the action to modern times, a transposition that adds nothing since the plot does not fit particularly well with today’s world. The direction is good, with enough movement on stage to help lighten the long duration of the opera. Py’s work in general was sound, and even attractive in some parts of the opera, although there were excesses, particularly in the famous Act III Ballet of the Skaters and in the final scene. The ballet seems to be conceived to highlight the problems of war in relation to violence and sexual abuse; and the last scene presents at the back a series of nude figures dedicated to the pleasures of sex. This adds nothing and only distracts one from what really matters, which is the final outcome of the opera.
The stage features side walls that represent two buildings, while the centre and the back have rotating elements which sometimes move too much. The sets were most effective in the first and final acts. Act I shows the apartments of Berthe and Fidès on one side and the tavern run by Jean on the other. The Cathedral of Münster in Act IV also works well. The least convincing was the third act, especially the development of the ballet where the rotating stage looked like a merry-go-round.
Overall, it was an interesting production with some good moments, but was harmed by gratuitous excesses that only served to provoke the anger of some in the audience.
The musical direction for these Meyerbeer revivals has always been entrusted to Enrique Mazzola. One can feel Mazzola’s love for Meyerbeer’s music, and the result of his reading was excellent: I think the audience enjoyed it all as much as he did himself. The Meyerbeer-Mazzola pairing is magnificent, and one hopes that it will continue for years to come. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra was superb, well above the previous day in Le nozze di Figaro. The chorus also gave a brilliant performance in what is a very demanding work.
As I mentioned, this opera needs three great singers to do justice to the work: the vocal challenges and the length of the score are exceptional. Berlin had them, as they did for the earlier Meyerbeer stagings, and this performance became a real festival of singing.
The role of the protagonist, Jean de Leyde, was sung by Gregory Kunde, and it is difficult to think of a better performer, especially in vocal terms. It had originally been announced that Dmitry Korchak would sing the part; he’s possibly the best Don Ottavio nowadays and a great Rossini tenor, but those parts are far from the vocal demands of Jean de Leyde. Kunde’s tenor is well suited to this character and his performance was very bright, particularly in the last three acts of the opera where he has the most to sing. It’s hard to think of a better Jean de Leyde today than Gregory Kunde.
Mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine’s interpretation of the difficult character of Fidès, the mother of the false prophet, was extraordinary. Her score is very difficult and makes demands of a mezzo. I’ve had occasion in the past to see Clémentine Margaine in this house and always found her to be an interesting singer, but this time she outdid herself. I’m not exaggerating when I say she has entered the category of authentic opera star.
Soprano Elena Tsallagova was a magnificent interpreter of Berthe, Jean’s fiancée. Her voice is ample and attractive, and it effortlessly reaches all the corners of any opera house. She is also a remarkable singer and an outstanding performer. In short, she was a great Berthe from start to finish.
The other characters are less important vocally, but all were well covered. Among them I would highlight the three Anabaptists: Zacharie, Jonas and Mathisen, played by Derek Welton, Gideon Poppe and Noel Bouley. All three were remarkable, especially bass baritone Derek Welton. Seth Carico as Count Oberthal was correct in the role.
José M. Irurzun