Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Opera review: At Bard SummerScape, a stunning 'Les Huguenots'

Erin Morley as Marguerite de Valois
in Bard SummerScape's production of Les Huguenots.
(Photo by Stephanie Berger)

By Rex Hearn

Every summer for the past 20 years, the private liberal arts school of Bard College, two hours north of New York City near Annandale-on-Hudson, has taken it upon itself to perform operas, choral works, dance and drama, many of them offbeat or seldom performed.

This year's SummerScape festival saw a complete, 4 ½-hour production of Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera Les Huguenots, Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus and a dance program choreographed by Lucinda Childs. The festival's president and artistic director, Leon Bostein, led the 75-piece American Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

One of the most striking things about the campus is the new opera house-concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry. The interior is simple but acoustically effective, and its outer walls -- similar to Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city of Bilbao -- look like children's book illustrations from the 1920s, with shining riveted silver squares shaped into sweeping, sexy curves. These walls are connected to the main building by scaffolding.

And as it turned out, what happened inside was just as compelling. I heard the festival's "million-dollar" production of Les Huguenots on Aug. 7, and I came away impressed by the singing, acting and staging, as well as the artistic courage that was required to present it.

Les Huguenots is a massive opera, and difficult to perform; top-rank artists rarely want to tackle Meyerbeer's tricky scoring for voice. The piece was last given in its entirety at the Metropolitan Opera in 1915, with Enrico Caruso. One can understand why from the very first set of arias in Act I.

Eugene Scribe’s libretto concerns the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, during which French Catholics murdered thousands of Protestant Huguenots. A love interest between Raoul, a Calvinist nobleman, and Valentine, daughter of a prominent Catholic citizen, keeps the plot moving along with a couple of twists.

Meyerbeer, a Jew, knew about religious persecution and was attracted to the story. King Louis XVI later passed the Edict of Toleration in 1787; Meyerbeer's opera dates from 1836 and was given more than 1,000 times at the Paris Opera, a record that has never been surpassed.

Let it be said immediately that Leon Botstein found seven of the best singers around and they performed magnificently. Their voices matched the bel canto requirements perfectly. What you are no doubt wondering is why this opera isn't regularly performed, particularly if the right singers can now be found among today's talent.

I would have to guess that the subject of religious intolerance does not sit well in America, since freedom of worship is part of our Constitution. Also, the massacre at the end of the opera is not exactly a pleasant experience. Further, in this age of immediate gratification, the length and size of Meyerbeer’s grand opera certainly has requires huge cost outlays.

There have been reduced versions of Les Huguenots from time to time, never satisfactory from all accounts. Bard’s SummerScape length was not an issue because this lavish production moved along at an even pace thanks to the brilliance of American director Thaddeus Strassberger and Botstein's lively baton.

The excellent acting of the chorus, whose members have a lot to do, made the crowd scenes interesting. They moved props with precision, sang for all they were worth and had the right measure of enthusiasm. It was refreshing to see such a lively group; I looked forward to their entrances. Kudos to chorus master James Bagwell.

Set designer Eugenio Recuenco devised a series of cubes and a huge square table that was lowered to serve two purposes : the meeting place for ceremonials and a swimming pool for four beautiful synchronized swimmer-dancers clad only in G-strings. (This is a French opera, after all!)

The lighting designer, Aaron Black, gave each scene the right mood; one could see the faces of principals and chorus clearly. Mattie Ullrich’s costumes were practical, but that of Marguerite de Valois, queen of Navarre, was a creation of dazzling magnificence, with silver eagle's wings forming her brassiere.

Tenor Michael Spyres had the lead as Raoul, the Protestant nobleman. He has a gilt-edged flexible voice that met Meyerbeer’s daunting tessitura head-on. Still under 30, his beautiful timbre impressed greatly; European opera houses already know of this American singer's skill. As Count de Nevers, baritone Andrew Schroeder was easy on the ear and a delight to watch. A seasoned and much-recorded artist, his timbre is "chocolate-rich."

Soprano Erin Morley, as Marguerite de Valois, astonished at first sight with her vocal flexibility and bright, bright soprano. She tossed off her difficult runs and roulades with remarkable technique, all the while bearing up with ease and grace in her magnificent costume.

Bass Peter Volpe, in the pivotal role of Marcel, has a voice that is sepulchrally dark, rolling off the stage and into the audience like a blast from a fiery furnace. Alexandra Deshorties as Valentine, the Catholic love interest of Raoul, was superb. Her lovely soprano voice scaled the heights easily; her divided loyalties between lover and family got the emotional treatment worthy of the best Method actors around.

Bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel as Count de Saint-Bris has a ringing timbre and Marie Lenormand’s soprano was winning and effective as the page, Urbain. The comprimario roles were all perfectly cast. Great care in selecting these singers, essential to an opera's success, was clearly evident.

Perhaps the subject matter of what amounts to ethnic cleansing is too uncomfortable for modern audiences to watch, even in grand opera form. They see it too regularly on television: Iraq, Sudan, Sarajevo and so on.

When Meyerbeer wrote this opera in 1836 about a massacre that happened in 1572 , he obviously intended to shock. Little did he realize how prescient his choice of subject would be.

Rex Hearn is the founder of the Berkshire Opera Company, the only professional summer opera company in Massachusetts. He has been reviewing opera in southern Florida since 1995.

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