It’s 1990 and Dame Joan Sutherland is retiring. Australian Opera decide to stage Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots as a farewell gala. In some ways it’s an odd choice as the Sutherland character, Marguerite de Valois, only appears in two of the five acts of an opera that’s rather long despite cuts. Still, as a vehicle for an ageing coloratura it’s not a bad choice. The production is by Lotfi Mansouri so there is nothing to get in the way of the plot and, by the same token, nothing much to think about. It’s also, equally characteristically, quite dark in places. Everything then rests on the performances.
Before we get to the performances it’s probably worth a paragraph or two to describe the opera which was a staple of the French 19th century repertoire but is rarely seen today. It’s set in 1572; immediately before and during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Grafted onto the pseudo-history is a love triangle involving the Catholic Valentine de St. Bris and her Protestant lover Raoul de Nangis. The queen organises a marriage between the two to seal peace between the factons. Raoul angrily rejects this believing, for reasons that are entirely unclear, that Valentine is the mistress of Le Comte de Nevers. In doing so he incurs the enmity of both Nevers and Valentine’s father, Le Comte de St. Bris. Eventually Valentine marries Nevers but he is murdered by the Catholics for being lukewarm about the murder plot and Valentine and Raoul are married by Raoul’s faithful retainer Marcel just before the Catholics burst in and kill everybody. St. Bris realises he has killed his own daughter. Curtain.
Along the way we get some really incongruous bits. Marcel, a doughty old Calvinist warrior, is much given to singing his lines to the tune of Ein fester Burg (Lutheran, Schmutheran; one for Dodgy Theology Night at the Opera there – not to mention the time travel involved). Much of the music is incongruously pretty, as well as technically very difficult and Meyerbeer accommodates the mandatory ballet by staging a mob scene in which Catholics and Protestants are threatening to tear each other apart until interrupted by a crowd of dancing Gypsies. Mercifully this doesn’t go on too long and has been, I suspect, heavily cut. It’s really easy to see what made this work so popular and why it went out of fashion.
The singing is very good indeed. The acting less so. The standouts are the lady herself, of course, who manages the very difficult coloratura runs with perfect precision and great beauty. It is all a bit robotic though, with the occasional campy bit. Did Sutherland ever sing Olympia? She would have been perfect. Clifford Grant is also excellent as the old soldier Marcel. He’s a solid bass and at times he actually acts which makes him rather a rarity in this production. Suzanne Johnston sings the page Urbain and takes the over acting prize. If there was an Olympic eyebrow raising event she’d take gold. Again though, good singing. The remaining four leads; Anson Austin as Raoul, Amanda Thane as Valentine, John Wegner as St. Bris and John Pringle as Nevers all do what the production seems to call for; sing beautifully while adopting a classic pose. Richard Bonynge, of course, conducts in his usual manner.
Video direction is by Virginia Lumsden. It’s straightforward TV style direction of the era for the most part though she indulges in rather too many fades and superpositions in Acts 3 and 4. She might also have cut some of the rather excessive applause. There are times when it sounds like a wet T shirt competition in Brisbane. The disk is barebones and barely adequate. It’s a 4:3 TV standard picture and is flickery in the darker scenes. Sound is just about OK Dolby 2.0. There are hard coded English subtitles and minimal documentation. It’s the DVD equivalent of an early mono LP era sound recording.
If one wants a video recording of this work though this is really the only game in town. The sole competition is a 1991 Berlin production sung in German.