Giacomo Meyerbeer was the most popular opera composer of the 19th century. Les Huguenots (premiered at the Paris Opera in 1836) was his most popular opera. It was performed 125 times by the Metropolitan Opera over a span of 29 years. The last of these was in 1915. After that silence. The opera’s pivotal tenor role was sung 43 times at the Met by the legendary Polish artist Jean de Reszke. The equally legendary Enrico Caruso performed the role 13 times with the same company. Huguenots was the first opera to be staged 1000 times at the Paris Opera.
So what happened? Well, tastes change. But the explanation goes beyond fashion. It’s really Wagner and Verdi that did in Meyerbeer. The former wrote virulent antisemitic prose demeaning Meyerbeer based on ethnic, musical, and personal spite. These attacks are so low that they will forever tarnish Wagner’s genuine artistic achievements. But Wagner’s position among the intellectual elites of the turn of the 20th century was so great that his disapprobrium mattered. Verdi diminished Meyerbeer just by being Verdi; ie, he wrote so much great music (much of it in forms originated by Meyerbeer) that his flood of genius overwhelmed Meyerbeer’s real but lesser accomplishments.
The Met and other great houses should seriously consider returning to Meyerbeer’s operas. They are much better than some of the second rate stuff by great composers that they’ve been inflicting on their aging patrons. As I write London’s Royal Opera House is performing Meyerbeer’s first successful grand opera Robert le Diable.
Back to Les Huguenots. It’s famous for its fourth act, especially the passionate love duet that concludes the act. In the first act Raoul, the tenor, describes his first meeting with Valentine (soprano) which transpired before the opera’s start – ‘Plus blanche que la Blanche hermine’. The aria which is declamatory in style demands both subtlety and power from the tenor. Adolphe Nourrit the famous French tenor who was the first Raoul doubtless sang the aria and the entire role differently from anyone in the recording age. His delicacy and intimate feeling was made obsolete by the Italian manner of singing introduced to Paris by Gilbert Duprez – he of the high C from the chest. When Duprez visited Rossini he was allowed in provided he left his high C downstairs. Thus even the most sensitive tenor likely delivers the aria in a more robust fashion than as in the original performances of the opera. Regardless, the aria is extraordinarily difficult with its runs at the end and it’s forceful high notes
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) had Raoul as a regular part of his repertoire. He starts the aria with delicate phrasing but finishes it with the clarion high notes he was famous for. He sings the role in Italian as was typical a century ago. Bianca al par di neve Alpina.
Fernando de Lucia (1860-1925) sang mainly verismo roles. Today he is best remembered as the exemplar of the pre-Caruso style of more delicate singing. His style was less forceful than his fellow Neapolitan but it was so because his vocal limitations required this type of singing. He also sings the aria in Italian. Bianca al par
Leo Slezak (1973-1946) had a lustrous tenor that could handle just about anything. Even though singing the number in German he achieves the right sound needed. His ability to seamlessly blend his vocal registers is unsurpassed. Plus blanche que la blanche hermine’ (in German)
George Thill (1897-1984) was the quintessential French tenor. His sound may not have the sheen of some of the other tenors ptresented here, but he has the French diction and style to perfection.Plus blanche
Franco Corelli (1921-2003) sings for himself. He starts out softly but has so much voice that he overawes the listener. When you’ve got as much sound as he had you’d best use it all. All things considered at least a voice and a half. Biana al par
Nicolai Gedda (born 1925) had just about everything you could want for this part – beautiful sound, perfect French, and ringing high notes. He recorded the whole opera so you can hear his complete interpretation of Raoul. Plus blanche que la blanche hermine
Probably the best tenor currently available for Raoul is the American Michael Spyres. He has yet to sing at the Met for reasons opaque to me. If the recording below sounds like he’s singing in the shower it’s because it was made by a member of the audience – perhaps with a cell phone. The opera was performed at the Bard music Festival in 2009. Spyres has been scoring success after success usually in rarely perormed operas. An appearance at New York’s big house seems overdue. Plus Blanche
In summary, I think that it’s time to revisit Meyerbeer’s operas. The argument that they’re hard to cast seems thin. Les Huguenots is no harder to cast than Don Carlo. I’m not saying that it’s as good, but that it’s better than many of the alternatives.
I like these two very, very much. But L’Africaine is my favorite Meyerbeer. In a lighter vein, Dinorah is very enjoyable. Hopefully more of his operas will surface.