Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > The Huguenots (Meyerbeer)
(French title: Les Huguenots)
An Opera by Jakob Meyerbeer
This opera was first produced at the Académie, Paris, on February 29, 1836. The libretto, by Scribe and Deschamp, deals with the variances between the Huguenots and Catholics, with a love-story interwoven.
The year is 1752. Raoul de Nangis is the leader of the Huguenots, while Count de St. Bris heads the Catholics. Marguerite de Valois desires to reconcile these factions, and to that end devises a scheme to bring about a marriage between Raoul and Valentine, the daughter of St. Bris. This she would have accomplished but for the fact that Raoul remembers seeing his betrothed in the house of the Count de Nevers under circumstances which would wound his sense of honour did he further thrust his attentions on Valentine. Therefore he determines to have no more to do with the matter.
But Raouls hatred of St. Bris is aggravated, and, seeing Valentine led to her marriage ceremony by Nevers, he challenges St. Bris to combat. St Bris, in his turn, plans the murder of Raoul, which is prevented by Valentine, who all the time has never wavered in her love for Raoul, but has been forced into this marriage. When Raoul learns this, his grief knows no bounds. He visits Valentino to bid her a final adieu, but is interrupted by St. Bris, Nevers, and their followers. Valentine succeeds in secreting Raoul, and from his place of hiding he overhears the notorious plot of Catherine de Medicis for the massacre of the Huguenots on the Eve of St. Bartholomew. Raoul is afterwards entreated by Valentine not to risk his life on the occasion. But honour prevails, and he departs to warn his comrades and prepare for the impeding danger.
Berlioz called "The Huguenots" a musical encyclopaedia with material enough for twenty ordinary operas. It has been likened to a cathedral; it has been called "an evangel of religion and love." It has been said to be "the most vivid chapter of French history ever penned." Wagner declaimed against its blatant theatricalism. Schumann declared that the music was fit only for a circus!
Quite recently the opera has had a distinguished defender in M. Saint-Saëns, the composer of "Samson and Delilah." It has been revived at the new Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in 1909, and certain superior critics had their fling at it. Whereupon its cause was warmly championed by M. Arthur Pougin, one of the leaders of musical criticism in Paris. It was to signify his cordial approval of M. Pougins championing of Meyerbeer that M. Saint-Saëns wrote. In his letter, addressed to M. Pougin, he says: "You have very properly praised the three last Acts, full of nobility in style, powerfully and pathetically inspired. It is certain that with the opening of the third Act the work suggests the rising flight of a bird. But is this bird so contemptible as you seem to think whilst it is still strutting on the ground, pluming itself and flapping its wings?" In this last sentence the reference is to Marcels Huguenot war-song and to Queen Marquerites aria.
Saint-Saëns goes on to show that these are masterpieces of their kind. Such songs are no longer fashionable in opera; but, to pass sober judgment on a work of art, it must be examined in the light of the epoch in which it was created, and not solely in that of our own day. Of the scene in which Marguerite first appears, Meyerbeer made a "Court of Love." From the first notes of the introduction -- initiated by the violencellos, taken up by the flute -- we are enveloped in an atmosphere of feminine charm; and when the delightful phrase, "O beau pays de la Touraine," unfolds itself, accompanied by the harps, one is transported into a world of amorous elegance unknown elsewhere.
After all this, one feels courageous enough to venture the statement that a Meyerbeer redivivus would easily adapt himself to the circumstances and conventions of to-day, and quickly eclipse his modern professional detractors. Meyerberrs genius for opera is clearly evident not only in "The Huguenots," but in "Le Prophète," "LAfricaine," and "Dinorah"; which are its inferiors only because they illustrate subjects much less fascinating intrinsically, neither steeped in the glamour of Marquerite de Valois brilliant Court, nor revolving round so impressive an historical event as the massacre of St. Bartholomew.