Opéra en 5 actes
Composer: Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864)
Libretto: Eugène Scribe & Émile Deschamps
First performance : Paris Opera, 29 February 1836
SETTING: Touraine and Paris, August 1572
PLOT: Raoul de Nangis, a young Huguenot, has fallen in love with an unknown beauty whom he rescued. At the Comte de Nevers’ château, he sees the woman visit Nevers in secret. She is really Valentine, daughter of the Comte de Saint-Bris, sent by Marguerite de Valois (1553–1615), sister of Charles IX and daughter of Catherine de Médicis, to break off her engagement to Nevers. To reconcile the warring religious factions, Marguerite wants Valentine to marry Raoul, just as she will marry the Protestant monarch Henri de Navarre. However, Raoul refuses to marry Valentine, whom he believes is Nevers’s mistress. Back in Paris, Nevers marries Valentine. (Saint-Bris has tried to murder Admiral Coligny, the leader of the Huguenot party.) To avenge the insult to his house, Saint-Bris plans to murder Raoul in a duel, but Raoul’s servant Marcel, warned by Valentine, saves him. Raoul learns the real reason for Valentine’s visit to Nevers, and that he wronged her. He visits Nevers’ Parisian town-house in secret, where he overhears the Catholics plot to murder the Huguenots – a plot conceived by Catherine de Médicis herself. After they have left, Valentine tries to restrain Raoul: ‘Stay! I love you.’ They sing a passionate love duet, but the noise of the tocsin outside brings him to his senses, and he leaves to fight with his co-religionists. The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s day has begun. In the streets of Paris, Valentine tells Raoul that if he converts to Catholicism, his life will be saved; Raoul refuses. Valentine renounces her faith, and accepts Raoul’s; Marcel marries them. The Catholics shoot the three; Saint-Bris learns that he has murdered his own daughter. The murderers sing that God demands blood, as the powerless Marguerite passes over the stage. Beginning on 23–24 August 1572, between 5,000 and 30,000 were killed across France over the next few weeks.
‘Les Huguenots’ is an astonishing opera. It starts almost light-heartedly, close to opéra-comique or Rossini, and ends in blackest tragedy, with music anticipating Verdi.
It was the most popular opera of the 19th century, performed around the world, and was the first work to be performed at the Paris Opéra more than a thousand times (1906). Verdi called Acts II and IV ‘true theatre … stupendo’, while Berlioz thought the ‘superb’ opera contained ‘enough musical riches for twenty operas’. Even the young Wagner was impressed: ‘Meyerbeer wrote world history, the history of heart and feeling; he burst the bounds of national prejudice in writing deeds of music.’
No. 7 – Entr'acte & Air: ‘O beau pays de la Touraine’
In her gardens of her castle in Touraine, Marguerite de Valois, the King of France’s sister, contemplates the beauties of the countryside, free from religious strife.
Marguerite de Valois, reine de Navarre / Queen of Navarre (soprano): Joan Sutherland
Dame d’Honneur 1 : Kiri Te Kanawa
Dame d’Honneur 2 : Josephte Clement
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Conductor : Richard Bonynge
New Philharmonia Orchestra