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June 15, 2011 6:04 pm

Les Huguenots, La Monnaie, Brussels

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La Monnaie
 Marlis Petersen plays Marguérite de Valois

Meyerbeer’s grand French operas were very much creatures of their time, bloated extravaganzas that needed the considerable resources of the Paris Opera to work. If they are so rarely performed today, it has nothing to do with a cabal manoeuvring behind the scenes as so many of his fans claim, but because they are too demanding and overlong.

But even second-rate composers deserve a hearing. La Monnaie, which is ambitiously fielding two casts for a long run, has a good stab at an operatic monument dealing with religious strife. Marc Minkowski’s conducting alternates tub-thumping enthusiasm and exquisite finesse, milking the score for its innovative touches. The chorus is on resounding form and most of the first-night principals manage to paper over the work’s considerable weaknesses.

Eric Cutler’s outstanding Raoul de Nangis is heroic yet supple, tiny tot Julia Lezhneva’s sparkling Urbain quickly becomes an audience favourite and Marlis Petersen (Marguérite de Valois) flutters prettily in one of the most inconsequential roles ever written for the stage. Jean-François Lapointe is an eloquent Nevers but Mireille Delunsch, a strong stage presence, struggles with Valentine’s line and Jérôme Varnier’s grinding timbre in the pivotal role of Marcel, the pious Huguenot, hardly facilitates conversion to the cause.

Olivier Py’s Black Mass staging plays second fiddle to Pierre-André Weitz’s sliding Renaissance facades. The costumes inevitably mix eras: Urbain the page is a bellboy, the Catholics wear ruffs and breast plates while the Huguenots are top-hatted 19th-century bankers carrying Kalashnikovs.

Py has his moments but yet again relies on the bargain basement provocation of gratuitously topless women and bare-chested men. And his handling of the singers sometimes beggars belief: Raoul goes to meet Valentine by climbing on to the long dining table instead of walking round it, and by Act IV the Catholic conspirators are all desperate to parade on it.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre itself is strong theatre but comes with the wearying cliché of second world war deportees carrying suitcases. A novice director would be booed for less. 

 

La Monnaie

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