By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — Giocomo Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète can stretch any modern opera company’s resources to the limit. The five-act work includes a ballet for skaters, vocal writing that combines bel canto flexibility with Wagnerian power, and a religiously charged storyline about the Anabaptist movement in 16th-century Europe.
A new production by French director Olivier Py at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which is concluding a Meyerbeer cycle here that began in 2014, makes a strong case for performing the opera more often, even if certain musical and theatrical aspects fall short of the composer’s elaborate demands.
The operas of Meyerbeer have struggled to stay in repertory for at least a century, particularly in Germany, where the mythic landscapes of Wagner have traditionally been considered more suited to updated stagings than historic realism. Berlin last saw a major if brief revival of the composer’s works in 1910, although the Deutsche Oper in 1966 mounted a notable production of Le Prophète featuring tenor James McCracken as the title character, Jean de Leyde, and mezzo-soprano Sandra Warfield as his mother, Fidès — the same performers who appeared in the opera at the Met 11 years later.
For its new production, seen at the Nov. 26 premiere, the Deutsche Oper has assembled a strong cast in which both tenor Gregory Kunde and mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine make role debuts. Py’s staging strikes a convincing balance between the specific and the abstract by placing the action in a modern city which, while often resembling Paris, could also be New York or Berlin. Drab, gray concrete buildings create a powerful contrast with the pastoral opening chorus of the peasants — here a working-class urban population — underscoring their alienation and unfulfilled hopes.
The Anabaptist revolt, which led to the crowning of Jean de Leyde (or Jan van Leyden, originally from the Netherlands) as the king of Münster, Germany, in 1534-5, has sometimes been compared to a communist movement because of its call for the poor to share in the city’s wealth. In the libretto by Eugène Scribe, Jean — torn between the love for his mother, whom he must renounce to fulfill his role as prophet, and the Anabaptist cause — blows up the palace of Münster just after the enemy has entered in the final scene.
Py presents Count Oberthal, who abducts Jean’s fiancée, Berthe, and prevents their marriage, not just as an entitled nobleman but also as a rapist who slams her against his Mercedes in the first act. If the interpretation of the story heightens the tension between the classes and underscores his brutality, the theme is drawn out ad nauseam.
The director, who does his own choreography, even has a pas de deux implying sexual violence in the Act Three dance sequence. While it is encouraging that the music was not cut altogether, the interlude that evolves from a waltz to a gallop ultimately includes more mime than dance, with battling soldiers and a writhing extra in a white slip shown repeatedly on a revolving stage platform.
The final two acts, which include some of Meyerbeer’s best music, are more convincing. In the Coronation Scene, crippled onlookers rise from their wheelchairs and dance their way offstage. Py’s dark irony is, indeed, an asset throughout the production. The trio of Anabaptists (Jonas, Mathisen, and Zacharie) who defect from the cause cross their hearts with cash from Oberthal and, for the final scene in the palace of Münster, reappear in the midst of an orgy.
In an ambiguous twist to the original plot, Jean shoots himself in the head while the red-lit scene of nude bodies sinks below the stage and Fidès is left weeping. Ultimately, it is only she and Berthe who have any claim to moral standards.
The most important interpersonal relationship of the opera lies not between lovers but between mother and son. In a role that is surely one of the most challenging in the history of mezzo-soprano repertoire, Margaine’s performance is a tour de force, bringing a rich, smoky timbre but also flexible runs to the Act Five arias in which she beseeches Jean to reconsider his faith in the Anabaptists.
Kunde captures the ambivalence of the weak hero but struggles vocally, his spinto voice rising more easily to bel canto ornamentation than blooming, heroic passages where his sound was at times pinched. The young soprano and Deutsche Oper ensemble member Elena Tsallagova brings a bell-like sound and gracious presence to the role of Berthe, but her occasionally imprecise intonation marred otherwise moving duets with Fidès, such as the Act-Four “Pour garder à ton fils le serment qui m’engage…”
The Deutsche Oper further draws upon its roster of talented young singers with bass-baritone Seth Carico as a vocally imposing, convincingly snooty Oberthal, and Derek Welton, Andrew Dickinson, and Noel Bouley, who strike a homogeneous blend as the trio of Anabaptists. The house chorus (director: Jeremy Bines) sings with sinuous phrasing and beautifully authentic articulation together with the orchestra under Enrique Mazzola, who has cultivated the transparent string textures, chiseled woodwinds, and vibrant rhythms that the score demands. A veritable triumph for the Berlin house.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional reception of Kurt Weill.