Deutsche Oper Berlin 2019-20 Review: Le Prophète
Gregory Kunde, Clémentine Margaine, & Elena Tsallagova Shine in Fantastic Rendition of Meyerbeer’s Complex MasterworkBy Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Credit: Deutsche Oper Berlin/Bettina Stöß)
When Giacomo Meyerbeer died on May 2 in 1864 in Paris, he was one of the most performed composers of his time. However, in Berlin, where he was dubbed “the greatest Berlin composer,” Meyerbeer’s operas were seldom performed.
And in the years since his death, his work has never quite managed to find a foothold in the standard repertory, leading to the big question of why had Meyerbeer, so popular in his time, sunk into oblivion so easily and so deeply? That is a multifaceted question that needs a thorough analysis.
Meyerbeer had an almost unbelievable power for adaptation. He was a Roman when he was in Rome; in France he wrote some of his best grand French operas. It is fairly difficult to find any other composer who had so much emotional flexibility and social openness. He influenced Richard Wagner to the degree that he famed master of Bayreuth found difficult to admit. Meanwhile, Hector Berlioz was almost obsessed with his opera “Le prophète.”
But different historical circumstances greatly contributed to this unjust treatment of Meyerbeer’s operas after his death. A German Jew, his works were banned from Germany, after the Nazis rose to power. Additionally, technical requirements linked to the performances of his operas have also made major opera houses reluctant to perform his works.
Meyerbeer was kind of a scapegoat. Post factum and post mortem.
But Meyerbeer is seeing a renaissance of sorts in Berlin’s largest opera house thanks to the efforts of conductor Enrique Mazzola. And Oliver Py’s production of “Le Prophète” makes a major case for the composer’s importance to the standard repertory.
The curtain rises on the first Act, revealing an ordinary house, with few windows and a room with a bed downstairs. As it would become clear later on, this display was just a part of a much more complex revolving, malleable set, which included the inside of a building, and a two-story construction which served both as a restaurant bar and a place for a final development in the fifth Act.
The audience then found itself in a French rural environment, where poverty and dark local lords ruled. There was literally nothing to be happy about there – just tragedy striking everywhere. A few details onstage – such as a modern-looking car – added further misfortune to an already dark opera. Berthe, a young and innocent peasant girl, gets raped in that car by a dark lord Oberthal.
Faced with the dark score, and with the dark libretto of the opera, Py just emphasized what was already there – adding few contemporary elements in order to show how really nothing significantly changes during the course of history.
Thus, the violence is the only omnipresent motive. There are few short respites from all the ugliness that engulfs the stage and the audience with it – Berthe’s opening lovely aria, and the trio in the final Act that provides hope to the three main principals. That is all.
There was another fascinating theme that was explored throughout this production. Philosophical debates about the true nature of evil have been an ongoing thing, but the words of philosopher Hanna Arendt promptly echoed around the Deutsche Oper on February 23: “Evil is banal. Evil is not deeply rooted in some people, circumstances make them do what they do. Human omnipresent weakness has always been in the background of those motives – and people are prone to those deep civilizational excitations that lead only to the basic human values being thrown into a bottomless pit.”
Py explored several additionally important moments. Throughout the course of the opera, a topless male angel with cardboard wings appeared – either descending from the above, suspended from the ceiling by the strings, or simply walking onstage. What could be the nature of that creature? What could he be bringing with him? It was an Angel of Death – denouncing and foretelling the impending catastrophe. In the grand scheme of things, he was just a messenger of death.
Ballet dancers were also involved during the course of the opera – and it was a valuable add-on, as their moves were pretty much aligned with the overall message – gloom and doom. Their appearances in the third Act was prominent during the scene where the young shepherdesses gave food (potatoes) to the hungry and needy peasants. Their moves were gracious, almost acrobatic, seeking to engage the young shepherdesses as well.
The use of blinding electric lights that were pointed towards the audience in the Second Act tended to have a real blinding effect. Coupled with the ominous singing onstage, they sent another wave of frightening ripples across the audience. Too much light is definitely not reminiscent of some pleasant environment, but rather of a prison detention room.
While the principals were dressed in the costumes that could have been aligned with the time when Meyerbeer composed the opera, soldiers had modern trench coats and machine guns, making thus two timelines colliding onstage. However, this collision did not seem unnatural or redundant.
It is the impression that Olivier Py managed to fulfill his task successfully. All the things taken into account, it was a rather conservative staging, with only a few add-ons that seemed to deviate from the historical timeline – but it was the impression that they sent additional messages hidden in Meyerbeer’s dark score.
The Sounds of a Man in Love
Famed tenor Gregory Kunde portrayed the character of Jean de Leyde, an ordinary man turned into a prophet. He was led to believe that he had a divine mission, and totally surrendered himself to those motives. Based on the historical character of John of Leiden, de Leyde was a main pillar holding the heavy structure of Meyerbeer’s opera.
Kunde had no easy shoes to fill; but the tenor proved completely up to the task, both vocally and dramatically.
With his opening lines in the Second Act “Le jour baisse et ma mère,” Kunde provided an initial insight into the vast boundaries of his range. During those lines, he penetrated the ominous singing by the three anabaptists (“Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”) and began a beautiful aria. He unleashed shining and impeccable top notes during “Avec ma fiancée Bertha, mon seul amour, Bertha, mon seul amour,” gaining strength line after line, and finally allowing his tenor to resonate, like a mild earthquake, with the final “Bertha, mon seul amour.”
His face revealed true joy and happiness at that time. An ordinary man singing about his love – what could possibly sound better? He came back for more with “J’attends ma mère avec ma fiancée” which transitioned into “Sous les vastes arceaux d’un temple magnifique.” He ended with truly majestical highs on “Qu’il soit maudit, maudit, maudit!”
With a firm voice, beautifully phrased lines and a clear resounding passion throughout the famed “Pour Bertha, moi je soupire, Je ne veux pas d’autre empire!” He radiated gorgeous legato singing in “le plus beau royaume, ne vaut pas ce toit de chaume,” his passion unabated, there was no weak spot whatsoever. He finally fired bountiful top notes on “Ah! Viens mes amour,” totally penetrating the anabaptists’ sound. And that was the last resistance he was able to muster before totally falling under their full influence.
Kunde managed to successfully balance between bel canto lines and much more dramatic tone. In a subsequent duet with Berthe (“Ah! Berthe! Ma bien aimée) he showcased more of the beautiful phrasing and sensuality, while holding a steady, firm vocal line. The duo morphs into a fast and ultra-dynamic trio with the arrival of Count Oberthal, where the audience had the opportunity to hear a softer de Leyde (“Ma mère! Ah! Grace!”), before responding with greater intensity and power on “Ah! vat’en vat’en! Tu le vois… il le faut! Vat’en!”
The Sounds of a Deluded Man
At the end of the second Act, he finally fell under the anabaptists’ total influence. With the three sinister figures in the background slowly singing their ominous prayer “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” Jean finally cracked under the pressure. He wanted to destroy his enemy Count Oberthal.
Kunde presented a fine dramatic shift, and finally was ready to take on the new path – as a Prophet. Uttering “Dieu qui m’entend! Dieu qui me les envoie,” Kunde was not just a singer, but also a vocal storyteller. The final quartet in the second Act (“Oui, c’est Dieu qui t’appelle”) saw his final transformation and at that point, his fall had begun. Kunde nicely colored his sound in the quartet with more vocal strength while simultaneously gaining the look of man under the firm pseudo-religious spell.
Then, his soul tried to make a comeback – Jean remembered his mother, and while singing “Que je veux voir ma mère, ma mère chérie,” there was audible nostalgia and sorrow. It was obvious that his conscience was taking him back, but to no avail. The grand scheme of sinister things was set in motion, even as he just tried to penetrate through the thick clouds of evil that destiny that was set for him.
His subsequent duet with Oberthal, “Le ciel à moi te livre” turned into a deeply emotional encounter of two mortal enemies. Believing his beloved Berthe dead, Kunde’s voice emitted despair. As he sang “Remparts, que ma pitié n’o-sait réduire encendre, Vous, qui ma cachez Berthe, il faudra me la rendre!” there was a visible tenderness in his voice. Love was again penetrating through thick clouds of misery.
During “Qui Vous a, sans mon ordre, entraînésaux combats,” there was no doubt that Kunde’s voice was in a terrific shape and that he was easily shifting between different feelings and emotional outlooks. He masterfully adapted his sound to more frightening display while being a prophet; short periods of respite saw more gentleness. Addressing the soldiers in the camp, he called them his children(“Vous étiez mes enfants”) before quickly turning angry, telling them they were ungrateful (“Peuple ingrat, peuple ingrat”) and ordered them to get on their knees as his voice gained steam with every line.
And then it happened – final lines of his aria saw his voice exploding in a masterful and utterly impressive manner. On the final “vengeur” of “à genoux, à genoux, à genoux, sous son bras vengeur” – Kunde unleashed the full intensity of his voice. During the prayer “Diex puissant! Dieu! Sauveur, qui vois notre faiblesse, Dieu!” Kunde sounded hopeful, but still with the strong and declarative sound.
The Sounds of a Conflicted Soul
De Leyde’s coronation scene in the Fourth Act was not just a crown for himself as a prophet, but also a symbolic crown for mass obsessions, cultish delusions, and toxic states of mind. De Leyde was only a messenger; his almost godly status served only the one purpose: to drag everyone into a hole without return. And so it was.
His mother sees him, and utters the words: ‘Mon fils.” But Jean responds with “Je suis le fils de Dieu!” At moments his conscience tries to penetrate the ominous shield of the obsession he has fallen into, but in the end he succumbs to it and pretends not to recognize his mother. Painful grimace took over Kunde’s face in these moments, exploring the conflicted nature of the character. “Quelle est cette femme? Quelle” was uttered words softly, gently, as if guilt was overcoming him for a brief moment.
During the final Act duet between De Leyde and his mother, Kunde dealthl with the avalanche of conflicting emotions, by balancing his singing between a very thin thread of sound to retain vocal firmness and dramatic expressiveness. He retained this delicacy during the ensuing trio with his mother and Berthe.
During the ensuing scene, he sang “Versez, que tout respire l’ivresse et nous délire” while climbing some stairs and sing those final lines in a semi-toxic, semi-erotic environment, sustaining the same vocal line as a crescendo was nearing.
Meyerbeer’s original score asked for a big explosion, where Jean and his mother got united for one final moment as everybody else was annihilated in a giant fire.
But that was not the end in the Py’s vision. De Leyde committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Oberthal appeared and stood on his gravestone. In the end, evil could never be defeated.
In all, Gregory Kunde provided a masterful account of a man falling into a trap – a trap from which redemption is impossible.
The Sound of Unhappy Motherhood
French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine portrayed the role of Fidès. Margaine has a large voice with a huge lower register that sounds majestical.
In the role of de Leyde’s mother, Margaine also had no easy task as the character is at the core of the work’s most depressing moments.
Margaine’s first appearance was in the First Act, during duet with Berthe – “Fidès, ma bon mère.” Her first lines were dispatched gently and softly.
While singing “Tu m’attendais? Et Jean, mon fils, attend plus ardemment encore sa fiancée,” she colored her plummy mezzo with utter softness.
During the ensuing recitative, during which Fidès noices the three anabaptists for the first time, Margaine’s singing took on a more worried complexion on “On dit que du Trèssont ces hommes noirs aux figures sinistres?”
In a first duet with Berthe, she expressed her deepest hopes that her son did not cross the line to the dark side, and that she would save his beloved Berthe from the hands of Oberthal during the Romance “Oui! Jean la sauva! Jean le protégea!” Here, her voice retained its softness, but there was increasing unease creeping into the color.
Fidès aria in the second Act “Ah! Mon fils! Sois béni” was yet another attempt by her to bless her son and console him at the same time. She colored her voice with a set of different emotions while her dramatical expressions shifted between need and concern.
During the fourth Act aria “Donnez! Donnez pour une pauvre âme, ouvrez lui le paradis, le paradis,” Margaine highlighted her deep and beautiful vocalism coupled with deep dramatical grief onstage. Her sound easily overpowered the orchestration, radiating deep grief and despair.
During Fidès’ famous aria “Ô prêtres de Baal” Margaine spotlighted her character’s initial willingness to forgive her son’s wrongdoings, while simultaneously inviting death to come to her as means to end her suffering. Then, in her ensuing duet with Jean (“Mon fils! Je n’en ai plus!, the mezzo gave clear clues about her final despair and the condemnation of her own son. It was another deeply emotional account of a defeated mother both in torment and possibly faint hope that the change was still possible.
Ultimately, Margaine proved to be a fantastic Fidès, with rich range of emotions, clearly tilted toward sorrow, and her vocalism shone brightly at all times.
The Sound of Love
Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova appeared in the role of Berthe, a young girl that was in love with Jean de Leyde.
Tsallagova is a lyric soprano with impeccable coloraturas and a powerful voice that makes it seem as if every high note ascent is a light exercise for her. This was most evident during the opening aria.
However, aria slowly took a dark turn as Oberthal appeared. While still singing – with bountiful high notes on “s’élance et palpite,” she found herself cleaning Oberthal’s shoes. A vasal to the dark lord, she had to be obedient.
The Russian soprano showcased more of her superior vocalism in a subsequent duet with Fidès, as the first cracks in her joyful mood started to appear – she had to get the consent of Oberthal in order to marry.
Tsallagova also shone both vocally and dramatically during the scene with Jean and Fidès (“Voici le souterrain! Et la dalle de le pierre!”), where she finally found out that her beloved Jean and Le prophète are the same person – at that moment her strong high voice literally exploded, washing the audience in her sound. It was a striking moment.
In the final trio, “Loin de la ville” we heard that nostalgia for the innocence of the opera’s opening moments.
Sounds of Evil
With the dark and a complex score and libretto, it was no wonder that evil was literally everywhere.
Oberthal was sung and played by the bass-baritone Seth Carico, who displayed his deep baritonal voice. The duet “Le Comte d’Oberthal, le seigneur châtelain” was a particular high point for him as he relished in showing off his dark nature.
In the third Act he tried to spy on anabaptists, but was caught. That resulted in the trio bouffe “Sous votre bannière que faudra-t-il faire,” with Jonas and Zacharie. The three singers then engaged in an amusing, but still ominous trio within a much larger picture of overwhelming misery.
The three anabaptists, Zacharie, Jonas and Mathisen were sung and played by Derek Welton, Gideon Poppe and Thomas Lehman. With their constant preaching mainly in the form of “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” they struck the darkish tone from the very beginning. They were the main impetus driving de Leyde into the belief that he was the chosen one, the Prophet, the Son of God. Still at the end they were proven as clear hypocrites – first by receiving money from Oberthal to betray de Leyde, and then engaging in an orgy near the end of an opera. Their preachings were, however, just empty words. All three singers – Welton, Poppe and Lehman showcased rich timbres and quite beautiful voices, and that sound truly cohesive.
The Deutsche Oper orchestra was literally on fire with Enrique Mazzola, Principal Chief conductor, at the helm. Mazzola started reviving Meyerbeer’s operas for the Deutsche Oper audiences five years ago, starting with “Dinorah” in 2014, and it was quite clear that his understanding of Meyerbeer’s music is quite extensive. His approach to the score is impressive, and he led the performance with authoritative hand. Overall, the sound from the pit was fantastic, without any noticeable lapses between the pit and the stage. It was very clear that Mazzola did very thorough rehearsals with the singers.
In sum, the Deutsche Oper Berlin has successfully revived “Le Prophète” in an excellent production with the principal cast members delivering unforgettable performances.