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Subject: november 2016 berlin huguenots
From: Mike Leone <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Mike Leone <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 9 Feb 2017 22:19:02 +0000
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Hello all--
A Meyerbeer fanatic who always has me looking for recordings and broadcasts of his operas gave me the impression that none of these November 2016 Berlin Huguenots performances were broadcast.  (He never has to put much pressure on me to seek out recordings of Les Huguenots which is one of my favorite operas, one I have loved ever since I came a few years late to the Decca/London recording.  Among French operas, I probably love it even more than Esclarmonde, just to give an example I have recently discussed on this forum.)  However, despite what my friend said, the recording that recently surfaced on YouTube is definitely a broadcast as opposed to an in-house recording.  I am aware of three in-house recordings from this run, from November 13, 17, and 23.  I have heard the one from the 17th which has somewhat distant sound but is good enough to tell that this is a performance to be reckoned with.  The recording on YouTube is from November 20, so yet a fourth performance (assuming of course that all of these dates are correct).
After having lived with the other recording and now this broadcast, which I've heard most of at least twice since last night (I'd like to hear the other two performances as well), I can say that, of all of the Huguenots recordings I have heard, this is the one I would choose if I could only choose one, even though it would mean doing without Sutherland's Marguerite and Corelli's Raoul.  It's probably overall the most complete of the recordings I have encountered, even though it takes cuts here and there that are included in the Decca/London set which is the one I am most familiar with (only one is damaging, and I'll get to that below).  The additions are most noticeable in the third act, which includes another aria for Marcel, as well as some extra choral and orchestral sections.  The finale of the third act includes that section that Bonynge omitted but that the Met performed very early in the twentieth century as witnessed by a Mapleson cylinder of this music.
It could be my imagination but I got the impression from both recordings I have now heard of these performances that conductor Michele Mariotti was trying to emulate the Decca/London recording.  Over and over again, I felt like I was hearing a recording I had known for decades.  Indeed, Olesya Golovneva as Valentine sounded very much to me like Martina Arroyo, and bass Ante Jerkunica resembled Nicola Ghiuselev.  But a lot of the tempos and overall sound reminded me of the Bonynge set as well.
Juan Diego Flórez takes top honors.  I must admit that I had my doubts that he would be suitable for the role of Raoul.  The role is fiendishly written, with most of the first two acts being suited to a tenor who would have Ernesto in Don Pasquale in his repertoire, but then, near the end of the second act, Raoul morphs into Manrico and has to stay Manrico for the rest of the opera.  As it happens, Flórez is an ideal choice for this music.  There is no doubt that with his bel canto credentials, he can easily handle the gorgeous first-act aria, "Plus blanche que la blanche hermine."  And he has enough metal in his voice that he is convincing in the last three acts of the work as well.  And I never get the sense that he is ripping out his vocal cords singing this music.  Whereas Bonynge has to waken Martina Arroyo out of her faint so she can sing the last line of Act IV with Anastasios Vrenios, Flórez of course can handle the line by himself, even if Corelli owns that line (it's too bad that the La Scala performance omitted Raoul's opening aria of Act V which I think that Corelli would have mopped up the floor with and that Flórez also sings extremely well).
One more thing about Flórez.  Even though he is the star of the performance, I never got the sense that he was dominating the opera and that the sections that he was not in were just perfunctory parts that the audience had to sit through until the tenor came back on.  This is a tribute to the strength of the other singers, as well as to Flórez's ability to "fit into" the opera.  I certainly don't blame it on Sutherland that I get that impression in her final performances and in the recording.  I think her superstardom, combined with the often lower level of her colleagues, worked against this opera in that instance, and so "the nights of the seven stars" became "the nights of the star and the six asteroids."  Of course, this is not true of the 1962 La Scala broadcast where her colleagues are very much on her level, both vocally and dramatically.
Patrizia Ciofi who will turn 50 in July does not erase memories of Sutherland, but for the most part she is more than acceptable, with a lovely legato.  Her tone starts to spread some toward the end of the cabaletta but she is able to negotiate the florid singing easily and accurately.  She also has an interesting solution to the repeated phrase in the cabaletta where the soprano traditionally pops out a high D twice instead of singing the written lower F-sharp, a tradition that goes back at least as far as Nellie Melba (or Suzanne Adams, if you insist) in the Mapleson cylinder of this music.  Ciofi sings the F-sharp the first time and the D the second time, which makes that section sound less like The Woody Woodpecker Song than it can do when the soprano takes the F-sharp both times.
I have already mentioned Olesya Golovneva and her vocal resemblance to Martina Arroyo.  I probably wasn't able to give her an accurate hearing because I kept marveling at how much she sounded like Arroyo (although she doesn't make some of the mistakes in French that Arroyo does).  From what I could tell, however, she is quite fine, and up to the standards of her predecessor.
Ante Jerkunica is a very good Marcel and he does a good job with the extra aria in the third act, although I didn't find the aria itself particularly interesting.  I could have sworn that he ended his "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" aria in the November 17 performance going down to a low C.  However, in this performance, he only went down to the E.  Maybe he was short on Cs that night.  Both notes, of course, suit the music, and I would much rather the bass go down at this point instead of up (I believe Nicolai Ghiaurov goes down at the end of his recording of the piece).
Irene Roberts as Urbain is a high soprano and so contrasts markedly with Huguette Tourangeau from the Decca/London recording of the music.  Of course, the low second-act aria for Urbain which Meyerbeer composed for Marietta Alboni for performances at the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden in 1848 is omitted, unlike in the recording.  Roberts hits the various high notes in Act I with pinpoint accuracy.  And it is nice to be able to hear those sections of Act II where Marguerite and Urbain are singing together as written, whereas Sutherland and Tourangeau continually have to swap lines to keep Sutherland on the higher line.  I for one find the effect quite different.
I have one complaint.  Why, after so many cuts being restored, and music I never knew existed being performed, was the decision made to make a couple of large cuts, including one fairly large one, in the final big number of the opera, the scene where Marcel has his vision of heaven?  I found these cuts jarring, particularly in light of all that had come before.
I could go on, but I'll stop here.  Overall, this is a most treasurable performance, and well worth the almost four hours that it takes to listen to the whole thing (it might well have been an entire four hours were it not for those cuts in the final trio).  One never knows when someething is going to get pulled down from YouTube, so I suggest listening to it while you can.  It sets a very high bar for the Paris Opera production projected to open that company's 2018-19 season.
Mike Leone
[log in to unmask] il Leone!

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