MEYERBEER Le Prophète
It’s cruelly ironic that, with Meyerbeer performances still a comparative rarity (apart from, perhaps, in a range of smaller German theatres), to hear his work now is to listen to a virtual reference dictionary of the building blocks of 19th- and even early 20th-century grand opera. For examples: all of Bizet’s Carmen smugglers, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila Philistines denouncing Abimelech’s murder, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Easter Hymn and even the Watchmen closing out Act 1 in Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten have clear markers here in terms of orchestral effects and colours. This, along with virtuoso vocal writing, was Meyerbeer’s strength – the effects, not always without causes, but standing out from surrounding material soon overtaken by the likes of Verdi and Wagner, creators of more memorable and longer-breathed melodic material.
If you love Rossini’s Comte Ory, enjoy the stronger parts of Rienzi and are open-minded about the apparent dramaturgical gaps in Il trovatore, you should feel at home with Le Prophète, Meyerbeer and Scribe’s very delayed follow-up (1849) to Les Huguenots. Not so well-meaning interventions by the premiere tenor’s wife, casting disputes and the inevitable Paris problem of getting the audience home at a reasonable hour contributed both to the delay and to musical cuts and changes, many of them (including the presence of a saxophone in Berthe’s death scene) restored here in this first recording of an ‘original version’.
It’s no small credit to Essen’s Aalto Musiktheater to mount such an evidently well-studied performance of this large-scale show. The men do better than the women. While Osborn is fully in command of the tessitura (and power) of Jean de Leyde – and is especially clear in text – Cornetti lacks some of the almost insolent virtuosity of Marilyn Horne in the old rival Sony set, especially at the top of the voice. And Tapia’s Berthe has sweet high notes but feels a little underpowered. (The saxophone moment in her Act 5 ‘Déjà mon oeil s’éteint’ sounds inauthentically bluesy now but may have had an effect rather like Donizetti’s glass harmonica in Lucia to 1840s ears.) The male Anabaptist trio are certainly on the case and maestro Carella brings a nice (and rather French) flexibility to the score, making more of a unity of the piece than the grander and more formal Lewis on Sony. The live recording from three shows last spring copes comfortably with the biggest moments and offstage perspectives and, sensibly, omits applause. Oehms’s booklet omits an English translation of the libretto or links to find one – a shame. Nevertheless warmly recommended, especially to the curious about opera’s history