Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots / Bonynge, Sutherland, Grant, Austin, Wegner, Pringle
The late nineteenth century opera-goer would expect as a matter of course that Les Huguenots would be included in any self-respecting operatic season. Although Bernard Shaw (as Corno di Bassetto) pokes fun at it, it is affectionate fun. Listening to these discs, whatever their shortcomings, one can understand why it held the stage for so long. It would be foolish to make comparisons with other large-scale operas concerned with the interface of public and private concerns by, say, Verdi or Berlioz, but it is effective and thoughtfully constructed and has moments of real grandeur and pathos. Alas, live performances now are far too rare which makes the availability of recordings all the more important as a way towards appreciating the work.
The only score I possess is that of the Italian version edited by Sullivan and Pittman, and I am unclear to what extent that represents the composer’s intentions. A pencil note in my copy indicates with some asperity that the performance was finished at the end of Act 4 by “Harris Italian Opera” (Covent Garden) on 27 October 1882, showing that a need to cut it has been felt for a very long time. As far as I am aware the opera has only once been recorded anywhere near complete, but that version, issued by Decca in 1970, does not appear to be available at present. Certainly it had some serious defects, notably the casting of Raoul, but it also had the immense virtue of avoiding harmful cuts and of the choice of Joan Sutherland as Queen Marguerite. The present version also has the latter virtue – her stunning vocal presence still undimmed twenty years later – but makes very extensive cuts in just about every number, somewhat surprisingly as both versions are conducted by Richard Bonynge. The result is that the new version is certainly shorter but less effective in building up tension or realising the scale of the work as a whole. There is nonetheless, for the most part, a real sense of the excitement of a live performance; something lacking for much of the earlier and more complete set. Indeed it is the understandable presence of such excitement that is the main reason for issuing this set as it comprises Dame Joan’s final stage performance. The audience is clearly aware of the historical importance of the occasion and applauds her whenever it gets a chance.
It would be understandable if the rest of the cast felt that they were merely supporting a star’s farewell appearance, but that would not be sufficient for an opera which notoriously requires seven star singers. It does not really get them here although all concerned sound thoroughly involved despite the various moments with the kind of errors that occur normally in live performances. Anson Austin as Raoul and Amanda Thane as Valentine give gallant and exciting if occasionally inaccurate performances of what must be exceptionally difficult roles. The other leading roles are adequately sung if without the kind of especial distinction that they really require. The chorus and orchestra, and especially the latter, make the most of their opportunities, with some very lovely solo playing in the many opportunities given by Meyerbeer’s wonderfully imaginative scoring, one of his main virtues as a composer.
The presentation of the set is frankly poor, with little more than a couple of pictures of the occasion and a very brief synopsis. If text and translation are not to be included much more than this is needed to help the listener unfamiliar with the work. I understand that a DVD is also available. I have not seen it but would imagine that it would provide a better souvenir of the occasion and also give a better idea of the opera and what is happening in it, especially if subtitles are available. The present set remains nonetheless a record of an important occasion, when the retirement of one of Australia’s greatest artistes was saluted by her fellow countrymen with a performance by her national opera company in a world famous building. Understandably after lengthy applause the set ends with speeches of congratulation and Dame Joan’s singing of “Home, sweet home”. There was not a dry eye in the house, I am sure, and even many years after the event in my own (sweet) home listening to this was a memorably moving experience. This is not the recording of Les Huguenots of which I dream but it is an exciting souvenir of an historic occasion.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: OPOZ56007CD
Label: Opera Australia
Composer: Giacomo Meyerbeer
Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Orchestra/Ensemble: Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Australian Opera Chorus
Performer: Amanda Thane, Anson Austin, Clifford Grant, Dame Joan Sutherland, John Pringle, John Wegner, Suzanne Johnston