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Music: The Met’s Proph

4 minute read
William Bender

Composer Giacomo Meyerbeer was to opera in mid-19th century Europe what Cecil B. DeMille was to Hollywood in his heyday. A master of the historical and religious spectacular, a partisan of the big theatrical and musical moment, Meyerbeer was grand opera. It seemed that his extravaganzas, notably Le Prophete and Les Huguenots, would never lose their hold on the public. But in the early decades of this century, they disappeared from view.

Last week New York’s Metropolitan Opera brought back Le Prophete like treasure hunters raising a sunken hull. What the Met found was a blockbuster of an opera containing a huge, complex coronation scene, an ice-skating sequence, a peasant revolt and, at the end, a gunpowder demolition of an entire palace. Modern audiences who have seen Boris Godunov and Götterdämmerung might consider much of that old-hat. But Meyerbeer did it first (1849). He also introduced brilliant orchestral and vocal touches (ably demonstrated by Conductor Henry Lewis) that Verdi, Wagner and Mussorgsky would pay attention to later on. As forged by Meyerbeer and Librettist Eugene Scribe, the bedraggled Fides, mother of the false prophet Jean, is a boldly original character, and the prototype of several wronged or unwanted mezzos in Verdi—Azucena for one.

Divine Origin. Good show, yes. But great opera? No. The libretto is serviceable, based loosely on the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century. It tells the story of the innkeeper Jean de Leyde (Tenor James McCracken) who comes to believe he is a prophet destined to reign and then indeed does so.

Le Prophète’s real problems stem from the fact that Meyerbeer was probably too adaptable for his own good. Born Jakob Liebmann Beer in 1791, he changed his last name to Meyerbeer to ensure a legacy from a wealthy relative.Pursuing his fortunes in Italy, he became Giacomo. Musically he was an adroit assimilator of styles. He tried to throw in a little something to please every taste, sometimes with incongruous results. A case in point occurs during the coronation scene, when Fides recognizes the prophet as her son Jean. It is the op era’s climactic moment. As the prophet speaks to her (“May the holy light/ Descend upon your brow”), the strings and woodwinds strike a series of sustained, mystical-sounding chords that would not be out of place in Lohengrin. Deciding not to jeopardize Jean’s claim to divine origin by revealing their familial ties, Fides launches into a jaunty, exhibitionistic and inappropriate bel canto outburst that destroys the mood. Marilyn Home sang Fides (the range is low F-sharp to high C) with the virtuosity that among mezzos is hers alone these days.

Le Prophète is an additional problem because the trend, at the Met and elsewhere, is to take the grandeur and its high cost out of opera. To stage Le Prophète as realistically as Meyerbeer intended would probably cost close to $1 million. The Metropolitan’s Director of Production John Dexter brought Le Prophete in at a respectable $300,000.

His basic idea was to change the work into a morality play and stage it on wag ons within the skeleton of an unfinished cathedral. Imaginatively carried out by Set and Costume Designer Peter Wexler, it is a clever, refreshing and, most of the time, workable concept. But the cataclysmic final scene, with the destruction of the castle, falls — no other word will do — flat: the demolition is merely suggested by flashing lights and the collapse of a canopy. That is like putting on a circus without lions and a trapeze act.

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