[Met Performance] CID:248030

New Production

Le Prophète
Metropolitan Opera House, Tue, January 18, 1977

Debut : Raimund Herincx, Stuart Sebastian, Gil Wechsler

Le Prophète (74)
Giacomo Meyerbeer | Eugène Scribe
Jean of Leyden
James McCracken

Renata Scotto

Marilyn Horne

Jerome Hines

Frank Little

Raimund Herincx [Debut]

Count Oberthal
Morley Meredith

Alma Jean Smith

Shirley Love

Nico Castel

Charles Anthony

Gene Boucher

Richard Best

Henry Lewis

John Dexter

Peter Wexler

Lighting Designer
Gil Wechsler [Debut]

Stuart Sebastian [Debut]

Le Prophète received eighteen performances this season.

Review 1:

Harold C. Schonberg in The New York Times
Opera: “Le Prophète” Is Revived on Limited Scale
Met Trims Back Spectacle, as Meyerbeer Hallmark Marilyn Horne Sings Fidès With Finesse and Mastery

On the program it was listed as the 57th Metropolitan Opera performance. Which is accurate, but the 56th took place about 50 years ago, in 1928. The opera in question is Meyerbeer's "Le Prophète” and it was revived Tuesday night, in a new production by John Dexter, with sets and costumes by Peter Wexler, and conducted by Henry Lewis.?


Meyerbeer himself would have called this production small beer, and no pun intended. In Meyerbeer's day at the Paris Opera, from about 1830 to his death in 1864, the emphasis was on spectacle. Meyerbeer was one of the most calculating composers who ever lived. He gave the public exactly what it wanted, and was enough of a technician to put everything together in a thoroughly professional manner. But what, above all, made Meyerbeerian grand opera was the lavishness of the productions.


The economics of opera production today, and the current state of Metropolitan Opera finances, prevent any great splash. A unit set has been used, which leads to inevitable absurdities. The set is an immovable cathedral-like structure, looming over every scene. Thus the first scene of "Le Prophète," which is supposed to take place in the fields, has an entirely different feeling from what Meyerbeer intended. Mr. Dexter also has included morality-play elements in his conception, and that would have been furthest from the composer's mind. ?


But, given the limitations of the production, it moves well enough along on its premises. The costumes help — they at least are lavish, in the style of Brueghel. Meyerbeer's big masses are deftly shuttled around, though here and. there instances of directorial clumsiness occur, as when, in the first scene, the three Anabaptists advance to the footlights and sing to the audience rather than to the peasants. ?


The score itself? It is much hotter in the opera house than on records, Meyerbeer, a total man of the theater, needs the stage. With all that is going on, one is apt to forget that the music is not top-drawer. Everything sounds synthetic, manufactured, calculated.?


Occasionally Meyerbeer could spin out a good melody, but even those are handicapped by a lack of tension. Part of his trouble was his lack of harmonic adventure. The harmonies are mostly textbook harmonies Meyerbeer wrote in the early flush of the Romantic period, but he was largely untouched by the chromaticism that the great Romantics were using. Yet, all that said, it is remarkable how well everything works on stage. The man may not have been a genius, but he was a craftsman.???


He gave his audiences everything. In "Le Prophète" there is quasi-religious music there are enormous choruses, a big ballet, and some spectacular vocal fireworks; there is a fire scene; there is a Coronation scene. Say it, and it's there.


Meyerbeer's five acts have been compressed into three for this production: There are cuts, most of which occur in-the encampment scene. Oberthal’s part is severely cut; the trio bouffe is omitted and a good deal of the ballet been dropped.


In Meyerbeer's day, the ballet was an ice-skating ballet done on roller skates (a then new invention). This production has the dancers on make-pretend skates with double runners. No great harm, and it is a rather attractive ballet that Stuart Sebastian has worked up. The original ballet music goes on interminably.


The cast was headed by Renata Scotto, Marilyn Home, James McCracken, Jerome Hines and Morley Meredith. All of these singers are of known quality and there were no great surprises. Miss Scotto, as Berthe, sang in her usual style. There were some dreadful high notes, but there also was the character, the fervency, the real temperament of her singing, and that more than made amends for the flaws in the voice. She played her final entrance as a mad scene. Is that traditional? One somehow doubts it.?

Mr. McCracken had some vibrant work to contribute. He also is a much slimmer figure than he has previously been. But for some reason he used head notes there, in a kind of falsetto. Stylistically this is questionable. In 1841, the Rubini days were long past, and Duprez and Tamberlik were singing high notes from the chest.?


The vocal star of the evening was Miss Horne. The role of Fidès is one that gives her a chance to unleash her entire range, and she made full use of her remarkable lower register. When she finally arrived at that it is hard to think of a mezzo-soprano today who could have duplicated this kind of vocal finesse and command.?


The veterans, Messrs. Hines and Meredith also had a great deal to contribute. Mr. Meredith, as Oberthal looked — and acted — like the wicked witch Carabosse in "Sleeping' Beauty," He still, like Mr. Hines, has a resonant sound and the know-how that only experience can give. Mr. Hines was marvelous — malevolent, strong, commanding.


The two other Anabaptists -- Frank Little and Raimund Henncix (in his debut) — also were valuable assets to the production. Mr. Lewis, in the pit led a bright performance that could have had a little more rhythmic point. There were some accented upbeats that led to metrical confusion. But he and the forces made a brave noise in the Coronation Scene. Judging from the audience response, the Metropolitan Opera has a hit on its hands.

Review 2:

Andrew Porter in the New Yorker

..On a practical level, there is much to admire. The production cost only three- fifths of its allotted half-million-dollar budget. No time is spent on scene- shifting, and so a good deal of music can be packed into a four-hour show with only two intermissions — after Acts III and IV. (A rousing, blood-thirsty chorus that should open Act III is omitted; so are the trio bouffe, a good deal of the ballet, a verse of John's pastorale in Act II, and some less significant passages. On the other hand, the prayer of Act III and the duo-reprise of the drinking song, both cut in 1849, are reinstated.) Yet even a "Prophète" mounted on the cheap could, I believe, be mounted in a more picturesque and appropriate fashion. It is a matter of intention, not of cost. When the musical historian Georges Servières assessed the reasons for the opera's success, high among them he listed the electric sunrise, the skaters, the Sax band onstage, and the explosion of the palace. At the Met, a projection of a rose window onto the backcloth pays token observance to the sunrise. What is left of the ballet, choreographed in rustic style by Stuart Sebastian, is quite fun. But the band is invisible, and the explosion is a feeble affair of ribbons fluttering to the ground.

On the first night, Marilyn Home sang the principal role with energy, power, and prowess. In 1841 Meyerbeer wrote that Fides was "all gentleness," that she had only one energetic moment; that was why he wanted Viardot with her "broad, sweet, smooth singing," and not the fiery Stoltz. But the Fides of 1849 needs a good deal of fire — in the imprecation, in the fourth-act finale, and in the trumpery cabaletta of her last air. Miss Horne provided it. She was highly dramatic in the threefold utterance of "Qui je silts?" after John has denied her — marked to be sung the first time "d'une voix tremblante," the second "avec indignation," the third "avec une douloureuse tendresse, et en pleasant." In tender moments, her singing was "broad, sweet, smooth” The role is written across the sme rnage as Brünnhilde’s, from the G below the staff to the C above it. Alternatives are given so that singers without Viardot's exceptional diapason can avoid the extremes, but Miss Horne had no need of them.

John is also a difficult role. Meyerbeer composed it first for Gilbert Duprez, and when Duprez's voice declined thought of Gaetano Fraschini, Verdi's favorite tenor, and of the great Mario. Both Roger, who created the part, and Mario, who sang it in London a few months later, found it heavy, and omitted portions – Roger the Act III prayer, and Mario some of the triumphal hymn that follows it. Mr. McCracken has the weight, force, and stamina for the heroic episodes. (He sang both prayer and hymn.) The head voice he employed in several gentle passages marked "pianissimo" and "très doux" was criticized, but unjustly in my view: the sound had the right touch of strangeness, suggestive of visionary delusion. His performance was noble, poetic, and convincing.

Miss Scotto seemed to have confused Berthe with Mad Margaret. She turned her four appearances into four mad scenes of increasing wildness, and, although there were some sweet, beautiful phrases to he heard, she tended increasingly to scream anything loud and high. But then Berthe is a thankless role; I have come across no warm praise for any of the Berthes in history, not even for Claudia Muzio's, at the Met in 1918. Zacharias is the only other character with a solo. Nicolas Levasseur came out of virtual retirement, at the age of fifty-eight, to create the part. At the Met, Jerome Hines sounded a little rusty in timbre, but he had authority, grandeur, and a fine rhythmic verve.

From Berlioz onward, critics have noted the Handelian cut of the roulades in Zacharias's couplets. I think that Handel may be a general influence on "Le Prophète." Meyerbeer knew many of Handel’s dramatic oratorios, and he read and admired "Jephtha" while composing his opera. The influence is not (except during those couplets) in musical details but in the general layout, in the disposition and cumulative effects of choruses, solos, ensembles, and in the flair for capturing a mood and a movement in music. Consider the coronation scene. This is Henry Chorley's account of it:

“The march is gorgeous in its open*ing beyond precedent of stage marches, choicely rich in the melody of the trio. Then comes the organ behind the scenes, with the church anthem ... broken by the imprecations of the distracted woman, who hears the praises of the false Prophet ...Next follows the chant of the children with their censers ... all wrought up, with consummate art of climax, to the instant at which the false Prophet, having quelled a revolt, intoxicated, self-deluded, crowned, conceives himself – is to himself – divinely inspired. The thunderbolt falls, in the moment of terrible recognition. The wild appeal of the mother, bewildered by surprise and horror, and the weary, wearing yearning of months of pilgrimage; the more fearful struggle still in the heart of the impostor, with the knives of the fanatic fiends who have goaded him into the blasphemous crime close at hand; all this is treated by M. Meyerbeer with the grasp of a giant, able to control the surge of the most tremendous and unlooked-for emotions.... There can be nothing grander in combination than the sweep of the procession from the cathedral, after the false miracle has been accomplished, with the "Dominum salvum fac" pealing behind the scenes from the organ, and the people shouting almost in adoration. It is a moment of pomp and splendour, never outdone in stage-music.”

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