Botstein’s & Spyres’ Forgotten “Huguenots”

Les Huguenots cover

MEYERBEER: Les Huguenots / Michael Spyres, tenor (Raoul de Nangis); Andrew Schroeder, baritone (Count de Nevers); Peter Volpe, bass (Marcel); Marie Lenormand, mezzo (Urbain); Erin Morley, soprano (Marguerite de Valois); Alexandra Deshorties, soprano (Valentine); John Marcus Bindel, baritone (Count de Saint-Bris); American Symphony Orchestra; Chorus; Leon Botstein, conductor / American Symphony Orchestra label, no number (live: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, August 2, 2009) Available as a download at Amazon or for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots has not fared well on records. Counting this very odd release, a limited edition put out under the auspices of the American Symphony Orchestra (and note, the chorus is unidentified!), there have only been three other complete commercial recordings of the opera. The first, and most famous, was Joan Sutherland’s 1970 Decca-London recording conducted by her hubby, Richard Bonynge. Most of the cast was wonderful, particularly the spectacular Urbain of Huguette Tourangeau, but the Raoul, Anastasios Vreinos, was in very poor voice (I believe he was suffering from a throat infection at the time) and so had to “mark” his part, and although Raoul was surely not meant to be blasted out at full throttle (more on that later), there were just too many places in the score where Vreinos was unable to produce anything above a somewhat strained mezzo-forte. According to those who knew him, he was actually an excellent tenor, but this one studio recording has forever branded him as an also-ran.

Then came the Erato recording of the early 1990s conducted by Cyril Diederich. This one had some very good singers in it—Françoise Pollet, Gilles Cachemille an Nicolai Ghiuselev—but although tenor Richard Leech had a wonderful voice in those days, he sang Meyerbeer as if it were Verdi or Puccini, which was all wrong for the music, and soprano Ghyslaine Raphanel was a terrible Marguerite de Valois.

After that, the Italian label Dynamic released a Huguenots in 2003 starring the Korean tenor Warren Mok. This was completely wrong casting. In addition to having a somewhat coarse tone, Mok sang the role of Raoul like a bull in a China shop—and several of the supporting singers, particularly bass Soon-Won Kang as Marcel, were dreadful (though Sarah Allegretta was a wonderful Urbain).

And then came this very odd release…well, a quasi-release, anyway. It stemmed from a live staged performance (not a concert performance) at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, under the auspices of Leon Botstein and his American Symphony

Alexandra Deshorties

Alexandra Deshorties

Orchestra. Botstein drew his cast mostly from Metropolitan Opera singers, some current stars of the time like bass Peter Volpe, some up-and-coming like soprano Erin Morley who had spent the previous two years as part of the Met’s Young Artists Program, and at least one who was a castoff, soprano Alexandra Deshorties. Deshorties sang leading roles at the Met for several years and was roundly hated by Met audiences, including myself—but it wasn’t her fault. Although she was a lyric soprano bordering on spinto, then-Met director Joe Volpe insisted on casting her in high-lying coloratura roles that she simply couldn’t sing, such as Constanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and she was awful in them. A friend of hers once reported to me that she left the Met in tears, convinced that they had sabotaged her career for good. So, in a way, this Huguenots was a bit of an artistic revival for her.

Peter Volpe

Peter Volpe

Peter Volpe was always a hit-and-miss singer. The possessor of a huge bass voice with a very dark timbre, he sometimes sang in focus and sometimes had a wobble. He has a wobble in this performance, but if one considers that Marcel is a rough soldier and not supposed to sound like an aristocrat, he fits the role pretty well. Erin Morley was much luckier lady than Deshorties; despite spending two years in purgatory singing such stellar roles as Frasquita in Carmen and the Mother in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges—the year of this performance, she was still singing stuff like the Dew Fairy in Hansel und Gretel—she eventually managed to


Erin Morley (photo: Monarch Studios)

graduate to roles like the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, and unlike Deshorties, she could sing such roles with ease. Nonetheless, tackling Marguerite de Valois is in some ways harder than the Queen of the Night, who simply has to shine for a total of eight minutes in her two arias. The difficulties of Marguerite’s role—though it is almost entirely confined to the second act—are only a step down from those of Zerbinetta in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, often considered the bane of soprano leggieros everywhere. Surprisingly, she sings it as if it were a role she had been performing for years. But Morley had an extraordinary voice, the high range of which sounded as if it were in the middle of her range.

Spyres as Raoul de Nangis

Spyres as Raoul de Nangis

But then we come to Raoul, and here Botstein was very fortunate to obtain the services of Michael Spyres. At that time, Spyres had been singing professionally for about three years and, though he had made a good impression from the start, tacking Raoul was his first Mount Everest. Although Les Huguenots performances at the (very) old Met used to be branded The Night of Seven Stars, when you came right down to it only five roles really mattered (the Counts St. Bris and Nevers really don’t sing all that much) and Raoul mattered most of all because he was almost constantly on stage, front and center, except in Act III. Moreover, the technique required for singing Raoul was that of the old school of French singing which hasn’t really existed since Edmond Clement hung up his costumes: an elegant style, even in loud dramatic moments, using not chest voice for the high notes but head tone or voix mixte (a mixture of head and chest) even when the high notes were meant to be sung loudly. In a sense, this was good for a young tenor like Spyres because although mastering voix mixte is tricky, it does not destroy the voice but rather helps to integrate it, so although some of his high notes do not thrill one the same way that Nicolai Gedda’s did in his 1971 abridged concert performance of Huguenots, they are sung in the correct vocal style.

Marie Lenormand

Marie Lenormand

Marie Lenormand, the only French singer in the cast unless you count Deshorties, who is French-Canadian, had a bit of a loose vibrato in her entrance aria (“Nobles seigneurs, salut!”) but warmed up fairly quickly and tightened the vibrato a bit, yet she had no trill which is a detriment. As for Deshorties herself, she takes some time to warm up (her voice has a flutter in her Act III entrance), but by and large her singing is quite good and she brings a dramatic sensitivity to the role that I’ve not heard from anyone else—not even Martina Arroyo on the Sutherland recording who is the best of all previous Valentine’s I’ve heard.

In a way, Meyerbeer laid out the opera strangely. Valentine, the object of Raoul’s love from the time of his entrance in Act I, doesn’t appear or sing a note until Act III, where she has a long duet with, of all people, Marcel, whereas Queen Marguerite, who is also mentioned in Act I as well as later on, really only gets to shine in Act II, which she dominates (along with some assistance from Raoul), though she does pop in for a few lines near the end of Act III and after the bloody battle between the Catholics and Huguenots in Act V. The dramatic highlight of the score is the “Grand Duo” in Act IV, but then we have to go through the post-battle strife and angst in Act V. The composer apparently learned his lesson by the time he wrote Le Prophète, which is a much better libretto in which the plot advances naturally, but I still wouldn’t give up on Les Huguenots. There’s just too much good music here to ignore.

Andrew Schroeder

Andrew Schroeder

One issue I had was with Botstein’s conducting. Not only was he sometimes a bit slack in passages that should have had more momentum and bite, such as the Marguerite-Raoul duet in Act II and the famous Valentine-Raoul duet in Act IV (the pivotal dramatic scene of the opera, partially written by the work’s first tenor, Adolphe Nourrit), but there were moments when the actual note-values didn’t receive their proper duration. Some were elongated more than written while others were clipped. In Acts I and III, there are passages where orchestra and singers part company entirely for a few beats. Granted, such things happen in live performances—even a few Toscanini performances have glitches—but for the sake of an issued recording, Botstein should have recorded some inserts and cleaned these up.

And then there is the microphone placement, which for a modern digital recording is not good. It favors the orchestra over the singers and the chorus over the orchestra. Someone with a good ear, such as Mark Schubin who has been miking the Metropolitan Opera’s TV broadcasts (and several Live at Lincoln Center concerts as well) since the 1970s, should have been brought in to do the job, but whoever was responsible for this was not terribly competent. When the singers are right under the mikes they sound terrific, but at least half the time they are upstage or downstage from the ideal microphone placement.

The stage production came in for some heavy criticism from Michael Miller of New York Arts, who put it this way:

The presentation is steeped in violence. Both Catholics and Protestants look as bad as possible. Almost everyone is motivated by sectarian hatred. There is neither revelation nor inspiration to be found anywhere… [director Thaddeus] Strassberger substitutes boxers of a brutal and ancient kind for the gentle, idle amusements specified in the libretto. Leather-girt, half-naked men, implicitly of a class whereby they are virtually slaves like ancient Roman gladiators, commanded to engage in what eventually appears to be a fight to the death.[1]

But here we can enjoy the musical performance. By and large, despite my caveats above, Botstein presented a pretty well unified view of the score, and the important thing is that the whole thing sounds really “alive.” The Sutherland recording had its good moments when things really took off, but as a whole the performance was a bit static (even though this was one of Sutherland’s least boring complete opera recordings).

All things considered, I think this the best integral complete performance of Les Huguenots. Deshorties is more dramatic and sensitive than any other Valentine I’ve ever heard, Spyres is second only to Nicolai Gedda as the ideal Raoul, and Morley is better than anyone I’ve ever heard sing her music, even better than Suzanne Adams’ rendering of Marguerite’s cabaletta in a legendary Mapleson cylinder from the Met in 1902. Add it all up and it is a performance to admire.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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