Meyerbeer's LE PROPHETE Comes to SummerScape

Performances run July 26 - August 4.

By: Apr. 18, 2024
Meyerbeer's LE PROPHETE Comes to SummerScape
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As a highlight of the 2024 Bard SummerScapefestival, the Fisher Center at Bard presents the first new American production in almost five decades of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Le prophète, an all-too-topical grand opera in which religion, politics, and power collide. Robert Watson, Jennifer Feinstein, and Amina Edris star in an original staging by Christian Räth, the director behind SummerScape’s celebrated treatments of Das Wunder der Heliane and The Silent Woman, which confirmed the festival’s reputation for “essential summertime fare for the serious American opera-goer” (Financial Times, UK). Featuring the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and Bard Festival Chorale under the leadership of festival founder and co-artistic director Leon Botstein, Le prophète runs for five performances in the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center on Bard’s bucolic Hudson Valley campus (July 26, 28, 31; August 2, 4). Botstein will give an opera talk before the first Sunday matinee (July 28) and there will be a premiere party and intermission toast on the opening night (July 26), with a maestro dinner after the penultimate performance (August 2). Chartered coach transportation from New York City will be available for two matinees (July 28 and August 4), and the third performance will stream live online (July 31) with an encore presentation three days later (August 3).
Rounding out Bard’s operatic lineup this summer, Botstein, the ASO, and the Bard Festival Chorale also anchor La damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz (August 18). Starring Joshua Blue, Sasha Cooke, and Alfred Walker, their concert performance forms the final program of the 2024 Bard Music Festival, which undertakes an in-depth reexamination of “Berlioz and His World.” Once again, chartered coach transportation from New York City will be available for the performance, which will stream live online.
These operatic offerings follow last season’s SummerScape success with the first major American production of Saint-Saëns’s Henri VIII. This was chosen as one of the “Best Classical Music Performances of 2023” by the New York Times, which observed: “Botstein, and his annual opera production at Bard, seem more invaluable by the year.” The Fisher Center at Bard, Botstein, and the American Symphony Orchestra have long been recognized for their ardent championship of rare French opera. Other past productions include the first fully staged American production of Chausson’s King Arthur(“Le roi Arthus”), the first staged revival of the original version of Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, and a rare revival of Meyerbeer’s extravaganza Les Huguenots, of which the UK’s Financial Times declared: “Les Huguenots in Bard’s staging is a thriller from beginning to end. ... Five stars.” As Musical America put it, Bard Summerscape is now “an indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape.”

Meyerbeer’s Le prophète at SummerScape

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864) was the 19th century’s most frequently performed composer of opera. A German Jew who synthesized German orchestral techniques with Italian vocal style, he nevertheless came to epitomize the heyday of French grand opera. His third contribution to the genre was Le prophète (1849), which followed Les Huguenots as the second panel in his Reformation diptych. Set to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps after passages from Voltaire, Le prophète offers a fictionalized account of the Anabaptist uprising of the 1530s, when an innkeeper known as John of Leiden turned the city of Münster into a millenarian theocracy with himself as king.
This historical source material allowed Meyerbeer and his librettists to explore the dark world of false prophets, mass hysteria, and the violence that ensues when religion, politics, and power collide. In their retelling, John of Leiden becomes Jean de Leyde, whose story is complicated and humanized by his relationships with his mother, Fidès, and fiancée, Berthe. Complex and conflicted, Jean is initially motivated by love and the desire for justice. However, when faced with Berthe’s abduction by a despotic count and the machinations of three self-interested Anabaptists, he soon falls prey to hubris and revenge. The results are catastrophic; as the libretto has it, “All are guilty ... and all are punished.”
Despite its long recent neglect, Le prophète remains one of the most successful operas ever written. A bona fide sensation at its Paris premiere, Meyerbeer’s opera was rapturously received throughout Europe, receiving more than 570 performances in the French capital alone. In the States, it was an audience favorite at the Metropolitan Opera from the company’s earliest seasons until the late 1920s. After a 1977 revival at the New York house, the New York Times reported: “Judging from the audience response, the Metropolitan Opera has a hit on its hands.”
Until now, however, that revival was the last American staging of Le prophète. As a member of the 1977 Met audience, Leon Botstein recalls his astonishment on discovering that the works of so famous, influential, and pivotal a cultural figure could have been all but erased from the repertoire. He explains:

“Meyerbeer was the victim of a concerted and successful campaign of derision, resulting not only from the emerging split between so-called high art and popular culture, but also from the prominence of antisemitism in the cultural politics of Europe after 1850.”

A key figure in both developments was Richard Wagner. Botstein says: “The experience of opera theater was fundamentally transformed by Wagner, who pioneered in the use of music to fashion the illusion of realism.” Meyerbeer’s subsequent fall from grace strikes Botstein as richly undeserved. He says:

“Meyerbeer has wonderful invention, and a Mozartean instinct for time. He doesn’t wear out his welcome! He has an unerring sense of contrast and dramatic development, and his work is extremely well-orchestrated. There’s a wide range of sonorities that play into the colorful theatricality of his stagecraft. And he has a real regard for the vocal brilliance of his protagonists – he’s a singer’s friend.”

Furthermore, Meyerbeer’s stories continue to resonate. Though drawn from history, his plots were intended as veiled commentaries on the political and social issues of his day. Written at a time of religious and political upheaval, Le prophète illuminates the dangers of mixing the two. Through the Anabaptists’ use of inflammatory oration to usurp civic power, the opera addresses the rise of demagoguery. And, by presenting Jean as an outsider in a hostile environment, it explores the challenges faced by members of minority groups, like the composer himself.

These are issues of acute relevance to us today. Botstein says:

“We are now seeing a revival of antisemitism in the modern world. We’re also seeing the nefarious influence of modern fundamentalist religions. It’s ironic that this impact on politics, and also the manipulation of the masses through social media and other means, both recommend Le prophète.”

Director Christian Räth shares Botstein’s powerful response to the opera. He says:

“Le prophète is unique because, beyond its historical elements, it has so many parallels to the world that we live in today. I don’t see how you could stage it today as just a historical piece. It is an opera that has a great deal to say about our times. It talks to us about how religion and other kinds of ideology can be misused to manipulate people, and about the consequences for their personal relationships and for society as a whole.”

The German director’s work has taken him to many of the world’s leading opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, La Scala, and Royal Opera House. At SummerScape, his 2022 production of Richard Strauss’s The Silent Woman was a New York Times Critics’ Pick and his 2019 U.S. premiere of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane prompted Musical America to marvel: “Opera productions don’t get much better than this.”
To create their performing edition of Le prophète, Räth and Botstein worked closely with Professor Mark Everist of the University of Southampton. Because Meyerbeer originally composed more music for the opera than could feasibly be performed, making cuts was unavoidable. To guide their choices, Everist turned to the earliest source materials, aiming to create a historically coherent version of the opera that its first audience would have recognized. The SummerScape production will also showcase the substantial overture that Meyerbeer wrote for Le prophète but found himself forced to omit from performance. For more than a century, the overture was believed to survive only in piano arrangements, but after the rediscovery of the full score, a new edition was published in 2010.
SummerScape’s rare revival of Le prophète stars Robert Watson in the psychologically complex title role of Jean. Having headlined productions at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Zurich Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Dallas Opera, and Washington National Opera, Watson “commands a well-wrought tenor, with baritonal richness in the lower register and a fine blaze on top” (Dallas News). He is joined in the similarly nuanced role of Fidès, Jean’s mother, by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, who returns to SummerScape after collaborating with Räth on Das Wunder der Heliane, in which her “gorgeous mezzo was a triumph” (Musical America). Completing the trio of principals as Berthe, Jean’s fiancé, is Egyptian-born soprano Amina Edris, who “reveals a burnished lyric soprano and splendid dramatic commitment” (Gramophone) on the acclaimed 2022 recording of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. Bass Harold Wilson, returning for his third consecutive SummerScape after “command[ing] a sonorous bass” (New York Times) under Räth’s direction in the lead role of The Silent Woman, portrays Zacharie, the first of Le prophète’s three sinister Anabaptists. Last seen at SummerScape in 2021’s King Arthur, Grammy-winning bass Wei Wu sings Mathisen, the second, with Grammy-winning tenor Frederick Ballentine, a soloist at the 2019 Bard Music Festival, as Jonas, the third. Zachary Altman, praised for his “suave, sable baritone” (Opera magazine), makes his SummerScape debut as Count Oberthal.
To help realize his vision, Räth has brought together some of his most trusted collaborators. Sets are by Daniel Unger in tandem with the director, lighting by Tony and Drama Desk Award winner Rick Fisher, and costume design by European Opera Prize-winner and SummerScape regular Mattie Ullrich, whose Silent Woman costumes were “a feast for the eyes” (Bachtrack); all three were members of Räth’s Silent Woman design team. Similarly, the director has reunited with two of his Heliane creative partners. Choreography is by Catherine Galasso, whose “expressive choreography ... provide[d] a window into Heliane’s psyche” (Bachtrack), and projections by Elaine McCarthy, whose honors include a Henry Hewes Design Award and a Distinguished Achievement Award from the U.S. Institute for Theater Technology.

Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust at Bard Music Festival, Program 11

Like Meyerbeer, Hector Berlioz (1803–69) wrote a grand-scale dramatic work whose initially decent protagonist allows himself to be corrupted by the forces of evil. Like Le prophète, the younger composer’s “dramatic legend” (originally subtitled “Opéra de Concert”) premiered in Paris in the 1840s. Its reception, however, could not have been more different. Recalling the work’s two poorly attended and ill-received first performances, Berlioz wrote: “Nothing in all my artistic career ever wounded me so deeply as this unexpected indifference.” He had no way of knowing that, of all the musical settings of Goethe’s Faust, from which so many Romantic composers drew inspiration, La damnation de Faust (1846) would go on to become one of the best-known and most highly respected. Expanding and enriching material from Huit scènes de Faust (1828–29), his own earlier treatment of the same story, La damnation is now a beloved repertory staple.
As the titular scholar, Bard’s concert performance stars British-American tenor Joshua Blue, who “reached ecstatic heights” as a member of the “marvelously effervescent cast” (Observer) of last season’s semi-staged production of Sir John in Love. Blue sings opposite the Marguerite of two-time Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who brought “gleaming sound and a touch of self-destructive volatility” (New York Times) to SummerScape 2021’s King Arthur. In the role of Méphistophélès, the devil in disguise, the two are joined by bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who combines “vocal heft and theatrical intensity” (Wall Street Journal) and who drew rave reviews for his SummerScape performances in Das Wunder der Heliane and in the leading role of last season’s Henri VIII. Bass Stefan Egerstrom, who recently joined the roster of Lyric Opera of Chicago, completes the cast as the student Brander. Anchored by the American Symphony Orchestra under Botstein’s leadership, their concert performance forms the 2024 Bard Music Festival’s eleventh and final program, “Faust and the Spirit of the 19th Century” (August 18).

Round-trip bus transportation from New York City

Chartered coach transportation from New York City is available for the matinee performances on Sunday, July 28; Sunday, August 4; and Sunday, August 18. This may be ordered online or by calling the box office, and the meeting point for coach pick-up and drop-off is at Lincoln Center, Amsterdam Avenue, between 64th and 65th Streets. More information is available here.


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