“I think opera can be quite therapeutic for the ADD generation,” says American designer-director Thaddeus Strassberger who will be directing Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots,” one of the grandest of the grand French operas, for Bard’s SummerScape July 31 through August 7, a show that will give opera diehards as well as novices a chance to steep themselves in a particularly rare treat. Full of big emotions and clear drama, the producer promises it will be accessible, both literally (English subtitles will be continuously projected) and emotionally.
Back in the day, “Les Huguenots,” was the must-see of Paris. A tragic romance played out against the Roman Catholic persecution of French Calvinist Protestants in 16th-century France—this was no Italianate romantic trifle, but a magisterial spectacle of socially redeeming entertainment, taking advantage of everything that Paris was offering in terms of production values, talent, energy, and bravura. Debuting in 1836, it was performed 1,000 times at the Paris Opera in the latter half of the 19th century.
And then it basically dropped dead—or at least so far off the radar that it hasn’t been performed in New York since 1921. “It’s sort of like, the dinosaurs died out, and no one knows exactly why,” says Strassberger. He considers the opera to be a true discovery, illuminating “the missing link between Wagner and Verdi.”
The pivotal piece of the opera is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 23, 1572, when a Roman Catholic mob murdered thousands of French Protestants during a three-day orgy of violence in Paris and later in provincial cities. The massacre marked the decisive end of France’s Third War of Religion, and the twilight of Huguenot influence in France. (A group of French Huguenots settled in New Paltz about 100 years later, establishing the first European settlement in the Hudson valley.) “It’s about societies that hate each other, and how those hatreds are quite impersonal,” says Strassberger.
It would have been easy to contemporize Meyerbeer’s work into a modern political/religious struggle, but Strassberger was intent on preserving the original content, while clothing it in fresh garb, literally—the cast will be wearing designs inspired by leading French couturiers. The artistic team includes Spanish designer and filmmaker Eugenio Recuenco. Leon Botstein will conduct the American Symphony Orchestra.
Strassberger has worked with both of the romantic leads before—and attributes both Alexandra DeShorties
(Valentine) and Michael Spyers (Raoul) as having unclassifiable voices with fantastic range, possessing the necessary “color and ability and emotional clarity.”
When it comes to operas, it’s not only the players and producers who invest—it’s the audience. “Because it’s a long piece, you need to stick with it,” the director says. With a cast of more than 100, a majestic orchestra and dancers, it’s sure to deliver a visceral thrill. “Many blessings come over the course of five hours,” says Strassberger.
“Les Huguenots” will be performed at Bard College’s Fisher Center on Friday, July 31, at 7pm; Sunday, August 2, at 3pm; Wednesday, August 5, at 3pm; and Friday, August 7, at 7pm. (845) 758-7900; www.fishercenter.bard.edu.