The Story of Les Huguenots

Opera in French in Five Acts

by

Giacomo Meyerbeer

Libretto by Eugene Scribe and Emile Deschamps

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Casts of Les Huguenots in 19th c. Paris and London

Les Huguenots in 19th c. Paris

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First performance at Paris Opera, February 29, 1836

Time: August, 1572

Cast of Characters

Marguerite de Valois, sister of
Charles IX of France

Soprano

Urbain, her page

Mezzo Soprano

Catholic Noblemen

 

Count de Saint-Bris

Baritone

Count de Nevers

Baritone

Count Maurevert

Bass

Catholic Gentlemen

 

Cossé

Tenor

Méru

Baritone

Thoré

Baritone

Tavannes

Tenor

 

 

Valentine, daughter of Saint-Bris

Soprano

Raoul de Nangis, a Huguenot nobleman

Tenor

Marcel, servant to Raoul

Bass

Bois-Rosé, a Huguenots soldier

Tenor

Introduction

There is civil strife between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. Charles IX is King is Paris. The Queen Mother, Catherine Medici, in a political move to quell the violence, has arranged for the marriage of her daughter Marguerite de Valois to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant leader.

Prelude

The orchestral prelude introduces and develops Luther's Chorale "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" in varying tempos. This is a leading motive of the protestants and Marcel. The prelude builds in volume and the tempo quickens, leading into the opening scene of Act I.

 

Act I

Locale - Castle of Count de Nevers in Touraine

Nevers, as one of the leading Catholic noblemen is hosting a feast. He announces to the group that he expects a visitor, a Huguenot (protestant) nobleman, and he asks that tolerance be shown. Raoul de Nangis is introduced, and the banquet begins with a rousing drinking song in praise of wine and women. A toast is proposed to everyone's mistress, but the Huguenots guest, Raoul, declines to participate. He says that he has given his heart to an unknown woman whom he saved one day from a gang of rowdy students. He sings of his love a a beautiful aria to viola accompaniment, Plus blanche que la blanche hermine. The assembled group snicker.

(Real Audio -- Enrico Caruso sings "Bianca al par" - Plus blanche in Italian -- 1919 recording)

(Real Audio -- Franco Corelli sings "Bianca al par" - Plus blanche in Italian -- 1962 Milan recording)

Raoul's servant Marcel enters and warns Raoul against making friendships with these Catholics, singing the Lutheran Chorale melody. He admits that in battle he administered the scar to Cossé, one of the Catholic guests. When Cossé invites the old soldier to drink, Marcel refuses, and instead sings the Huguenots battle song, attacking the pope. His song contains the onomatopoetic Piff paff piff poof, a glorification of previous battles with Catholics.

A female visitor in the garden is announced to Nevers, and the entire group (who know Nevers is engaged to be married) assume it is but another mistress. Raoul looks through the window with the others, and is shocked to observe the young lady with whom he himself is in love. He swears vengeance. But he fails to overhear Nevers upon his return, who states that the young woman was Valentine, his fiancée, a protégée of the Queen. She in fact had come to asked to be released from engagement, and Nevers had reluctantly acquiesced.

The page Urbain enters and announces that she has a message from an important noblewoman. Nobles seigneurs, salut! Though everyone present believes the message is for Nevers, it is in fact for Raoul. It requests him to go to a rendezvous blindfolded. Though thinking it some sort of joke, he decides to go. But Nevers and the noblemen recognize the seal of Marguerite de Valois, the King's sister, and they show renewed respect for Raoul.

Act II

Garden of the castle of Marguerite de Valois in Touraine

Marguerite waits for Raoul to arrive, and sings of the beautiful countryside. O beau pays de la Touraine! The Queen has sent for Raoul in order to arrange the marriage between Raoul and Valentine, a Catholic and the daughter of Saint-Bris. She believes that this marriage, between Protestant and Catholic, will help prevent civil strife.

The page Urbain is present, having led Raoul through the streets blindfolded. After Raoul is led in, Marguerite announces that she wishes to speak with Raoul alone. The ladies leave the court, and Raoul's blindfold is removed. Marguerite tells him he is to marry Valentine, and Raoul consents, not knowing if he even met the girl. Raoul pledges loyalty to Marguerite in an impressive duet.

Catholic and Protestant courtiers arrive. Some letters are delivered to Marguerite which demand, in the name of the King that the Catholics return to Paris for an important project. But before they leave, Marguerite demands and receives pledges of peace and everlasting friendship from both sides.

Saint-Bris brings in his daughter Valentine. Raoul recognizes her as his former love, whom he thinks is Nevers' mistress. He is outraged and refuses. The Catholics think he is mad, and vow blood vengeance for the insult. Marcel calls upon God.

Act III

The Pré aux Clercs region of Paris

A group of Huguenots sing the Rataplan chorus, a capella, praising their leader, Admiral Coligny. A chorus of Catholic nuns singing the Ave Maria follows, preceding the marriage of Valentine to Nevers (as originally planned). When the marriage party arrives, Marcel approaches and asks disrespectfully for Saint-Bris, but violence is aborted when a group of gypsies arrive who perform a dance.

Valentine remains in the Church to pray. Marcel delivers a challenge from Raoul to Saint-Bris to a duel that very night. Maurevert, a friend of Saint-Bris, suggests that there are other ways to handle Raoul, and they retire to the church to plot an ambush of Raoul. Valentine overhears and emerges from the church seeking to warn Raoul -- for she loves him, despite the fact that he has spurned her. Marcel tells her it is too late, for Raoul has left for the duel. Marcel awaits, vowing loyalty to his master.

The principals arrive, but Marcel is aware that they are surrounded by Catholics who will ambush Raoul. Marcel knocks on the tavern door, calling for Coligny, and Huguenots soldiers emerge. Catholics arrive, ready for battle. Bloodshed is averted with the arrival of Marguerite. All are informed of the plot uncovered by the veiled lady, Valentine, who emerges from the church. When Raoul sees that it is she who has saved him. he is in love with her again. Saint-Bris, along with everyone else is shocked that his own daughter has betrayed him.

Nevers, the bridegroom, unknowing of the plot, arrives on a gaily decorated barge ready to claim his bride. There is general rejoicing for the coming wedding, except among the Protestants, Raoul and Valentine. There is a rousing finale of these conflicting emotions.

Act IV

August 24, 1572

Valentine, in the home of her new husband, bewails the loss of her true love. Parmi les pleurs. Raoul enters. He has come to bid her a farewell before dying. When she tells him that her father (Saint-Bris) and Nevers are due at any moment, he consents to hide behind a curtain. The Catholic noblemen gather and learn from Saint-Bris that Catherine de Medici, the Queen mother, has decreed a general massacre of all Protestants that very night. The Protestant leaders will all be gathered at the Hotel de Neslé that night to celbrate the marriage of Marguerite de Valois to Henry of Navarre. Nevers declares that he will have nothing to do with this and breaks his sword. Saint-Bris orders him arrested. There follows the famous Benediction of the Swords. At the close, Saint-Bris distribute white scarves, so that the Catholics can identify each other in the fighting. Raoul has overheard all of this. When the Catholics leave, Raoul and Valentine are alone together, and sing a long duet. Raoul is torn between his love for Valentine and his devotion to duty. Laissez moi partir. Valentine fears for her loved ones. Raoul, upon hearing the church bell, opts to help his Protestants, and jumps from the window. Valentine faints.

 

Note: Many productions of the opera omit Act V entirely. It is the opinion of the author that Act V should never be omitted -- it is essential to the drama

Act V

Scene 1

At the Hotel de Neslé, the Huguenots are celebrating the marriage of Marguerite and Henry of Navarre. Raoul arrives wounded, and informs all present that all the Protestant churches are burning, and Coligny has been murdered. The men draw their swords and leave with Raoul.

Scene 2

A Protestant Church. Raoul, Valentine and a badly wounded Marcel are reunited. Raoul wants to return to the fighting. Valentine urges him to wear a white scarf and flee with her to the protection of the Queen, but he refuses, even as reports of Nevers' death surface. He will not wear the white scarf or give up his religion. Finally, Valentine says she will convert to Protestantism for his love, and they kneel before Marcel to bless their union. The Catholic soldiers break in and drag them off.

Scene 3

Along the quays of the Seine, Marcel, Raoul and Valentine, who have managed to escape their captors, are helping the wounded. Saint-Bris appears and demands to know who they are. Raoul, who will not deny hi faith, shouts "Huguenots!" and Saint-Bris orders his men to shoot them. Too late, he realizes that he has ordered his own daughter killed.

Marguerite de Valois passes by in a carriage and is amazed to see the bodies stretched out before her. When the curtain falls, the soldiers are still swearing to wipe out all Protestants.

Copyright 1998 Stephen A. Agus

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Related articles on this site:

Casts of Les Huguenots in 19th c. Paris and London

Les Huguenots in 19th c. Paris

Reviews of OONY Les Huguenots at New York's Carnegie Hall, April 23, 2001 (added April 28, 2001)

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