IT is not surprising that the massacre of St. Bartholomew should have attracted such a composer as Giacomo Meyerbeer. The terrible scene immediately suggests a blaze of orchestral chords, seething strings, and shrieking brass, a style in which Meyer-beer delighted. He secured the collaboration of the celebrated French dramatist Eugene Scribe, who apparently went to work at this libretto by writing the fourth act first and then forcing the preceding situations to fit together as best they would. The result is not wholly satisfactory; but where the plot is vague the music is clear and strong enough to carry our emotions over chasms of inconsistencies.
The great theme of the opera is the Huguenot hymn, a thrilling song of faith, with firm, bold harmonies that express unswerving belief. This hymn is used in the overture with grand effect. It is sustained and upheld clear and strong amid the murmurings and attacks of surrounding variations until it finally bursts forth in untrammeled splendor like the supremacy of religious faith.
The curtain rises upon a banquet-hall in the mansion of Count de Nevers, who is a gay young nobleman of Touraine, the province of France in which the first two acts occur. Nevers is giving a supper to his comrades, and the first chorus is the celebrated drinking-song, a refrain so abounding in good cheer that it predisposes one in favor of the whole opera. The revelers are all Romanists, with the exception of Raoul de Nangis, a young Huguenot, who because of recent promotion in the army has been included among the guests. Ne-vers proposes a toast to ” our sweethearts,” and gaily adds that he must soon forego such frivolities as he is to be married. Some one suggests that they all recount their love affairs, and Raoul is requested to begin. He relates an adventure wherein he rescued a beautiful lady from the rude insults of some boisterous students. He has not seen her since and knows not her name, but she dwellsin his heart. His glowing description of the heroine is a verbal portrait framed in music of golden beauty. t is the best tenor solo of the opera.
After this love-story some surprise is caused by the entrance of Marcel, a Huguenot soldier, who is Raoul’s faithful attendant and has followed his young master to this banquet merely to be near and watch over him. Marcel much disapproves of this “feasting in the camp of the Philistines,” as he terms it, and by way of atonement he renders in a loud voice that fervid hymn which the Huguenots always sing when in danger. Raoul begs his friends to excuse the rough soldier, and they promptly attest their good will by inviting Marcel to drink. He declines the wine, but consents to sing for them. His song has a wild refrain like the firing of musketry, ” Piff-paff-piff, and it is a celebrated bass aria.
When this whizzing composition is ended a servant informs the host that a strange visitor would like to speak with him privately. Nevers at first refuses to see any one ; but on learning that it is a veiled lady he changes his mind and goes out, after laughingly announcing that he is thus constantly sought by handsome women. During his absence the others joke about the incognita and handle her reputation lightly. They look through a window and see her conversing with Nevers in his private apartment. At sight of her face Raoul re-coils, for this clandestine visitor is none other than the heroine of his romancethe beauty to whom he had lost his heart. His ideal is shattered by the discovery. When Nevers returns the audience learns from an aside remark that the lady was his prospective bride, Valentine de St. Bris, and that she came to beg release from her promise. He has reluctantly complied, but does not inform his guests of the matter. At this moment a richly attired young page presents himself. t is Urban, the contralto role, who after bowing gracefully on all sides sings a charming and celebrated aria, ” Nobil donna,”” a noble lady. sends by me a missive to one of these gentlemen.” Such is the substance of this exquisite song with its chivalrous melody, surrounded by rococo embellishments that seem as appropriate to the pretty page as are his Louis Quinze slippers and point-lace ruffs. The note is addressed to Raoul, a fact that occasions some surprise. The young Huguenot reads aloud what sounds like a practical joke, for the paper tells that a court carriage is in waiting to convey him blindfolded to an unnamed destination. His companions urge him to go, for they have recognized the seal as belonging to Queen Margaret of Touraine ; but Raoul does not know this. He, however, accepts their advice, and al-lows himself to be blindfolded in spite of protests from Marcel. They sing a bewitching ensemble that is finally resolved into the familiar drinking-song. With these rollicking measures Raoul is led away by the page and the curtain descends.
The opening of the second act is like a musical miragetone-phantasies suspended in the air. We see before us the luxuriant palace gardens where Margaret, queen of Touraine, is surrounded by her maids of honor. Terraces and fountains, jeweled hands and feathered fans, vibrant harps and caroling flute combine to form an effect of elegant repose. Margaret is the rôle for colorature soprano, in contradistinction to the heroine, Valentine, which is for dramatic soprano. The music of the queen is very beautiful and so difficult that it re-quires a great artist, altho there is but the one important scene. t is considered by some to be Madame Melba’s best rôle.
Her first aria is about ” this fair land,” and we incidentally learn that she deplores the existing dissension between Catholics and Huguenots, the one blot upon the perfeet peace of Touraine. Her court ladies presently sing an idyllic refrain, and Margaret joins in their song; but while the others abide by the simple melody she decks it out with colorature spangles quite befitting a queen. After another florid solo the favorite maid of honor, Valentine de St. Bris, enters. She wears a riding costume and has just returned from her venturesome interview with De Nevers, who, as she joy-fully announces, has released all claim to her hand. We soon learn that Valentine loves Raoul and has confided in the queen, who is planning the marriage of these two, which she much desires because it will unite the leading families of Catholics and Huguenots. The queen rather delights in playing the good fairy, and for this reason has summoned Raoul in the mysterious fashion witnessed in the first act. Before he arrives there is another chorus, called the ” song of the bathers.” A harp accompaniment like rustling leaves plays around the melody, which is of eolian sweetness, until suddenly, like a fitful breeze, there comes an elfish measure all in the treble. After a brief disporting of this air-sprite we hear again the soft eolian harmonies, which rise and fall until lulled into silence. The page Urban announces that a stranger is approaching, and the maids of honor gather around as he tells of this young cavalier who comes with blindfolded eyes and knows not his destination. Urban’s song is brimming over with mischievous coquetry. Its opening words are simply, ” No, no, no, no, no, no, you never heard so strange a tale.” The court ladies are all in a flutter of curiosity when Raoul is led in, and they would like to see the outcome of this adventure ; but the queen orders them away.
Now follows a scene that is full of quaint themes and ingenious duets, a musical branch with many blossoms. Raoul is permitted to remove the bandage from his eyes. He looks with wonder upon the beautiful scene, and then addresses elegant phrases of adoration to the fair lady before him. She is not devoid of coquetrythis queen of Touraineand for some moments there is a graceful game between the two in which the shuttlecock of love is tossed upon the battledores of music. But it is only a game, and the toy is presently dropped. Urban enters to announce that some noble-men of Touraine have come to attend the queen. Raoul is amazed to learn the lady’s identity, and Margaret hastens to inform him that in order to unite the Huguenots and Catholics of her province she has arranged a marriage between him and the daughter of St. Bris. Raoul bows obedience to her wish.
The Catholics and Protestants enter in stately procession and group themselves on either side of the stage, Raoul and Marcel heading the Huguenots, while St. Bris and Nevers represent the opposite side. Margaret welcomes them in musical phrases that are right royal. She informs St. Bris and Nevers that the king of France requests their immediate presence in Paris, and she then makes her own request, which is that Huguenots and Catholics shall lay aside all enmity and sanction the marriage that she has arranged. They sing a splendid refrain calling upon heaven to witness their vow of future fellowship. This scene contains some fine climaxes, and several brilliant cadenzas for the queen. Margaret sends for Valentine, and expects Raoul to be thrilled with delight when he recognizes the heroine of his romance. But as Valentine comes forward, Raoul gives an exclamation of indignant surprise, for he thinks some great insult is implied in asking him to marry this woman who secretly visits De Nevers and who has been the subject of jests. Without explanation he firmly re-fuses to accept her for his bride. The consternation hereby aroused is admirably expressed in the music. The first measures are hushed, as tho the chorus were dumb-founded; but they soon gain their voices and denounce Raoul in ringing tones. Valentine exclaims, ” What have I done to earn such disgrace ? ” and the theme is taken up in grand form by the others. Every now and then we catch the firm tones of Marcel who amid all this dissension is singing his Huguenot hymn. St. Bris draws his sword, but the queen forbids a duel in her presence, and reminds him that he must go at once to Paris. Raoul declares he will follow and is ready to fight St. Bris at any time. The action and music increase in strength until the curtain falls.
Act III. pictures an open square in Paris, the Pré-aux-Clercs, which extends back to the river. There are two taverns and a church in the foreground, and the stage is filled with a mingled crowd. After an opening chorus of promenaders some Huguenot soldiers come forward and sing a march that is equally stirring and much resembles our own ” Rally ’round the flag.” t is, however, more elaborate, and has a surprising effect in which the upper voices sing a steady accompaniment of ” derum-dedum-dum,” while words and melody are in the bass. There follows a sharp contrast in the song of some Catholic maidens on their way to church. Purity and simplicity are expressed by the slender accompaniment of flute and clarionet. The people kneel as they hear this ” Ave Maria,” but Marcel, who has just entered, refuses to do so. The Catholics are angered, while the Huguenots side with Marcel. There is a vigorous ensemble in which the ” Ave Maria” and soldiers’ chorus are admirably combined, and through it all are heard the disputing cries of the two factions. A general scuffle would ensue were it not for a sudden diversion in the form of some brightly clad gypsies who enter and solicit trade in fortune-telling. Their song is as gay as their costume, and they wind up with a fantastic dance. The orchestra music is here more deserving of attention than the stage picture. The principal melody has the quaint conceit of reiterating one note through five beats, and then with a quick turn reeling on to the next, like a dancer poising on one foot until forced to whirl upon the other.
After this divertissement, St. Bris, his friend Maurevert, and de Nevers come out of the church where they have left Valentine, who, we now learn, is after all to marry Nevers and this is their wedding-day. The bridegroom goes to bring his retinue to escort the bride home, and St. Bris felicitates himself for bringing about this union which wipes out the disgrace of Raoul’s refusal. His remarks are interrupted by Marcel, who delivers a letter from his master which designates the Pré-aux-Clercs as meeting-place and an “hour after sundown” the time for their deferred duel. Maure-vert suggests to St. Bris that the Huguenot deserves more punishment than can be meted out in honorable combat, and the two friends retire in consultation.
The stage is darkened and we hear the curfew bell, while a watchman goes through the street chanting a drowsy refrain that tells all good people to close their doors and retire. Maurevert and St. Bris again cross the stage, and we glean from their few words that a plot is brewing for Raoul’s destruction. But Valentine has been standing at the church door and overheard their talk. She is much alarmed, and wishes to warn Raoul, but knows of no way until suddenly she hears and recognizes the voice of Marcel. She calls to him, and he asks : ” Who calls in the night? Explain at once or I will fire !” Valentine quickly thinks to speak the potent name ” Raoul.” Meyerbeer has very aptly used for this call the interval of the perfect fifth, which is known as the cry of nature, because it is the most natural interval to fall upon when calling in the open air. The milkmaid calling her cows or the huckster vending his wares will most often be found singing the perfect fifth.
On hearing the name of his master Marcel is satisfied and comes forward to investigate, but Valentine’s face is concealed by her bridal veil. She tells him that his master should be well armed and have strong friends near in the coming duel, else he will fall the victim of a plot. Valentine starts to go, but Marcel detains her with the question, ” Who art thou? ” She hesitates and then answers, ” A woman who loves Raoul.” In a highly dramatic aria whose phrases are like storm-tossed billows on a restless deep-sea accompaniment she confesses that in saving the one she loves she has “betrayed her own father.” The two voices finally work together as is the fashion of duets, and end up with a flourishing climax. At this point occurs the famous high C which Madame Nordica so brilliantly sustains and crescendos throughout four measures. t is a tour de force which always brings down the house. Valentine now re-enters the church as the principals and seconds of the duel approach. Marcel tries to warn his master, but Raoul will not listen to suspicions, for he believes his opponent to be honorable. There follows a splendid septet, in which Raoul sings the leading refrain buoyant with youthful courage, The ensemble is occasionally interspersed with the religious tones of Marcel, who prays Heaven to interfere. A grand, swinging theme in which all the voices move together like a great pendulum is the final of this septet.
The duel begins, but Marcel, who is on the alert, hears approaching footsteps and draws his sword. Maurevert enters and cries out as prearranged : ” A duel with unfair numbers! More Huguenots than Catholics ! Help ! ” whereupon his followers rush in and surround Raoul. But at this moment the Huguenot soldiers who are merry-making in the tavern commence singing their jolly ” derum – de – dum – dum, ” whereupon Marcel rushes to the door and sings in thundering tones the Protestant hymn, which the soldiers within at once recognize as a signal of danger. They hurry out, and then follows a lively commotion on all sides. But there are more words than blows, and the excitement is presently quelled by the ceremonious entrance of Queen Margaret who has just arrived in Paris. She is much displeased to come upon party dissension. St. Bris blames Raoul, while the Huguenot charges St. Bris with treachery. At this moment Valentine comes from the church, and Marcel relates how she warned him of a plot. There is general amazement on hearing this. Raoul now thinks to make some inquiries about this lady he had so unhesitatingly condemned, and learns how terrible was his mistake. St. Bris enjoys telling him that she is the bride of De Nevers, and we hear the approaching music of the nuptial barge. An illuminated flotilla appears at the back of the stage, and Nevers steps upon the bank. He addresses to Valentine some gallant phrases of welcome, and escorts her to the boat as his splendid retinue sing a joyous wedding-march. The curtain falls upon a whirl of gay music.
Scribe is on terra firma in the fourth act, which is really the nucleus of the plot, and is perhaps the most dramatic love-scene of any grand opera. The curtain rises upon an apartment in the house of Nevers, and Valentine is alone. The opening orchestral measures seem oppressed with a tuneful despair that is soon explained by her song, wherein she bewails this forced marriage, for her heart still cherishes Raoul. The hero suddenly appears at her door, and Valentine thinks she is dreaming until Raoul announces that he has come “like a criminal in the night, risking all ” for the sake of seeing her and craving forgiveness. They hear approaching footsteps, and Valentine prevails upon him to enter a side room just as her father and husband come in at the main door with a company of Catholic noblemen. They are too interested in themselves to note Valentine’s agitation, and she, being a Catholic, is allowed to re-main while her father unfolds the awful plan sanctioned by Catherine de Medicis to “wipe the Huguenots from the face of the earth.” The great theme of this conjuration-scene, ” blessed is revenge, obey the good cause,” is softly sung by St. Bris and then taken up by the others in broad harmonies that swell out and sweep forward like a mighty torrent. When the tone-waves are again tranquil St. Bris bids his friends swear allegiance to the royal decree, and all comply with the exception of De Nevers, who declares he can not join in such murder. There is graceful nobility in his music and fervor in his words.
The details of the plot are sung by St. Bris in hushed, hurried tones : how ” to-night when strikes the bell of St. Germaine ” the Catholics shall rush upon the unsuspecting Huguenots. He then admits into the room a group of monks, who tie white scarfs upon the conspirators and bless their uplifted swords. The music of this scene is grandly sustained by the orchestra, but the ensemble is difficult and requires much rehearsing, for it abounds in surprising fortes and pianissimos.
When the conspirators are gone, Raoul starts from his hiding-place toward the door, but Valentine intercepts the way. He wishes to fight for his friends or die with them, but she begs him to stay. There follows a thrilling duet in which the voices pursue each other with growing intensity. The tempo is rapid, and the phrases short and breathless. The first minor melody is soft, but throbbing with suppressed emotion like the strange light and peculiar hush preceding a tempest. Then the music rushes into the major, where it reels and sways like an anchored ship that must soon break its moorings. The soprano voice rises upon G, A, B flat, B natural, and finally C, where all bonds seem loosed and the music re-bounds in a rapid descending chromatic run. Then comes a furious passage in which the orchestra conductor uses his baton like a Roman charioteer lashing his steeds. Valentine places herself before the door, and in a desperate moment she declares, ” Thou must not go, for, RaoulI love thee ! ” This confession is followed by a transporting duet that brings oblivion to other memories. Its mellifluous melody is written pianissimo, dolce, legato, amoroso, and the orchestra carries it one measure behind the voice, thus keeping the theme constantly in the air like a sweet incense.
A bell in the distance suddenly scatters all lingering harmonies. t is the bell of St. Germaine, and Raoul is aroused to reality. He sings a dramatic refrain about duty and honor, but Valentine still entreats him to stay. Her song is simple as a lullaby but powerful in effect, and he is distracted between her pleadings and the cries from the street. Flinging open the window, he shows her the terrible scene of massacre. A lurid light falls upon them, and there is murder in the orchestral music. Valentine swoons. Raoul looks with anguish upon her prostrate form and we hear the struggle he endures. The melody of Valentine’s last sweet song predominates for a moment in the orchestra, but then the noise of the massacre is resumed. Raoul hesitates no longer. One farewell glance, and he rushes with drawn sword through the open window to the street.
Unlike many operas in which the fourth act is the greatest, the finale of ” The Huguenots ” is of sustained intensity and not an anti-climax. This fifth act is often omitted, however, as it makes the opera very long. The scene represents a street at nightmen, women, and children cross the stage and take refuge in a church. Raoul and Marcel chance to meet, and they are soon surprised by the entrance of Valentine, who has recklessly followed the hero. She wears the white scarf which betokens Catholicism and has brought one for Raoul, but he refuses this mode of escape. Valentine then flings her own emblem away and declares she will join his faith. The music of this entire act is most thrilling. We hear the women in the church singing as a last prayer that grand Huguenot hymn and in the distance a chorus of murderers as they make their awful progress through the streets. This massacre music is blood-curdling; its steady, muffled tread sounds like marching over a paving of dead bodies.
The waiting figures in the foreground again hold our attention. Marcel relates how he witnessed the death of De Nevers, and on learning that Valentine is free these lovers kneel before the Huguenot soldier, who blesses their union. The choral in the church is again heard, and those outside join in its splendid harmonies. Valentine sings with the fervor of her new-found faith, ” Hosanna, from on high the clarion sounds ! ” This last trio resembles the finale of “Faust” in that the theme rises higher and higher, like a flaming fire, to be quenched at last by Death. The murder-chorus is heard approaching, and soon a group of massacrers enter. ” Who is there? ” they ask.
” Huguenot ! ” replies the hero, and in ringing tones a woman’s voice cries out, ” Huguenot ! ” ” Fire ! ” orders St. Bris, who thereby kills his own daughter.