In 2017, the Opera celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation by staging Les Huguenots, the wonderful grand opéra by Giacomo Meyerbeer.
The story is based on one of the most horrible events in the French Wars of Religion: the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, when thousands of French Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) gathered in Paris were butchered with the assent of the king.
The piece is one of the most brilliant examples of French grande opera, conquering the entire globe soon after its world premiere in Paris. It has remained one of the most popular and frequently played operatic works ever since.
August 1572, after the peace ending the Third French War of Religion between Catholics and Protestants.
Act I (BACCHUS / AMOR)
In the castle of the count of Nevers in Tourain, the Catholic noblemen are revelling with abandon. There is one more guest that the host is expecting: the company is surprised by the arrival in their midst of the Protestant Raoul de Nangis. At the urging of the gentlemen, Raoul relates how he met a lady whose name he didn't know, but with whom he fell in love at first sight. Also appearing presently is Raoul's servant, the profoundly Protestant soldier Marcel. He implores God to protect his master from the depraved lifestyle of the Catholics. One of the nobles, Cossé, recognises Marcel as being the one who gave him a scar in the Battle of La Rochelle; as a peace offering, he invites Marcel to drink with him, but the Protestant refuses. Egged on by the company, he too finally performs a song: a provocative Huguenot march. The tense situation is lifted when a footman reports to Nevers the arrival of an unknown lady. The count rushes to the neighbouring room to receive the beautiful visitor. The envious guests peek at the woman through the curtained window, and Raoul is astonished to recognise the visitor as his mysterious love, whom he now takes to be engaged in an illicit liaison with Nevers. Laughing at the thunderstruck Raoul, the gentleman file off into the background. Nevers returns in a grim mood: the secret visitor was his fiancée and had come to end their engagement. But the count reveals nothing of these events to the guests.
Next to arrive is Urbain, Queen Marguerite's page, there to deliver a letter from his mistress to Raoul summoning him to a secret meeting with her majesty. The gentlemen suddenly start to bow and scrape before the fortunate young man, who is blindfolded and led off to the queen's presence.
Act II (AMOR/ JESUS)
Queen Marguerite and her ladies-in-waiting are enjoying the lush parks of Chenonceau Castle and the cool waters of the River Cher, while Urbain watches the lovely queen with eyes full of yearning. Marguerite's favourite lady-in-waiting, Valentine, returns home from Touraine after having broken off her engagement with Nevers at the queen's orders. Marguerite's plan is to ensure peace between Protestants and Catholics with two marriages: one between Valentine and Raoul, and the other between the Protestant Henry of Navarre and herself. The queen receives Raoul alone and tells him that, for the sake of peace, he must marry the daughter of his arch-enemy, the Count of Saint-Bris. Raoul bows to the sovereign's wishes. A procession of Protestant and Catholic dignitaries file in, summoned by Marguerite to serve as witnesses. As the bride is led in, Raoul is astonished to recognise his beloved, the lady he glimpsed in Nevers. Offended, he declares that he is not willing to marry this woman. As the queen prevents Raoul and Saint-Bris from duelling right then and there, the two enemies postpone taking their vengeance until later.
Act III (HOPE / ATTACK)
In Paris, the city's inhabitants are strolling in the Pré-aux-Clercs: the vehement singing of the Huguenot soldiers is interrupted by a Catholic psalm as Nevers and Valentine's wedding procession heads for the nearby church. After the ceremony, Nevers departs in order to return later, in great splendour, for his praying bride. After Marcel delivers to Saint-Bris a letter from Raoul challenging the count to a duel, the Catholic nobleman Maurevert urges Saint-Bris to use the duel as a pretext to assassinate Raoul. The bell tolls to signal curfew, and the square empties, leaving only Marcel there, afraid for his master. Upon finishing her prayers and after having secretly eavesdropped on her father and Maurevert's plotting against Raoul, Valentine exits the chapel and notices the presence of Marcel, who does not recognise her. She convinces him that he will not allow his master to fight, and then leaves him there alone. Raoul, Saint-Bris and their seconds arrives at the appointed spot. Marcel approaches his master to inform him about the lady's warning, but Raoul is unwilling to back down from the contest. The duel commences, but shortly afterwards Maurevert appears, accompanied by two men-at-arms. Taking advantage of Marcel's presence as evidence that Protestants are gathering in overpowering numbers, he cries treachery. Marcel calls the Protestant soldiers from the nearby tavern, and the Catholics also rush into the square – only the appearance of the queen puts an end to the altercation between the two camps. Marguerite demands an explanation. Marcel reveals that a mysterious lady tipped him off to Saint-Bris's plot – in fact, he even recognises her in the crowd: it was Valentine. Astonished, Saint-Bris gazes at his daughter and betrayer. Raoul, however, now knows that Valentine loves him and that the reason she had visited Nevers was to call of their engagement. Raoul pleads with Saint-Bris for Valentine's hand in marriage, but the count triumphantly informs him that the girl has been the wife of another young man since that morning. The groom himself then appears with his stately entourage: Nevers has arrived to take his bride home. The joyful singing from the wedding procession intermingles with the vengeful voices of the Catholics and Protestants.
Act IV (CROSS)
In the Paris house of the count of Nevers, Valentine is overcome with sorrow. Suddenly Raoul appears, there to see his love one last time. When they hear the approaching footsteps of Nevers and Saint-Bris, Valentine conceals the young man. Saint-Bris reveals to the Catholic nobles the order that has come from Catherine de Medici, the king's mother: that night at midnight, they are to launch a lethal attack on the unsuspecting Huguenots. Alone in considering the attack dishonourable, Nevers refuses to participate. Saint-Bris has his son-in-law escorted out and explains the details of the attack: as soon as the bells of Saint-Germain signal midnight, they'll slay the Huguenots's chief commander, Admiral Coligny, and slaughter the Protestants. Three monks bless the conspirators' daggers. After the noblemen file out, Raoul emerges from his hiding place. Even Valentine's pleading isn't enough to restrain him from rushing off to save his brethren.
Act V (MERCY)
Scene One – Every prominent Protestant in France is gathered in the Hôtel Nesle Palace at a celebration in honour of Queen Marguerite and Henry of Navarre. Over the bustle of the ball, the bell is heard tolling midnight. His clothes stained in blood, Raoul appears to bring his compatriots news of the attack: Coligny is dead, and slain Protestants are lying in heaps on the streets. Crying for revenge, the men rush out.
Scene Two – That same night, Raoul meets the wounded Marcel in the garden of a cemetery. The neighbouring church is the Protestants' last sanctuary. Valentine arrives, there to save Raoul. If Raoul converts to her Catholic faith, then the queen will deliver him from danger, and he and Valentine can also marry, since her husband, the Count of Nevers, lost his life in the awful carnage while fighting on the Protestant side. Raoul is unable to renounce his religion, so Valentine decides that she will become a Protestant in order to become Raoul's wife. While the Huguenot women pray in the church, Marcel marries the couple. The Catholic assailents break into the church and massacre the Protestants hiding inside. Then they burst into the cemetery garden and demand that Marcel and the newly wedded couple convert – and are rebuffed.
Scene Three – Later in the night, massacring Catholics are roaming the streets of Paris with Saint-Bris at their head, as Valentine and Marcel prop up the mortally wounded Raoul. When the murderers open fire on them, Valentine collapses dead. Saint-Bris is astonished to realize that he has killed his own daughter. Passing by the scene on her way home from the wedding ball, the queen is horrified to see Valentine's dead body. Bloodthirsty cries from the Catholics ring out in the night.