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July/Aug at Bard SummerScape: “Le prophète,” Meyerbeer’s grand opera

(April 2024, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY) — As a highlight of the 2024 Bard SummerScape
festival, 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

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.

SummerScape tickets

Tickets for mainstage events start at $25. For complete information regarding tickets,
series discounts, and more, visit or call Bard’s box office at (845)

The Fisher Center is generously supported by Jeanne Donovan Fisher, the Martin & Toni Sosnoff Foundation, Felicitas S. Thorne, the
Advisory Boards of the Fisher Center at Bard and Bard Music Festival, Fisher Center and Bard Music Festival members, the
Educational Foundation of America, the Ettinger Foundation, the Herman Goldman Foundation, the Thendara Foundation, and the
New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature.

To download high-resolution photos, click here.

Opera at SummerScape 2024

Le prophète (1849)
Composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer
Libretto by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps

Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Friday, July 26 at 6:30pm (Premiere Party at 5pm; Opening Night Intermission Toast)
Sunday, July 28 at 2pm (Pre-Performance Opera Talk with Leon Botstein at 12pm)
Wed, July 31 at 2pm
Friday, August 2 at 4pm (Post-Performance Maestro Dinner at 8:30pm)
Sunday, August 4 at 2pm

The July 31 performance will stream live online at 2pm EDT, with an encore presentation at
5pm EDT on Aug 3.

Round-trip transportation from New York City is available on July 28 and August 4.

American Symphony Orchestra
Bard Festival Chorale
Conducted by Leon Botstein
Directed by Christian Räth
Set design: Christian Räth and Daniel Unger
Costume design: Mattie Ullrich
Choreography: Catherine Galasso
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Projection: Elaine McCarthy

Jean de Leyde: Robert Watson, tenor
Fidès: Jennifer Feinstein, mezzo-soprano
Berthe: Amina Edris, soprano
Zacharie (Anabaptist 1): Harold Wilson, bass
Mathisen (Anabaptist 2): Wei Wu, bass
Jonas (Anabaptist 3): Frederick Ballentine, tenor
Oberthal: Zachary Altman, bass-baritone

Sung in French with English supertitles

“Dramatic Legend” at 2024 Bard Music Festival, “Berlioz and His World”

La damnation de Faust (1846)
Composed by Hector Berlioz

Program Eleven: “Faust and the Spirit of the 19th Century”
Sunday, August 18
Sosnoff Theater
2pm: pre-concert talk
3pm: performance

American Symphony Orchestra
Bard Festival Chorale
Conducted by Leon Botstein

Faust: Joshua Blue, tenor
Marguerite: Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Méphistophélès : Alfred Walker, bass-baritone
Brander: Stefan Egerstrom, bass

This performance will stream live online on August 18 at 3pm EDT.

Round-trip transportation from New York City is available for this performance.

All programs subject to change

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© 21C Media Group, April 2024

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