Mark Elder
Mark Elder | Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Mark Elder and the London Symphony Orchestra have released a splendid recording of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s five-act operatic extravaganza Le prophète (1849). Spread over three discs, the live album from Festival d’Aix-en-Provence was recorded in ultra high-resolution multi-channel DSD256 and is best appreciated via SACD or hi-res streaming.

Elder has many things going for him. First and foremost are his three superb leads: tenor John Osborn as Jean de Leyde, the prophet of the title; high-flying mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Fidès, Jean’s beloved mother, a role premiered by the famed Pauline Viardot; and soprano Mané Galoyan as Berthe, Jean’s fianceé. Next, Elder has the fully committed London Symphony Orchestra joined by three choruses (one of which, the Lyon Opera Chorus under Benedict Kearns, tends to shout under pressure).

Finally, Elder’s conducting reflects a belief in the opera that is so strong that it more or less prevails over the absurdities of Meyerbeer’s grand excesses and Eugène Scribe’s plot. Le prophète, after all, is a spectacle whose premiere included the Paris Opera’s first use of electrical lighting to suggest a sunrise and which racked up a startling 565 performances in Paris between 1849 and the start of World War I.

CD cover

Le prophète’s plot is easy to dismiss until one reflects on the unfortunate resurrection of its themes, in very different guise, in the religious culture wars currently dividing Americans. Jean, an innkeeper with an uncanny resemblance to the Old Testament’s King David, is deeply devoted to Fidès, who in turn wants Jean to marry Berthe; the two young people want to wed as well.

After the oppressive Count Oberthal (bass Edwin Crossley-Mercer) refuses to allow Berthe to marry Jean, Oberthal seizes Berthe and Fidès. Three rebellious Anabaptist religious fanatics (bass James Platt, bass-baritone Guilhem Worms, and tenor Valerio Contaldo) conspire with Jean to seek revenge on Oberthal and end his tyranny. Somewhere in a maze of notes, Jean agrees to become the prophet of the Anabaptists.

In Acts 3 and 4, Jean attempts to maintain his ruse and survive charges of being a false prophet by disowning Fidès. She in turn believes her son dead. Eventually, Fidès discovers Berthe disguised as a pilgrim. The two seek revenge for Jean’s death by heading to the cathedral in Münster. There, they discover Jean being crowned as prophet-king. Again to maintain his ruse, Jean pretends Fidès is not his mother. She, albeit clueless, eventually surrenders to what passes for reality.

In the final act, the fickle Anabaptists turn on Jean to save themselves. Jean and Fidès reunite and decide to flee. Berthe prepares to kill the detested prophet, discovers that the prophet she hates is the man she loves, and — in grand operatic fashion — resolves the conflict by killing herself instead. Jean locks all his enemies in a room in the palace, sets the room afire, and duets with Fidès as they, too, go up in flames. The wages of sin are death.

All this transpires in the grandiose fashion that made Meyerbeer the toast of Paris. (Richard Wagner’s jealousy of Meyerbeer’s extraordinary success caused him to excoriate the Jewish composer in his antisemitic tract “Jewishness in Music.”) Meyerbeer gives us choruses of ecstasy and vengeance, glorious waltzes, a triumphal scene and a bacchanale, pageantry galore, and multiple ballets. Ultimately, everything is in service to — or serves as an excuse for — spectacular solo arias and extended duets and trios. It is for its succession of lengthy vocal showpieces that the opera endures.

Le prophete
Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Elizabeth DeShong, and Mané Galoyan in Le prophète with the London Symphony Orchestra | Credit: Vincent Beaume

The three leads excel in ardent, virtuosic vocalism. All are in superb voice, with Osborn and DeShong traversing multiple octaves and dispensing challenging coloratura passages with ease before capping their scenes with thrilling high notes. DeShong’s breathtaking singing, very different than that of Marilyn Horne in her assumption of the role in Henry Lewis’s 1976 recording (with Renata Scotto, James McCracken, Jerome Hines, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), is equally thrilling. Galoyan, for her part, is extremely dramatic, convincing, and hardly less virtuosic.

The singing is even more convincing if you ignore the plot’s absurdities, skip the ballets, and focus on the vocal fireworks. Then again, given the absurdities that currently pass for truth, the story seems less preposterous than prophetic. Which rather vindicates the opera’s title and makes this new recording one to celebrate.