Over the course of a single night, the whole of Paris was transformed into a mortuary: On St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, French Catholics murdered thousands of the Huguenots, their fellow citizens who adhered to the new Reformation faith. 260 years later, Giacomo Meyerbeer brought these events to the operatic stage in »The Huguenots«. Describing the love affair of the Huguenot Raoul and the Catholic Valentine, the composer demonstrates how a religious conflict can escalate and lead to a massacre in which even family ties no longer count. This key work of 19th-century opera, which premiered in 1836, all but disappeared from the repertoire after the first world war. In his production of »The Huguenots«, director Peter Konwitschny shows how religious strife gradually destroys a society and turns neighbours into enemies.
France, in the year 1572. The country is divided in terms of religion – into the camp of the Catholics and the Huguenots, the supporters of the Reformation. To restore the peace, Marguerite, the sister of the Catholic King Charles IX of France, is to be married the Huguenot Prince Henry, King of Navarra.
In the provinces, some Catholic aristocrats are celebrating a raucous party at the estate of Count Nevers. As part of the efforts to restore peace, a Huguenot has been invited for the first time – the young Raoul de Nangis. The day before this, Raoul had rescued a woman from rioters who he subsequently fell in love with without knowing her name. Uninvited, Marcel, Raoul’s former servant, appears. He provokes the drunk men with a Huguenot battle chant. Nevers has to leave the party for a short moment because an unknown woman wishes to speak to him. The men inquisitively observe the rendezvous through the keyhole. When Raoul wants to see the supposed mistress of the womaniser Nevers, he sees, shocked, that it is the woman he fell in love with. Actually, the Catholic Valentine has, indeed, come to see Nevers in order to break off their engagement as she has also fallen in love with Raoul. Nevers has only just returned back to the party when the page Urbain brings amysterious invitation for Raoul. Suddenly, the Huguenot outsider, the only one who does not realise that the invitation came from Queen Marguerite, becomes the star of the evening.
Marguerite wishes to strengthen the peace between the Catholics and the Huguenots with another wedding: her lady-in-waiting Valentine is to marry the Huguenot Raoul. During her bath she asks him to promise to marry the unknown lady which she will introduce to him. Raoul is delighted with his hostess. In front of the eyes of the court, Marguerite requests Valentine’s father St. Bris, Raoul and Nevers to sign a peace agreement. The veiled bride Valentine is then brought in but, when Raoul sees in her the supposed mistress of Nevers, he rejects the bride and, in doing so, snubs the Catholics. Marguerite has to do all she can to prevent the Catholics and Huguenots from attacking one another.
Catholic students are celebrating their Sunday with grisettes whilst in a beer garden, Huguenot soldiers are singing rowdy war songs. The mutual provocation is brought to a halt by Marcel. In a church next door, Valentine has just been married to Nevers by her father St. Bris. Marcel brings St. Bris the challenge to a duel from the offended Raoul and he happily takes this on. Together with the Catholic Maurevert, he hatches a plot to kill Raoul in the duel. Valentine, who still loves Raoul, has overheard her father’s plan and asks Marcel to warn his master. But it is too late as the duel has already begun. To beat the murderers, Marcel calls the other Huguenots with his chorus for help whilst St. Bris calls the Catholic students. Both parties attack each other unabated. Called upon by the distraught Valentine, Marguerite is able to stop the fighting. Marguerite’s interrogation finally clears up Raoul’s misunderstanding. Full of remorse, he asks for Valentine’s hand in marriage. St. Bris, meanwhile, scornfully points out the husband Nevers.
Raoul comes secretely to see Valentine. But before the pair are able to talk to one another, she has to hide him as the leading Catholics are attending a secret meeting in the house. The queen’s mother Catherine de Médicis commands that the heretical Huguenots are to be wiped out in the name of God. Nevers, the only one to refuse, is the first victim. With the blessing of the church, all are sworn in to the mass murder. Raoul wants to warn his fellow believers. Valentine begs him not to put himself in any danger, but not even her declaration of love can stop him. Distraught, she follows him into the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
The massacre is well underway and Valentine, Raoul and Marcel find each other amongst the bodies. Some women on their deathbed sing the Huguenot chorus song for the last time. Valentine becomes a follower of the Huguenot faith and is married to Raoul by Marcel. The Catholic murdering army returns and St. Bris personally gives the command to shoot the last remaining Huguenots.