Monday 20 April 2020

I need a subject that is grandiose, impassioned & original: the influence of Meyerbeer & French Grand Opera on the operas of Verdi

Auto da fe scene - Verdi: Don Carlos - Michele Pertusi, Sally Matthews, Stephane Degout  - Opera de Lyon, 2018(Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
'Auto da fe scene' - Verdi: Don Carlos - Michele Pertusi, Sally Matthews, Stephane Degout  - Opera de Lyon, 2018
(Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
The influence of Giacomo Meyerbeer on the operas of Giuseppe Verdi was significant, an opera like Aida would be unthinkable without French Grand Opera. In this third essay, I look at Verdi's developing relationship with French Grand Opera, how the operas of Meyerbeer fared in Italy and what Verdi thought of Meyerbeer's operas. This is the third, and final, essay in a series which has looked at the development of Meyerbeer's operas, and the complex relationship between Meyerbeer and Wagner.

French Grand Opera in Italy

Meyerbeer’s final Italian opera, Il crociato in Egitto premiered at La Fenice, Venice in 1824, but it would not be until 1840 when the first of his French Grand Operas was performed in Italy. These were all given in Italian versions with Robert le Diable premiering, at the Teatro alla Pergola, Florence in 1840, followed by Gli Anglicani (Les Huguenots) again at the Pergola, in 1841 and Le prophète at the Pergola, 1852. Another French Grand Opera, Fromenthal Halevy's La Juive would receive its Italian premiere in 1858 in Genoa.

These operas' growing popularity reflected a move away from an elitist public in Italy towards the post-unification middle class and Meyerbeer's operas form the first non-Italian genre to establish itself in Italy. By the 1860s there was a vogue for French Grand Operas in Italy. L'Africana was a success at its first outing on Bologna, and in the 1860s a Florentine publisher was producing pocket scores of the Meyerbeer operas. The operas were popular with musicians, and critics were starting to compare Verdi's operas unfavourably with those of Meyerbeer.

Verdi and Meyerbeer

Verdi was less directly influenced by Meyerbeer than Wagner, appreciating him more as a peer. Perhaps partly because Meyerbeer’s operas only started appearing in Italy from the 1840s or 50s. But where the influence is felt is in the necessity of conforming to elements of French Grand Opera if one as going to write an opera for the Paris Opera. And here, Verdi was being influenced as much by the librettist Eugene Scribe (the architect of many grand opera librettos) as by Meyerbeer and in fact Verdi wanted to specifically work with Scribe for his second opera for Paris, Les vêpres siciliennes.

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Welsh National Opera 2020 (Photo Johan Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Welsh National Opera 2020 (Photo Johan Person)
Verdi's attitude to Meyerbeer was more measured than that of Richard Wagner.
He certainly appreciated Meyerbeer's operas and demonstrated he absorbed the lessons of seeing French Grand Opera in Paris, as seen in the development of his own works for the Paris Opera, Jerusalem (1847), Les vêpres siciliennes (1855), Don Carlos (1867). Verdi in fact wrote French opera for the French and Italian opera for the Italians, but there was cross fertilisation. Un ballo in maschera (1859) is an Italian version of a French Grand Opera, it is even based on a Scribe libretto, yet it is pure Verdi. And from then on Verdi's operas would be on a larger scale, with larger casts. Aida (1871) would be unthinkable without Verdi's experience of Meyerbeer.

Verdi in France

The grandest operas in Italy were usually produced in the well subsidised Royal Opera House in Naples, where both Rossini (from 1815 to 1822) and Donizetti (from 1822 to 1838) wrote operas. But whereas in Naples, operas were in two or three acts, in Paris they were in four or five, and in Paris there was a greater emphasis on spectacle, dancing and the role of the chorus.

Leon Escudier, Verdi's publisher in Paris, nicknamed the Paris Opera the Grande Boutique (literally the big shop, with a pejorative implication much as the word bazaar in English can be pejorative). Verdi had mixed feelings about the place, but would feel obliged to meet the challenge and even when he stopped writing for the Paris Opera he wanted to keep up to sdate with developments. And success at the Paris Opera brought financial rewards, unlike Italy, composers received honoraria for every performance. And Verdi was well treated, at a rehearsal for a revival of Les vêpres siciliennes, the orchestra did not follow Verdi's instructions and the conductor was sacked.

In the late 1840s and 1850s, the Paris Opera needed an Italian opera composer to follow Donizetti; his final opera Dom Sebastien premiered in 1845 and from 1846 Donizetti was crippled by illness, dying in 1848.

Verdi’s operas would be performed in both French and in Italian in Paris. At the Théâtre-Italien (which closed in 1878), Verdi’s Italian operas were performed, whereas at the Paris Opera his works were given in French. In addition to the three operas written specially for Paris, Verdi would also allow some of his Italian operas to be given in French versions, often with a nod to French Grand Opera with the addition of such extras as ballets.

Verdi: Jérusalem - Gilbert Duprez in the premiere at the Paris Opera, by Alexandre Lacauchie
Verdi: Jérusalem - Gilbert Duprez in the
premier at the Paris Opera, by Alexandre Lacauchie
Verdi’s first French Grand Opera for Paris, Jerusalem premiered in 1847, based on his 1843 Italian opera I Lombardi. The contract for the opera specifies that it should be in four or five acts and in French; but the adaptation of existing material meant that Verdi would not have to write something entirely new. The complexity and morality of the original I Lombardi were probably too much for the Paris audience, so Jerusalem loses the mortally opposed brothers and the patricide.

In many ways, the French version creates a tauter drama than the rather diffuse Italian libretto with its credulity stretching coincidences. Also, Verdi altered the vocal distribution using a tenor and a baritone instead of two tenors. But with the music Verdi soldered the new and the old together in an unsatisfactory way. Jerusalem had only a moderate run, and at later performances it was cut to just three acts, the crusaders' march suppressed, the last scene omitted, and a vulgar ballet added; Verdi was very angry.

But a follow-up was planned, though the events of the Revolution of 1848 and the overthrow of the July Monarchy would rather delay things.

Another attraction of Paris in the 1840s was that Giuseppina Strepponi was there, and it is speculated that their relationship developed during that time. In fact, there is a manuscript of a love duet from Jerusalem with alternative words in her hand. Verdi and Strepponi would see Alexandre Dumas’ play, La Dame aux Camelias in late 1851 or early 1852 and this gave Verdi the idea for La Traviata.

Louise Miller, the 1853 French revision of Luisa Miller was a failure, but the Paris Opera commissioned a further opera from Verdi. Friedrich Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos was suggested as a subject, but Verdi said no as he wanted to work with Eugene Scribe. The result would be Les vêpres siciliennes which premiered in 1855, achieving only a success d’estime. In response, Verdi revised Il trovatore as Le trouvere and this was a resounding success. Verdi’s changes for this French version included a nod to French Grand Opera with the addition of a ballet after the soldiers’ chorus, but also simple revisions to Azucena’s music with an extended version of the finale to Act Four to suit the singer at the Paris Opera.

Whilst in Paris in 1854, Verdi to attended the opera. ‘I went to the first performance of this Etoile du Nord [Meyerbeer's opera] and I understood little or nothing [of it], while this fine audience understood everything and found it all beautiful, sublime, divine (!). And this is the same audience which, after 25 or 30 years, has not yet understood Guillaume Tell [Rossini] and because of that, gives the opera maimed, mutilated in three acts instead of five, with a wretched mise-en-scene. And this is the foremost theatre in the world.‘

Les vêpres siciliennes

By the time he came to write Les vêpres siciliennes Verdi had a far greater understanding of French Grand Opera, having seen more in Paris and we knew that he came to appreciate Meyerbeer’s operas (see below). Unfortunately, the collaboration with librettist Eugene Scribe was rather fraught. Verdi would write to Scride describing his ideas:

‘I need a subject that is grandiose, impassioned and original; a mise-en-scene that is imposing and overwhelming. I have consistently in view so many of those magnificent scenes to be found in your poems … Indeed, these scenes are miracles! But you work them so often that I hope you will work one for me.’

Unfortunately Scribe was some 22 years older than Verdi and had been writing opera libretti since the 1820s, so he did not see why he should defer to the young whipper-snapper, and Verdi was unable to get the changes to the libretto that he wanted and the result is that the opera suffered, Act Five in particular lacks the sort of dramatic cohesion we expect from a Verdi opera.

But the work shows Verdi clearly working in the French Grand Opera genre, so that the characters are involved in a multifaceted conflict between public and private (embodied by the characters of Guy de Montfort and Henri, father and son yet on opposite sides). This is something new in Verdi’s operas, and something that he would return to in his later operas.

Don Carlos 

By the mid-1860s, Meyerbeer was dead, Wagner’s Tannhäuser had been a fiasco in 1861 (withdrawn after three performances), and the Paris Opera needed another big foreign name, and Verdi reluctantly agreed to write something for Paris. The Paris Opera needed an opera to present during Napoleon III's 1867 Universal Exposition and the result, Verdi's Don Carlos (1867) would effectively be the last new work written for the Paris Opera in this genre.

Verdi: Macbeth - Paris Opera 1865
Verdi: Macbeth - Paris Opera 1865
Verdi had been asked by Paris as early as 1852 to revise his 1847 opera Macbeth, but the composer did nothing until 1864. Finally, in 1865, the revised Macbeth premiered in French at the Théâtre Lyrique, though the composer did not attend. The work’s failure coincided with the first production of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine at the Paris Opera. Verdi’s heard this latter, having attended the opera at least four times in 1865, writing:

L’Africaine is certainly not Meyerbeer’s best opera. I have also heard the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. He is mad!!’

Yet, when planning Don Carlos, Verdi was clearly thinking about the way Meyerbeer’s operas worked, he refered to Don Carlos as a magnificent drama but somewhat lacking in spectacle. Leon Escudier wrote, 'Don Carlos has captured Verdi's imagination. What worries him is the absence of one or two scenes where the staging will stun the public. He would like something unexpected such as the skaters scene in Le prophète [Meyerbeer] or that in the church, as climax.' Verdi also asked for two duets, that between Philip and Posa, and the Grand Inquisitor's scene.

In fact, the director of the Paris Opera had first suggested the subject of Judith to Verdi, via a libretto by Scribe which had been prepared for Meyerbeer. Verdi said no, and it was his French publisher who brought up the idea of Don Carlos (along with Cleopatra), and it was Don Carlos that Verdi chose, evidently being 'bowled over' by the idea.

Scribe had died in 1861 and the librettist for Don Carlos was Camille du Locle (the son in law of the director of the Paris Opera), initially collaborating with Joseph Mery, who died in 1865. They did everything that Verdi wanted, and so the duets were added, as was the Auto da fe scene. This was French Grand Opera, but unlike when working with Scribe, Verdi had detailed control of the dramaturgy.

Verdi’s Don Carlos would be his longest opera; at its fullest, including the ballet and the music cut before the premiere because of the running time, there is over four hours of music. Long for a Verdi opera, but comparable to the longer operas of Halevy and Meyerbeer. Ironically, Don Carlos would come at a time when French Grand Opera was falling out style.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Raehann Bryce Davis - Opera Vlaanderen, 2019 (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Raehann Bryce Davis - Opera Vlaanderen, 2019 (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi authorised the Paris Opera to cut Act Four, Scene Four (the death of Posa) if they wished, and after he departed Paris there would be further unauthorised cuts. Though the production was very much in the grand style, it does not seem to have taken and was not performed after 1869. Even as drastically cut, the opera proved too long for general consumption and finally, in the 1880s, Verdi resolved that if anyone should cut it, he should. He composed the revision in French, but it was premiered in a new Italian translation in 1884 at La Scala. Yet, even in this tauter, dramatic version the lineaments of French Grand Opera are clearly visible.

Verdian Grand Opera in Italy

In 1857, Verdi was commissioned for a new opera for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. He first looked to Shakespeare’s King Lear, but when plans for Re Lear fell through (one of the most intriguing 'might have beens' in Verdi's catalogue), Verdi looked to Daniel Auber’s opera Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué which treated the not historically accurate narrative of King Gustav III of Sweden’s assassination. Auber’s opera had premiered in 1833 at the Paris Opera, but it remained a major success for the composer right into the 1850s. A new Italian text by Antonio Somma was based on the libretto of Eugene Scribe, but this new libretto failed to pass the Neapolitan censors and the opera would finally see light as Un ballo in Maschera in Rome in 1859. The opera is an example of the Italian genre which developed in the second half of the 19th century, opera ballo, where a ballet plays a central role in the opera. An example of the cross fertilisation that happened as a result of the popularity of Meyerbeer’s operas in Italy.

La forza del destino, which premiered in St Petersburg in 1862, and in Rome in 1863, whilst pure Italian opera is one of the largest Verdi operas, on a scale hitherto unknown in his Italian output and with a far larger cast than the tight ensembles of his early and middle period operas. Whilst Verdi would write no more operas for Paris after Don Carlos, arguably the title of last grand opera goes to Aida (1871) which, though written in Italian was based on a French scenario and with its historical setting, grand public scenes and conflict between public and private, embodies much that was French Grand Opera.

These are prime examples of the way, after Les vêpres siciliennes, Verdi’s structural thinking in opera changed, and he seems to have taken elements of Meyerbeerian Grand Opera and worked them into his Italian style. So that settings are often historical, the number of characters increases as compared to the mid-period operas, and the works themselves are of a larger scale.

Though Verdi was not explicitly involved in it, the French version Aida was a great success at the Paris Opera, and the end of a tradition. The Paris Opera looked for no more Italian composers. And when the company planned to perform Verdi’s 1887 masterpiece Otello, he was somewhat perplexed to discover that they planned to perform it not in French but in Italian.
Verdi: Aida: Set design by Edouard Despléchin for Act 2 scene 2, Cairo 1871

Verdi on Meyerbeer

Verdi’s letters give us few hints of his feelings about Meyerbeer’s operas, but in his memoirs, Italo Pizzi records a few fragments of what the composer thought:

In Robert le Diable he admired the successful blend of the fantastic with the true.

Le prophète – unusual dramatic power, particularly the fourth Act. The whole opera possessed a wearisome heaviness, reason why it is not the Meyerbeer opera he enjoys or understands the most.

Les Huguenots – The libretto is true theatre, the third and fourth acts are stupendous. The final act, which in the opera house is always either misunderstood or cut, is also true theatre.

Meyerbeer, Wagner and Verdi

1 - The most successful opera composer of the 19th century? - Meyerbeer and his operas
2 - The merest smell is sufficient to turn my stomach: the complex relationship between Richard Wagner and Giacomo Meyerbeer  

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