Monday 6 April 2020

The most successful opera composer of the 19th century? A look at Meyerbeer and his operas

Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Deutsche Oper, Berlin 2017 (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Giacomo Meyerbeer was one of the most successful, perhaps the most successful, opera composers of the 19th century. With the decline of Meyerbeer’s reputation during the 20th century, we have lost sight of the significant influence that his operas had on his contemporaries, including Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. In a series of articles, I will be looking at the intriguing relationships between the 19th century’s two greatest opera composers (Wagner and Verdi) and the most performed opera composer of the century (Meyerbeer). But before we look at his influence, I first wanted to explore a little more about Meyerbeer and his music.

Giacomo Meyerbeer, engraving from a photograph by Pierre Petit (1865)
Giacomo Meyerbeer,
engraving from a photograph by Pierre Petit (1865)
Giacomo Meyerbeer was born in Prussia, near Berlin, and his studies included periods under Antonio Salieri, and as a fellow student of Carl Maria von Weber. After some initial success, he travelled to Italy and a series of Italian operas culminated in Il crociato in Egitto (1824, La Fenice, Venice) which brought him to international prominence. On moving to Paris, his opera Robert le Diable (1831) was the first in a sequence of French Grand Operas which built on the genre established by Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) and Gioacchino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829). Meyerbeer would dominate French Grand Opera until his death in 1864 and the posthumous performance of L’Africaine (1865). Thanks to his continuing contacts with the Prussian court, Meyerbeer also wrote a German opera thus achieving what would be an ambition for the young Richard Wagner, to write German opera for the Germans, Italian opera for the Italians and French opera for the French.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Meyerbeer was an entirely different generation from Verdi and Wagner. Born in 1791, he was an almost exact contemporary of Rossini (1792-1868). Musically he was not an innovator, but more of a synthesizer, his works for Paris combine Italian vocal lines, innovative orchestration and harmony, these latter two very much derived from his German background and training, along with contemporary innovations in theatrical techniques.

French Grand Opera of the period 1828 to 1850 developed partly in response to the changing demographic of the opera going public. The rise of the middle-class audience meant that people were no longer interested in operas based on Greek gods and goddesses or glorifying the rulers of the regime. And the 1820s was a striking decade in the French capital, Louis XVIII died and Charles X was crowned, and at some point during the decade Victor Hugo, Eugene Delacroix, Berlioz, Stendhal, Rossini, Madame de Satael, Gericault and many more were active.

Foreign composers based in Paris such as Gaspare Spontini (with La vestale of 1807 and Fernand Cortez of 1809/1817), Luigi Cherubini and Gioacchino Rossini provided important precursors for French Grand Opera as did Meyerbeer himself with the French premiere of Il crociato in Egitto in 1825. The richness of the stagings ultimately created a style which blended historical setting, spectacular stage effects and costumes, on stage bands, large-scale choral scenes, dramatic effects and the use of the historical narrative to provide a clash of cultures. The first acknowledged French Grand Opera is Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici of 1828, set during the revolution in Naples in 1647 (culminating with the eruption of Vesuvius!). This was followed by Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell (1829) which effectively crystallised the style.

Important to the development of this style was the librettist Eugene Scribe, who wrote (or co-wrote) the librettos for Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828), Rossini’s Le comte Ory (1828), Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831), Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1831), Auber’s Gustave III (1833, which became the basis for Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera), Fromenthal Halévy’s La Juive (1835), Gaetano Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien (1843), Meyerbeer’s Le prophète (1849), Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes (1855, based on a libretto for Donizetti’s incomplete Le duc d’Albe) and Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (1865).

Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable at the Paris Opera (Salle Le Peletier) in 1832
Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable at the Paris Opera (Salle Le Peletier) in 1832
Meyerbeer was born near Berlin to a Jewish family, his father was a wealthy financier and his mother also from a wealthy family. Like Mendelssohn (born 18 years after Meyerbeer) Meyerbeer received a rounded, musical education making his public debut aged 10 playing a Mozart concerto. He was born Jacob Liebmann Beer, and eventually adopted Meyerbeer (at first Meyer Beer) after his grandfather. Unusually, Meyerbeer remained true to his Jewish heritage all his life, and kept his reaction to anti-Jewish sentiment very much to himself, he never publicly reacted to controversy or prejudice over his religion.

Wagner's attitude to Meyerbeer is well-known, and we will be examining Meyerbeer's influence of Wagner in a later article. But anti-semitism wasn't just restricted to Wagner, Robert Schumann's reaction to Les Huguenots has the suggestion of anti-Semitism, 'Time and time again we had to turn away in disgust...One may search in vain for a sustained pure thought, a truly Christian sentiment...It is all contrived, all make believe and hypocrisy!...The shrewdest of composers rubs his hands with glee.' Whilst Mendelssohn thought Robert le Diable was 'ignoble'.

Meyerbeer: Vasco de Gama - Chemnitz, 2013
Meyerbeer: Vasco de Gama - Chemnitz, 2013
All of Meyerbeer's significant music is for the voice, and after initial training in Germany he went to Italy to study, thanks to financial support from his family. It was in Italy that he came to know the works of his contemporary Rossini, far more of a youthful prodigy in compositional terms than Meyerbeer. His series of Italian operas, very much in the Rossinian mould, culminated in Il crociato in Egitto which brought him international fame with productions in London and Paris. And it was Paris which Meyerbeer had set his sights on.

His first opera for Paris, Robert le Diable virtually made him into a superstar. Planned originally as an opera comique for 1827, plans were revised in 1829 to turn it into a five-act French Grand Opera in the mould of La muette de Portici and Guillaume Tell. The work’s Ballet of the Nuns became one of its sensations.

We tend to think of the dramaturgy of Robert le Diable as being rather old-fashioned, but it is worthwhile considering how advanced it was in many ways. Another group active in Paris in the 1820s were the Saint-Simonians who aimed at social reform but also dreamed of the art of the future, the total work of art (what we now, thanks to Wagner, call Gesamtkunstwerk). Robert le Diable in 1831, had many of these elements as it featured a meticulously dramatic action, combining all the arts in the staging, it presented a theme which could be considered as emblematic of modern man (with Robert struggling against Bertram who is unbeknownst to Robert, his satanic father) whilst the score mixed virtuoso singing with a detailed scenario of musical motifs, harmony and orchestration.

Eugène Du Faget: costume designs for Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots - Julie Dorus-Gras as Marguerite, Adolphe Nourrit as Raoul, Cornélie Falcon as Valentine
Eugène Du Faget: costume designs for Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots
Julie Dorus-Gras as Marguerite, Adolphe Nourrit as Raoul, Cornélie Falcon as Valentine
Robert le Diable would be followed by Les Huguenots (1836), Le prophète (1849), and L’Africaine (1865) for the Paris Opera, and L’étoile du Nord (1854) and Dinorah (1859) for the Opera Comique. The relatively large gaps are due to a number of factors, partly because Meyerbeer divided his time between Paris and Berlin, though in Berlin censorship and difficulties with his relations with Gaspare Spontini, who was director of the court opera, limited his German output. But also, Meyerbeer was personally rich which meant that he could wait if he disliked what was on offer.

The development of Les Huguenots was the subject for number of disagreements between Meyerbeer and Scribe, and the idea that an opera is a collaboration between two partners very much develops during this partnership. It was a joint creative effort, which led to a significantly different work from the one which was originally conceived.

After Les Huguenots, he conceived of an opera showcasing the voice of Cornélie Falcon, who created the role of Valentine in Les Huguenots, but with the catastrophic failure of her voice Meyerbeer faced a fight with the director of the Paris Opera who wished to cast his mistress, Rosine Stoltz. Meyerbeer refused, and waited, so that when Le prophète was finally premiered in 1849 it had Pauline Viardot in the main role of Fidès.

Meyerbeer's final work for the Paris Opera, L'Africaine had a very long gestation period, Meyerbeer and Scribe had considered it from 1837, but a radical change in the early 1850s introduced Vasco de Gama as the protagonist and changed the name to Vasco de Gama. Meyerbeer was still revising the work when he died, and had not wanted it produced (he usually edited and cut works during the rehearsal process). The version produced by François-Joseph Fétis was premiered at L'Africaine, but in 2013 a new edition based on the opera as Meyerbeer left it was staged at Chemnitz as Vasco de Gama and there have since been productions at the Deutsche Oper, and at Frankfurt Opera.

Meyerbeer: Le prophète – Act 4, scene 2, of the original production, set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry
Meyerbeer: Le prophète – Act 4, scene 2, of the original production,
set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry
Given his relative outsider status, it may not be accidental that many of the heroes in Meyerbeer’s mature operas are outsiders, a hero living within a hostile environment. Robert, Raoul the Huguenot, Jean the prophet, and the defiant Vasco de Gama in L'Africaine.

Both Les Huguenots and Le prophète set their stories amidst religious conflict, something that had already happened in Fromental Halévy's La Juive which premiered in 1835. Though Meyerbeer never featured major Jewish characters, always opting for Christian conflict, the fights between Protestants and Catholics at the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Les Huguenots, and the Anabaptists in Le prophète.

Whilst Les Huguenots features comic elements in the story, so that there is an element of variety show about the piece with the serious elements gradually coming to the fore as the opera progresses (effectively each of the five acts is in a different style), Le prophète is significant for being so comprehensively focussed on the main story. When the work was premiered, it was cut so that the tenor part was not too taxing and it is only more recently that the full version of the opera has been discovered. It is, perhaps, the opera which shows Meyerbeer at his best.

The sheer popularity of Meyerbeer’s operas died down during the 20th century, though until the 1930s they kept a toe-hold in the repertoire. In 1890, the year before the Paris premiere of Wagner's Lohengrin, there were no Wagner performances at the Paris Opera, and 32 performances of Meyerbeer's four French Grand Operas. In 1909, there were 60 Wagner performances, and only three of Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots being the sole work performed). And Meyerbeer’s Judaism meant that with the rise of the Nazis, his operas disappeared and after the war they seemed not to fit in with the times. The re-discovery of Rossini’s operas was not paralleled by a re-discovery of those of his contemporary.

Even now, Meyerbeer’s operas can divide people. They are very long for a start. When the Paris Opera presented Les Huguenots in 2018 (the first performance of the opera there since the 1930s), it was significantly (almost brutally) cut [see my review]. This length has performance issues, the style of the pieces requires singers of some vocal agility yet also stamina, Jean in Le prophète is a long role, and a number of classic recordings feature dramatic singers (particularly tenors) whose agility is less than ideal. Few, if any, recordings of Meyerbeer's operas for the Paris Opera are completely ideal.

In the programme book for Welsh National Opera’s recent performances of Verdi’s first French Grand Opera, Les vêpres siciliennes, director David Pountney was very dismissive of Meyerbeer’s operas for all their padding. French Grand Opera is not short, punchy and dramatic, they rely on a slow unfolding and admited not everything Meyerbeer writes is top notch, but in works like Les Huguenots and Le prophète the cumulative power of the piece is remarkable.

Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Paris Opera for the first time since the 1930s, in 2018 (s (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Paris Opera for the first time since the 1930s, in 2018 (s (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
Despite productions of Les Huguenots in Paris and in Brussels, and Le prophète in Toulouse, the 21st century Meyerbeer revival has been very much based in German opera houses, with a number of houses performing his works, reclaiming him as a German composer. It helps, perhaps, that works like Les Huguenots and Le prophète have contemporary resonances and can be presented in dramatic modern settings without many of the decorative elements that were key to the original productions. So there have been productions at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin [see my review of Le prophète, and my review of Les Huguenots ], in Karlsruhe, Essen, Frankfurt, Chemnitz, and Dresden, in Germany, Linz in Austria and in many other places. The Essen recording of Le prophète became the first major recording of the opera since that from 1976 conducted by Henry Lewis with Marilyn Horne, Renata Scotto and James McCracken, whilst Chemnitz premiered (and recorded) the new edition of L'Africaine, renamed Vasco de Gama.

One final note about the size of the original productions. When Meyerbeer’s name is mentioned, the first thing that seems to come into people’s heads is the grandiosity of the Palais Garnier in Paris. In fact, his operas were all premiered before this theatre was built. From 1821 to 1873, the Paris Opera was at the Salle le Pelletier and only moved into the Palais Garnier in 1875. The Salle le Pelletier burned down in 1873 but was replaced and is now the home of the Opera Comique, so despite their large size the operas were written for a relatively ordinary sized house (it seated around 1900 people and the building was roughly the same size as the present Opera Comique).

Meyerbeer's Le Prophete in Karlsruhe (photo Matthias Baus)
Meyerbeer's Le Prophete in Karlsruhe, 2015 (photo Matthias Baus)
Meyerbeer on disc
  • Il Crociato in Egito - Diana Montague, Yvonne Kenny, Della Jones, Bruce Ford, Ian Platt, Linda Kitchen, Ugo Benelli, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, David Parry, OPERA RARA 1992
      • [one of a number of Opera Rara recordings of Meyerbeer's Italian operas]
  • Les Huguenots - Joan Sutherland, Martina Arroyo, Huguette Tourangeau, Vrenios, Nicola Ghiuslev, Gabriel Bacquier, New Philharmonia Orchestra, DECCA  1969
      • [Still a classic]
  • Les Huguenots - Ghylaine Raphanael, Francoise Pollet, Danielle Borst, Richard Leech, Gilles Cachemaille, Nicola Ghiuslev, Orchestra Philharmonique de Montpelier, Cyril Diederich, ERATO  1988
      • [Notable for its use of a substantially Francophone cast]
  • Le prophète - Marilyn Horne, Renata Scotto, James McCracken, Jerome Hines, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Henry Lewis, SONY 1976
  • Le prophète - Marianne Cornetti, Lynette Tapia, John Osborn, Essen Philharmonic, Giuliano Carella, OEHMS 2017
      • [Based on staged production in Essen, this uses presents a more substantial version using the new critical edition of the opera]
  • Dinorah - Deborah Cook, Christian Duplessis, Alexander Oliver, Della Jones, Marilyn Hill Smith, Roderick Earl, Ian Caley, Philharmonia Orchestra, James Judd, OPERA RARA
  • Vasco de Gama - Bernhard Berchthold, Guibee Yang, Claudia Sorokina, Nikolay Borchev, Kouta Räsänen, Martin Gäbler, André Riemer, Robert-Schumann Philharmonic, Frank Beerman, CPO  2012 
      • [the first recording of L'Africaine in a new edition based on the score as Meyerbeer left it, rather than as edited for performance in 1865 recorded after performances at Chemintz Opera]
Elsewhere on this blog
  • A new recording of Handel's first version of Messiah (Dublin 1742) with a largely German speaking cast - Cd review
  • Filling an important gap: the sacred music of Henry Aldrich, Oxford divine and contemporary of Purcell, performed on Convivium Records by the Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford - CD review
  • A dialogue with the past: the chamber music of Riccardo Malipiero from the Rest Ensemble - CD review
  • Sullivan at his peak, but without Gilbert: Haddon Hall gets its first professional recording  - CD review
  • A major addition to the symphonic repertoire: Erkki-Sven Tüür's Symphony No. 9 ;Mythos', commissioned for the centenary of the Republic of Estonia  - CD review
  • All opera is community opera: I chat to director Thomas Guthrie  - interview
  • The Leipzig Circle: piano trios by Schumann, Gade & Mendelssohn from the Phoenix Piano Trio  - CD review
  • Singing in Secret: The Marian Consort in Byrd's mass for four voices and propers for All Saints  - CD review
  • A particular place & time: Peter Sheppard Skaerved explores the 1685 Klagenfurt Manuscript with a contemporary violin by Antonio Stradivari  - CD review
  • Islands and seasons: pianist Tom Hicks in John Ireland and Tchaikovsky   - CD review
  • A seductive mix-tape: pianist Alessandro Viale's Minimal Works  on KHA - CD review
  • A Spanish tribute to Handel: L'Apothéose's delightful disc of chamber music on LBS  - Cd review
  • Home

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