Fruit of a partnership between the National Library of France and the Paris Opera, “Grand Opera. History Made Spectacular” is part of the programme of celebrations for the institution’s 350th anniversary. On this occasion, Octave meets the curators of the exhibition, Marion Mirande and Romain Feist. Together they look at the history and characteristics of a genre that has long been absent from operatic stages. At the Palais Garnier from October 24th 2019 until February 2nd 2020.
How does the exhibition, “Grand Opera. History Made Spectacular” fit into the programme of celebrations for the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary?
Romain Feist: Following on from “A certain air of Italy”, which retraced the history of the Paris Opera under the Monarchy, from its foundation up to the Revolution, this exhibition evokes grand opera, from the emergence of the genre under Napoléon I to its decline at the end of the second empire, via its apogee under the July monarchy.
Marion Mirande: The exhibition aims to reappraise the Paris Opera repertoire and to make this rather rare genre, long absent from the major opera houses, better known.
How might one define in simple terms French grand opera?
R.F.: As a grand spectacle that deploys spectacular scenography, considerable vocal and instrumental forces – that’s to say a large orchestra – often complemented by stage musicians, a large chorus, numerous soloists and, of course, the obligatory ballet.
What makes this genre unique and how did it influence operatic art?
R.F.: It’s a bit of a paradox but French grand opera’s strongest influence was on choreographic art. In La Muette de Portici by Auber – the first official example of the genre – the principal role was performed not by a singer but by a dancer. She portrayed a mute who therefore could not be made to sing. In Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, there is a ballet of about fifteen minutes long choreographed by Philippe Taglioni, father of the celebrated Marie Taglioni, who subsequently became one of the greatest dancers of the 19th century. This ballet served as a model for the future great ballets blancs in the repertoire such as La Sylphide or Giselle, with their dancers in long tutus and the choreographic style that became, under the aegis of ballet masters like Jean Coralli and Lucien Petipa, the hallmark of French romantic ballet.
M.M.: What sets grand opera apart as a genre, besides the highly imposing vocal and orchestral forces and sumptuous sets, is the libretto which favours historical themes. The genre developed at a period when France rediscovered its medieval and Renaissance history. Grand operas are mainly contextualised during those times.
R.F.: Unlike the 17th and 18th centuries when libretti rather favoured classical, mythological and allegorical subjects, without depicting history with any rigorous care for accuracy.
Long depreciated, how do you explain the renewal of interest in these romantic and historical grand operas?
R.F.: Depreciated, it’s not as simple as that. French grand opera remained in the repertoire in spite of the undeniable decline of the genre. After the First World War, the more avant-garde conceptions of scenographers were no longer in tune with the norms of grand opera. This was the time of the great modern productions of Wagner and Richard Strauss. After the Second World War, there were still a few attempts to revive grand opera but they did not come to fruition. I think it was firstly a problem of singers – Meyerbeer demands a very particular vocal technique, extremely virtuoso. And they no longer necessarily corresponded to the ideas of the directors of the period. Grand opera requires a lavish approach, and that is expensive and did not necessarily correspond to directors’ tastes at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries.
Recently there has been a renewal of interest because Ricordi undertook to publish a complete edition of Meyerbeer’s works, and several opera houses, notably Berlin and London, decided to programme Meyerbeer once more. Some grand operas remained in the repertoire in spite of everything. I’m thinking of Halévy’s La Juive, which never really left the Paris Opera repertoire.
M.M.: The economic aspect was doubtless also a factor: these were rather costly productions requiring considerable resources. The question of taste also. Sensibilities change from generation to generation and grand opera was no longer really in the spirit of the times. Today, audiences seem more receptive to operas that depict archetypal figures, strong characters, with a certain aplomb... As for the dramaturgy of grand opera, it can sometimes be a bit lightweight. The historic theme is often in the background whilst the centre stage is occupied by a love intrigue that is less interesting than the questions with which Wozzeck, for example, confronts us.
R.F.: Wozzeck and Salome are adaptations of works by great writers, great playwrights. Oscar Wilde and Georg Büchner certainly have greater literary importance than Scribe. But the libretti written for Verdi by Salvatore Cammarano, for example, are not necessarily superior to those of Eugène Scribe.
How did you design the exhibition and choose the pieces to be displayed?
R.F.: The concept was to show the links between grand opera and History. Whence the title of the exhibition. The importance of History and thus a chronological sequence, from the beginnings of grand opera under Napoléon I, early developments during the Restoration and its apogee under the July monarchy, then a long decline during the Second Empire and ending with the war of 1870.
M.M.: As the exhibition unfolds, certain points mentioned at the beginning of this interview which are characteristic of grand opera are developed through a number of video projections: one focussing on the set workshops, on production design, one on the voices, one on dance and one on the Le Peletier theatre which was the opera house for grand opera at the time.
Will you be presenting rare works that have never been unveiled before the general public?
R.F.: One piece that has never been unveiled before the general public comes from a private collection. It’s an annotated libretto of Halévy’s Charles X. The libretto is by Casimir and Germain Delavigne and the handwritten notes by Eugène Scribe. When one compares this libretto with the printed edition, one notices that the Delavigne brothers have taken into account all of Eugène Scribe’s suggestions.
M.M.: The set model for L’Africaine, Meyerbeer’s last opera which was first performed posthumously, was once on public display at the Palais Garnier, until the 1980s. The exhibition gives it pride of place, at the centre of the display.
R.F.: We have chosen to present this model in such a way that the visitor can admire every detail of this imposing construction. It weighs 12 tonnes and represents the deck of a ship, mounted on a jack so that it could be tilted and sunk below the stage. It must be one of the most imposing bits of stage machinery ever conceived at the Paris Opera during the 19th century.
M.M.: Besides the portrait of the composer Luigi Cherubini by Ingres, one should also mention the presence of two works by Fantin-Latour on loan from the Musée d’Orsay. One of them depicts the Venusberg scene in Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner, the other the composer at his work table. Wagner wrote Tannhäuser under the influence of grand opera... We have also chosen to display a letter that Baudelaire wrote to him. This passionate letter was written after he heard, in a concert, extracts from Wagner’s operas several months before he discovered Tannhäuser on stage.
R.F.: There is also the painting by Camille Roqueplan, brother of the Paris Opera director, Nestor Roqueplan, which returns to the Palais Garnier about forty years after it was displayed in the exhibition on Robert le Diable. It was a state commission depicting a scene from Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer, the duet between Raoul and Valentine.
M.M.: Finally, the inclusion of photographs of recent productions, which remind us that the genre is well and truly alive, and present on the Paris Opera stage, notably on the occasion of its 350th anniversary, with a recent production of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Les Troyens by Berlioz and Verdi’s Don Carlos ...