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What exactly is grand opera?

A history of French opera in the 19th century — By Elise Petit

“You ask if it would be unappealing for me to work for the French stage. I assure you it would be a far greater honour to compose for the French Opera, than for all the theatres in Italy – in the principal ones of which, incidentally, I have already performed my works.”
Meyerbeer, in a letter to Nicolas-Prosper Levasseur, July 5, 1823.     

Who today can hum Marguerite de Navarre’s aria “ Ô mon pays” or recall the “Bénédiction des poignards”, both of which feature in Meyerbeer’s LesHuguenots? This grand opera, which in 1936 celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its premiere after more than a thousand performances—a feat practically unequalled in the history of the genre—then all but drifted into oblivion. But what exactly lies behind the term “grand opera”? Behind that expression, we detect monumentality, dramatic tone and a quest for a specific “French-style”. Brought to its apogee by German and Italian composers, it is in fact the result of an astute combination of Italian melody, German experimentation with instrumentation and the rigour of French prosody. The portrait of a genre anchored in a century of political and aesthetic upheavals.    


The origins of French grand opera seem to lie in the realms of lyrical tragedy. Invented during the reign of Louis XIV by the Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully, this genre in five acts combined the magnificence of sets and costumes with a particular focus on French prosody far removed from the vocal devices and virtuosity which ensured the success of the Italian composers. The evolution of society and then the French Revolution would usher in a wind of change and liberty that would lead to an aesthetic evolution and, more importantly, the revamping of the genre: Aimed at a wider audience and often saddled with a propagandist purpose to promote the new republican ideas and the various regimes that followed, opera embraced a violent realism with shorter librettos that forsook subjects from antiquity latching instead onto the political stories of the day. Theatres and new works flourished until 1807 when the Emperor Napoleon reinstated the Privileges that applied under Louis XIV. Henceforth, only eight theatres would be authorised in Paris, four of which were “imperial” or “Grand Theatres”: the Comédie-Française, the Opéra-Comique, the Théâtre-Italien, more commonly known as “Les Bouffes”, and first and foremost, the Académie Royale in the Rue Le Peletier. The delimitation of genres was extremely strict and for several decades the Académie Royale had the exclusive privilege to stage grand operas. In 1807, it was the Italian Gaspare Spontini who made the first successful transition of a revolutionary work towards this new genre with La Vestale. This was followed by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1828) and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829) both of which are considered to be the first accomplished examples.

In 1825, the young German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer settled in Paris. A student of Abbé Vogler, a composer all but unknown today but the genuine precursor of German musical romanticism, Meyerbeer arrived in Italy where he quickly became immersed in Italian bel canto and began a brilliant career as an opera composer alongside Rossini. Even though, like Rossini, he staged his early Italian works at the Théâtre-Italien—as required by the separation of genres —it was really at the Académie Royale that he sought to see his works performed. Thus, in a letter to the French basso Nicolas-Prosper Levasseur, dated July 1823, he wrote: “Where else other than Paris can an artist who wishes to compose truly dramatic music find the vast means that French Opera offers?” The timely support of Luigi Cherubini and an encounter with the principal librettist of the genre, Eugène Scribe, led to the composition of Robert le Diable (1831). The work brought both the newly-privatised Paris Opera and its new owner Louis Véron fame and fortune. Henceforth, the consecration of any composer seeking to be recognised in the field of opera would be dependent on a commission from that institution. In 1861, even Wagner would bow to it by having Tannhäuser translated before suffering the ignominy of disappointment, notably for failing to satisfy the requirement of the members of the Jockey Club to insert a ballet into the second act of the opera since that those gentlemen usually arrived in their boxes after the first act. In 1836, Meyerbeer composed the greatest success of the 19th century: Les Huguenots.

So what are the characteristics of grand opera that were set definitively by Robert le Diable and respected by all of Meyerbeer’s contemporaries; Berlioz and Wagner included? In the first place, it embraces everything associated with grandeur and grandiosity: From its roots in lyrical tragedy, grand opera generally retained the five acts and incorporated a ballet— often cut from today’s productions—but it also boasted incredibly sumptuous sets and costumes imbued with realism and spectacular stage effects. In addition to the numerous, highly demanding solo roles the productions also included huge processions, major crowd scenes, and Bacchanalian drinking binges and orgies which delighted the public. Grandeur also defined the subject matter: a genuine “sweeping epic” generally unfurling over four or five hours, grand opera primarily drew on historical subjects but above all sought dramatic truth. In addition, the music had to reflect the sense of the words and the situations. In this, Meyerbeer’s contribution was decisive; it was he who generalised the use of “continuous melody” blurring the line between arias and recitatives and allowing for greater dramatic consistency. Moreover, the overture of Les Huguenots is based on variations of the Lutheran choral “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”, a Leitmotiv signalling the religious overtones which surface throughout the work and inspired Wagner.

Finally, grandeur defined the orchestration, which anchored the genre in musical romanticism: the orchestra was enriched with low register instruments—bass clarinet, double bassoon, ophicleide, tuba—and high-note ones—piccolo, cornet, saxhorn. New instruments also appeared in the ensemble, including the English horn and the harp, which until then had generally been confined to private appartments. In Act I of Les Huguenots. There is even a viola d’amore (often replaced by the viola) which is meant to accompany Raoul’s love song. It is an innovation that reveals the importance which Meyerbeer placed on instrumental timbres intended to blend with the voice of the singers to create a dramatic double effect. Concerning Les Huguenots, Berlioz, himself a commensurate orchestrator, wrote in the Gazette musicale the morning after the premiere: “In terms of instrumentation, in terms of mass vocal effects, this score surpasses everything attempted until now. […] It astounds the ear.” The emphasis on unusual or exotic timbres also enriches the romantic orchestra’s palette of percussions and accessories, notably through the addition of military drums and antique cymbals in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, or by the use of bells, castanets and even anvils. In addition to all these characteristics, which require considerable financial resources, and which, in part, explain the genre’s decline in the 20th century, grand opera stands out from other opera genres for its requirement that the libretto be sung from start to finish solely in the French language. For this reason, in 1857, Verdi reworked his Il Trovatore (which became Le Trouvère), and he then composed Don Carlos to a French libretto to satisfy the requirements of the genre.

The 19th century was riddled with a succession of revolts and revolutions which left a lasting impression in the minds of artists—no less than seven assassination attempts were made against Louis-Philippe I between 1832 and 1846, and four plots were thwarted. A product of the Reign of Terror, grand opera assimilates the violence inherent in the troubled times that France was experiencing. Added to this is the utterly romantic fascination for the supernatural and the macabre that we find particularly in the dance of the nuns in Robert le Diable. And if the subject of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572) was of so much fascination at the time, it is because it echoed the numerous conflicts that divided monarchists and republicans, but also Catholics and protestants. The content of the works also evolved to reflect the changes in power, often assigning villainous roles to the nobility, against a backdrop of anticlericalism. The exaltation of Liberty is also a common theme in grand opera, echoing the numerous restrictions on individual freedoms and the regular intervention of the censors. However, the true subject behind the various historical and political events always remains love—love often thwarted or love that is simply impossible: Valentine and Raoul in les Huguenots (1836), Didon and Énée in Les Troyens (1863), Élisabeth and Carlos in Don Carlos (1867)… In this, grand opera joins its competitors, Italian opera and comic opera, with the timeless and universal appeal of librettos that are particularly well adapted for today’s stage. Accused of “cosmopolitism” in the context of the rise of anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century, declared “degenerate” and totally banned in Nazi Germany, Meyerbeer’s music is, today, rehabilitated. The performances of Les Huguenots at the Paris Opera offer a unique occasion to rediscover a precursory genius, who was acclaimed and much copied by his peers and who gave grand opera a prestige that has yet to be surpassed.    

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