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Exhibitions

IV - Final Days of Glory

Antoine Barbizet - Affiche de L’Africaine, 1865. Lithographie sur papier entoilé, 70 x 51 cm. BnF, département de la Musique, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra.
Antoine Barbizet - Affiche de L’Africaine, 1865. Lithographie sur papier entoilé, 70 x 51 cm. BnF, département de la Musique, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra. © BnF

Although grand opera reached its apogee under the July monarchy, major productions still took place during the 2nd Republic and the Second Empire. Verdi was a guest star just before the fall of Louis-Philippe. His opera Jerusalem was premiered on 29th November 1847 and The Sicilian Vespers followed in 1855. The first performance of Don Carlos, in 1867, marked the twilight of grand opera. Ironically, this masterpiece was to be performed in all the great international opera houses in its Italian version, reduced to four acts.


Wagner himself was obliged, against his will, to respect this tradition and in 1861 introduced a danced scene for the Parisian premiere of Tannhäuser. Despite being choreographed by Lucien Petipa, the piece was qualified as “a schoolgirls’ orgy” by one critic at the time. Because of the increasingly flagrant lack of connection between the ballet and the dramatic action of the opera in which it had been inserted, a decline inevitably began.

Meyerbeer finished Le Prophète in 1849, after a difficult gestation. The following year, Auber exercised himself in the genre one last time with L’Enfant prodigue.

Le grand opéra - partie 4
Le grand opéra - partie 4 5 images

Like Le Juif errant, La Magicienne (1858), Halévy’s last grandiose production, was a partial failure. On the other hand, on 28th of April 1865, Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine – known for a while as Vasco de Gama - was a triumph. The score, which was unfinished at the composer’s death a year earlier, was completed by François-Joseph Fétis, a musicographer and the former librarian of the Conservatoire.

But the first sour notes were soon to make themselves heard. With the Parisian version of Tannhäuser, Wagner attempted to break free from the constraints of grand opera with its compulsory ballet. Failing to do so, he withdrew the work after three performances. Gounod tried to force his way through the doors of the Paris Opera, but in vain and his Faust was first performed at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859. It did not enter the repertoire of the Le Peletier until 1869. Berlioz was no luckier with Les Troyens, which was not performed in its entirety until 1890, in Karlsruhe in ... Germany.

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