V - The End of an Era
Édouard Despléchin - Esquisse de décor pour Les Martyrs de Gaetano Donizetti, acte II, tableau 2, 1840. Plume, lavis, gris et sépia, 56 x 94,5 cm © BnF
With the deaths of Scribe in 1861, Halévy in 1862 and Meyerbeer in 1864, grand opera lost its greatest librettist and two of its major composers. Its decline had begun, precipitated by the spread of the ideas and the music of Wagner.
Eugène Lacoste - Esquisse de costume d’un arménien dans Polyeucte de Charles Gounod, 1877-1878. Plume, aquarelle, gouache, 27 x 20 cm. BnF, département de la Musique, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra. © BnF
With the construction of the Palais Garnier, opera prepared itself for a new temple and to renew its ties with the monarchy: the Grand Foyer imitated the Gallery of Mirrors in Versailles and the monumental staircase was inspired by that of theatre in Bordeaux, built during the reign of Louis XVI.
The war of 1870 put an end to the cultural ambitions of the Second Empire. The inaugural soirée of the new opera house on 5th January 1875 was, paradoxically, a homage to the “old world” as it had been imagined by Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy. Featuring on the programme were extracts from La Muette de Portici, Guillaume Tell, La Juive and Les Huguenots. The sole concession to modernity was La Source, a ballet by Léo Delibes.
Eugène Lacoste - Esquisse de costumes d’une chrétienne dans Polyeucte de Charles Gounod, 1877-1878. Plume, aquarelle, gouache, 27 x 20 cm. BnF, département de la Musique, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra © BnF
Polyeucte (Gounod), Henry VIII (Saint-Saëns) and Le Cid (Massenet) were final attempts to perpetuate a genre which now belonged in the past. The new world moved to Brussels for a while. It was at the Opéra Royal de la Monnaie, the very place where La Muette had sparked off the events of 1830, that the French premiers of Lohengrin (1870) and the Ring (1891-1904) took place, as well as the world premieres of Gwendoline by Emmanuel Chabrier in 1896, Fervaal by Vincent d’Indy in 1897 and Le Roi Arthus by Ernest Chausson in 1903.
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