I. The Genealogy of grand opera
Hippolyte Lecomte - Esquisse de costume pour Nicolas Levasseur dans le rôle d’Aladin dans Il Crociato in Egitto, opéra de Giacomo Meyerbeer, 1825. Aquarelle, crayon graphite, plume © BnF
Grand opera, although a new genre, belongs within a long tradition. Medée, by Luigi Cherubini, first performed in 1797 at the Théâtre Feydeau, was still affiliated to opéra comique in some aspects, but its monumental proportions bring it closer to the future grand opera, of which it established the foundations, as much by the importance given to the chorus as by the force of its orchestration. Gaspare Spontini, who enjoyed the favour of the Empress Josephine, embarked upon the same route with La Vestale, first performed in 1807 at the Académie impériale de musique. La Vestale required considerable means: two orchestras, one in the pit, the other on stage, a chorus of fifty and as many dancers.
Rossini, whose Siege of Corinth and Moses and Pharaoh were performed in Paris in 1826 and 1827 respectively, belongs within this tradition of Italian precursors of grand opera.
The French composer Jean-François Lesueur also acted as a pioneer with Ossian ou Les Bardes (1804). A work of propaganda, intended to glorify Napoleon I, Ossian presents certain characteristics later to be associated with grand opera: a five-act structure and choreographed sections integrated within the dramatic action.
Before his triumph with Robert le Diable in 1831, Meyerbeer had already tried his hand at works inspired by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Margherita d’Anjou and Il Crociato in Egitto, composed in Italy, were performed in Paris between 1825 and 1826.
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