THE THREE GIANTS OF "FRENCH" OPERA

INTRODUCTION

Around the middle of the nineteenth century (roughly from 1830 to 1865), French opera was dominated by a non-Frenchman: the great Meyerbeer. But two Frenchmen were not too far behind him: Auber, and Halévy. Adolphe Adam should also be mentioned, while Ambroise Thomas and Charles Gounod entered the scene somewhat later. Hector Berlioz, now so greatly revered, was unsuccessful as an opera composer during his lifetime, but managed to keep himself busy both as a reviewer and by writing a major treatise on modern instrumentation.

To give an idea of the one time standing of Meyerbeer and Auber, when the London International Exhibition of 1862 commissioned each country's most illustrious composer to write music for the occasion, the choices were Verdi from Italy, Meyerbeer from Germany, and Auber from France. Had there been room for a second representative from France, there is little doubt that it would have been Halévy. During this period, D. F. E. Auber was to French opéra comique what Meyerbeer was to French grand opera. Of course, both of them crossed over, with Auber writing some important grand operas (most notably La muette de Portici and Gustave III, and Meyerbeer some important opera comiques (L'Etoile du Nord and Dinorah), but their greatest successes were in their own specialties. Halévy's triumphs were almost equally split between the two styles, but, thanks to the great and lasting success ofLa juive were more significant in the area of grand opera.

Verdi has increased in popularity ever since, and well he should, but Auber, Halévy. and Meyerbeer fell out of favor in the early years of the twentieth century for any number of reasons. These include:

That opera has started to be looked at in a different light after the first world war. At one time, it had been looked at primarily as entertainment for the beourgeoisie, but as a wider range of popular entertainments became available (first the cinema, then TV), opera became more of a diversion for the "intelligentsia", who were more likely to be influenced by the views of the "musical elite".

The attention that was being paid to some of the critical writings of composers like Wagner, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Berlioz. Many of their negative comments were to be repeated ad nauseum, often by "musicologists" who had never had an opportunity to hear much of the music of Meyerbeer and his contemporaries, if anything. And if they did hear them, one has to wonder whether they did so with open minds and open ears. Thus, the Meyerbeer operas are now accused of such divergent sins as

Being spectacles for their own sake.

Spectacle operas were a very important part of the 19th century musical scene, starting perhaps with Spontini's La vestale and ending with Massenet's Esclarmonde or even later. Aida was a spectacle opera. So was Les Troyens. Some succeeded, generally because of the quality of the music. Others failed because the music (not the spectacle) failed to please. All of them combined public scenes (with spectacle) and private scenes where much of the dramatic interactions took place. Some of the finest music of Juive, Huguenots and Prophète is in such confrontations (and soliloquies) in the private scenes

. That the music sounds synthetic, flabby and overcalculated.

General statements such as this are meaningless. What is synthetic music, or flabby music, or overcalculated music? Music by German composers has often been praised for its "science". Is Meyerbeer to be condemned for it?

That the daring harmonies and brilliant orchestration sound pallid because they were used for so cynical a purpose.

Finally, an admission of something of value in Meyerbeer, but how can something sound daring and pallid at the same time? What is cynical about pleasing audiences? Is there a hint here that Parisian beorgeois audiences did not deserve being pleased because they were bourgeois? Or because they were either not "high-brow" enough or too "high-brow." That statement seems like it must have been written in a 1984 type of society.

That they are period pieces, designed to appeal to a bourgeoisie of a by-gone era.

This sounds like more bashing of the French bourgeoisie. Most successfull operas were written to appeal to the audience that was likely to pay good money to hear and see them. Would today's audiences be likely to enjoy Meyerbeer if given the chance? Absolutely, if Meyerbeer were presented as being a great composer rather than as a historical curiosity. If you tell people that something is only being given because of it's historical importance, rather then because of its musical value, they are apt to agree that it has no musical value.

That Jewish music (obviously referring to Meyerbeer and possibly Halévy) is bereft of all expression, characterized by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense.

This statement, which was made by Wagner, is more of the same balderdash. To take anything that Wagner said about Meyerbeer seriously would be akin to asking Metternich what he thought of the Italian risorgimento movement.

In the crucial years from around 1925 to 1965 there were far too few performances of the French grand operas of the period to really permit any valid evaluation. Worse, during the early 1950s, there were hardly any recordings. Getting a 78 rpm version of the great Act IV duet from the Huguenots had proved to be a real challenge, while the Act V duet from Le prophète was totallly impossible to obtain. It was not until 1958 that a pirated version of Gli Ugonotti became available, 1961 for La juive, 1963 or so for a totally unsatisfactory L'africana, 1968 for a badly cut Roberto il diavolo, 1971 for Le prophète (a German version was on the market briefly before that). Thus, it was virtually impossible to challenge some of the earlier mistatements about Meyerbeer and his contemporaries.

The lack of voices who could sing the grand operas, especially those of Meyerbeer, and the high cost of staging them.

The lighter works started to be regarded as being of a lower order, and, being opéra comiques contained too much spoken dialogue to make them palatable to non French speaking audiences.

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