French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination
By Sarah Hibberd
Cambridge University Press; 292 pp. $26
"History is about to crack wide open," Ethel Rosenberg tells Roy Cohn in Angels in America. For French citizens of the nineteenth century, it must have felt as though history had not only cracked but exploded. In the twenty-five years before the fall of Napoleon, the French lived through a dizzying series of governments and official ideologies. No wonder Walter Scott's novels and works by popular historians became best-sellers: having lived through so much history, the French sought to figure out what it meant.
In French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination, Sarah Hibberd clarifies how that nineteenth-century search for the meaning of history influenced a genre that made history its primary concern, skillfully disentangling the somewhat confused ways in which French operas from this period were conceived, received and remembered. She begins her study with the first grand opera, Auber's La Muette de Portici, whose depiction of a popular uprising in seventeenth-century Naples is remembered for inspiring the revolution of 1830. Hibberd discovers that at the time of its premiere in 1828, La Muette spawned not revolution, but a "string of new works (plus two revivals) featuring mute heroines."
The fact that its speechless heroine and spectacular staging effects (the finale featured Vesuvius erupting) were the most remarked-upon elements of La Muette may speak to the ambivalence, if not hostility, that critics expressed toward French grand opera. To her credit, Hibberd is never condescending toward the music of this or the other four French grand operas she examines, deftly weaving musical analysis into her overall discussion. For Gustave III, she traces how Auber's subtle use of recurring rhythmic motives illustrates one of the major themes of the opera, and of French historical writing of the period — "history [as] the story of the 'interminable struggle' between man and nature, freedom and fate." She illuminates how Niedermeyer's evocation of the religious music of the Middle Ages in Stradella reflects nineteenth-century ideas of historical authenticity, and how Halévy, who musically matched the "sleight of hand" suggested by a game of cards in one crucial scene of Charles V, depicts the appropriation of history for political ends.
Hibberd concludes her discussion with Le Prophète, making the convincing argument that Meyerbeer's desire to portray his hero as "a true visionary," who leads a revolt that "meshed with optimistic pre-1848 republican beliefs," crashed against the disillusionment that set in after the uprisings of 1848. "Le Prophète was widely received," she writes of its premiere, "as playing out the destruction of the Revolutionary ideal." As Hibberd's admirable and stimulating book suggests, history — both its reality and its depiction in opera — is as unstable as a fault line.