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The Battle for Paris

In mid-nineteenth-century Paris, MEYERBEER was the undisputed king of the opera world. But VERDI was the crown-prince cousin with the glint in his eye. 
by Peter G. Davis. 
Illustration by Ben Kirchner. 

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Illustration by Ben Kirchner

WHEN HE DIED, in 1864, at the age of seventy-two, Giacomo Meyerbeer was more than famous. He was widely revered in intellectual circles as an immortal genius, a musical Michelangelo whose lavish five-act historical epics, painstakingly crafted for the Paris Opéra, would endure forever. Indeed, at his death Meyerbeer was the most influential and most frequently performed opera composer in Europe. No one dreamed that his works would soon fall out of fashion and become the rarities they are today.

Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were both fifty when Meyerbeer died, established composers with their own distinctive styles but not yet able to match Meyerbeer’s popularity. They had studied the older composer’s manner, taken note of his success and learned much from him, although neither would ever accord him more than token respect. At various times in their careers Verdi and Wagner had each hoped to write what opera composers of all nationalities aspired to in the mid-nineteenth century—a grand-scale lyric drama that would triumph in Paris, in those days the center of the opera world. Many had succeeded and set new standards—Rossini, Donizetti, Auber, Halévy—but Meyerbeer always loomed as the paradigm and most potent role model.

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▶︎ VERDI STORMED THE WALLS OF PARIS with mixed success throughout his career, beginning in 1847 with Jérusalem,a drastic reworking of I Lombardi. In 1854 and 1855, he labored over a sprawling five-act costume drama tailored specifically for Gallic tastes, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, and followed that a year and a half later with a French version of Il Trovatore. (The revision of Macbeth for Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique in 1865 remained essentially an Italian opera.) In 1867, he composed his crowning achievement for the Paris Opéra, Don Carlos, based on Schiller’s great historical play—actually more myth than history, but this is no doubt precisely what drew Verdi to the subject.

Although it took nearly a century for this most monumental and musically intricate of the composer’s operas to become a repertory fixture, Don Carlos definitely signaled what was to be a seismic change in operatic tastes. Verdi’s earlier works were already overtaking Meyerbeer’s operas on the global scene, and astute observers could see that with Don Carlos Verdi had taken his art to a higher level. This exacting composer was never completely satisfied with the score: three official revisions were produced between 1872 and 1886. Even today, audiences never know how much of the opera will be performed or in which language, French or Italian—and the choices significantly alter the score’s overall effect. However it is presented, Don Carlos generates a musical and dramatic potency seldom found in Meyerbeer’s grand operas, despite their glamorous surface, technical innovations and carefully prepared dramatic conflicts. Verdi’s generous spirit simply glows more powerfully and peers more deeply into the human condition.

And yet the reasons behind Meyerbeer’s near total eclipse remain fascinating. How could a man so celebrated in his time possibly fall so low in esteem and virtually vanish from sight? How did his rivals choose, adapt and absorb the stylistic characteristics of his operas that made him the man of the hour? Can revivals ever recapture at least some of the qualities that so excited his contemporaries? Beyond pondering those interesting questions, Meyerbeer, the man himself, makes an intriguing study—a complex individual whose career and musical development often took him in surprising directions.

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A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable at Covent Garden, 2012, directed by Laurent Pelly
© Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL
 

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▶︎ UNLIKE VERDI AND WAGNER, who always worked within their own national musical traditions and identities, Meyerbeer was a complete cosmopolitan. Born Jakob Liebmann Beer into a wealthy Jewish family living near Berlin (he appended his mother’s family name “Meyer” in 1810), this young composer was never forced to starve in a garret. His financial independence was an asset that he always used wisely, at first to learn the basics of music and composition from the best teachers in Germany. And he worked hard: no one could accuse Meyerbeer of being a dilettante. One of his earliest and most influential mentors was Abbé Vogler (1749–1814), whose controversial theories on chord voicing and chromatic harmony left a permanent mark on both Meyerbeer and his classmate and friend Carl Maria von Weber.

After writing some journeyman operas in his native language, Meyerbeer spent a year checking out the scene in Paris. In 1816, he moved to Italy for an extended stay, determined to learn the techniques of Italian opera. He promptly turned Jakob into the more euphonious Giacomo, closely studied the style and manner of the leading composer of the day, Gioachino Rossini, and found a skilled librettist with connections—Gaetano Rossi, who would provide Meyerbeer with most of his texts during the Italian years.

It took only a year for the young composer’s first opera in his newly learned style to reach the stage: Romilda e Costanza, in Padua, was a huge hit. The word spread; other successful operas quickly followed, and by 1825 Giacomo Meyerbeer had become an opera composer to be taken seriously. Even Rossini sensed a dangerous rival. 

A recent Naxos recording of Semiramide Riconosciuta, Meyerbeer’s second Italian opera, first staged in 1819 at the Teatro Regio, Turin, shows why. The opera predates Rossini’s vastly different treatment of the subject by some four years, but this live recording from the 2005 Wildbad Festival, conducted by Richard Bonynge, reveals a score of considerable charm, grace and instrumental sophistication.

Meyerbeer’s farewell to Italy, Il Crociato in Egitto (the last major opera to feature a role for castrato), created a sensation at Venice’s Fenice in 1824, not only as an apotheosis of the composer’s Italian style but as a harbinger of the French grand-opera innovations that lay ahead. The opera quickly made the rounds, and—with Giuditta Pasta, no less—served as the composer’s triumphant entrée into Paris the following year.

After that success, Meyerbeer never looked back. The Paris Opéra offered everything he could hope for—the world’s most famous singers, unparalleled scenic resources, an orchestra and music staff without equal, and the rapt attention of the entire music world. And Meyerbeer proved to be wonderfully skilled at manipulating the complex machinery of the “Grande Boutique” (as Verdi dubbed the Opéra) to his advantage, never allowing a new opera to reach the stage until it precisely fit his requirements. And if the Opéra management balked at paying for extra rehearsals and other details, Meyerbeer reached deep into his own pockets and produced the money. Before important premieres, the composer even threw lavish dinner parties for influential people, making sure that every music critic in town, however lowly, was invited. 

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A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable at Covent Garden, 2012, directed by Laurent Pelly
© Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL
 

Meyerbeer ruled, and the initial impact of his first two French grand operas, Robert le Diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836), was immense. There was a critical backlash, especially from the composer’s countrymen. Schumann positively loathed Les Huguenots, comparing it unfavorably to Mendelssohn’s contemporaneous oratorio St. Paul. The public paid no attention to the anti-Meyerbeer faction, and audiences continued to flock to the Opéra whenever a flashy Meyerbeer spectacle was on the boards. It took only three years for Robert le Diable to notch up one hundred performances, while Les Huguenots was the first work to be seen at the Opéra a thousand times. If Meyerbeer and his French librettist, Eugène Scribe, had not exactly created the idealized Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, they did produce cunningly organized total entertainment packages that ravished both eyes and ears. Beyond that, more thoughtful patrons were impressed by stage works with provocatively conceptualized historical themes, clever dramatic coups and occasional startling departures from formal operatic conventions.

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▶︎ EVENTUALLY, though, audiences sensed that something was missing beneath all the glitter, glamour and pretense, and by the middle of the last century interest in Meyerbeer’s operas had dwindled to the point that they virtually vanished. Occasionally there would be a prestigious revival in Milan, New York, Paris, London, Berlin or San Francisco, but so far not one of Meyerbeer’s operas has been able to reroot itself in the world repertory. It’s often said that singers able to do the music justice no longer exist—yet I was fortunate enough to attend the famous 1962 Scala production of Les Huguenots with a most impressive cast that included Joan Sutherland, Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, Franco Corelli, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Giorgio Tozzi, among others. The singing was indeed fabulous, but I mostly recall an all-star vocal pageant rather than a gripping drama depicting the horrifying events that led to the massacre of more than 3,000 French Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572.

Like Les Huguenots, Don Carlos centers on a brutal act of religious persecution, the burning of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition in the 1560s. The effect, however, is quite different. Don Carlos’s awesome auto-da-fé scene is the focal point of the opera, but even here Verdi never loses sight of the personal conflicts that relentlessly propel the drama. Although Don Carlos enjoyed only a mild success at its Paris premiere, discerning observers recognized it as an important advance both for Verdi and for French opera, a challenging work that did not reveal its secrets easily, despite being generously endowed with all the necessary audience-pleasing conventions of the grand-opera genre. Verdi, the consummate professional, had seen to that, but his music also examines a complex network of private and public lives in which each character lives passionately and inhabits a richly tex-tured, darkly colored musical world that vividly evokes a very specific time and place.

We are given a huge amount of information to digest, all of it important to the opera’s grand design, a fact Verdi was well aware of as he struggled to contain the work’s vast proportions. Commenting on the original long-breathed Act II, which includes Eboli’s veil song and ends with the shattering confrontation between Philip and Posa, Verdi observed, “It isn’t an act; it’s half an opera!” Perhaps the composer never did find a shape for Don Carlos that satisfied him. Even with all the revisions and the opera’s slow progress into the repertory, many Verdi connoisseurs now consider Don Carlos to be the composer’s most imposing achievement, perhaps even his masterpiece.

With his next opera, Verdi got it right the first time. Aida confidently distills all the characteristics of Meyerbeerian grand-opera style into a concise music drama without one note too many and with none of the structural problems that beset Don Carlos. A triumph at its premiere in 1871, Aida remains one of the half-dozen most popular operas ever written, a score that even struck its first audiences as having just about everything in place—spectacle, dance, superb melodic invention, effective dramatic conflicts and an adaptability that makes it suitable for all occasions, great or small. By 1871, with the composer’s familiar operas already secure in the public’s affections, the two Shakespearean miracles of his old age on the horizon, and the rediscovery of his many early works soon to come, Verdi had effectively replaced Meyerbeer as the world’s leading opera composer. That remains true to this day, nearly 150 years later—a fact that changing musical tastes seem unlikely to alter. spacer 

Peter G. Davis has been a longtime contributor of classical-music articles and reviews to such publications as The New York Times and Musical America. 



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