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The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera

David Charlton (editor)

Published 2003

Cambridge University Press, 496 pages

ISBN 0-521064683-9


This substantial book (496 pages including notes, bibliography and index) is one of the excellent Cambridge ‘Companions to Music’ series. Books in the series tend to fall into one of three categories, books dedicated to a particular instrument, to a particular composer or to a more general category. This book is in the latter section and so in addition to books on Blues and Gospel Music, Jazz, The Musical, the Orchestra and Pop and Rock we have a book dedicated to Grand Opera. Not opera mind - that would probably be too expansive a sweep, but a rather more tricky area grand opera or more particularly grand opéra. For this is a book about the style of opera which developed at the Paris Opéra in the 1830s; a style which is relatively under-performed at the moment but which was hugely influential in its day.

If you search for available recordings of the operas by Meyerbeer you will find a number of his early Italian operas, courtesy of Opera Rara who specialise in early 19th century Italian opera, but precious few recordings from his French period. His finest work is probably Les Huguenots but the 1990 recording with a Francophone cast is no longer available and the only real alternative is the one starring Joan Sutherland.

This scarcity is surprising given the popularity and ubiquity of Meyerbeer’s French operas in the 19th and early 20th century. But though the operas of Meyerbeer, Halévy and Auber have dropped out of the repertoire their influence is traceable into the operas of Verdi (Les Vêpres Sicilienne, Don Carlos), Berlioz and Wagner. This book, edited by David Charlton, goes some way towards explaining the genre and looking at its influence.

Grand opéra was a bourgeois phenomenon; it arose because in the 1820s and 1830s the Paris Opéra needed to attract back an audience which had been seduced away by the smaller, more exciting theatres. Thanks to the political changes in France since the 1790s this audience was mainly middle class. So operas changed, out went the mythical heroes and noble sentiments of tragédie lyrique instead opera incorporated grand historical themes, conflicts between personal interest and public duty, elaborate staging incorporating the latest stage-craft, brilliant sets and much dancing. The results were intended to be gesamtkunstwerk before even Wagner had thought of it; but this was gesamtkunstwerk where the composer was just one of many rather than the presiding genius. And that is the problem with the genre today: the most popular examples were written by composers such as Meyerbeer who were technically adept but lacked true genius. In his illuminating chapter about staging grand opéra today, David Pountney rightly says that only two musical masterpieces of the genre are Verdi’s Don Carlos and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell.

The book has much ground to cover. The first section deals with the mechanics of grand opéra itself. Hervé Lacombe’s informative chapter on the Paris Opéra is marred by its flowery, diffuse language and Nicholas White’s chapter on librettos and librettists barely avoids being an indigestible list. But Simon Williams provides excellent background to the use of historical detail in the operas. There are also chapters on the chorus, the dance and the opera singers. All include fascinating information, neither James Parakilas (the chorus), nor Marian Smith (dancers) nor Mary Ann Smart (the soloists) manages to completely expunge the suspicion that they were working with a list of points that just had to be covered.

The second part of the book details with the operas themselves. Here the writers have their work cut out as much of this repertoire has dropped completely out of sight. So Sarah Hibberd has to fill in much that the early audiences of Auber’s La Muette de Portici would have taken for granted. Matthias Brzoska and John H. Roberts describe Meyerbeer’s four mature French operas in detail. Both are candid about the composer’s limitations, but nonetheless they manage to convey something of their enthusiasm; their articles made me curious to see the operas for myself. Diana R Hallman has the rather unenviable task of working her way through Halévy’s operas in order to provide a good background to La Juive.

All these chapters and the one describing the work of Rossini and Verdi, and that charting the later course of the opera, are well crafted and informative, if a little heavy going. What I did rather miss was something of that breathless enthusiasm which might have carried me away and convinced me that someone loved these pieces rather than that they simply felt them to be interesting or important. That’s not to say that the writers do not love these operas, just that their articles do not really convey it. There is a little too much of the academic journal about these pieces (complete with self referential notes) and I understood that this Cambridge Companions series was aimed at the more general reader.

The book concludes with a clutch of chapters which trace the influence of grand opéra across the globe. Wagner’s debt to the genre is well known, but Thomas Grey manages to illuminate various corners of the repertoire, including the debt owed by Götterdämmerung. That Glinka was a contemporary of Meyerbeer’s rather than a disciple goes some way to explaining the relationship of Glinka’s two operas to Western operatic styles and Marina Frolova-Walker points up the significance of grand opéra in Russia. Even less obvious is the influence the genre had in Czech opera, though Jan Smazcny’s article is perhaps hampered by the fact that some of the operas he talks about (e.g. Dvořák’s Dmitrij) are not as well known in Western Europe as they should be.

This is a comprehensive and extensive book. Anyone needing to study grand opéra should ensure that they have it to hand. It also provides superb background reading if you want to explore the operas of Meyerbeer et al. But it does not make easy reading and I must admit that there were times when only my duty as a reviewer kept me going.

Robert Hugill

A comprehensive and extensive book. Anyone needing to study grand opéra should have it to hand. It provides superb background but there were times when only my duty as a reviewer kept me going. ... see Full Review



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