A Postcard from Meyerbeer’s Paris
We take a look at the times in which grand opéra shuddered onto the opera scene.
Louis-Philippe d’Orléans leaving the Palais-Royal to go to the city hall, 31 July 1830, two days after the July Revolution by Horace Vernet
When Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable was first performed in 1831, Paris was the centre of the musical world. It was also a turbulent place, struggling to get on its feet after the radical Napoleonic era. The monarchy that followed Napoleon’s abdication proved an unhappy affair, so the 1830 July Revolution routed Charles X. He was replaced with Louis Philippe I, the ‘citizen king’ as he was initially known. Alongside this majestic new order, grand opera was born.
Grand opera is sung throughout (unlike opéra comique, it has no spoken dialogue). But its essential characteristics give rise to the genre’s imposing moniker, as many of the works of the 1830s and beyond show. Plots set tragic private romance against a background of impressive and heroic historical events; there were impressive stage effects; the chorus played a major dramatic and vocal part; there were many leading characters and, increasingly, a ballet was included at some stage in the drama. With vast forces in big ensembles, stage tableaux and complex plots, the operas usually stretched to five acts. And Robert le diable was right at the forefront of this new all-embracing idea of drama, music, movement and image.
Composers such as Meyerbeer, Fromental Halévy and Daniel Auber displayed a real talent for combining such elements as medieval stories, grand flights of passion, stunning vocal showpieces and grand spectacle. Auber’s 1828 La Muette de Portici set a trend, especially by including a volcanic eruption on stage (a trick nicked from La Scala’s production of Giovanni Pacini’s L’ultimo giorno di Pompei). Gioachino Rossini, brought to Paris by the former king, followed suit with the equally imposing historical epic Guillaume Tell in 1829. Both operas were designed by Pierre-Luc-Charles Ciceri, whose visual genius was also used for the staging of Robert le diable. Meyerbeer had come to Paris after becoming successful in Italy, and his experience and the new cultural atmosphere he encountered fired his theatrical imagination. Robert le diable appeared in 1831.
The Paris Opéra, then resident at the Salle Le Peletier, was the place to see and be seen, the heart of Paris society. But if these entertainments seemed the preserve of the upper classes from the expensive seats, the general public were also avid fans higher up in the cheap ones. On stage, the operas often have a spirit of class conflict through stories in which powerful, privileged characters are brought face to face with the rebellious masses. La Muette de Portici revolves around an uprising in 17th-century Naples, the like of which Paris knew well. Partisan clashes – often religious – run through Halévy’s La Juive as well as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and L’Africaine. The premiere of Robert le diable comes shortly before the events that inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Not surprisingly, the opera house was under the constant scrutiny of the censors!
Although Robert le diable was relatively tame politically as one of the earliest of these grand operas its impact on French culture was immense. The night-time nuns’ bacchanal in Act III, captured vividly by Edgar Degas in 1871, was an inspiration for Giselle (which had its premiere at the Salle Le Peletier in 1841). Giselle in turn travelled to Russia in 1842 and inspired similarly eerie, moonlit scenes in La Bayadère and Swan Lake.
Ballet was, in itself at the time, part and parcel of grand opera and many would come just to see the dancing. Perhaps the clearest indication of the importance of this type of opera and its structures during the 19th century was when Wagner’s Tannhäuser came to Paris in 1861. The all-too-powerful Jockey Club had grown used to turning up halfway through the evening. Its members would watch their girls in the corps de ballet and then promptly leave for dinner. But Wagner did not play by the rules, moved the ballet from its customary position well on in the opera to the beginning of Act 1, and uproar ensued.
Robert le diable continued to be staged at the Paris Opéra throughout the 19th century, both at the Salle Le Peletier and at its even grander successor, the Palais Garnier. And even when operetta and opéra comique became more fashionable, Meyerbeer’s supernatural masterpiece survived. But, as naturalism made its mark at the end of the 19th century, and the economics of opera production became more challenging, French grand opera increasingly lost its place on the stage and with the audience. And so Robert le diable fell out of favour. As well as being absent from the Royal Opera House since 1890, it disappeared from the Paris stage for nearly a century. But like its famous phantom nuns, the opera has recently begun to rise again and, with it, a flavour of the volatile world in which it was created.
Robert le diable returns to The Royal Opera from 6 December