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Exploding palaces and masses of high Cs – the rise, fall and rise again of grand opera

In her first post, our Writer in Residence explores the fortunes of a spectacular art form.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

20 February 2015 at 2.20pm | 2 Comments

When Rossini’s Guillaume Tell was first performed at the Paris Opera on 3 August 1829, it was an instant success. Within a week, Rossini had been appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, and been serenaded beneath his window by the opera’s three male leads and members of the orchestra. Lasting more than four hours and costing more than 30,000 francs to stage, the opera was an early example of the spectacular ‘grand operas’ that were to dominate the stage of the Paris Opera during the July Monarchy, and to influence composers from Verdi and Wagner to Glinka, to Saint-Saëns and beyond.    

These operas were enjoyed for their extravagance. Lasting four or five acts, and employing a large chorus, ballet troupe and artists who could perform taxing solo roles, these works required a large orchestra employing the latest instrument technology. Proto-cinematic in their ambitions, these operas demanded innovative stage machinery, scene painting and lighting effects to create exploding palaces, magnificent processions, and sublime mountain and seascapes. They were international successes, and held the stage into the 20th century. Meyerbeer’s four grand operas – the first one, Robert le diable (1831), was staged at the Royal Opera in 2012 – are the best-known examples; others include Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Halévy’s La Juive and Verdi’s Vêpres siciliennes.

During the 19th century, London was an important export market for these operas. Covent Garden, Drury Lane, the King’s Theatre (later Her Majesty’s) and the Lyceum – together with a whole host of smaller theatres – vied with each other to stage adaptations of grand operas in English with spoken dialogue, in Italian or translated into ballets – and to host visiting French performers. Thus, Guillaume Tell – as Hofer, the Tell of the Tyrol – appeared in 1830 at Drury Lane, followed shortly by three versions of Robert le diable – the ballet of debauched nuns toned down so as not to shock the delicate palates of London audiences.

Grand operas began to fall out of fashion by the end of the century; in part because of the extraordinary resources they demanded, in part because taste had shifted away from broad-brush melodramatic depictions of historical events. Audiences turned to more intimate, psychologically compelling tales, often inspired by literature.

Recent years, however, have seen a growing interest in reviving grand operas. In the UK, The Royal Opera’s Les Troyens (2012), Robert le diable (2012) and Les Vêpres siciliennes (2013) have been followed by Opera Rara’s concert performance (and recording) of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini at English National Opera (2014). Moreover, Guillaume Tell was performed last year by La Monnaie (in concert), Welsh National Opera and the Bavarian State Opera.

Such performances are in part possible because of a new generation of singers – notably tenors – able to sing these challenging roles. John Osborn, Bryan Hymel, Barry Banks, Michael Spyres, Gregory Kunde are able to combine the stamina (singing for four hours in a relatively high tessitura, over a powerful orchestra and chorus, often in demanding ensemble numbers) with agility in the upper range (Guillaume Tell has 19 top Cs). But there also seems to be renewed interest in these works in their own right, as politically engaged dramas, as well as for their influence on more familiar works in the repertory.

My next post will consider grand opera’s reputation (the genre was famously dismissed by Wagner as ‘effects without causes’) and the particular challenges it presents to modern companies, and examine some recent productions in that light – including some Tells.

Sarah Hibberd is Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of Nottingham. Find out more about her association with The Royal Opera as Writer in Residence.

Guillaume Tell runs 29 June–17 July 2015. General booking opens on 31 March. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 5 July 2015. Find your nearest cinema.

Recent Royal Opera productions of Robert le diable, Les Vêpres siciliennes and Les Troyens are available on DVD.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Bert Bornebroek responded on 22 February 2015 at 3:49pm Reply

    Already looking forward for your next article.
    it's nice to learn more about the history of the genre.

  2. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 23 February 2015 at 12:28pm Reply

    What splendid research ! Very many thanks . I also await your next article,

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