For five years after the sensational première of Robert le Diable, Meyerbeer was thought to be resting on his laurels. Instead, he was drudging over a gigantic drama, partly adapted by Scribe from Merimée's Chronique de Charles IX. It was hardly believed possible that the esrlier success could be repeated. Most of the vivid details gleaned from every available document related to the time, were the composer's contribution to Les Huguenots. The music for this sombre tapestry of the Saint Bartholomew Massacre springs from the core of the vivid action and creates a panoramic alternation of moods, that capture the tragedy of religious intolerance and personal anguish in one of the most fraught events in history when some 30,000 French Protestants were murdered during the night of 24 August 1574. Meyerbeer’s music rises to occasion, and reaches sublime heights of music drama, especially in the fourth and fifth acts, with the Benediction of the Catholic Daggers—one of the most electrical scenes in all opera—the more powerful Love Duet, and the trio of martyrdom in the last moments of the opera. Spectacle was incorporated in the plot, in Meyerbeer’s concern to conjure up the couleur locale of those heroic times. The evocation of Marguerite de Valois’s court at Chenonceaux, the recreation of late Medieval Parisian life with its Gypsy revels and the religionists' riots in the Pré-aux-Clercs, the wedding fete in the Hotel de Nesle, all grow out of the central idea. Meyerbeer was also very successful in his characterizations of individuals: the dreamy idealist Raoul, the passionate and self-sacrificing Valentine, the fanatical and implacable St Bris, the rough stolid Marcel, the elegant and capricious queen, the somewhat flamboyant but always honorable Nevers. All come to life in this score.
The opera became enormously popular, its various arias a touchstone of operatic lyricism, and by 1936 had been performed 1120 times in at the Paris Opéra alone. In spite of its overwhelming dramatic power and instrumental riches of the score, the most significant aspect of the work came to regarded the supremacy of the vocal parts. Performances at the Metropolitan Opera in new York during the 1890s were among the the most famous in operatic history. Here performances attained a legendary status, the so-called nuits des sept étoiles (“the Nights of the Seven Stars”), as in 1894 with Nellie Melba, Lillian Nordica, Sofia Scalchi, Jean de Reszke, Edouard de Reszke, Pol Plançon, and Victor Maurel
Once again George Sand summed up with incomparable insight the essence of Meyerbeer’s musico-dramatic achievement.
“From stone floors that no Protestant knee ever warms, solemn voices seemed to resound, the tones of a calm, secure triumph and the expiring sighs and murmurings of a tranquil end, resigned, confident, without death-rattle or lamentation. It was the voice of Calvinist martyrdom, a martyrdom without ecstasy or delirium, a torment where suffering is stifled by austere pride and august certainty... These imaginary hymns naturally assumed in my mind the form of that fine canticle in your opera, The Huguenots; and, while I dreamt I heard the cries of Catholic indignation and a sharp volley of musketry outside, a tall figure passed before my eyes, one of the noblest dramatic figures, one of the loveliest personifications of the idea of faith that art has ever produced in our time: Meyerbeer's Marcel. And I saw that bronze statue standing clothed in buffalo hide, quickened by the divine fire the composer had brought down upon him. I saw him, Maestro, forgive me my presumption, just as he must have appeared to you when you sought him at the uncompromising and steadfast hour of noon under the glowing arches of some Protestant church, vast and luminous as this one. Though you are a musician, you are more a poet than any of us! In what secret recess of your soul, in what hidden treasury of your mind did you find those clear, pure features, that concept, simple as antiquity, true as history, lucid as conscience, strong as faith? ....”
The facsimile edition of the manuscript of this famous work, for so long kept private and then thought lost after the Second World War, enables lovers of opera to examine for themselves the compositional procedure of its great and often misunderstood creator. One can see the extent to which curtailment of the original conception was needed on the eve of the premiere: in the ensembles of both act 1 and 3 Meyerbeer’s complex developments had to be reduced. The ever present problem of censorship also meant that the original idea of depicting Catherine de’ Medici on stage as the instigator of the massacre had to be radically altered and her role substituted by the Comte de Saint Bris. The famous viola d’amore accompaniment to Raoul’s rhapsodic act 1 romance (“Plus blanche que la blanche hermine”) was originally conceived for the cello. The extraordinary Andante amoroso for the central part of the love duet also indicates Meyerbeer’s preparedness to act on a good idea: in this case Adolphe Nourrit’s suggestion that the cantabile be expanded. To see the MS of such a famous opera is both a moving and stimulating experience.
The opera was performed in a version prepared by François-Joseph Fétis a year later, 28 April 1865, and was a glorious posthumous tribute to its creators. It caused tremendous enthusiasm, and became enormously popular, being performed 60 times in the first four seasons, and eventually receiving 485 performances in Paris until the end of the century. In its glorious vocal writing, resplendent orchestral colouring and fragrant exoticism, it was a source of delight to many, like Franz Liszt. Even in the midst of his residency in the hallowed grounds of the Vatican in May 1865, he was working at Meyerbeer’s last opera: “L’Africaine was the newest sensation of the theatrical music. The heavy brassy Rococo of its strains, its military ensembles, the number of its figurants, as numerous and diverse as a circus train met with upon the road, these worldly contrasts were such a delight to Liszt that his fantasia upon the opera assumed double form and took up two volumes.”1
L’Africaine also shows a progression, even a deepening, in Meyerbeer’s style, with a melodic language that is more Italianate in concept and line, as if Meyerbeer’s sojourn in Italy in 1856 had it subliminal effects.2 Tunes are more like recitatives in style, and come across as much loftier, more serene and aloof:3 It certainly appealed to the singers of the Golden Age, and during the first part of the twentieth century was a favourite of many great tenors (Caruso, Martinelli, Gigli, Bjorling, Piccaver), and later of Domingo.
This facsimile of the composer’s manuscript is particularly fascinating. It is clear and hardly annotated at all, and uniquely gives us Meyerbeer’s original intentions before the process of editing and adjustment which he always undertook at rehearsals, in response to dramaturgical exigencies and pressures of time.
A thrilling and thoughtful meditation on the destabilising and destructive power of beauty, this had its world premiere at The Shed in New York City, starring Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming.
The eleventh volume presents the fourth of Meyerbeer’s grands opéras, and his final work. By 1860 long-imposed labor had started to tell upon the composer’s health: he knew that he must concentrate on the “navigator project” which he had started twenty years earlier if he intended to finish it. Meyerbeer died on 2 May 1864, the day after the completion of the copying of the full score of this his last opera, Vasco da Gama. Minna Meyerbeer and César-Victor Perrin, the director of the Opéra, entrusted the editing of a performing edition to the famous Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis, while the libretto was revised by Mélesville. The original title of L’Africaine was restored out of deference to public expectation. Much of the music and action was suppressed, in spite of the strain this inflicted on the internal logic of the story.
While L'Africaine is not lacking in the grandeur of statement and stirring climaxes for which the composer was so famous, there is a new intimacy, a new intensity of melancholic lyricism. Like its famous predecessors, it is basically an historical work, derived from the period of sixteenth-century Renaissance. The account of Vasco da Gama's voyage of discovery around the Cape of Good Hope and conquest of Calicut (1497-98) is subjected to a fictional treatment that raises many interesting issues. The framework is historical, but most of the characters and course of action are not; in fact the end of the opera, in the suicide of the heroine, suddenly leaves the terra firma of reality, and transports us into the mystical realms of the spirit. It is this mixture of modes that is central to the dramaturgy of L'Africaine, a confusion of history and fairytale, ancient certainties and challenging discoveries, in the creation of a new mythology. There is also originality in formal developments, with the great tenor scene in act 4 providing a new malleability in handling the constraints of shape and genre: recitative, arioso and cabaletta have a fluent integration in trying to explore the text more pointedly.
L’Africaine was produced on 28 April 1865, a great posthumous tribute to its famous creators. The Ship Scene, the exotic Indian act, and the Scene of the Manchineel Tree exerted a fascination on audiences, and elicited new praise. The work full of melodic beauty and rapturous lyricism, began a triumphal progress through the world, beginning with the big stages of London and Berlin.
Divas and Scholars is a dazzling and beguiling account of how opera comes to the stage, filled with Philip Gossett’s personal experiences of triumphant—and even failed—performances and suffused with his towering and tonic passion for music. Writing as a fan, a musician, and a scholar, Gossett, the world's leading authority on the performance of Italian opera, brings colorfully to life the problems, and occasionally the scandals, that attend the production of some of our most favorite operas.
Gossett begins by tracing the social history of nineteenth-century Italian theaters in order to explain the nature of the musical scores from which performers have long worked. He then illuminates the often hidden but crucial negotiations opera scholars and opera conductors and performers: What does it mean to talk about performing from a critical edition? How does one determine what music to perform when multiple versions of an opera exist? What are the implications of omitting passages from an opera in a performance? In addition to vexing questions such as these, Gossett also tackles issues of ornamentation and transposition in vocal style, the matters of translation and adaptation, and even aspects of stage direction and set design.
Throughout this extensive and passionate work, Gossett enlivens his history with reports from his own experiences with major opera companies at venues ranging from the Metropolitan and Santa Fe operas to the Rossini Opera Festival at Pesaro. The result is a book that will enthrall both aficionados of Italian opera and newcomers seeking a reliable introduction to it—in all its incomparable grandeur and timeless allure.
This book continues the work Martial Singher has done, in performances, in concerts, and in master classes and lessons, by drawing attention “not only to precise features of text, notes, and markings but also to psychological motivations and emotional impulses, to laughter and tears, to technical skills, to strokes of genius, and even here and there to variations from the original works that have proved to be fortunate.”
For each aria, the author gives the dramatic and musical context, advice about interpretation, and the lyric—with the original language (if it is not English) and an idiomatic American English translation, in parallel columns. The major operatic traditions—French, German, Italian, Russian, and American—are represented, as are the major voice types—soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass-baritone, and bass.
The dramatic context is not a mere summary of the plot but is a penetrating and often witty personality sketch of an operatic character in the midst of a situation. The musical context is presented with the dramatic situation in a cleverly integrated way. Suggestions about interpretation, often illustrated with musical notation and phonetic symbols, are interspersed among the author's explication of the music and the action. An overview of Martial Singher’s approach—based on fifty years of experience on stage in a hundred roles and in class at four leading conservatories—is presented in his Introduction. As the reader approaches each opera discussed in this book, he or she experiences the feeling of participation in a rehearsal on stage under an urbane though demanding coach and director.
The Interpretive Guide will be of value to professional singers as a source of reference or renewed inspiration and a memory refresher, to coaches for checking and broadening personal impressions, to young singers and students for learning, to teachers who have enjoyed less than a half century of experience, and to opera broadcast listeners and telecast viewers who want to understand what goes into the sounds and sights that delight them.
The second daughter of Greek immigrant parents, Maria found herself in the grasp of an overwhelmingly ambitious mother who took her away from her native New York and the father she loved, to a Greece on the eve of the Second World War. From there, we learn of the hardships, loves and triumphs Maria experienced in her professional and personal life. We are introduced to the men who marked Callas forever—Luchino Visconti, the brilliant homosexual director who she loved hopelessly, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, the husband thirty years her senior who used her for his own ambitions, as had her mother, and Aristotle Onassis, who put an end to their historic love affair by discarding her for the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. Throughout her life, Callas waged a constant battle with her weight, a battle she eventually won, transforming herself from an ugly duckling into the slim and glamorous diva who transformed opera forever, whose recordings are legend, and whose life is the stuff of which tabloids are made.
Anne Edwards goes deeper than previous biographies of Maria Callas have dared. She draws upon intensive research to refute the story of Callas's "mystery child" by Onassis, and she reveals the true circumstances of the years preceding Callas's death, including the deception perpetrated by her close and trusted friend. As in her portraits of other brilliant, star-crossed women, Edwards brings Maria Callas—the intimate Callas—alive.