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Verdi thought him a better musical dramatist than Mozart. Ravel preferred him to Wagner. Liszt thought that he inaugurated a new period of opera, and Hans von Bülow thought him ‘a man of genius’. Bizet and Giuseppe Mazzini compared him to Beethoven, Michelangelo and Shakespeare. Goethe wanted him to set Faust to music, while Georges Sand and Dumas fils thought him the supreme lyrical dramatist.
For much of the past century Meyerbeer was regarded as obscure, forgotten, and when remembered treated with complacent disdain and a wondering pity that such a charlatan should have taken in so many. He was remembered as a hack who churned out mammoth but empty operas full of ‘effects without causes’ and who was hated by Wagner, who called him ‘a Jew banker to whom it occurred to compose operas’ and a tawdry purveyor of ‘a monstrous piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-libidinous, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-jaunty, autolyco-sentimental dramatic hotchpotch’. This was even though Wagner learnt much from Meyerbeer, and it was Meyerbeer who worked to have Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer first produced.
Now, with the presentation of a cycle of works in his home town, Berlin, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s star may be rising once again. ‘Chacun a son étoile,’ as the heroine’s mother prophesies in L’Étoile du Nord ; ‘la tienne qui brille au nord, au-dessus de toutes les autres, te réserve de bizarres destinées …’
The cycle opened last year with a concert performance of the charming Breton folktale Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah). The first fully staged production is Meyerbeer’s last opera Vasco da Gama, following the production of the integral work in Chemnitz in 2013; this production opens at the Deutsche Oper on 4 October with Roberto Alagna in the title role. Meyerbeer’s undoubted masterpiece, Les Huguenots, a powerful tale of religious bigotry in sixteenth century France, follows in 2016, and the cycle concludes in 2018 with Le Prophète, set in the Netherlands and Germany at the time of the European wars of religion.
No great composer has suffered such a dramatic fall as Meyerbeer, the most popular and critically acclaimed opera composer of the nineteenth century. This was the man who gave the world Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1846), Le Prophète (1849) and Vasco da Gama (L’Africaine) (1865). He was the most cosmopolitan of composers: a German-born Jew whose earliest operas were produced in Germany and Italy, and whose mature works were first produced in France and written for the world—performed as far afield as Melbourne, Mexico, Calcutta, Manila, and Mauritius, as well as in provincial theatres without lavish orchestra or staging. His cosmopolitan style unites Italian bel canto, French rhythm and declamation, and German orchestration, and is capable both of great delicacy and tremendous power. This is a dramatist whose operas are simultaneously exciting entertainments in the grand manner, with strong situations and an eye for the spectacular (shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean, exploding castles and ballets of undead nuns), and humane operas of ideas.
We now seem to see the faint stirrings of a revival of French opera. This is not an act of necromancy, like Bertram calling the damned nuns from their unhallowed graves in Robert: ‘Nonnes, levez vous!’ It is an act of resurrection, a return to life, as Cathérine in L’Étoile du Nord recovered from her madness to be hailed Empress of Russia. For Meyerbeer’s operas are full of vitality; in them, one finds the melodic brilliance of Rossini, the grace and delicacy of Mozart, and the powerful orchestration of the Germans, while they anticipate the stirring drama of Verdi and the thematic depth of Wagner. “His historical operas”, as Matthias Brzoska perceptively remarked, “are not operas on historical subjects, but operas taking the historical process itself as their subject.”
Vasco was first produced in April 1865, nearly a year after the composer’s death, under the title L’Africaine. The opera is set in the late fifteenth century, first in Lisbon, then aboard a ship of the Portuguese fleet, and on an exotic island (Africa or Madagascar in L’Africaine, India in Vasco). Vasco da Gama loves Inès, daughter of the admiral Don Diégo, and is loved by the slave Sélika, who is really a princess. Thrown into prison by the Inquisition for the “heresy” of asserting that the world has more countries than those mentioned in the holy books, Vasco is released when Inès marries Don Pédro, president of the Royal Council. Don Pédro leads an expedition to conquer the new world, but the slave Nélusko, acting as pilot, steers the ship onto a reef; all aboard except Vasco are captured or killed by the natives. On the island, Sélika claims Vasco as her husband to save him from being killed. Although he swears to love her, she realises that he still loves Inès (who has survived), lets the two of them go, and takes her life by inhaling the scent of the poisonous flowers of the manchineel tree. The opera ends on a dying fall, as Sélika expires in ecstasy.
Although rapturously received, the work that reached the stage was not what Meyerbeer intended. Meyerbeer began work on the vecchia Africana in 1837 — in its original form, a rather conventional love story about a Portuguese sailor who rescues a slave girl from a market in Africa — and completed the score in November 1863. In its final conception, revised by Scribe and Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, the subject is Vasco da Gama’s 1497–99 voyage to India, which opened the way for European colonisation of Asia. Meyerbeer died in May 1864, a month into rehearsals; and the Belgian musicologist and composer François-Joseph Fétis was charged with editing the work. He cut, rearranged and reorchestrated passages, often clumsily; and, most damningly, changed the title and setting back to Africa, making dramatic nonsense of the work.
The critical edition of Jurgen Schläder, performed at Chemnitz and Berlin, restores Meyerbeer’s original intentions and reveals a rich work that ranks with Les Huguenots and Le Prophète. Like those operas, it is on one level an adventure story with a love interest; on another, a critique of European history and politics.
Musically, it is a more substantial work; the Chemnitz recording is an hour longer than the 1977 Africaine conducted by Gerd Albrecht, hitherto the only acceptable recording. It feels Meyerbeerian in rhythm, texture and colour in a way that the earlier, more Italianate Africaine doesn’t, and abounds in the musical imagination for which the composer was renowned, both in the grand ensembles (the full version of the Council Scene in Act I, which attains new breadth and magnificence, the impetuous Vasco defying the thundering voices of the church and councillors) and as much as in the telling phrases (Vasco’s dream of glory while in prison, Sélika’s “D’ici je vois la mer, immense et sans limite”). The expanded versions of familiar numbers—Nélusko’s superb aria ‘Fille des rois’, the Vasco/Sélika duet in prison, Inès’s duet with Sélika in Act V—bring characters and narrative into focus, making the work an ensemble piece, rather than concentrating on Vasco and Sélika.
The greatest changes are to Act III, set aboard Don Pédro’s ship. The opening sequence demonstrates Meyerbeer’s talent for depicting scenes in orchestral colour, with the entr’acte conjuring up a vision of a boat on the waves, followed by choruses of sailors and noblewomen, a drinking song and a prayer. The Vasco/Don Pédro duet soars with Donizettish brio. The most substantial addition is the second half of the act, which is printed in the score published by Brandus, but hitherto never recorded or performed. Don Pédro (a much nastier character than in L’Africaine) orders Vasco’s execution, leading to a fine semi-a capella Septuor where the characters register their feelings, ranging from dismay to delight. Sélika threatens to cut Inès’s throat if Vasco isn’t released on the spot; Don Pédro submits, and then orders Sélika’s execution—at the hands of Nélusko, who has been appointed boatswain. At this moment, the storm breaks, the ship runs onto the rocks, and the islanders swarm onto the boat and put the crew to the sword. This is fine dramatic stuff: a series of dramatic twists that keep the listener on the edge of his seat, and are driven by character.
Indeed, one of Meyerbeer’s gifts is vivid, complex characterisation; his approach is Shakespearean: every character has more than one dimension, changes depending on whom they are talking to, and reveal themselves through action. His characters are not the stock figures of Italian bel canto opera, who are largely vehicles for music, but complicated individuals.
We see this most clearly in the character of Vasco. Operatic convention means that, as a tenor, he’s the hero … but his actions don’t bear this out. He is both a modern man who is not highly born but rises through his own effort and ability, who defies the superstition and tyranny of the church, and explores the world—and a glory-seeker who wants immortality, who is loved by two women and gives one of them to the other as a slave, who wanders enraptured in his green island and grandiloquently claims it for Portugal. Indeed, none of Meyerbeer’s four main tenor roles — the other three are Robert le Diable, Raoul de Nangis in Les Huguenots, Jean de Leyde in Le Prophète—are standard heroes; they’re certainly not Rossinian romantic figures or the brooding Byronic antiheroes of Verdi. Raoul, the most likeable of the lot, is headstrong and impulsive, and his insult to Valentine is the trigger for the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Robert, exiled Duke of Normandy, is foul-tempered and murderous, so hated that he is driven out of his country, sentences a troubadour to death for singing an unflattering song about him, and tries to rape his girlfriend. John of Leiden is a dreamy religious fanatic who commands a murderous army of Anabaptists, sacks towns and declares himself the son of God.
What makes Don Pédro, Vasco’s rival for the hand of Inès and the conquest of the new world, different from Vasco? Both, after all, are colonisers. Dramatically, it’s because Vasco is the tenor hero, and Pédro the bass who wants to thwart him and get the girl. On the one hand, Pédro is a sadist, underhand, arrogant and treacherous — and on the other hand, Vasco is callous and arrogant. At the end of the opera, he sails off with Inès, leaving Sélika to die under the manchineel—as Pinkerton will abandon Butterfly.
Is Vasco an explorer or a coloniser? Is Nélusko — the fanatical hater of the Christians, who wants to stab the sleeping Vasco and who lures two Portuguese ships to their doom — a villain, or a proto-freedom fighter, or both? It depends on the perspective you take, on one’s ideology and cultural outlook.
Indeed, on one level, Meyerbeer’s operas expose ideology as false. His great theme is bigotry and intolerance, whether based on religion, class or race. Vasco looks in particular at colonialism. The similarities of different cultures make nonsense of its claim that one culture is superior to the alien other. Groups are more similar than different, even when, like the warring religious factions in Les Huguenots, they hate each other. Both Portugal and India are theocracies which refuse to countenance outside views that threaten their monolithic understanding of the world: the Portuguese Inquisition condemns Vasco to lifelong imprisonment; the Brahmins put all Europeans to death.
As in Meyerbeer’s other operas — particularly Les Huguenots, in which the bigotry and fanaticism of the Catholics and the Protestants erupts in murderous violence, and Le Prophète, in which the Anabaptists hijack religious faith as a tool of demagoguery — religion is destructive and (since it implies a categorical other) divisive. Inès and Sélika both love (and are loved by) Vasco, and swap places as mistress and slave. What ultimately matters is a recognition of humanity that cuts across divisions of culture, class and creed.
Meyerbeer’s operas can, and indeed should, speak to a modern audience. While Wagner and Verdi are nationalistic composers, Meyerbeer is a universalist and a liberal humanist. His music, as Heine recognised, in contrast to Rossini, is ‘more social than individual’. While Verdi and the Italians are concerned with the emotions of specific individuals, Meyerbeer is interested in broader issues: politics, religion and imperialism; and unlike Wagner, whose operas, written under the influence of Schopenhauer and Buddhism, are introspective and mystical, Meyerbeer deals with the worldly problems of history and civilisation: bigotry, fanaticism, intolerance and the desire for power and glory, and how men and women can best live in society. Ideology that loses sight of the individual, and sees people as members of a categorical ‘Other’ (whether based on religion, social class or ethnicity), Meyerbeer argues, is destructive. People may be the products of their situation – their nationality, creed or class – but they can rise above their situation to recognise the humanity of others. Unlike Verdi or Wagner, who want the audience to identify with the characters and be emotionally overwhelmed, Meyerbeer’s characters cannot lose themselves in their emotions, but must make socio-political choices; the tocsin of the Barthélemy breaks in on the Huguenots love duet.
This is the result of Meyerbeer’s cosmopolitanism; as historian William Pencak suggested, the fact that he was a Jew meant that he was an outsider, which, coupled with his universal fame, put him in a unique position to see European culture clearly and question the myths on which it was built. He was hailed as pan-European, and his music seen as uniting nations. When Meyerbeer died, his body was sent in a train from Paris to Berlin; and, as the French statesman Émile Olivier’s speech shows, he was seen as a symbol of brotherhood between the two nations:
"May the name of Meyerbeer, the memory of the grief which we share with the people beyond the Rhine, be another pledge of unison between the two sisterly nations, whom nothing should separate, and let there be a strong and permanent cord between the fatherland of Mozart and Beethoven and the country of Hérold, Halévy and Auber …"
Unfortunately, this cosmopolitanism partly explains why his operas vanished. The second half of the nineteenth century was an age of resurgent nationalism, of the Risorgimento, of the unification of Germany and of the Franco-Prussian War. Verdi and Wagner were hailed as national composers, whereas Meyerbeer, who could not so easily be categorised, fell by the way. With nationalism too came jingoism and anti-Semitism. Meyerbeer was Jewish, so vilified by Wagner and Schumann, as later his operas would be banned by the Nazis. In an era of a united Europe, his universality can be appreciated once again.