MEYERBEER AND FRENCH OPERA
The romantic movement was essentially German in its origin, but its influence was not bounded by the Rhine. As early as 1824 Weber's 'Freischütz' was performed in Paris, followed a few years later by 'Oberon' and 'Euryanthe.' French musicians, always susceptible to external influences, could not but acknowledge the fascination of the romantic school, and the works of Hérold (1791-
It would be in vain to look in Hérold's score for an echo of the passion and variety of Mozart, but much of the music of 'Zampa' is picturesque and effective. Hérold's tunes sound very conventional after Weber, but there is a good deal of skill in the way they are presented. His orchestration is of course closely modelled on that of his German prototype, and if it is impossible to say much for his originality, we can at any rate admire his taste in choosing a model.
'Le Pré aux Clercs' is more popular at the present moment than 'Zampa,' though it is far inferior in musical interest. If 'Zampa' showed the influence of Weber, 'Le Pré aux Clercs' is redolent of Rossini. The overture, with its hollow ring of gaiety, strikes the note of Italianism which echoes throughout the opera. The plot is full of intrigues and conspiracies, and is decidedly confusing. Mergy, a young Bernese gentleman, aspires to the hand of Isabelle, who is one of the Queen of Navarre's maids of honour. The Queen favours their love, but the King wishes Isabelle to marry Comminges, a favourite of his own. The young couple gain their point, and are married secretly in the chapel of the Pré aux Clercs, but only at the expense of as much plotting and as many disguises as would furnish the stock-
French music, as has often been pointed out, owes much to foreign influence, but very few of the strangers to whom the doors of Parisian opera-
'Robert le Diable' was an immense success when first produced. The glitter and tinsel of the story suited Meyerbeer's showy style, and besides, even when the merely trivial and conventional had been put aside, there remains a fair proportion of the score which has claims to dramatic power. The triumph of 'Robert' militated against the success of 'Les Huguenots' (1836), which was at first rather coldly received. Before long, however, it rivalled the earlier work in popularity, and is now generally looked upon as Meyerbeer's masterpiece. The libretto certainly compares favourably with the fatuities of 'Robert le Diable.'
Marguerite de Valois, the beautiful Queen of Navarre, who is anxious to reconcile the bitterly hostile parties of Catholics and Huguenots, persuades the Comte de Saint Bris, a prominent Catholic, to allow his daughter Valentine to marry Raoul de Nangis, a young Huguenot noble. Valentine is already betrothed to the gallant and amorous Comte de Nevers, but she pays him a nocturnal visit in his own palace, and induces him to release her from her engagement. During her interview with Nevers she is perceived by Raoul, and recognised as a lady whom he lately rescued from insult and has loved passionately ever since. In his eyes there is only one possible construction to be put upon her presence in Nevers' palace, and he hastens to dismiss her from his mind. Immediately upon his decision comes a message from the Queen bidding him hasten to her palace in Touraine upon important affairs of state. When he arrives she unfolds her plan, and he, knowing Valentine only by sight, not by name, gladly consents. When, in the presence of the assembled nobles, he recognises in his destined bride the presumed mistress of Nevers, he casts her from him, and vows to prefer death to such intolerable disgrace.
The scene of the next act is in the Pré aux Clercs, in the outskirts of Paris. Valentine, who is to be married that night to Nevers, obtains leave to pass some hours in prayer in a chapel. While she is there she overhears the details of a plot devised by Saint Bris for the assassination of Raoul, in order to avenge the affront put upon himself and his daughter. Valentine contrives to warn Marcel, Raoul's old servant, of this, and he assembles his Huguenot comrades hard by, who rush in at the first clash of steel and join the combat. The fight is interrupted by the entrance of the Queen. When she finds out who are the principal combatants, she reproves them sharply and tells Raoul the real story of Valentine's visit to Nevers. The act ends with the marriage festivities, while Raoul is torn by an agony of love and remorse.
In the next act Raoul contrives to gain admittance to Nevers' house, and there has an interview with Valentine. They are interrupted by the entrance of Saint Bris and his followers, whereupon Valentine conceals Raoul behind the arras. From his place of concealment he hears Saint Bris unfold the plan of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, which is to be carried out that night. The conspirators swear a solemn oath to exterminate the Huguenots, and their daggers are consecrated by attendant priests. Nevers alone refuses to take part in the butchery. When they all have left, Raoul comes out of his hiding-
'Les Huguenots' shows Meyerbeer at his best Even Wagner, his bitterest enemy, admitted the dramatic power of the great duet in the fourth act, and several other scenes are scarcely inferior to it in sustained inspiration. The opera is marred as a whole by Meyerbeer's invincible self-
In 'Le Prophète' Meyerbeer chose a subject which, if less rich in dramatic possibility than that of 'Les Huguenots,' has a far deeper psychological interest. Unfortunately, Scribe, with all his cleverness, was quite the worst man in the world to deal with the story of John of Leyden. In the libretto which he constructed for Meyerbeer's benefit the psychological interest is conspicuous only by its absence, and the character of the young leader of the Anabaptists is degraded to the level of the merest puppet. John, an innkeeper of Leyden, loves Bertha, a village maiden who dwells near Dordrecht. Unfortunately, her liege lord, the Count of Oberthal, has designs upon the girl himself, and refuses his consent to the marriage. Bertha escapes from his clutches and flies to the protection of her lover, but Oberthal secures the person of Fidès, John's old mother, and by threats of putting her to death, compels him to give up Bertha. Wild with rage against the vice and lawlessness of the nobles, John joins the ranks of the Anabaptists, a revolutionary sect pledged to the destruction of the powers that be. Their leaders recognise him as a prophet promised by Heaven, and he is installed as their chief. The Anabaptists lay siege to Munster, which falls into their hands, and in the cathedral John is solemnly proclaimed the Son of God. During the ceremony he is recognised by Fidès, who, believing him to have been slain by the false prophet, has followed the army to Munster in hopes of revenge. She rushes forward to claim her son, but John pretends not to know her. To admit an earthly relationship would be to prejudice his position with the populace, and he compels her to confess that she is mistaken. The coronation ends with John's triumph, while the hapless Fidès is carried off to be immured in a dungeon. John visits her in her cell, and obtains her pardon by promising to renounce his deceitful splendour and to fly with her. Later he discovers that a plot against himself has been hatched by some of the Anabaptist leaders, and he destroys himself and them by blowing up the palace of Munster. Meyerbeer's music, fine as much of it is, suffers chiefly from the character of the libretto. The latter is merely a string of conventionally effective scenes, and the music could hardly fail to be disjointed and scrappy. Meyerbeer had little or no feeling for characterisation, so that the opportunities for really dramatic effect which lay in the character of John of Leyden have been almost entirely neglected. Once only, in the famous cantique 'Roi du Ciel,' did the composer catch an echo of the prophetic rapture which animated the youthful enthusiast. Meyerbeer's besetting sin, his constant search for the merely effective, is even more pronounced in 'Le Prophète' than in 'Les Huguenots.' The coronation scene has nothing of the large simplicity necessary for the proper manipulation of a mass of sound. The canvas is crowded with insignificant and confusing detail, and the general effect is finicking and invertebrate rather than solid and dignified.
Meyerbeer was constantly at work upon his last opera, 'L'Africaine,' from 1838 until 1864, and his death found him still engaged in retouching the score. It was produced in 1865. With a musician of Meyerbeer's known eclecticism, it might be supposed that a work of which the composition extended over so long a period would exhibit the strangest conglomeration of styles and influences. Curiously enough, 'L'Africaine' is the most consistent of Meyerbeer's works. This is probably due to the fact that in it the personal element is throughout outweighed by the picturesque, and the exotic fascination of the story goes far to cover its defects.
Vasco da Gama, the famous discoverer, is the betrothed lover of a maiden named Inez, the daughter of Don Diego, a Portuguese grandee. When the opera opens he is still at sea, and has not been heard of for years. Don Pedro, the President of the Council, takes advantage of his absence to press his own suit for the hand of Inez, and obtains the King's sanction to his marriage on the ground that Vasco must have been lost at sea. At this moment the long-
Besides the great works already discussed, Meyerbeer wrote two works for the Opéra Comique, 'L'Étoile du Nord' and 'Le Pardon de Ploërmel.' Meyerbeer was far too clever a man to undertake anything he could not carry through successfully, and in these operas he caught the trick of French opéra comique very happily.
'L'Étoile du Nord' deals with the fortunes of Peter the Great, who, when the opera opens, is working as a shipwright at a dockyard in Finland. He wins the heart of Catherine, a Cossack maiden, who has taken up her quarters there as a kind of vivandière. Catherine is a girl of remarkable spirit, and after repulsing an incursion of Calmuck Tartars single-
The lighter parts of 'L'Étoile du Nord' are delightfully arch and vivacious, and much of the concerted music is gay and brilliant. The weak point of the opera is to be found in the tendency from which Meyerbeer was never safe, to drop into mere pretentiousness when he meant to be most impressive. In some of the choruses in the camp scene there is a great pretence at elaboration, with very scanty results, and the closing scena, which is foolish and wearisome, is an unfortunate concession to the vanity of the prima donna. But on the whole 'L'Étoile du Nord' is one of Meyerbeer's most attractive works, besides being an extraordinary example of his inexhaustible versatility.
'Le Pardon de Ploërmel,' known in Italy and England as 'Dinorah,' shows Meyerbeer in a pastoral and idyllic vein. The story is extremely silly in itself, and most of the incidents take place before the curtain rises. The overture is a long piece of programme music, which is supposed to depict the bridal procession of Hoel and Dinorah, two Breton peasants, to the church where they are to be married. Suddenly a thunderstorm breaks over their heads and disperses the procession, while a flash of lightning reduces Dinorah's homestead to ashes. Hoel, in despair at the ruin of his hopes, betakes himself to the village sorcerer, who promises to tell him the secret of the hidden treasure of the local gnomes or Korriganes if he will undergo a year of trial in a remote part of the country. On hearing that Hoel has abandoned her Dinorah becomes insane, and spends her time in roving through the woods with her pet goat in search of her lover. The overture is a picturesque piece of writing enough, though much of it would be entirely meaningless without its programme. When the opera opens, Hoel has returned from his probation in possession of the important secret. His first care is to find some one to do the dirty work of finding the treasure, for the oracle has declared that the first man who shall lay hands upon it will die. His choice falls upon Corentin, a country lout, whom he persuades to accompany him to the gorge where the treasure lies hidden. Corentin is not so stupid as he seems, and, suspecting something underhand, he persuades the mad Dinorah to go down into the ravine in his place. Dinorah consents, but while she is crossing a rustic bridge, preparatory to the descent, it is struck by lightning, and she tumbles into the abyss. She is saved by Hoel in some inexplicable way, and, still more inexplicably, regains her reason. The music is bright and tuneful, and the reaper's and hunter's songs (which are introduced for no apparent reason) are delightful; but the libretto is so impossibly foolish that the opera has fallen into disrepute, although the brilliant music of the heroine should make it a favourite rôle with competent singers.
Meyerbeer was extravagantly praised during his lifetime; he is now as bitterly decried. The truth seems to lie, as usual, between the two extremes. He was an unusually clever man, with a strong instinct for the theatre. He took immense pains with his operas, often rewriting the entire score; but his efforts were directed less towards ideal perfection than to what would be most effective, so that there is a hollowness and a superficiality about his best work which we cannot ignore, even while we admit the ingenuity of the means employed. His influence upon modern opera has been extensive. He was the real founder of the school of melodramatic opera which is now so popular. Violent contrasts with him do duty for the subtle characterisation of the older masters. His heroes rant and storm, and his heroines shriek and rave, but of real feeling, and even of real expression, there is little in his scores.
The career of Hector Berlioz (1803-
Unperformed as he was, Berlioz of course could not be expected to found a school; but Meyerbeer's success soon raised him up a host of imitators. Halévy (1799-
The scene of 'La Juive' is laid in Constance, in the fifteenth century. Leopold, a Prince of the Empire, in the disguise of a young Israelite, has won the heart of Rachel, the daughter of the rich Jew Eleazar. When the latter discovers the true nationality of his prospective son-
Halévy's music is characterised by dignity and sobriety, but it rarely rises to passion. He represents to a certain extent a reaction towards the pre-
'La Muette de Portici,' which is known in the Italian version as 'Masaniello,' was written for the Grand Opéra. Here Auber vainly endeavoured to suit his style to its more august surroundings. The result is entirely unsatisfactory; the more serious parts of the work are pretentious and dull, and the pretty little tunes, which the composer could not keep out of his head, sound absurdly out of place in a serious drama. Fenella, the dumb girl of Portici, has been seduced by Alfonso, the son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. She escapes from the confinement to which she had been subjected, and denounces him on the day of his marriage to the Spanish princess Elvira. Masaniello, her brother, maddened by her wrongs, stirs up a revolt among the people, and overturns the Spanish rule. He contrives to save the lives of Elvira and Alfonso, but this generous act costs him his life, and in despair Fenella leaps into the stream of boiling lava from an eruption of Vesuvius. The part of Fenella gives an opportunity of distinction to a clever pantomimist, and has been associated with the names of many famous dancers; but the music of the opera throughout is one of the least favourable examples of Auber's skill. Auber had many imitators, among whom perhaps the most successful was Adolphe Adam (1803-