Spence Porter, a good friend and lover of music, among many other things artistic, sent me a message asking for my take on Meyerbeer, to which I promised to respond. Here go my random thoughts, with no pretense to offer musicological insights.
Jacob Meyerbeer changed his first name to Giacomo on his first trip to Italy but throughout his life remained a practicing Jew, which, in addition to his becoming hugely successful and wealthy contributed to making several German composers and poets his mortal enemies, among them Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, and Heinrich Heine.
In spite of the enmity of many anti-Semites, Meyerbeer became the most successful opera composer of the 19th century, especially in Paris, where he created and premiered several of his works, Robert Le Diable, Dinorah, L’Africaine, L’Etoile du Nord, Les Huguenots, Le Prophéte among them.
Meyerbeer’s operas are difficult to sing, calling for protean voices capable of vocal agility, possessing wide ranges, and in many instances endowed with dramatic color and thrust. In his time, Meyerbeer had such stars as Cornélie Falcon, creator of the roles of Alice in Robert Le Diable and Valentine in Les Huguenots whose wide ranging voice, part mezzo-soprano, part dramatic soprano was similar to that of Pauline Viardot, the original Fidés in Le Prophéte.
The casts of Meyerbeer’s operas often called for several star-quality singers. Les Huguenots, for instance requires not one but three top-notch female singers, two baritones, a deep bass, and a heroic tenor.
Well past his lifetime, Meyerbeer’s operas had a spot in the repertory of the major opera houses of Europe and America. At the MET the De Reszke brothers, Victor Maurel, Marcel Journet, Pol Plançon and Enrico Caruso appeared in several of Meyerbeer’s operas. After a period of neglect, Le Prophéte was brought back for Marilyn Horne and James McCracken. Not too long ago the San Francisco Opera revived L’Africaine for a stellar cast that included Plácido Domingo, Shirley Verrett, and Justino Diaz. Joan Sutherland was able to convince a few managements to bring back Les Huguenots for her, but not often enough.
Opera moves at a snail’s pace and repertory changes are as rare as hen’s teeth. Reviving a Meyerbeer opera requires hiring several international stars to commit to learn substantial roles in an opera that they may not get to sing again for a long time, if ever. Then there are the massive difficulties of staging a colossal work, like Les Huguenots with several changes of scenery, a huge chorus, and a running time similar to that of some of Wagner’s lenghthier operas.
So, for now, we have to content ourselves with recordings.
Here’s Marilyn Horne singing the daylights out of Fidés’ big scene from Le Prophéte, part of a SONY recording that can still be found on Amazon: https://youtu.be/XND0xrP68Xw
Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT MEYERBER