Grand Designs

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Grand Designs

Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times

Grand designs The Cambridge companion to grand opera Edited by David Charlton Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2003); xxi, 496pp; £50, $70/£19.99, $26 PBK-ISBN 0 521 641187/0521 64683 9.

AN EXCITING development in recent musical sholarship is the proper revaluation of French grand opera. After Diana R. Hallman's fine study of Halevy's La Juive (reviewed in MT, Summer 2003) comes The Cambridge companion to grand opera, a splendid achievement full of fresh explorations and lively responses to a sadly neglected field. Above all, these books emphasise the genre's fundamental seriousness of artistic purpose and its appeal to the moral and cultural preoccupations of the powerful French bourgeois classes in an era of vast expansions of knowledge and information. On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the more venial aspects of surface glitter, extravagant display and the striving for immediate and overwhelming effect - an essential part of grand opera's broad appeal, which reflected the rapid wealth creation and consumerism of 19th-century French society. Indeed, on the philosophical level this amalgamation of conflicting styles and values was in accordance with Victor Cousin's fashionable doctrine of eclecticism. The magnetic energy and manic vitality of cosmopolitan Paris, moreover, made its Opera a cultural meeting ground and melting pot for French, Italian and German composers and singers, and their very different traditions.

The initial chapters, dealing with the resourcing of grand opera, are of considerable sociological interest. In 'Machine and state' Herve Lacome discusses the legislative arrangements laid down by Napoleon to finance the Opera, subsequently transformed into a kind of public-private partnership in order to meet modern requirements. For the genre had become an enormous machine, an extraordinary drama swallowing up all existing forms - inter alia ballet, concert pieces, romances and sacred music as if it aimed to bring on stage the totality of the world. Its ethos was essentially one of collaboration and negotiation, with fruitful tensions between composers and librettists emerging as productions were constantly modified in endless rehearsals. According to Nicholas White ('Fictions and librettos') the highly versatile and adaptable popular dramatist Eugene Scribe - a pillar of the liberal establishment who 'did not preen himself on the narcissistic cult of Romantic subjectivity' - scoured medieval and renaissance history and the fashionable novels of Walter Scott for 'moments in literature - call them lyric or explosive or hyperbolic - which permit them to rise to an operatic occasion'. Meeting the insatiable Parisian taste for visual stimulation and total immersion in past or exotic locations - already fully catered for by the popular theatre - was considered at least of equal importance, with the painter Pierre Ciceri as chief in-house designer for many years. Indeed, Simon Williams reveals how visual innovations lay in gas lighting and its play of varying density rather than in the elaborate scenic dimension, which still relied upon cumbersome winches and machines manned by an army of stagehands. Of particular note was the unusual backlighting effect for the erotically suggestive ballet of nuns transformed into ghosts in Meyerbeer's Robert le diable; later in 1849 Le prophete featured an experiment with electric are light to represent a spectacular sunrise.

Grand opera's reliance on religious processions, ceremonial and conspiracy scenes - notably the overwhelmingly effective 'Blessing of the daggers' in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots - placed great emphasis on the role of the chorus. James Parakilas explains how its divisions proved ideal for representing the stuff of conflict at the root of the genre - opposed nations, social groups and political factions whose endless instabilities and fluctuations constantly undermined the importance and significance of individual characters. The operatic ballets, moreover, which featured such famous dancers as Taglioni and Petipa, were designed to be an integral part of the action, setting scenes or contributing to victory celebrations and masked balls. …

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