Grand Opera, what is it? To the common man, and certainly to many an opera company’s PR department, all operas ranging from Mozart’s to Giordano’s are grand operas. But Grand Opera, or rather French Grand Opera, is commonly defined by operas composed primarily for the French stage between the years 1828 to roughly 1868. Many ingredients contributed to the development of the new genre. The fall of the Napoleonic Empire in 1816 brought the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and with it, the previously state ran L’Opera was privatized under the auspices of Louis Desire Veron in 1831. By then, the first run of what we now recognize as the first “opera in the grand style” (Auber’s La Muette de Portici) had already taken place.
The spectacle driven new genre attracted the rapidly rising middle class, which proved voracious in its appetite for all things fashionable. Recognizing the elements merging together before him, Veron made it his business to target this new audience. Soon, a new tradition was instituted for any work to premiere successfully at L’Opera: The opera must be sung in French, be structured in 5 acts and require the casting of several of the period’s stars in order to fulfill the virtuoso vocal challenges called upon by the scores. With few exceptions, the works were set to librettos by Eugene Scribe, and the subjects dealt with major historical events of the past, such as famous massacres, revolutions, and scandalous intrigue. A ballet also became a mandatory, always to be performed in either the second or third act so as to provide the more fashionable members of the audience to arrive late to the theater after supper.
Enter Jacob Liebmann Beer, a German born composer who traveled and stayed in Italy long enough to fall in love with the Italian voice, changed his name to Giacomo Meyerbeer, and became the great exponent and most successful champion of French Grand opera. In Paris, aided by the talents of the greatest singers in the world, he established his reputation with the debut of his Robert Le Diable in 1831. A string of smashing successes followed, most notably Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophete (1849), L’etoile du nord (1854), and Dinorah (1859). By the time Meyerbeer embarked in the composition of this final opera, L’Africaine, he was the most successful, wealthy and powerful composer in the world.
Set against the backdrop of Vasco da Gama’s exploration of India, L’Africaine more than fulfilled the requirements imposed for a work premiering at L’Opera: A fictional drama intertwined with distant historical facts, featuring a racy biracial love affair and exotic depictions of a new land. The climax of Act Three alone, a thunderstorm at sea which perpetrates the Europeans’ shipwreck, seemed designed to enthrall the Parisian public long the final curtain was drawn. Vocally, L’Africaine is no joke. A dark, agile dramatic soprano voice, capable of dominating the exhausting length of the role was required for the role of Selika. As early as 1837 Meyerbeer began to work on the score with the voice of the spectacular Cornelie Falcon in mind.
The retirement of this singer prompted by a crippling vocal crisis forced Meyerbeer to search elsewhere, with little luck. Serious consideration was given to Wagner’s adopted niece Johanna Wagner, but Meyerbeer’s final decision landed the assignment on the German dramatic soprano Sophie Cruvelli.
A singer who had made her professional reputation singing the leading “donna di forza” roles in the then modern repertoire (Verdi’s Ernani, Attila, I Due Foscari), Cruvelli had also acquired an unsavory habit of virtually walking out from productions built around her, forcing the management to scramble and pick up the pieces left after her. She must have been an extraordinary talent, as companies continued to hire her services for important occasions (she was Verdi’s first Helene in Les Vepres Siciliennes). Still she called upon her whims once again, and unexpectedly retired in 1856, leaving Meyerbeer once again in the lurch. This, coupled with external circumstances such as the death of Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the composition of Meyerbeer’s opera Dinorah, and the sudden death of Eugene Scribe himself ensured that the composition of L’Africaine maintained a slow pace. Despite the setbacks, Meyerbeer arrived in Paris in September 3, 1863 to commence rehearsals for the opera, but the proverbial casting issues set the premiere back for an additional seven months. In a letter to Louis Brandus dated August 3, 1863, Meyerbeer nostalgically hammered on the requirements: “Have you told Perrin that there are two leading roles for women in my opera and that both are in the tradition of Falcon, hence not of the chanteuse legere variety?” Already at this date such singing was becoming difficult to acquire. The final blow on L’Africaine was dealt on May 2, 1854, when an exhausted Meyerbeer unexpectedly died during the final rehearsals of the opera. The musical world was stunned by the news (the aging Giacomo Rossini reportedly collapsed for 20 minutes after hearing the news) and the opera’s premiere was yet again postponed until April 1865, when it successfully premiered under an edition completed by Francois-Joseph Fetis.
Time has not been kind to Grand Opera. The sudden departure of Scribe and Meyerbeer were major blows dealt to the genre, In addition, the advent of Wagner’s music dramas and the new vogue of verismo did not encourage the type of vocalism required to bring Grand Opera to life. At the Metropolitan Opera, L’Africaine premiered in 1865 and was kept alive through the lumimary talents of artists such as Olive Fremstad, Lilli Lehmann, Edouard de Reske, Elisabeth Rethberg, Rosa Ponselle, Pol Placon, and Mario Ancona into the 1920s. From this point on, however, the once thought immortal work (along with her other sisters) fell from the repertoire, brought back from dusty shelves by enterprising companies such as the San Francisco Opera and Opera Orchestra of New York. Of L’Africaine, what remains is one famous, number: Vasco da Gama’s “O Paradis,” more commonly heard in its Italian translation “O Paradiso.”
Of the lesser known numbers from the opera, Selika’s Act Two aria provides clear evidence as to the difficulties in finding a voice capable of doing justice to the score.
The part of Nelusko requires the baritone to roar like a lion and stop the ocean. Can mortals do this? After hearing this (two minutes of sheer superhuman display,) no one else will do.
In April 20, 1972, a major revival of the work took place in Carnegie Hall as the Opera Orchestra of New York opened its inaugural season with an Italian translation of the score (L’Africana). The starry cast included Richard Tucker, Antonietta Stella and Matteo Manuguerra under the baton of Eve Queler. Nearing its 40th anniversary season, OONY has once again chosen the opera (this time in the original French), to close the season on March 2, 2011 at Avery Fischer Hall. The one night only event is designed as a tribute to Richard Tucker, and Eve Queler’s last season as Music Director of the company. The performance also marks the US debut of soprano Chiara Taigi in the demanding role of Selika, and features the internationally acclaimed tenor Marcello Giordani as Vasco da Gama. For more ticket information, please visit the Opera Orchestra of New York’s website at http://www.operaorchestrany.org/.