Spectacle, drama and singing nuns - welcome to the world of Meyerbeer

He was the Jewish composer who rewrote the opera rule book. Even Wagner was impressed

By Jessica Duchen, December 13, 2012
The Royal Opera House’s Robert le Diable, the hugely popular work written by Meyerbeer in 1831. Photo: Cooper

The Royal Opera House’s Robert le Diable, the hugely popular work written by Meyerbeer in 1831. Photo: Cooper

Giacomo Meyerbeer, a German Jewish banker’s son, rose to become arguably the most influential operatic composer of the 19th century, yet today his name is all but forgotten.

His gigantic theatrical works were ubiquitous for more than half a century, from 1831 onwards; indeed, without Meyerbeer opera now would be unrecognisable. But the Royal Opera House’s new production of his five-hour supernatural extravaganza, Robert le Diable, is the first to be seen in London since 1890.

Meyerbeer, whose name was originally Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer, was born into a wealthy family in Tasdorf, near Berlin, in 1791. He was prodigiously gifted as a child, performing as a virtuoso pianist before he was 11 years old.

In his native Germany he tested his wings on the traditional light operatic style known as singspiel, but in 1816, recognising that the true home of opera was Italy, he moved there to spend the next nine years learning his craft.

At this time he adopted the first name Giacomo. His efforts in Italian opera, especially Il crociato in Egitto, brought him international recognition, achieving a particular breakthrough in Paris. In 1824 Meyerbeer moved there, ready to conquer France in earnest.

Six years later, in 1831, he produced a work that proved to be a seismic moment in the history of music — Robert le Diable. Its fantastical tale features an apparently doomed medieval knight who is unaware that his father is the devil: its most famous moment involves a ballet of resurrected nuns indulging in orgiastic rituals, a scene that produced a success born of controversy.

Among the opera’s admirers were the composers Berlioz and Chopin, the choreographer August Bounonville and King Frederick William III of Prussia; the writers Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Heinrich Heine and George Sand all remarked upon its impact. By the time Meyerbeer died in 1864 it had been performed around 450 times in Paris alone, and countless times more throughout Europe.

The Israeli conductor Daniel Oren is at the helm of Robert le Diable for its ROH production, which is directed by Laurent Pelly and features the fast-rising tenor star Bryan Hymel in the title role. Reviews have been mixed, with opinion divided as to whether the opera’s resurrection was a sensible decision for Covent Garden. But there is, Oren says, far more to this work than spectacle and controversy.

Its significance, he suggests, lies first of all in its sheer originality for the time. “It was unexpected music that the audience discovered upon its premiere in 1831,” he says.

Giacomo Meyerbeer

Giacomo Meyerbeer

“Like his contemporary, Berlioz, Meyerbeer offered music that, even if it is not entirely different, is a good deal more original than other composers. His orchestration in particular serves the drama and impacts on its theatrical feel in new ways.

“For instance, he uses two orchestras, one in the pit and one behind the stage, to depict hell in the third act, and in that same scene the chorus sings into cardboard cones to amplify their voices, creating a particular colour and atmosphere.”

The leading roles, Oren adds, are extremely difficult — one reason for the opera’s neglect may be that it is so hard to find the right singers. “But Meyerbeer uses the voices to communicate a true dramatic power.”

Meyerbeer became a model for numerous and distinctly diverse composers in the 19th century, including Halévy, Wagner and Verdi. “Everybody learned from him and took elements from him,” says Oren. “Wagner even borrowed one phrase from him that appears in Tannhäuser.”

Wagner begged Meyerbeer for help early in his career, and received plenty of it — but later the older composer became a target for Wagner’s antisemitic diatribes, something that sadly contributed to Meyerbeer’s fall from public grace in the 20th century.

Unlike many of history’s better-known Jewish composers, among them Mendelssohn and Mahler, Meyerbeer never converted to Christianity. He does not appear to have needed any career advantages that abandoning his faith might potentially have brought; he was doing perfectly well as he was. At the same time, Jewish traditions made little, if any, impact upon his music.

Indeed, Oren points out the irony of a Jewish composer choosing a theme, in Robert le Diable, involving the devil, hell and salvation, to say nothing of those orgying nuns. “It is really very strange,” he laughs.

But perhaps Meyerbeer represented the finest of a particular strand of assimilated 19th-century Jewish existence. He was able to move from country to country, absorb the best of its culture, then offer it back, enhanced. First Germany, then Italy, then France: he was a prime example of what the Nazis would later attack as “rootless cosmopolitanism”.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Meyerbeer’s music, along with that of all other Jewish composers, was banned. Robert le Diable evidently remained well known as late as 1920 when the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold unveiled his own opera, Die tote Stadt. This work quotes directly from Meyerbeer’s and seems to take it on trust that its audience would be familiar with the ghostly nuns.

But from 1933, an entire generation grew up without knowing Meyerbeer’s music. It has taken decades for Meyerbeer to escape the racial slurs against his works and to emerge from the shadows, ripe for reassessment.
Oren says that Pelly’s stylised, quirky and original production should now give the opera its best possible chance.

Later 19th-century composers and critics had grumbled about vulgarity, populism and slow pace. “Perhaps by wanting too much to be of the moment, Meyerbeer took the risk of not being recognised by posterity,” Oren suggests.

“Therefore it is vital for us at the ROH to introduce an updated version of, trimmed of passages which are superfluous, and letting its highly dramatic feel and all the orchestral colours shine through.”

Robert le Diable is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, until December 21. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Last updated: 10:55am, December 17 2012