Royal Opera House Covent Garden (Photo Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)
On Opera

Less austerity, more pizazz

Grand opera was long thought quite dead but is suddenly rearing its shaggy head again

Is opera, in any meaningful sense, part of showbiz? Every so often, Covent Garden and Co will suddenly come over like some mortifying divorcée aunt vajazzling herself up for a last-throw Tinder date, with a sequined evening of sailor-boy chorus-lines, disco balls, glitter and kaleidoscope lighting — but this is generally a ploy to distract the audience from some modern cacophonist horror. More usually, our opera houses make a virtue of enforced austerity with grim-chic flat-pack productions notably lacking the true Merman-approved pizazz.

Not that it’s such a bad thing, either, given the tawdry crapola of most self-styled showbiz: opera should be above all that. Funnily enough, though, it was opera that invented the whole shebang, in French “Grand Opera”, long thought quite dead but suddenly rearing its shaggy head again.

Our opera houses make a virtue of enforced austerity with grim-chic flat-pack productions notably lacking the true Merman-approved pizazz

If Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, its defining locus was the Opéra, base for six decades from 1830 to the most extravagant art form ever dreamed up — one example of which is presently on tour with Welsh National Opera, of which more later. The ideal Grand Opera was a sort of Les Miserables/Phantom/Dancing on Ice Christmas Special mashup with gargantuan chorus and orchestra, entire cities rebuilt on stage, fun special effects (volcanoes, explosions), massacres and mass executions, an exceptionally conflicted dram pers caught up amid some “historical” turmoil, plus, crucially, wearisome tracts of dancing. As a result, H.L. Mencken’s observation — “the opera is to music what a bawdy house
is to a cathedral” — was suddenly a pleasing literalism: the Opéra had devised a system of giving its top subscribers hands-on access to the dancers, who, being paid about three groats a month, were constrained to supplement their income in the traditional manner.

The performance itself was a massively expensive sideshow for the girls to lay out their wares: in their very first appearance in Robert le diable of 1831 (lately revived at Covent Garden), they hit the ground running — or at least teetering quickly en pointe — as lubricious zombie nuns in diaphanous habits, risen from the dead to debauch the hapless hero. This show also marked the debut of the tutu, which in combo with the leg-raising développé showed the audience a good deal “they had no business seeing”.

Still, art will apparently find a way, and a commission from the Paris Opéra was the acme of any composer’s ambitions, so all the top guys from Rossini to Verdi to Wagner braced up and subjected their muse to the requisite abuses — and it’s an entertaining staging of Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers now doing the rounds at WNO. Being a musical cut above most, this is a good place to study the creature.

We might note, for example, that its historical basis is wholly spurious, not
just since the culminating event (massacre of French invaders on Easter Monday, 1282) never really happened, but also because the libretto was a sketchily rewritten version of one based on events in sixteenth-century Flanders with the names changed — history repeating itself as phoney, super-camp foofla, as Marx should have said.

What really grabbed people was “pathos” — one of those words that gives a startling glimpse into the gulf between us and our psychotic forebears. This tends to involve people who are about to kill each other discovering (too late!) that they are long-lost siblings, etc; one of the juiciest being in La juive (set in Constanz in 1414) wherein the heroine, about to be executed by Cardinal Brogli for refusing to turn Christian, is revealed as she’s lowered into the cauldron to be the Cardinal’s daughter, and therefore a proper shiksa after all — but, alas, she is already parboiled.

Odd, really, that it should be this fairly preposterous variety of opera that has been chosen for resurrection. Entire lost (or discarded) epochs do occasionally resurface, spurred by panic at the prospect of endless performances of Carmen, Bohème and Traviata and nothing else — viz the happy resurgence of Handel in recent years. Grand Opera is arguably more part of social than musical history (only a handful were ever good enough to repay the ruinous investment of their production), but I suppose we take our pleasures where we may.

There is a depressingly obvious explanation for its total eclipse, beyond the fact of changing tastes. Its true creator and greatest exponent was Giacomo Meyerbeer, born Jakob Beer, whose Les Huguenots (wanna guess how that ends?) is currently playing in Geneva. A thoroughly honourable, pioneering musician, whose combining of German orchestral genius, Italian melody, French speech-based drama and a decorously anti-tyranny slant brought Grand Opera to its grandest heights, his many kindnesses to the struggling young Richard Wagner were repaid by Wagner’s bilious attack on him in his 1868 pamphlet Jewishness in Music (left). This fell on highly fertile ground, and Wagner’s cheerleader Bernard Shaw, among others, was quick to propagate the Master’s rants, readily accepted by the music world. Now, at last, we are getting the chance to see, hear and judge Meyerbeer and his descendants for ourselves.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover