These days Giacomo Meyerbeer is not the most well-known of opera composers. It is actually quite a sad statement to make as the composer, born on Sept. 5, 1791, was arguably the Steven Spielberg of his day.
His operas were the toast of the town in Paris, known for their tremendous showmanship and memorable music. To be Meyerbeer was the dream of many opera composers, including Verdi and Wagner. The former based a number of his greatest works on the elaborate styles of Meyerbeer, no opera more reminiscent than “I Vespri Siciliani.” The latter attempted the same with “Rienzi” and even turned to the elder Maestro for help in arriving on the Parisian scene. Both men surpassed Meyerbeer over the long haul.
These days, the composer’s name is more of a historical footnote and his works are rarely ever performed. And yet, there have been major attempts to revitalize his art in recent years, with some great artists not only performing in his works but even going so far as to dedicate entire albums to his operas.
And while Meyerbeer could be undergoing a renaissance, it is likely that only a handful of operas make it far. Here is a look at the essential operas by the now-forgotten composer.
Robert le Diable
Meyerbeer’s first major opera, “Robert Le Diable” was an instant success upon its 1831 premiere. Among those to first give the opera a ringing endorsement was Chopin, who stated, “If ever magnificence was seen in the theatre, I doubt that it reached the level of splendor shown in Robert…It is a masterpiece…Meyerbeer has made himself immortal.” While his statement was not completely accurate, Meyerbeer’s first major opera would be among the first to be reconsidered in the 21st century, with the Royal Opera House recently reviving the work with an all-star cast that included Bryan Hymel, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, John Relyea, and Jean-François Borras.
The opera may not have the scale of other works on this list, but its titular role, written for tenor is famously challenging. Its melodramatic plot emphasizes the relationship between Robert and his past, which saw his mother betrayed by a devil. Meanwhile, he is in love with Isabelle, who is set to get married to the Prince of Granada (a lot of Meyerbeer plots feature the tenor chasing after a soprano who is already set for marriage with someone else).
The opera would allow the composer to write his greatest works.
“Les Huguenots” is massive in its scale, requiring three main sopranos to pull it off. It is set in 1572 and takes place during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered by Catholics.
It was the opera that essentially established the genre of Grand Opera and, perhaps more than any other Meyerbeer opera, this work has received performances by a number of major artists throughout history. Just check out the two below recordings, one starring Nicolai Gedda and the latter featuring superstars such as Franco Corelli, Joan Sutherland, Giulietta Simoniatto.
Another opera about a historical religious conflict, many consider “Le Prophète” to be Meyerbeer’s darkest and most complex work. He took over a decade to plan and compose the opera and its cast is markedly smaller than the one employed for “Huguenots” (there are three major roles and seven soloists overall).
The work follows Jean de Leyde, who was based on the historical John of Leiden who is betrothed to Berthe (the engagement plot is inverted this time around with the hero already getting his heart’s content, but now having to ward off a rival). The Count Oberthal of Dordrecht wants her for himself and seeks to proclaim himself king of Münster, inciting a massive conflict. However, the love story is rather absent for long stretches of the opera and it doesn’t necessarily paint Jean as a hero, his motives often called into question and his characterization suggesting that he might be an imposter. He is almost akin to false Dimitri in “Boris Godunov.”
The opera’s most famous musical moment is its coronation march, which is still performed in a number of ceremonies today. The opera has been championed by a number of major artists, with Plácido Domingo the most famous in recent years.
The composer’s final opera, originally titled “Vasco da Gama,” depicts fictional events from the famous explorer’s life during the late 15th century. The work centers on his relationship with the queen Sélika and his beloved Inés, who (surprise, surprise) is engaged to Don Pedro instead of Da Gama. Ultimately the two lovers make it, but Sélika commits suicide upon realizing she can’t have Da Gama. The opera has glorious melodic invention and proves to be one of the more intimate operas that Meyerbeer ever wrote despite its label as Grand Opera.
It has been championed by a number of major artists, including Domingo, who famously recorded the work with Shirley Verrett and Ruth Ann Swenson in 1988. There is also a noted recording that features Antonietta Stella.