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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 6768

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


"Robert le Diable" was produced at the Académie Royale in 1831, and inaugurated the brilliant reign of Dr. Véron as manager. The bold innovations, the powerful situations, the daring methods of the composer, astonished and delighted Paris, and the work was performed more than a hundred consecutive times. The history of "Robert le Diable" is in some respects curious. It was originally written for the Vontadour Theatre, devoted to comic opera; but the company were found unable to sing the difficult music. Meyerbeer was inspired by Weber's "Der Freischtitz" to attempt a romantic, semi-fantastic legendary opera, and trod very closely in the footsteps of his model. It was determined to so alter the libretto and extend and elaborate the music as to fit it for the stage of the Grand Opera. MM. Scribe and Delavigne, the librettists, and Meyerbeer, devoted busy days and nights to hurrying on the work. The whole opera was remodeled, recitative substituted for dialogue, and one of the most important characters,-Rainibaud, cut out in the fourth and fifth acts-a suppression which is claimed to have befogged a very clear and intelligible plot. Highly suggestive in its present state of Weber's opera, the opera of "Robert le Diable" is said to have been marvelously similar to "Der Freischtitz" in the original form, though inferior in dignity of motive.

Paris was all agog with interest at the first production. The critics had attended the rehearsals, and it was understood that the libretto, the music, and the ballet were full of striking interest. Nourrit played the part of Robert; Levasseur, Bertram; Mme. Cinti Damoreau, Isabelle; and Mile. Dorus, Alice. The greatest dancers of the age were in the ballet and the brilliant Taglioni led the band of resuscitated nuns. Ilabeneck was conductor, and everything had been done in the way of scenery and costumes. The success was a remarkable one, and Meyerbeer's name became famous throughout Europe.

Dr. Véron, in his "Mémoires d'un Bourgeois de Paris," describes a thrilling yet ludicrous accident that occurred on the first night's performance. After the admirable trio, which is the d'eno?ment of the work, Levasseur, who personated Bertram, sprang through the trap to rejoin the kingdom of the dead, whence he came so mysteriously. Robert, on the other hand, had to remain on the earth, a converted man, and destined to happiness in marriage with his princess, Isabelle. Nourrit, the Robert of the performance, misled by the situation and the fervor of his own feelings, threw himself into the trap, which was not properly set. Fortunately the mattresses beneath had not all been removed, or the tenor would have been killed, a doom which those on the stage who saw the accident expected. The audience supposed it was part of the opera, and the people on the stage were full of terror and lamentation, when Nourrit appeared to calm their fears. Mile. Dorus burst into tears of joy, and the audience, recognizing the situation, broke into shouts of applause.

The opera was brought out in London the same year, with nearly the same cast, but did not excite so much enthusiasm as in Paris. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, who represented the connoisseurs of the old school, expressed the then current opinion of London audiences: "Never did I see a more disagreeable or disgusting performance. The sight of the resurrection of

a whole convent of nuns, who rise from their graves and begin dancing like so many bacchantes, is revolting; and a sacred service in a church, accompanied by an organ on the stage, not very decorous. Neither does the music of Meyerbeer compensate for a fable which is a tissue of nonsense and improbability."*

* Yet Lord Mount Edgcumbe is inconsistent enough to be an

ardent admirer of Mozart's "Zauberflote."

M. Véron was so delighted with the great success of "Robert" that he made a contract with Meyerbeer for another grand opera, "Les Huguenots," to be completed by a certain date. Meanwhile, the failing health of Mme. Meyerbeer obliged the composer to go to Italy, and work on the opera was deferred, thus causing him to lose thirty thousand francs as the penalty of his broken contract. At length, after twenty-eight rehearsals, and an expense of more than one hundred and sixty thousand francs in preparation, "Les Huguenots" was given to the public, February 26, 1836. Though this great work excited transports of enthusiasm in Paris, it was interdicted in many of the cities of Southern Europe on account of the subject being a disagreeable one to ardent and bigoted Catholics. In London it has always been the most popular of Meyerbeer's three great operas, owing perhaps partly to the singing of Mario and Grisi, and more lately of Titiens and Giuglini.

When Spontini resigned his place as chapel-master at the Court of Berlin, in 1832, Meyerbeer succeeded him. He wrote much music of an accidental character in his new position, but a slumber seems to have fallen on his greater creative faculties. The German atmosphere was not favorable to the fruitfulness of Meyerbeer's genius. He seems to have needed the volatile and sparkling life of Paris to excite him into full activity. Or perhaps he was not willing to produce one of his operas, with their large dependence on élaborat e splendor of production, away from the Paris Grand Opera. During Meyerbeer's stay in Berlin he introduced Jenny Lind to the Berlin public, as he afterward did indeed to Paris, her début there being made in the opening performance of "Das Feldlager in Schlesien," afterward remodeled into "L'étoile du Nord."

Meyerbeer returned to Paris in 1849, to present the third of his great operas, "Le Prophète." It was given with Roger, Viardot-Garcia, and Castellan in the principal characters. Mme. Viardot-Garcia achieved one of her greatest dramatic triumphs in the difficult part of Fides. In London the opera also met with splendid success, having, as Chorley tells us, a great advantage over the Paris presentation in "the remarkable personal beauty of Signor Mario, whose appearance in his coronation robes reminded one of some bishop-saint in a picture by Van Eyck or Durer, and who could bring to bear a play of feature without grimace into the scene of false fascination, entirely beyond the reach of the clever French artist Roger, who originated the character."

"L'étoile du Nord" was given to the public February 16, 1854. Up to this time the opera of "Robert" had been sung three hundred and thirty-three times, "Les Huguenots" two hundred and twenty-two, and "Le Prophète" a hundred and twelve. The "Pardon de Plo?rmel," also known as "Dinorah," was offered to the world of Paris April 4, 1859. Both these operas, though beautiful, are inferior to his other works.

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