From February at Deutsche Oper Berlin, you’ll be able to see three operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer, with all three on successive nights in March: Le prophète, Les Huguenots and Dinorah. It's the first time that such a concentration of his works has been on display for at least half a century, but why should it surprise us? After all, Meyerbeer was probably the most successful and influential opera composer of the 19th century, ahead of Verdi, Wagner and even Donizetti: go to the mechanical musical instrument museum in Utrecht and you’ll see dozens of music boxes playing his tunes. So why did he disappear from view and why should we listen to him again?

While the crowd is struck by the inner power of passion in Les Huguenots, the educated listener wonders at the mastery evident in the form. The work is a Gothic cathedral, whose spire, reaching for heaven, and colossal cupolas seem to be planted by the hand of a giant.

Giacomo Meyerbeer, engraving from a photo by Pierre Petit, 1865
© Public Domain

Those words were written in 1837 by no less a figure than Heinrich Heine. They are echoed today when I speak to Enrique Mazzola, who will conduct Le Prophète and Dinorah in Berlin: “It's a type of opera that we are not used to any more. We listen to dramaturgically fast Italian opera like Barbiere or L'elisir d'amore or even Rigoletto, or this majestic long Wagnerian size where you can have an E flat major for 250 bars but which makes sense, you just sit down and let these harmonies go to you. But between these two, there is a composer who developed the size of the dramaturgy to a big time-space, we have five act operas with the capacity for detail of the Italians. He has a very complex way to develop.”

It’s hard to understate the extent to which Meyerbeer changed opera. Mazzola says: “You can see that we have two completely different waves. In 1843, Don Pasquale was also in Paris, a very light comedy, and then suddenly you have this cathedral of sound, monumental acts, monumental scenes. What makes Meyerbeer unique? In a way, he is the father of grand opéra, he sets the rules for grand opéra, and this changed the life not only of the Parisians but also of the few international listeners of the time.”

Meyerbeer is also unique among composers of his day for the international breadth of his life and work. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, he had the best teaching that money could buy, fully absorbing German style before moving to Italy, where he would in turn absorb the Italian style (as well as adopting his Italian first name), next going on to achieve fame in Paris. “Meyerbeer was what I call a chameleon,” Mazzola explains. “He was first a German opera composer. But then, he became one of the best bel canto composers, and this is still very unknown. I really want to conduct Il Crociato in Egitto and his Semiramide, because he appropriated the bel canto style – and not only in a light way, he was very expert. I’ve conducted some of the arias, the overtures and I can assure you: it’s very, very Italian. And then he goes to Paris, he delivers one of the best opéras-comiques of his times and then he starts a new genre. I mean it's so fascinating, who was this Meyerbeer?”

Le prophète at Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2017: Gregory Kunde
© Bettina Stöß

The fusion of styles is evident from hearing any of the later operas: the deliciousness of bel canto melody and decoration allied to the French penchant for coups de théâtre and Germanic orchestration that is far beyond the “big guitar” of the traditional Italian opera orchestra. Meyerbeer arrived at the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk well before his protegé-turned-nemesis Wagner, argues musicologist David Charlton: “Wagner is usually thought of when the ‘total work of art’ is mentioned; yet the apparent fusion of all possible elements of theatrical art was the overwhelming impression provoked by Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable at the Opéra in 1831.”

The vicious attacks on Meyerbeer by Wagner and his followers are probably the single biggest factor in his critical reassessment as a lightweight and his subsequent near-total disappearance from the world’s stages. Unquestionably, anti-semitism played a substantial part in the criticism, as did the simple need for Wagner to brush aside the old order in order to further his own career. But it’s also fair to say that some of the style of Meyerbeer (and of his usual librettist Eugène Scribe) was very much a creature of the time, something recognised by Franz Liszt, writing in 1837:

Contrary to Metastasio, Scribe belonged to an epoch in which exaggeration was part of the agenda of literature. .... Frightening ghosts, horrible apparitions were en vogue. Poets sought out the eccentric which was greedily swallowed by the public. The extreme subjects hardly sufficed to make the readers and audiences shudder, inured to horrors as they were.

Les Huguenots, Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2016: Juan Diego Flórez, Marc Barrard
© Bettina Stöß

Mazzola points to changes in taste and social environment. “In a way, Meyerbeer is the first composer to ask opera to create questions about big moral issues, like the power of the state against the power of religion: this is so different from Wagner who didn't raise so much this kind of question. This was really needed in his historical period in France, coming after the restoration, then the revolution and then the Second Empire with Napoleon III. Probably, with the new century, this was not needed any more. In a way, verismo cancelled everything, did a tabula rasa; the idea of going to the theatre changed. People went there to see La bohème to see the small Mimì dying, crying in Pagliacci and these kinds of things, so it was a completely different reason to go to opera.”

Since 2000, though, the pendulum seems to be swinging back: although Deutsche Oper Berlin’s series is the most prominent, Meyerbeer productions are beginning to appear in several houses. Why might this be happening now? “I am a Bärenreiter kid, which I think marks a new generation of conductors who grew up with critical editions, with the love for detail and last but not least the love for the research. In years of research of this generation, we discovered a composer who is so important that we cannot avoid him any more, we cannot say ‘OK, we don't speak about these things’. But also, we are again going in a historical period in which personally, I will say unfortunately, we are again speaking about the relation between the state and religion. When we speak about what is happening in Muslim countries, we are again questioning the relation between religion and the state in our public and personal lives, so probably also there is a political and social reason to go back and to see what Meyerbeer can tell us about this argument.” In contrast, for Dinorah, an opéra-comique rather than grand opéra, Mazzola points at the humour: “All the scenes are accompanied by very light and funny spoken dialogues – not recitativi – that are actually very funny, very well written.”

Deutsche Oper Berlin is fielding suitably stellar casts and Mazzola is glad that the cast of Le prophète, headed by Gregory Kunde, Clémentine Margaine and Elena Tsallagova, is largely unchanged from the production’s successful first run in 2017. But rather than highlighting any individuals, he prefers to tip his hat to the Deutsche Oper Orchestra, who are “so strong, so well trained, that they deliver a great show from the repertoire every time, which is very difficult. I have to say that differently from Wagner, for the orchestra, Meyerbeer requires non-stop attention. Every few bars there is a change of tempo, differently from Wagner where probably you have to count 42 bars of a D flat and what's difficult is to count 42, not to play it. The use of the woodwinds, of the soli in the strings, of the tutti with the brass, it's very unique and really requires the orchestra to master this.”

His favourite part? “The moment which gives me goosebumps is the Bacchanale at the end of Prophète. So everything is on fire, the palace is falling down. It's completely crazy, it’s striking the contrast between the rhythm of the Bacchanale and this catastrophe, the world is falling apart in their hands, people are dying and in the fires, there is this crazy Bacchanale. When I'm conducting this, it’s like ‘Oh God, where are we going? What's next?’ But these are the last ten minutes of the opera so I have no answer for this.”

And what’s next? I suggest that Deutsche Oper Berlin hasn’t yet tackled Robert le diable. “I was speaking with my friend Christof Loy; we just did a new Don Pasquale in Zurich, you know, breaks with cappuccino are the most creative moments, and we were saying “the opera we have to do is Robert le diable.” Anyone listening, Deutsche Oper?

You can see listings of Meyerbeer at Deutsche Oper Berlin here.
This interview was sponsored by Deutsche Oper Berlin.