Political Concerns and Literary Topoi in French Grand Opera


Robert Ignatius Letellier, PhD – Institute of Continuing Education, Madingley Hall, Cambridge

Series: Fine Arts, Music and Literature
BISAC: POL058000

This collection of essays examines the intellectual content and structural underpinning of French Grand Opera, which flourished in Paris from 1828-1870. The genre of tragédie lyrique was renewed and relaunched by Auber with La Muette de Portici (1828) and Rossini with Guillaume Tell (1829). These operas considered the revolutionary struggle for national identity that was a growing issue of the age. The great operas that followed by Meyerbeer and Halévy considered the political situation in terms of religious freedom, the rise of Jewish emancipation and religious toleration in the spread of revolutionary ideals in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert le Diable (1831) had a mythological theme that conjured up the Catholic unity of the Middle Ages, Les Huguenots (1836), conversely, presented with the bloody strife of the Reformation. La Juive (1835) considered the nature of religious freedom in terms of the Jews in Christian society, and Le Prophète (1849) the place of poor people in society, with religion as an ideology of social change also in terms of the Reformation scenario.

Later Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867) would present the very issue of personal freedom and its relation to state religion in the dark context of the Spanish Inquisition . All of the chapters address these topics from a variety of perspectives and emphases. What is the nature of faith in relation to intolerance and is fanaticism born of an exegetical process and political ideology? How does the traditional symbolism of faith unfold? How is it underscored by a theological hermeneutic of history? The trajectory is one of idealism sought, as if in recollection of a Golden Age or prelapsarian situation of unity and wholeness. This situation is interestingly addressed, or mirrored in the concept of the pastoral, particularly in regards to dance. The balletic interludes of French Grand Opera in fact developed out of a tradition of diversity in the court of Louis XIV to comment on a deep structure of failed religion and political idealism.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents



Chapter 1. The Nexus of Faith, Power, Love and Death in The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1992)

Chapter 2. History, Myth and Music in a Theme of Exploration: Some Reflections on the Musico-Dramatic Language of L’africaine

Chapter 3. Historical Concerns and Biblical Theology in French Grand Opera

Chapter 4. Old and New Covenants: Historical and Theological Contexts in La Juive by Scribe and Halévy

Chapter 5. Theological Aspects of Scribe’s and Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète

Chapter 6. Le Prophète in London


Chapter 7. Meyerbeer the Man and Robert le Diable

Chapter 8. A Romantic Quest: Meyerbeer’s Adaptation of the Faust Theme

Chapter 9. Meyerbeer and the Comic Spirit: Miniature Variations on Grand Themes

Chapter 10. Meyerbeer’s Late Mysterious Operas

Chapter 11. Meyerbeer’s Margherita d’Anjou: Historical and Gendered Politics (2014)

Chapter 12. The Pastoral as Structural Determinant in the Grand Opera Scenarios of Scribe and Meyerbeer


Keywords: Opera, French Grand Opera, Politics, Religion, Literary models

Audience: To all libraries and institutions where music, literature and politics are taught or promoted. Musicology, the history of opera, French society in the 19c, and concerns with liberty are all relevant.

“This book brings together 12 essays written by the author over 25 years, between 1992 and 2017. Letellier is the premier writer in the English language on Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) and French grand opera. The book is set out over two parts: “Politics” and “Literature”. Apart from a lengthy consideration of the fascinating clash between the Old and New Covenants, ‘Historical and Theological Contents in La Juive (1835) by Scribe and Halevy’ (chapter 4), Meyerbeer’s compositions are a central concern of the book. So, in a sense, the unifying chapter lies in chapter 7 where the author writes on Meyerbeer the Man and Robert le Diable (1831).

The author in his first chapter raised a number of questions, including why Meyerbeer’s Grand operas (Robert, Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophete (1849) and L’Africaine (1865) chose such sensitive and controversial religious settings. His answer is that ‘religion was perhaps the dominant force’ in Meyerbeer’s life. With chapter 7 it explains that Meyerbeer came from a devout and rich Jewish Reform Prussian family. He remained faithful to that faith and was buried in the Jewish cemetery Schonhauser Allee, Berlin. Yet he accepted the conversion decisions of his daughters Bianca , to Catholicism, and Cornelie to Lutheranism. This reviewer would argue the composer recognised the importance of religion to the human personality. Regrettably, his faith does not seem to have resulted in much joy. His marriage in 1826 to his first cousin, Minna Mosson, resulted in a devoted relationship. But Meyerbeer was a cosmopolitan traveller in pursuit of his musical career and from 1838 his wife chose to live in Berlin and later wander spas for sickness cures. Thus they led frequently independent lives.

Letellier’s extensive writings include a first rate biography of Meyerbeer. Although the composer’s musical reputation brought him fame, enhanced his wealth and brought him royal friendships and honours, he still experienced anti-semiticism (richesse). Extracts from his letters to his brother, Michael Beer in 1818 and Heine in 1839 are repeated in this volume. Arguably, the religious basis behind Meyerbeer’s first three grand operas was induced by the pain of ‘acculturation’, a preferred modern term over ‘assimilation’. The composer’s intimate correspondence was in German, not Yiddish, whilst being fluent in other languages. Yet he kept family anniversaries by reference to the Hebrew calendar. In this, he followed the western Ashkenazi differentiation from the Russian, Polish, Lithuanian eastern Jews, after the Jewish enlightenment (Haskala), led by Moses Mendelssohn (1792-86), and reflected in Meyerbeer’s Reform Jewish family antecedents and mother, Amalia. Professor Monika Richarz of the Holocaust and UN Outreach Programme has written insightfully about this distinction. If, crudely put, assimilation requires the Jewish minority to abandon its faith and accept the surrounding culture, that is to be deplored, but acculturation involves the minority’s active contribution to the surrounding culture.

Part I should perhaps be better headed Religion rather than Politics. Indeed, in his Introduction, the author explains that the issues of politics are dealt with through the ‘obvious vectors’ of power and religion. The book’s back page outline explains that it seeks to examine ‘the intellectual content and structural understanding of French Grand Opera…underscored by a theological hermeneutic of history’. This reviewer is too much of a secular historian to trace this theological hermeneutic through John Hus to a modern world created by Protestantism. Hermeneutics is after all the theory and methodology of interpretation. Article X of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) granted religious freedom and opinion to all citizens, subject to public order. That, and Prussia’s extension of citizenship to Jews in 1812, was of obvious import to the composer. But such an hermeneutic ignores the enormous number of intellectual, military and political factors which are causative of events and how nations and individuals respond to them-and their unintended consequences.

The excellent chapter on La Juive, is set at the time of the Council of Constance (1414-18), regarded by some as the peak of medieval persecution of Jewry. The author sets out the Christian medieval persecution of the Jews. The heretical crime in the opera is centered on is the breach of the laws against miscegeny and inter-marriage occasioned by the affair between Rachel, the Jew of the title, and the scoundrel Leopold/Samuel. The representatives of the two covenants are Eleazar, the Jewish silversmith and local synagogue leader and Cardinal Brogli, President of the Council. The play is shot through with deceit. Rachel has been brought up by Eleazar, in his faith. Leopold is really the Christian nephew of the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, and is married to the Princess Eudoxie. Broglie killed Eleazar’s two sons in his secular days and believed he had lost his daughter, who is Rachel. Eleazar is the only person who knows the truth of Rachel’s origins.

A beauty of Letellier’s working from the original composition and its singers is that it better enables consideration of subsequent revivals. This reviewer is still sometimes surprised at the critical severity of some opera reviewers. Thus the last revival of the opera at the Metropolitan Opera in 2004 included not only criticism of ‘the modernist’ costumes and stage setting, but also of the unbelievability of the plot. A critic, describing himself as a painter and writer on Jewish art, even raises the question whether it is a radically progressive work in a rare moment of 19th century liberalism or a complete capitulation to Christian society and a regretful example of Jewish self-loathing. The crowd scenes show both Jews and Christians are driven by mutual hostility and suspicion. The critic is at pains to attribute to Eleazar a motive purely of vengeance, unable to ignore his parental obligations. Scribe is right in presenting Rachel as the ultimate hero who has made the supreme sacrifice of love, forgiving Leopold by taking the whole of the blame on herself. Nevertheless, was she needlessly reckless in denouncing Leopold in Act 3?

Letellier’s operatic consideration is a tour de force of the sacramental and theological analysis behind the plot. One doubts that the opera goers at the original production at the Paris Opera (1835), and international acclaim in the 19th century, with more muted reception of modern revivals knew their Bible and theology as well. Also intriguing is the author’s consideration of how Scribe came to produce such a successful libretto. After all, Scribe made his living from running a factory of employees to produce c400 well known plays. He was a master of vaudeville, parodying, but satisfying, the bourgeois audiences he pandered to as a hard headed businessman. Letellier points to Scribe’s visit to Constance in 1826 and his probable use of Ulric de Reichental’s Manuscript Chronicle of the history of the Council, a lithograph from which is included in the text. This reviewer cannot dismiss entirely Fromental Halevy’s (1799-1862) guidance, which may have gone beyond any strict division between composer and librettist. Halevy was a Jew and the son of the cantor Elie Halevy, secretary of the Jewish community of Paris.

Another revival, that of the Bavarian State Opera in 2016, by Calixto Bieto, with de Billy as conductor, submits that Scribe never meant the opera to be performed as an integral edition, and to be eminently malleable to subsequent adaptations. The modern-dress costume is ‘dark and drab’, apart from Rachel’s green dress. The scenery is also modern. It freely admits that the overture and ballet and large chunks of music have been omitted. Vocally and dramatically Eudoxie captured the limelight.

Le Prophete revolves around the Anabaptist rebellion in Munster 1534-35, which the author sees as a logical continuation of the doctrines of John Hus, executed after Constance, as a result of the Catholic Church’s fury against heresy. Chapter 5 provides an excellent Biblical and sacramental and theological analysis of the plot, followed by chapter 6 on its presentations in London. Clearly, to be grand opera, the themes of love and death must be intertwined in the plot, which the author uses to characterise the principals. As the author writes, religion is ‘totally discredited’ but John and his beloved mother, Fides, are spiritually saved . Dare we hope that so is Berthe?. Nevertheless, the composition leaves this reviewer troubled as a warning against chiliastic prophets, not unlike those of the English Cromwellian period and arguably in visions of the Soviet era.

Part 2 ‘Literature’ is commended to readers, particularly the final chapter 12: The Pastoral as Structural Determinant in the Grand Opera Scenarios of Scribe and Meyerbeer. The concept of the pastoral has influenced not only music and dance , but also literature and art. The pastoral as a theme reflects the freedom of shepherds tending their flocks within the natural seasons. The quest is for ‘an ideal of peace, harmony and unity, traditionally realised through the symbolism of dance, feast, [and] marriage’. Theologically, it can be seen as a return to ‘the original justice’ of Genesis, or Adam and Eve before the Fall in Eden. This is realised in Robert, denied as in Les Huguenots, or expressed darkly and ambiguously in Le Prophete. Readers are left to consider the use of the theme presented by Letellier in Le Pardon de Ploermel and L’Africaine, considered in some depth in other chapters.

Once it is accepted that this ideal of Paradise cannot be achieved on earth, but only in heaven, then chapter 8’s focus on Goethe’s Faust , becomes understandable, if the reader is familiar at least with the plot of this major work of German literature. The pastoral is achieved by God’s grace through Alice in Robert. In Goethe, it is achieved by the soiled Gretchen’s penitent decision to refuse release from prison and accept her execution. Similarly Faust’s repentance when he recognises the limitations of human existence and experience. The author brilliantly compares Robert’s purgation and mystical ascent with the end of Goethe’s Faust 2.

This is a book for scholars, as each essay is of such depth, that ‘potted summaries’ would not do them justice and alternative interpretations would require a book sized review to explain. They assume an understanding of the plots or a willingness to study. Opera lovers-the music, singing and dance may be everything , but a little theological and literary underpinning can be beneficial. Thoroughly recommended.” – <strong>Ian Rogers

“Robert Ignatius Letellier has delved into Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète in a deep and interesting way. This book focuses on ‘parables of politics, faith and transcendence,’ and is important to anyone with interest in French grand opera and religion. For those who are able to read and understand the music dramaturgy and revised score, the original music can be found on pages 71-78. In addition, the lovely presentation totaling 278 photographs, paintings, woodcuts, and cartoons are on heavy glossy paper. For example, Fig. 18 shows ‘Caricature of Meyerbeer bringing the Prophet to Berlin like a latter-day Messiah,’ Fig. 64 shows “the Cathedral scene (stage design, Philippe Chaperon, Paris 1875),” as well as photographs of Eugene Scribe and prints from Jan van Leeden and the Anabaptist leaders. Modern productions after WWII could only provide stages fitted for Le Prophète. Revivals were first seen in London in 1959 and in the United States in 1977 and 1979. Le Prophète was performed in Germany in 2000 and in Munster in 2004 with several other performances in 2007 and 2008. Letellier has collected concise and detailed information about Meyerbeer and Le Prophète. This makes me eager to learn about Meyerbeer’s other operas..” Dale Hesdorffer, Professor, Epidemiology, and Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, Columbia University Medical Center, USA


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