Time was, Giacomo Meyerbeer, born Jacob Liebmann Beer in 1791, was the most acclaimed opera composer in Europe. And as a prominent Jew, he became a target for the vitriol of Richard Wagner and was chief among Wagner’s targets. He turned out big theatrical extravaganzas that were the talk of the great European capitals, with famous arias that were sung, strummed and hummed by a huge swath of the music-loving populations of Italy, Germany and France.
Today, not so much. Fashions and tastes change and the kind of massive grand operas for which Meyerbeer was renowned are seldom performed today. Meyerbeer’s biggest successes are still performed, particularly “Les Huguenots,” but the handful of smaller-scale pieces he authored are all but forgotten.
Which is why the news that his genial opéra comique “Dinorah” will be staged by the Amore Opera March 19-23 is so welcome.
“There hasn’t been a full production here since the Metropolitan Opera did it in 1925,” said Nathan Hull, Amore’s artistic director, in a phone interview last week. “It’s a long-overdue rediscovery. I’ve fallen in love with this music.”
Amore has built its reputation on its enterprising mixture of old chestnuts and rarities. “Dinorah” is the first of a pair of small-scale Meyerbeer operas that the company is planning to perform, with “L’Etoile du Nord” slated for an upcoming season.
“People are going to be surprised by this piece,” said conductor Richard Cordova in a telephone interview last week. “It’s pastoral in nature, the equivalent of an Italian opera semiseria. He only wrote two examples of opéra comique, and they’re not supposed to be a laugh riot, but a piece with spoken dialogue and a happy ending. Well, until Bizet did ‘Carmen,’ of course.”
“Dinorah” does have a happy ending, certainly happier than “Carmen,” although Meyerbeer’s eponymous coloratura heroine spends much of the piece’s running time as a madwoman. A Breton goatherd, her sanity was shattered before the curtain rises by her fiancée abandoning her at the altar. She regains her reason midway through the third act, helped throughout by her favorite ward, a charming goat named Bellah.
“The goat doesn’t sing,” Hull observed, disappointing collectors of opera eccentricities. “The original production used a real goat, and that was a bad idea.”
You can imagine the mischief a goat can cause, particularly if it isn’t housebroken.
Amore, happily, is offering a perky 8-year-old girl, Carina Golden, in the role. “We’re having a chorus of 8-year-olds as goats and sheep,” Hull noted. “They get to sing along with the chorus in the opening.”
Meyerbeer was famous for the monumental scale of his best known works, which featured vast resources and huge set pieces like shipwrecks.
“He never thought small,” Cordova said dryly. “Those pieces which stretch the resources of all but the very biggest opera companies.”
Of course, back in his heyday, Meyerbeer was the favorite composer of the Paris Opera, which could boast a huge stage, workshop and orchestra. “In ‘Dinorah’ most of the singing is done by three characters and the chorus isn’t present all the time,” Cordova said with a mixture of regret and relief.
Hull believes that blame for the decline of Meyerbeer’s reputation after his death in 1864 can be laid primarily at Wagner’s door. Wagner had been a keen admirer of the Jewish musician and had sought him out at the beginning of his own career. Meyerbeer was an ardent champion of early Wagner operas “Rienzi” and “The Flying Dutchman,” help for which the younger man repaid him with an anonymous screed, “Jewry in Music” in 1850.
But Wagner was not the first German composer to find Meyerbeer “insufficiently German,” as Cordova put it.
“Even a composer like Robert Schumann wrote an article condemning him,” he said. “He complained there were too many Italian elements in the music. Of course, Mozart could be accused of the same thing.”
Dave Conway, author of the highly regarded “Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner,” has no brief for Wagner. He feels, however, that the impact of Wagner’s “Jewry in Music” is somewhat overstated.
“Nobody read it when it was first published in 1850,” he said in a Skype interview early this week. “When it was reissued in 1868 with Wagner revealed as the author, Meyerbeer was safely dead and it no longer was an issue. Until the Nazis it was very rarely republished. In my opinion it was a relatively minor factor [in the decline in Meyerbeer’s popularity].”
The real problem, Conway suggested, was that Wagner and Verdi, who represented two different approaches to the next step in the evolution of grand opera, had surpassed their forebear.
“Meyerbeer is the man without whom Wagner and Verdi would have been unable to create their operas,” he explained. “He linked together the staging, the storyline, the orchestral effects, the unusual orchestrations, all the while looking to see what the audiences wanted. You have to realize that when Meyerbeer [emerged], opera audiences had changed. In the 18th century, operas had been commissioned by monarchs and aristocrats. Now there were large theaters to be filled; you needed stronger, more striking effects and louder music. Meyerbeer is one of the first to appreciate that.
“Wagner and Verdi are possibly better musicians than Meyerbeer; he came to appear a bit clunky, overdone,” Conway continued. “But if he hadn’t set the trend, they never would have been able to follow it.”
“Dinorah” by Giacomo Meyerbeer, directed by Nathan Hull and conducted by Richard Cordova, will be performed by Amore Opera in the original French for four performances: Tuesday, March 19, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, March 20, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 23, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., at Riverside Theatre at Riverside Church (91 Claremont Ave.), amoreopera.org.