Opera, Grand and Grandiose
Music Opera, Grand and Grandiose Terry Teachout Casual observers of American opera companies might be forgiven for assuming that their repertoire is as fixed as the Pentateuch. But the fact is that, just as the Supreme Court is said to follow the election returns, so do opera houses, in between performances of Carmen and La Bohème, take careful note of the changing tastes of ticket-buying patrons. The 20th century, for example, saw such once-infrequently staged operas as Mozart’s CosEC fan tutte and Verdi’s Macbeth become genuinely popular. More recently, the operas of Handel, which had fallen completely out of the repertoire, have been taken up with a vengeance, and it even begins to look as though Russian opera, long a closed book in the West, may soon have its day.
At the same time, at least as many operas fell by the wayside as were successfully revived in the 20th century, some of which, like Gounod’s Faust, were once staple items of every self-respecting company. But of all the shifts in operatic taste brought about by modernity, the most drastic has been the near-total eclipse of French grand opéra and its leading practitioners, Giacomo Meyerbeer foremost among them. Such five-act historical pageants as Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828), Rossini’s Guilliaume Tell (1829), and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836), Le prophète (1849), and L’Africaine (1865), with their thunderous choruses, spectacular arias, compulsory ballets, and black-and-white dramaturgy, once drew crowds to the Paris Opera and other houses around the world. Now they are widely dismissed as theatrical dinosaurs, revived today only as one-time novelties or as showcases for some much-admired singer.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.