French Opera

Musical Europe – as we have seen – is a unity, with composers and musicians from several nations benefiting from cross-cultural experience in such great artistic capitals as Venice, Paris, Vienna, London. So, a purely national description of the operatic scene is inadequate. Giacomo Meyerbeer for example, born in Berlin in 1791 but living most of his life in Paris where his pageant-like operas were first performed, is thought of as French composer. Similarly Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), although born in Florence, took French citizenship in 1661 where he lived form the age of 14. Described as a supreme courtier and intriguer he wrote 20 ballets and operas and took French opera out of its aristocratic origin and made it a popular art.

Jean-Philippe Ramaeu (1683-1764 was a more considerable figure, an innovator in harmony and orchestration as well as a respected teacher and performer of the harpsichord. He began to compose his 20 operas when he was fifty and whilst received cautiously at the time, recently they have had a revival, with several recordings in the catalogue.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) takes us to the modern era and like Beethoven, he wrote only one opera. ‘Pellaes et Melisande’ , produced in 1902 and quite distinctive, having some of the orchestral virtuosity of Wagner but a gentle fluidity and deceptively simple declaration that is unmistakably French. N.G.D.M. says that ‘he brought an entirely new tone to opera – and an unrepeatable one’. I have heard the work on disc and it is very beautiful indeed.

Between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, strides Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), the recently completed three volume biography emphasising the impossibility of doing him justice in this brief reference to him. He was the arch-Romantic, making enemies as easily as friends, misunderstood in his own country but welcomed as a conductor of his own and other people’s music in Russia, England, Germany and Austria.

He was a lofty idealist with a leaping imagination and his music has a distinctive sound with its rhythmic fluctuations and themes superimposed on each other –with plenty of brass! He wrote several operas, only one of which –‘Benvenuto Cellini’ – I have heard in performance. His colourful image concealed the originality and brilliance of his music and only in recent years under the advocacy of such people as Sir Colin Davies, has his true worth been recognised and celebrated.