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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

It’s Time for Meyerbeer (Part I)

My reawakening to opera started at the end of 1990, after having been away from it for well over a decade. Up to that point I’d listened to the occasional Met Texaco broadcast and watched a few public television productions, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I owned a grand total of ZERO complete operas on CD.

Remarried to a woman who has been an opera fan nearly her whole life—she grew up in suburban Chicago with parents who were Lyric Opera season ticket holders for decades, and her grandfather heard Caruso sing at the old Lyric—my interest was rekindled. I remember that my reintroduction involved listening to her CD of “Lucia de Lammermoor” (an opera I’d never heard in its entirety), an RCA Italia recording with Anna Moffo and Carlo Bergonzi. From that point onward I was hooked, especially on the bel canto repertoire.

In 2000 I had the good fortune to land a reasonably well-paying job with a high-tech startup, which afforded me the opportunity to start growing my opera collection. Working part-time at Barnes & Noble was also of benefit, since I was entitled to a 20% discount on all music items. I began scouring the B&N catalogue for operas by my favorite composers—Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti and Bellini—and bought as many as I could find.

Stuck deep in the Italian repertoire, I knew almost nothing about French opera. Sure, I was familiar with all the popular pieces from “Carmen” (including the one with the bowdlerized lyrics to the “Toreador Song”) and I’d attended a performance of “Faust” that Opera Colorado put on in the late ’90s. Then, one day while I was perusing the Classical Vocal racks at the bookstore, I stumbled across a Samuel Ramey CD I hadn’t seen before. Titled simply “Operatic Arias,” http://music.barnesandnoble.com/search/product.asp?userid=gT4alLIC5Z&EAN=77774958226&ITM=31 it included a number of Verdi pieces with which I was familiar—bass arias from “Ernani,” “Simon Boccanegra” and “Nabucco”—as well as songs from “Barbiere” and “Don Carlo” that I figured I ought to know. So I bought it and stuck it into my CD player the very next day as I took a walk in the park near my house.

“Encore un de gagne” is the title of cut number seven on that disk, and “Voici donc le debris” is the title of cut number eight. I stopped dead in my tracks as the strains of that first piece began to play. I didn’t move a muscle until both songs were finished. Then I backspaced and played them again, and finally a third time. This was a sound I’d never heard before in opera, and even today I can’t properly describe it. As soon as I got home I stuck the disk into my home CD player and turned up the volume for my wife. “Listen to this,” I said to her. “Isn’t this cool?” Her response was less than enthusiastic; she said something like “Oh, that’s French opera. You know I’m not crazy about it.”

Not one to be put off quite that easily, I was determined to find out more about this composer, about whom I knew absolutely nothing. Giacomo Meyerbeer. What a queer name, I thought. I hunted around on the B&N Web site to see if there was an extant version of “Robert le Diable” available for sale, for that was the work from which Ramey’s two bass arias had been taken. All I could find was a Myto recording of a live 1970s performance sung in Italian. So without knowing anything about the Myto label or the state of this particular recording, I ordered it and awaited its arrival.

Meanwhile I did some more research. My wife’s copy of “Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book,” an older edition, was embarrassingly scant in its detail. Looking at the Stanford University opera Web site, I saw that Meyerbeer had written four so-called grand operas, with “Robert” the first of the bunch. Viewing other source material, I began to piece together a bare outline of this man’s career.

Jakob Liebman Beer, a German Jew born into privilege, combined a relative’s surname (Meyer) with his own in exchange for a living stipend so that he could study music. He migrated to Venice, where he composed a few operas in the style of Rossini, and then went to Paris where he broke new ground for the Paris Opera (Garnier). After taking an inordinate amount of time to compose his four grand operas (from1831 to 1868), he died just before the premiere of “L’Africaine.” Gradually his music fell out of favor, due it was claimed to the popularity of the verismo style. Also cited: Audiences were less willing to sit through five-act operas, and the expense of staging such spectacles was beyond the financial ability of nearly every modern-day opera company.

That was the more-or-less official line on Meyerbeer’s operatic career. Oh, there was some allusion to a dispute with Wagner; rather, commentary by Wagner after Meyerbeer had died regarding the earlier composer’s shallowness of style, or some such drivel. Knowing full well that Wagner was a raving anti-Semite, I put less than zero stock in those words. And after all, I’d heard what he had composed.

My Myto CD arrived, and I rushed to put it on the player. Reading the liner notes as I listened to the dark-toned overture unwind, I learned that this performance of “Roberto il Diavolo” came from a short-lived revival and had suffered through a number of severe cuts by the conductor (Nino Sanzogno), some done as recently as the day before the first performance. Renata Scotto was the lead soprano, while Boris Christoff sang the role that produced the Ramey arias I’d heard.

(Part II to follow …)

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