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Grand Opera

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Grand Opera is a style of opera mainly characterized by many features on a grandiose scale. Heroic and historical subjects, large casts, vast orchestras, richly detailed sets, sumptuous costumes and spectacular scenic effects were all features of this genre, especially when the operas were first produced. However, some recent revivals have featured excessive short cuts in an effort to minimize costs. Other characteristics include continuous music (recitative instead of spoken dialogue), a four or five-act structure and the prevalence of ballets and large scale processions. While there were a number of earlier operas which exhibited many of the traits of grand opera, these are essentially precursors of what we now regard as grand opera. True grand operas are generally regarded as originating in Paris during the late 1820s with Auber's La muette de Portici. The format quickly travelled to near-by countries, especially Germany, Austria, and Italy. But it fell into disfavor towards the end of the 19th century, as the expense of staging these mammoth works and the problems in finding singers capable of executing them caused newer styles to gain in popularity. There also was a great deal of opposition to them in Paris on the part of avant-garde intellectuals such as Claude Debussy who were embarrassed by what they saw as the excesses of grand opera. Nevertheless, grand opera did not die out, many composers continued to write these works, and the style continued to be influential.


French Grand Opera


Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century drew in many composers, both French and foreign, and especially those of opera. This cosmopolitan combination of influences helped to form the style of grand opera. Several Italians working during this period including Luigi Cherubini demonstrated that the use of recitative was suited for the powerful dramas that were being written. Others, such as Gaspare Spontini, wrote works to glorify Napoleon. These operas were composed on a suitably grand scale for the emperor. Another consideration was the ability of the large Paris Opéra which was capable of staging a sizeable work and the long tradition of French ballet and stagecraft.


Several operas by Gaspare Spontini, Luigi Cherubini, and especially Gioacchino Rossini can be regarded as precursors to French grand opera. These include Spontini's La vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809, revised 1817), Cherubini's Les Abencerages (1813), and Rossini's Le siège de Corinthe (1827) and Moise (1828). All of these have some of the characteristics that are normally associated with French grand opera.

Early French Grand Opera (1828-1836)

Thus, the time was ripe for the combination of influences to bear fruit starting in 1828 with La muette de Portici by Daniel Francois Auber. The next major grand opera was Rossini's Guillaume Tell (his final opera; 1829).

The acknowledged superstar of this form is Giacomo Meyerbeer, who reached prominence in the Paris opera scene beginning with Robert le diable in 1831. He followed this work with his masterpiece, Les Huguenots, in 1836. Another very important early grand opera was Halévy's La Juive (1835). This work, while not quite as successful as Les Huguenots, was also performed all over the world, and is still viewed as being among the most influential and among the higher quality grand operas of all time.

Grand Operas of the 1840s

The early grand operas of the 1830s were huge box-office successes, and even inspired the young Richard Wagner to try his hand at grand opera with his early work, Rienzi (1842). The latter was very successful at its premiere in Dresden, but was soon left behind by Meyerbeer in most other German cities.

During the 1840s, the major grand operas were Les martyrs by Gaetano Donizetti, La reine de Chypre by Halévy (perhaps the only major grand opéra yet to be performed during the post-war period) (1841), Dom Sebastien by Gaetano Donizetti (1843), and Le prophète by Meyerbeer (1849).

Grand Operas of the 1850s and 1860s

The 1850s only saw one even moderately successful grand opera, that being Les vêpres siciliennes by Giuseppe Verdi (1855), which was to be much more widely given in Italy and other Italian language opera houses than in France. In the meantime, Sapho, the first opera by Charles Gounod, did not qualify, being a less grandiose work, while Meyerbeer concentrated on two opéras comiques, and Halévy was unable to equal the successes of La Juive, La reine de Chypre, and Charles VI. Oddly, the ever popular Faust (1859) by Charles Gounod started life as another opéra comique, and did not become a grand opera until the 1860s. Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz (composed from 1856-1858, later revised, was not given a full performance until nearly a century after Berlioz had died, although portions had been staged before).

While the 1850s were relatively dry as far as grand opera was concerned, the 1860s made up for lost time. The first significant entry was La reine de Saba by Charles Gounod. This was rarely given in it's entirety, but the big tenor aria, "Inspirez-moi, race divine" was made famous in a recording by Enrico Caruso. The great Meyerbeer died on 2 May, 1864, thus his L'Africaine was premiered posthumously in 1865. Giuseppe Verdi returned to Paris for what many see as the greatest French grand opera ever, the immortal Don Carlos (1867). Ambroise Thomas contributed his Hamlet in 1868, and finally, to close out the decade, Faust was premiered at the Opéra. By then, the work had enough additions for it to qualify as a full-fledged grand opéra.

Late French Grand Operas

In spite of France's defeat at the hands of the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War, grand opera was able to continue on its merry way during the 1870s and 1880s, although the identity of the principal composers had changed. Jules Massenet had at least two large scale historical works to his credit (Le roi de Lahore (Paris, 1877), and Le Cid (Paris, 1885). Polyeucte (Paris, 1878) by Charles Gounod certainly qualifies, as does Henry VIII by Camille Saint-Saens (Paris, 1883). In the meantime, Ernest Reyer had started to compose his Sigurd years before, but, unable to get it premiered in Paris, had to settle for La Monnaie in Brussels (1884). What may have been one of the last successful French grand operas was by an unfamiliar composer, Emile Paladilhe: Patrie (Paris, 1886). It was quite successful, running up nearly 100 performances in Paris, and quite a few in Belgium, where the action takes place, but seems to have disappeared without a trace.

Number of performances of French Grand Operas at the Opéra in Paris

(from première to 1962, as given by Stéphane Wolff, Albert Soubies and other sources)

La muette de Portici (Auber) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1828: 489 perf. last in 1882.
Guillaume Tell (Rossini) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1829: 911 perf. last in 1930.
Robert le diable (Meyerbeer) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1831: 751 perf. last in 1892; revived in 1984.
Gustave III (Auber) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1833: 168 perf. last in 1853
La Juive (Halévy) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1835: 534 perf. last in 1934; scheduled for revival in 2007.
Les Huguenots (Meyerbeer) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1836: 1120 perf.; last in 1936.
Les martyrs (Donizetti) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1840: 20 perf.; last in 1842.
La reine de Chypre (Halévy) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1841 152 perf.; last in 1878.
Charles VI (Halévy) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1843 61 perf.; last in 1850.
Dom Sebastien (Donizetti) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1843: 33 perf.; last in 1849.
Jérusalem (Verdi) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1847: 20 perf.; last in 1849.
Le prophète (Meyerbeer) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1849: 573 perf.; last in 1912.
Les vêpres siciliennes (Verdi) - Académie Royale de Musique, Paris, 1855: 81 perf.; last in 1864.
La reine de Saba (Gounod) - Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, 1862: 15 perf.; last in 1862.
L'Africaine (Meyerbeer) - Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, 1865: 484 perf.; last in 1902.
Don Carlos (Verdi) - Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, 1867: 81 perf.; last in 1864.
Hamlet (Thomas) - Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, 1868: 384 perf.; last in 1938.
Le roi de Lahore (Massenet) - Académie Nationale de Musique (Salle Garnier), Paris, 1877: 57 perf.; last in 1879.
Polyeucte (Gounod) - Académie Nationale de Musique (Salle Garnier), Paris, 1878: 29 perf.; last in 1879.
Henry VIII (Saint-Saens) - Académie Nationale de Musique (Salle Garnier), Paris, 1883: 87 perf.; last in 1919.
Le cid (Massenet) - Académie Nationale de Musique (Salle Garnier), Paris, 1885: 152 perf.; last in 1919.
Patrie ! (Paladilhe)- Académie Nationale de Musique (Salle Garnier), Paris, 1886: 93 perf.; last in 1919.

Decline of French Grand Opera

There are two distinctly separate aspects to the decline of French grand opera:

  • The fact that fewer and fewer new operas were being composed in the grand opera format, something that happened not only in France, but in other countries as well.
  • The slow disappearnce of works already composed from the repertory.

The two problems are closely interrelated. The first is due partly to the fact that the musical establishment (critics, opinion leaders, conductors, other composers, and other opera professionals) was much more vocal and much more influential than the paying audiences. Some, such as Claude Debussy, were embarrassed by what they saw as the excesses of French grand opera, while others, especially avant gardists, would demand more Wagner. As a result, several French composers, notably Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, and Gabriel Fauré, but others as well, would try to imitate Wagner with works like Fervaal, Le roi Arthus and Pénélope, respecively. It should be noted that the French Wagner imitations were generally much less successful, even in France, than the real thing. Steven Huebner's volume on French opera of the "fin du siécle" (see bibliography) provides an excellent discussion of these aspects.

The second was both a direct outgrowth of the first and the fact that as new operas are composed, room must be made for them in the repertory. Thus, the demand for the less popular works of the old repertory would lessen, and they would slowly disappear from the Opéra. But there were other theatres in Paris, such as the Gaité Lyrique which would engage artists of the first rank and give the old favorites. La Juive was performed there regularly, and, in 1917, they devoted an entire season to these older works. One of them was Halévy's La reine de Chypre starring the legendary John O'Sullivan.

There is reason to suspect that the decline of French grand opera at the Paris Opéra was at least partly due to the desire of the management to make it into an "International house", rather than strictly a French house, making it obligatory for them to stress including as much Wagner as possible in their repertory. This was not seen as being nearly as much of an imperative in opera houses outside Paris, hence it was possible for them to retain the old favorites longer. The same was true of many houses outside France, especially Vienna, where critics like Eduard Hanslick, who definitely preferred Meyerbeer to Wagner, still wielded a lot of influence. Combined with Gustav Mahler's great respect for La Juive, this resulted in the latter work being given in Vienna almost every season until the Nazis took control of Germany, and the Viennese could see the handwriting on the wall. The situation was similar in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, where Wagner, although popular, took longer to take hold

Today only a handful of these works survive, as their sheer length and the expense of staging them can still be prohibitive, even for the largest opera houses.

Italian Grand Opera (Opera Ballo)


One of the major differences between operatic customs in France (Paris) and Italy lies in the role of and attitude to the ballet. Parisian audiences invariably demanded a formal ballet, which would be an integral part of the opera, and, often, played a role in the plot. Italians also loved the ballet, but, in Italy, it was customary to provide a ballet independent of the opera, usually between the acts of the opera. Of course, the ballet might or might not be different between the premiere of an opera and subsequent stagings in the same or another city. The net result was that, if, as an example, Giuseppe Verdi wanted to stage his Il trovatore in French at the Opéra, he would have to add a ballet. This would not be necessary for performances in Italian at the Théâtre Italien.

Another result was that there were a number of Italian precursors to grand opera by composers like Giovanni Pacini and Saverio Mercadante that would exhibit some of the features of grand opera (especially spectacle), but no formal ballet that was an integral part of the opera. Two examples are L'ultimo giorno di Pompei by Giovanni Pacini (Naples, 1825) and Il bravo by Saverio Mercadante (Milan, 1839). The latter was probably heavily influenced by La Juive, which Mercadante had heard while in Paris. There also is an Italian opera by Gaetano Donizetti: L'assedio di Calais (1836) which does have a ballet, and according to William Ashbrook's liner notes for the Opera Rara recording was written with the French taste in mind.

Italian operas with their own ballet started to become relatively common in the late 1860s and 1870s. Some of these, such as Il Guarany by Antônio Carlos Gomes were actually designated as "opera ballo". Others, such as La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli were not, although they really had earned the term.

Early Italian "grand operas" (1860s)

There is a fascinating chapter on Italian grand opera by Fiamma Nicolodi in the Charlton "Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera". She discusses many of the Italian operas premiered between 1865 and 1893, and lists them on page 384 of the book. The composers most often mentioned are Antônio Carlos Gomes (5 operas), Filippo Marchetti (4 operas), and Amilcare Ponchielli (also 4 operas). Others are by Boito, Catalani, Puccini, Franchetti and Leoncavallo. Strangely, she mentions Aida only in passing, and La forza del destino not at all--could it be because one was premiered in Cairo and the other was premiered in 1862 in St. Petersburg?

Be that as it may, Forza did show some influence of French grand opera, but not enough to qualify as an Italian grand opera. Neither did Marchetti's Romeo e Giulietta or the first edition of Boito's Mefistofele. But both because of its designation as an "Opera ballo" and extensive ballet, I would consider Il Guarany as the earliest true Italian grand opera, although it is somewhat shorter than the French models.

Aïda and Other Italian Grand Operas of the 1870s

Although it did not even have its' premiere in Italy, Aïda was destined to be not only of the best known of all grand operas, but also one of the most beloved by audiences and critics alike. It has only four acts, but just about everything that is needed to make for a true grand opera is crammed into these four acts. A wonderful ballet, a superb grand march, which, in the writer's humble opinion has never been equalled, not even by Meyerbeer, and some wonderful dramatic situations. By a strange coincidence, the stage directions for the triumphal procession are almost an exact replica for those in a precursor composed 65 years earlier: La vestale by Gaspare Spontini, and the ending is similar to that of the other well known opera on the same subject: La vestale by Saverio Mercadante, with the heroine entombed alive.

To return to Aïda, it was a huge success, both at its world premiere in Cairo and its Italian premiere in Milan. It can hardly be surprising that many of the ensuing Italian operas tended to be strongly influenced by what Verdi accomplished in Aïda, resulting in an obvious increase in the scale of some of the works that followed it. This was particularly noticeable in key works by Gomes: Fosca (1873) and Salvator Rosa (1874), Marchetti (especially Gustavo Wasa and Ponchielli: I lituani (1874) and most importantly La Gioconda (Milan, 1876, revised 1880).

Fosca with its Venetian setting and self-sacrificing heroine almost seems like a warm-up for La Gioconda. Together with Il Guarany and Maria Tudor it was revived in Sofia some years ago with fine casts of young Bulgarian singers to be released in Brazil. Salvator Rosa was the fourth opera to be released as part of that series, although the recording originated near London.

There are plans to produce Gustavo Wasa at some point in the next few years, and judging from the two Marchetti operas already familiar, this could well be an interesting revival. I lituani has already been revived, first in Italy, then by the Lithuanian community in Chicago, and finally in Lithuania itself. Judging from the one available recording it is a first class work, although it does not quite come up to the level of La Gioconda. The latter, of course, has long been a staple of the repertory in Italy, Iberia, Latin America, and the United States. But it has been a rarity in Northern Europe, and is yet to have its first staging in Paris.

German Grand Opera

Very often, when German attempts at composing true grand operas are mentioned, the only composer to be mentioned seriously is Richard Wagner. This is often done with references to his Rienzi, sometimes with a comment (perhaps in jest, perhaps not-but there are those who rarely jest when it comes to belittling Meyerbeer) that this was Meyerbeer's greatest opera. It is to be hoped that it was made in jest, because if it were meant in earnest, it would be a sad reflection on the scholarship of the person making it. The fact is that Rienzi did have a successful premiere in Dresden, but that may well have been the only German city where it was successful, and even there it was soon passed in the number of performances by Le prophète.

But there were other German grand operas which are worth mentioning, including two by Wagner: Tannhäuser and Götterdämmerung, both of which are considered superior to Rienzi, although they do not quite come up to the level of Meyerbeer's best work.

German grand operas by other composers include a marvelous opera by Karl Goldmark: Die Königin von Saba (Vienna, 1875), Lachner's still unfamiliar Catharina Cornaro (Munich, 1841) and especially the long forgotten (except in Italy) Agnese von Hohenstaufen (Berlin, 1829, revised 1837) by Gaspare Spontini, although it is in only three acts. Another three act opera that should be mentioned is Ein Feldlager in Schlesien by Meyerbeer. Although the work in its entirety is officially a Singspiel, Act II has all the characteristics of grand opera, with a brief ballet and what may be the most elaborate march in all of opera. Actually this is a triple march, with three disparate groups blending together to form a stunning whole. This was eventually transferred in its entirety into the same composer's L'étoile du nord.


Bartlet, M Elizabeth C: Grand opéra in 'The New Grove Dictionary of Opera', ed. Stanley Sadie, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London, 1992 ISBN 0-333-73432-7

Charlton, David: The Cambridge Guide to Grand Opera ; Cambridge University Press, 2003

Gerhard, Anselm: The Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century; University of Chicago Press, 1998

Huebner, Steven: French Opera at the Fin de Siécle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style; Oxford University Press, 1999

Soubies, Albert: Soixante-sept Ans a L'Opéra en une Page, 1826-1893; Paris, 1893;

Wolff, Stephane: L'Opéra au Palais Garnier 1875-1962; Paris n.d. but probably 1963

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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