The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Aspects of Romantic opera

  27th April 2022

27th April 2022

Perhaps the most public manifestation of musical Romanticism was in the opera houses of Europe, from the many courtly and municipal opera houses of Germany and Italy to the grand theatres of France and Russia. Ever since opera had developed from a court occasion for a select, aristocratic elite to an entertainment for the wider public, the draw of its combination of music, drama and scenic spectacle had been immense – akin to the advent of movies and then television in the 20th century. And its capacity to tackle a huge variety of themes, from classical myth to recent history, from the realistic to the fantastic, ensured it a wide following wherever it became established. Fashions and audience tastes changed, but those composers and librettists who could follow or - better still - anticipate and create trends were rewarded with huge public enthusiasm (however transitory) for their work.

Romantic opera had its origins in France and Germany, with Cherubini, Auber and (above all) Weber laying its foundations. But it was Gioachino Rossini who, in the 1810s and 20s, laid the development of Italian bel canto, first in northern and central Italy, then in Vienna and London, and finally in Paris where, after the success of his 1829 grand opera Guillaume Tell (based on Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 drama Wilhelm Tell), he retired from large-scale composition at the age of 37, with another four decades of life ahead of him. During his relatively brief but extraordinarily influential career as an opera composer, he wrote in the major Italian genres of the time – opera buffa and opera seria – with a particular penchant for comic opera (L’italiana in Algeri, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola), but also tackling such Romantic favourites as Shakespeare (Otello, 1816) and Walter Scott (La donna del lago, 1819 - just nine years after the publication of Scott’s narrative poem).

Rossini’s output, though uneven, at its best fizzes with energy and invention, but it also set the standard for Italian bel canto which was further developed by his compatriots Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. The shorter-lived Bellini excelled in the serious genres of melodramma and tragedia lirica, often to libretti after French models, the high point of which is undoubtedly the classically-themed Norma (1831). Donizetti’s vast operatic output encompassed comic, tragic and historical themes, including French grand opera, among which the tragic Lucrezia Borgia (1833, after Victor Hugo) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835, after Scott), the comic L’elisir d'amore (1832) and La Fille du regiment (1840) are highlights.

Donizetti was a significant influence on the young Verdi, whose output had an unmistakably Italian identity even when treating such a subject as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1847) – the Bard’s oeuvre having become common international property since the Romantic revival of interest in his works. Italian opera is normally regarded as somewhat apart from mainstream Romanticism, yet Verdi’s operatic subjects – largely historical, with the famous biblical exception of Nabucco – have impeccable Romantic credentials. Even though there is a strong populist element to them (Verdi knew his audience as few other composers have), the tension between the public and the personal – a cornerstone of Romantic art – is keenly highlighted, even amid the grand display of Aida (1871) and the textually tortuous but psychologically powerful Don Carlos (1867, after Schiller).

For all Verdi’s dalliances with French grand opera, it the two great masterpieces of his old age, both to libretti by Arrigo Boito on Shakespearean models – Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) – that manage to transcend national boundaries and fashions and approach the urgency of through-composed music drama. Though never quite relinquishing the last faint vestiges of ‘number opera’, they have a succinctness that looks beyond the next generation of Italians in the verismo school and toward the compactness of Janáček.

The sprawling canvases of French grand opera, represented at their best (if one discounts Verdi) by Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836) and Le Prophète (1849), were a significant influence on the young Richard Wagner, whose third opera Rienzi (1842) Meyerbeer did much to smooth the path for in his capacity as Prussian Court Kapellmeister. Wagner later rejected the classically-themed Rienzi and its two predecessors, as well as the influence of Meyerbeer, and immersed himself in German and Nordic myth and legend. While his Romantic operas Der fliegende Holländer (1843), Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850) all contain undeniable traces of ‘number opera’, in their emphatic focus on redemption through love they pave the way for his late, self-styled ‘music dramas’ which rely on an intricate web of leitmotives to prop up a highly fluid approach to traditional harmony – most notable in Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Parsifal (1882).

Wagner’s late works, with their emphasis on the individual hero as a vehicle of redemption, became the subject of increasingly suspect adulation (culminating, of course, in the 1930s and 40s), although they are anything but popular crowd-pleasers in the Italianate mould. But their musical influence, particularly on the Francophone composers who flocked to the early Bayreuth festivals, was enormous, and their anticipation of the worlds of Symbolism and Expressionism, as well as the gradual disintegration of the certainties of traditional tonality, place them as crucial transitional works (and even instigators) in the shaping of musical modernism. Wagner’s own writings cite Beethoven and Schopenhauer – key figures in the early development of Romanticism – as his major influences. How fitting (or, perhaps, ironic) that he in turn should be one of those to read its last rites…

A few recommended recordings:
Marschner - Der Vampyr  C5184
Rossini - Guillaume Tell  6407632
Bellini - Norma  OA1247D / OABD7225D
Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor  4783045
Verdi - Macbeth  4497322
Verdi - Don Carlos  9029581793
Meyerbeer - Les Huguenots  2564662125
Wagner - Lohengrin  2564690256
Wagner - Tristan und Isolde  E4775355

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