Giacomo Meyerbeer’s operas captivated the entire musical world for more than four decades. A master of melody, his arias and ensembles provided fantastic vehicles for some of the greatest singing stylists of all time. Those who know Meyerbeer and revere what he did for the genre of grand opéra, also know music is poorer because his operas have been relegated to undeserved oblivion. The rise of Wagnerism as a quasi-religion and the change in the public’s taste for pageantry have both contributed to the eclipse of Meyerbeer’s operas more than any inherent lack of quality in his music. Not many today have heard much of it, for his operas are seldom presented and only Les Huguenots and Le prophète have been satisfactorily recorded. Opera companies do not risk the funds necessary to mount Meyerbeer’s immense musical spectacles, which could end up being box office fiascos. It’s always safer to put on yet another Ring cycle, and perhaps easier to cast. With the lessening of vocal standards and the consequent decline in accurate, pitch-dominant singing, only a handful of current singers possess both the technique and sense of style necessary to perform Meyerbeer’s music effectively. Nor are there many conductors today who truly understand the subtle concept of rubato, so essential in the performance of nineteenth century music.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, and the arrival of commercial recording, Meyerbeer had been dead for 36 years, and his reputation was already in serious decline. His operas were performed with decreasing frequency, although some well-known arias remained popular staples of concert programs into the 1930s. As audiences clamored for Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, and verismo, Meyerbeer’s operas receded into almost complete obscurity. Today, Meyerbeer’s music has become practically as unfamiliar to the public as Monteverdi’s had been a hundred years ago. Yet, there is a rich legacy of recordings that, if disseminated, might help to foster a renewed interest in Meyerbeer’s music and help to restore him to the place in musical history he deserves. This large body of historic Meyerbeer recordings has largely been ignored, much of it inaccessible to all but the most diligent collectors. Close examination of this legacy reveals a lost world of performance style, elements of which certainly hark back to Meyerbeer’s own time. No doubt singing styles were changing during the 35 years that separated Meyerbeer’s death from the emergence of commercial recording, but it seems equally apparent that singers who recorded between 1900 and 1915, schooled in the traditions of the “old music,” would have certainly retained at least some of the principles of style and technique that formed their basic musical education.
My fascination with Meyerbeer’s splendid accomplishment evolved through years of immersion in that lost world of historic recordings. I was introduced to it through an article by Vivian Liff and Richard Bebb, published in 1968 in the British magazine Opera. That pioneer effort surveyed an extensive group of vintage recordings from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, presenting well-informed evaluations. I also became aware of the exhaustive research on Meyerbeer recordings undertaken during the last 25 years by the scholar Richard Arsenty. The publication of his Meyerbeer discography is eagerly anticipated by aficionados.
Eventually I set myself a goal – to find and publish at least one acoustic (pre-1925) recording of every Meyerbeer aria and ensemble, with particular emphasis on those sung in French, feeling that these collected recordings would prove valuable to scholars and vocal enthusiasts alike. Here is the result, a volume containing one example of every recorded Meyerbeer excerpt from his first three operas, written for the Paris Opera: Robert le diable, Les Huguenots, and Le prophète. I was astonished to discover that I needed to look no further than 1913 to find the requisite recordings.
This compilation is in two parts, the first and larger section comprising the selection of excerpts from the three named operas. My preferred choice was to use recordings that had been sung in French, as well as those containing as complete a version of the aria or ensemble as possible. Where no French language recording existed, I included Italian and German performances. I have attempted to hear as many versions as possible before making decisions, since many of these excerpts were recorded by numerous singers, with varying success. It should be pointed out, however, that there are two excerpts that were recorded only once in French: Alice’s Act 3 aria from Robert le diable; and Marcel’s short aria in Act 5 of Les Huguenots. There are other excerpts for which there are apparently no French recordings; indeed, these were recorded only once in any language: Nevers’s short extract from Les Huguenots, Act 3; and Fidès’s “Air de l’imprécation” in Act 4 of Le prophète. I have included several different singers in the same roles to illustrate the variety of fine French artists singing at that time. Some of these singers are completely unknown today, their first names not even listed in biographical dictionaries. Thanks to the primary research done by Luc Bourrousse, we are able to publish newly-discovered information about many of the obscure artists heard here. The second section of this compilation is an appendix of “extra” recordings, well-known and classic renditions sung in French, German, Italian, and Russian that many connoisseurs feel could not possibly have been omitted from any such compendium. Among these treasures is the controversial Mapleson cylinder, which contains the end of the Queen’s aria from Les Huguenots. It is sung by a soprano with a very straight tone and good technique. When this recording was first published in the 1930s, it was ascribed to Nellie Melba, even though the cylinder and box bore no identification. After all, it does sound remarkably like Melba and who else could it be? There are those, however, who now strongly contest this attribution, contending that the singer is actually Suzanne Adams. I myself had always been in the Melba camp, but the more carefully I listen to the recording, the less convinced I have become. There are certain aspects in the intonation and vibration of the voice that simply do not jibe with what I hear on Melba’s 1904 G&T recordings. Yet to me, neither does the voice sound quite like Suzanne Adams, and Adams published recordings do not suggest that she possessed a voice of such brilliance. We have included a short biographical sketch of Suzanne Adams for those who are unfamiliar with her, but we will probably never know whose voice it truly is. Two other remarkable cylinder recordings are included in this appendix: “Plus blanche” from Les Huguenots sung by Albert Vaguet with Pierre Monteux playing the viola obbligato, his only recording as a violist; and “Noble Signore” from the same opera sung by Eugenia Mantelli, likely the earliest recording of a Meyerbeer aria.
The selection of recordings contained in this volume is entirely my own. It is not necessarily an attempt to present “the greatest Meyerbeer recordings,” although many are just that. Some were chosen because they contain more of the score’s music than other recordings of the same excerpts, while a few were chosen because they were particularly well-recorded. The task was daunting, for there were more than a hundred versions of “Plus blanche” from which to choose, while 63 different singers made recordings of “Piff! Paff!”. From Le prophète, 67 artists recorded “Ah, mon fils.” Some of the recordings presented here are exceedingly rare, but with the help of many, we were able to locate every recording I had wanted to use. Because of time constraints, orchestral interludes and ballet music have not been included. I take full responsibility for this decision. Volume 2 will cover, in the same format, Meyerbeer’s three other French operas, L’étoile du nord, Le pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah), and L’Africaine.
Meyerbeer on Record
Giacomo Meyerbeer was one of the most important composers in Paris during the mid-1800s. He is considered the founder of the French Grand Opera and his works dominated the French stage. Meyerbeer changed the face of opera in Paris, and yet, much criticism is directed toward him and much of his music is seldom heard today. This 3-CD set is the first of two volumes, which together will honor Meyerbeer and reacquaint the listener with his marvelous music and some very interesting singing. These two volumes will contain at least one version of every recorded Meyerbeer excerpt sung by French singers. They include cylinders and discs from the earliest days of recorded sound and continue through the 1930s. This compilation is not only an interesting way of organizing important and lovely French singing but gives a rare and extensive look into this style of singing. Volume one will feature recordings from Meyerbeer's first three operas written for Paris: Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, and Le Prophète.