If the musical night sky could be said to be littered with the glittering trails of falling stars, perhaps no single composer has fallen quite so far and so fast as Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864), or Giacomo Meyerbeer as he came to be known.
The darling of the Paris Opéra for 25 years as a result of the enduring success of Robert le Diable with its infamous ballet in which a graveyard full of deceased nuns rise up to cavort in the moonlight, the German-born Meyerbeer went on to dominate the French opera scene with a string of romantic and historical blockbusters such as L’Africaine (where the heroine expires from the scent of a deadly tropical tree), Les Huguenots (in which the three principals are simultaneously shot by a chorus of murderers), and Le Prophète (where the final scene calls for the entire cast to be blown up with gunpowder!).
Within a decade of his demise, however, Meyerbeer began to suffer an almost total eclipse, a victim of his over-the-top plots, the new music of Wagner and his followers, and, some would suggest, prey to the nasty brand of anti-Semitism that came to a head in the dying days of fin de siècle France. That the Nazis banned his music hardly helped his cause in the 20th century, and it has only been thanks to the dogged work of singers and maestros such as Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge that a revival in his fortunes began to occur during the 1970s and 80s.
Recent decades have also seen a renewed interest in his earlier works, and this latest recital disc from Diana Damrau is particularly welcome for its inclusion of arias from his German period – think Weber with a hint of Beethoven – and his significant Italian phase where, in the epic and underrated Il Crociato in Egitto, Meyerbeer arguably out Rossini-ed Rossini. His maddeningly tuneful French comic operas are also well represented here.
Damrau admits to having been fascinated with Meyerbeer from her student days, and the combination of her trademark dazzling coloratura and her maturing lyric soprano voice makes her an ideal advocate for arias written for what was a developing 19th-century voice-type, the chanteuse légère à roulade. Berthe’s catchy Mon coeur s’élance et palpite from Le Prophète is a perfect example requiring both agility and heft. Damrau’s delicate touching in at the top is a thing of great beauty. She’s equally masterful in Palmide’s dextrous Con qual gioia le catene from Il Crociato and the famous Ombre légère from Dinorah where the loopy heroine sings to her shadow.
Even better though are the lyric arias from Robert le Diable – Isabelle’s beguiling Robert, toi que j’aime with its ravishing oboe and harp underpin – and Ô beau pays de la Touraine from Les Huguenots, both of which show the creamier side of Damrau’s voice and offer room for the kind of emotional investment that some of the more twittery arias do not.
The Lyon Opéra Orchestra and Chorus under Emmanuel Villaume pace everything perfectly, revelling in Meyerbeer’s colourful orchestrations, while Erato’s engineering is well-nigh perfect, making the best possible case for a composer whose star just inched a little higher in opera’s historical firmament.
Diana Damrau’s Meyerbeer: Grand Opera is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in August. Read our interview with Damrau here.