During the night of October 28, 1873, the Salle Le Peletier, then the home of the Opéra de Paris, caught fire. It burned to the ground in just over twenty-four hours. Though the fire destroyed everything left in the building, the Opéra’s librarian and a prompter, both working late, saved much of its priceless collection of scores, manuscripts, papers, scenery designs, and advertisements.
It was a suitably theatrical end to the lively period of “grand opéra”—that potent, five-act extravaganza of a form, loosely based on historical plots and barely disguising the simmering politics and prejudices of the day. Everything about the genre was supersized: scores, orchestras, acting, costumes, voices, ballet scenes, and spectacular effects. It was the closest thing the nineteenth century had to the Hollywood blockbuster, and its sensational early years featured its stars’ deaths, suicides, raucous rivalries, affairs of the heart, and hilarious dealings with the press and politicians.
Though its landmark works—Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836), and Le Prophète (1849); Fromental Halévy’s La Juive (1835) and La Reine de Chypre (1841); and Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1828)—were still frequently played at the end of the nineteenth century, they totally disappeared in the twentieth. Changing taste (think Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini), cost, and critical enmity all played their part. For decades, grand opéras were treated as fabulous mythological creatures best left slumbering, but in recent years several species have been revived, allowing us once again to experience their captivating qualities. The new exhibition “Le Grand Opéra 1828–1867: Le Spectacle de l’Histoire,” on display at the Palais Garnier and featuring many of the materials saved from the Le Peletier fire, is quirky, tantalizing, and of considerable interest.
Though the curators have dated grand opéra from 1828 with the première of La Muette (whose political sentiments helped spark at least one European revolution), its antecedents reach back a little further, at least to Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale (1807). Rossini’s 1827 Moïse et Pharaon, the Gallicized version of his Italian original, dazzled Parisian audiences with its last-act depiction of Pharaoh being engulfed by the Red Sea. La Muette featured a mute heroine whose dance-in-lieu-of-speech bit would charm generations of opera-goers. But the genre only exploded when Louis-Désiré Véron took over the Opéra from 1831 to 1835, staging Meyerbeer’s fabulously successful Robert le Diable and other monumental works. Dozens of composers, including Donizetti, Verdi, Berlioz, Gounod, and Wagner, flocked to the Salle Le Peletier hoping to catch a little of Robert’s magic for themselves.
The exhibition features several original scores and stage-blocking diagrams for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829) and for Auber’s La Muette and Gustave III (1833). Charles Cambon’s costume sketches for Verdi’s Jérusalem (1847) and Alfred Albert’s for Don Carlos (1867) are displayed mere inches before us. Pierre-Luc-Charles Ciceri’s legendary designs for Robert—which include the moonlit Ballet of the Nuns scene—and the watercolors for La Muette’s famous volcano episode are colorful and vivid. Materials from the great choreographers Lucien Petipa and Filippo Taglioni are on display. The two-valve trumpet commissioned by Meyerbeer for Robert sits close to three of the undetonated little grenades from the attempted assassination of Napoléon III on his way to a performance of Guillaume Tell. A high point of the exhibition is its portrait display of the period’s great singers: the ill-fated tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who jumped out a window when his voice failed, and Gilbert Duprez, who replaced him; the sterling baritone Henri-Bernard Dabadie and the suave bass Nicolas-Prosper Levasseur; Berlioz’s nemesis Rosine Stoltz; and the lovely Cornélie Falcon, who also lost her voice young but survived to a ripe old age notwithstanding, can all be seen.
One can easily imagine an exhibition devoted exclusively to any one of the featured categories of singers, librettists, composers, and set designers. The Salle Le Peletier fire, along with separate conflagrations that destroyed the Opéra’s collection of sets and costumes, might make that difficult, but the Palais Garnier’s eclectic presentation is a good start. The catalogue (€39) touches lightly on the exhibition’s themes. Admission (€14) is included in the general visitors’ daytime entry fee.