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Subject: Was the disappearance of Meyerbeer on opera stages the canary in the mine?
From: James Camner <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:James Camner <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 6 May 2017 10:49:08 -0700

text/plain (64 lines)

I have been reading that Meyerbeer is making something of a comeback in the
opera world. I guess it's good news, but I have mixed emotions about it.
For one thing, just about nobody can sing his music with anything
approaching the technique and style that is necessary. But since audiences
won't really have any idea of who Pol Plancon was or how he sang, that
might not be such a big deal, but what audiences will understand is how
pitiful such operas will appear if they are done on the cheap with silly
high concept productions. Alas, the only time I saw Les Huguenots on a
stage was a Regie style production at Bard several years ago which I did
not feel did Meyerbeer's masterpiece justice on any level..

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to see D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916)
at the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA. For those who are not aware,
Intolerance may have been the biggest and costliest film ever made, it was
certainly a peak of silent film spectacle and my seeing it for the first
time on a big screen with a good musical soundtrack and a well restored
print shown at the proper speed was a revelation. (Even on a small screen
Intolerence is well worth seeing and today's scary political climate makes
it painfully relevant. On the positive side, not the least of its pleasures
is the evergreen performance of young Constance Talmadge and the spritely
dancing and choreography of Ruth St. Denis)

As I sat enthralled, it occurred to me that Griffith's segments of the St.
Bartholomew massacre were recreating the kind of stagings that Les
Huguenots once enjoyed (and I have no doubt these opera stagings influenced
Griffith) and that this film and others like it instantly made such
elaborate stagings in opera theaters obsolete because it did it better and
more effectively. Interestingly, the last time the Metropolitan Opera
staged Les Huguenots was in 1915 on the road in Atlanta. It was the Met's
129th performance of an opera that had been a cornerstone of the repertory
and then it just disappeared. The cast is indicative of the erosion of
French opera style, only one French veteran - Leon Rothier was on hand in
Atlanta. The stars that long ago night were undoubtedly Frieda Hempel and
Giovanni Martinelli neither of whom were idiosyncratic stylists (though I
bet Hempel was superb). One year later Griffith released his film and that
was more or less that for Les Huguenots.

Though there was almost ten years more of opera masterpieces to come,
especially from Puccini, I believe the disappearance of Meyerbeer on stages
was the death knell for opera in its role as the principal provider of
spectacle and that film has usurped that place ever since.

James Camner

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