The Baltimore Opera Co. must perform Meyerbeer

May 19, 2000|By Eugene Blum

IN HIS review of the Baltimore Opera Company's presentation of Wagner's "Tannhauser" at the Lyric, J.D. Considine made a reference to the opera's internal and emotional depth in what he described as basically a morality play.

But while describing the opera's tale of faith and redemption and lauding the majesty of its music, he could just as well have been describing an earlier opera called "Robert le Diable," by Giacomo Meyerbeer, once a towering figure in the world of opera.

What brought that association to mind was a recent performance I attended of the Meyerbeer opera at the state opera house in Berlin, where it received a standing ovation for 10 minutes. I can now understand why he was honored by the kings and queens of Europe, admired by its composers, scholars and critics, and why France, England and The Netherlands bestowed upon him memberships in the Legion of Honor, the Royal Academy and the Order of the Oak Crown, respectively.

There are those who say it was Wagner's relentless anti-Semitic campaign spanning more than 30 years that drove Meyerbeer from public favor. Admirers of Wagner's music, however, deny it, saying instead it was simply a change of taste by the opera-going public.

Either way, it's a debate that today's opera aficionados find difficult to understand, since the work has not been performed in the United States since 1883 and some of his other operas, save a 1979 quicky of "Le ProphM-hte," haven't been performed for 50 to 70 years.

The Baltimore Opera Company, seemingly in an adventurous mood the past few years, has brought in a number of Wagner operas with leading Metropolitan performers.

Now might be just the right time for it to present back-to-back performances of Wagner and Meyerbeer operas in an effort to let the audiences judge for themselves the merits of each composer. "Tannhauser" and "Robert le Diable" would have been a perfect match, since they have numerous similarities immediately recognizable to a viewing audience.

Robert, described as one of the greatest operatic successes of all time by the Scribners Encyclopedia of Opera, revolutionized the opera world. Chopin, after attending the premier wrote, "If ever magnificence was seen in the theater, I doubt if it reached the level of splendor shown in `Robert le Diable' ... It is a masterpiece ... Meyerbeer has made himself immortal."

Bizet, writing from Rome, placed Meyerbeer in the same category as Beethoven and Michaelangelo, and Liszt regarded him as having inaugurated a "new epoch in operatic writing." Even Wagner called the work, at the time, "indestructible."

The Meyerbeer operas, which were among Caruso's favorites, played on just about every Victrola in the nation at one time, and are again being recognized in Europe, with the performances in major venues such as Berlin, Paris, Prague and Florence.

In stretching its adventuresome spirit, the Baltimore Opera Company could take the lead in bringing Meyerbeer back to this country, allowing modern audiences to judge the works for themselves rather than taking the word of others, most of whom had never seen a performance.

I would suggest that the decision-makers of the company attend a performance of the Staatsoper's Robert and judge for themselves its popularity. Staging such a performance would certainly bring to the BOC the international recognition it deserves.

Eugene Blum is working on a political biography of Richard Wagner.

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