Thursday, June 1, 2017

Erato Releases an All-Meyerbeer Album with Soprano Diana Damrau

Almost exactly a month ago, Erato released its latest album featuring the soprano opera singer Diana Damrau:

courtesy of Unison Media

While Damrau was born in Germany, she has built her reputation primarily in the repertoire of nineteenth-century operas with librettos in Italian or French. Her new album consists entirely of selections from the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose path was remarkably parallel. Meyerbeer was born in Berlin into a wealthy Jewish family; but his career was established in Paris, significantly through his collaborations with the librettist Eugène Scribe.

However, if Meyerbeer and Scribe became the dynamic duo of opera during the first half of the nineteenth century, their shared reputation owes much to a less-acknowledged figure of that time. That man was Louis-Désiré Véron, who responded to the significant changes in the cultural context of Paris to transform opera from a distinguished cultural icon for the cognoscenti into a prodigiously successful marketable commodity for the bourgeoisie dominating the general public:

Charles Carey's engraving of Véron (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

When one reads William L. Crosten’s delightful book French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business, one quickly comes to appreciate Véron, very much in the same way we in the United States appreciate P. T. Barnum. Véron may not have known very much about opera (or any other genre of music, for that matter); but it could very well be that, without his prodigious talent for selling tickets, the Paris Opera would not have the worldwide reputation that continues to sustain it in the present day.

This is not to suggest that Véron interfered with the creative efforts of Meyerbeer and Scribe, at least not directly. Nevertheless, Meyerbeer could not have avoiding developing a keen sense of what would work and what would not; and, in all probability, Véron’s understanding of audience behavior may well have contributed to the refinement of that sense. Still, audiences change along with changes in historical context; and, if it is not easy to come by performances of Meyerbeer’s operas these days, one reason is probably that the formulas that worked for Véron and those who sailed under his flag have gone out of date. (Consulting the Performance Archive of the San Francisco Opera, I discovered that only one Meyerbeer-Scribe opera, L’Africaine, was ever performed and only in two seasons, 1972–1973 and 1988–1989.)

Thus, most of this new recording is likely to be unfamiliar to all but the most rabidly obsessive opera fans. Indeed, even many of those fans may appreciate the opportunity to take Meyerbeer is smaller doses, rather than by sitting through his five-act epics. To be fair Damrau’s execution of any one of those doses scores high on both technique and expressiveness. Aspiring sopranos are likely to learn much from this recording, particularly since the odds of being able to take a master class under Damrau are more than a little slim.

For music lovers, however, it would be fair to say that any track on this album is likely to be received as the most perfect piece of toffee one has ever encountered. However, as anyone familiar with Patience knows, having toffee for every meal of the day gets to be monotonous. Those who wish to avoid being saturated with toffee will do well to take this new album in small doses!

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