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  • The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera
  • Lesley A. Wright (bio)
The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera Edited by David CharltonCambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003517 pages, $70.00

Skillfully edited by David Charlton, who is widely known for his expertise in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French opera, this sixth volume in the Cambridge Companion series on specific musical topics features essays by an impressive group of European and American scholars, plus a chapter by renowned director David Pountney. Pountney's dynamic contribution (chapter 8) focuses on his own imaginative productions of grand operas: Wagner's problematic Rienzi and Rossini's masterful Guillaume Tell. Except for the few enduring masterpieces like Tell, he sees problems in reviving representatives of a genre that inspires in him "the same kind of ironic affection that we commonly reserve for those magnificent edifices of Hollywood high camp," though he also thinks that with "sheer nerve to go for scale, display and unabashed sentimentality," grand opera can provide a "spectacular vehicle" (p. 146).

Though taking into account a vast array of recent scholarship, the essays implicitly acknowledge the Grove Dictionary (5th ed.) definition of "grand opéra" that Charlton quotes near the beginning of his preface: "a nineteenth-century French type . . . [containing] a serious, often tragic subject of an epic or historical nature, the use of the chorus in action, the inclusion of a ballet, at least one spectacular scene with elaborate writing for the solo and choral voices in concert and (normally) division into five acts" (p. xiii). Yet he and others also acknowledge the slipperiness of the term. Charlton describes the genre as a "nexus of properties: dramatic, formal, vocal" that developed over time, dominant in the first half of the nineteenth century but exerting influence through the end of the century (p. 1). Herbert Schneider (chapter 10) notes that the term is not generic nor does it have "secure historical credentials," though it is a "not very precisely definable [End Page 186] subspecies of nineteenth-century opera that is French and influenced by France" (p. 168). He includes definitions by nineteenth-century figures (the librettist Scribe, the director Véron, and the critic Castil-Blaze) and summarizes determinant factors suggested by Gilles de Van before proceeding with his own insightful examination of textual/musical structures in the four Auber/Scribe grands opéras, beginning with La muette de Portici. Steven Huebner (chapter 15) opens his essay with the critic Victor Wilder's amusing characterization of grand opera as an "indigestible dish" (p. 291) and continues with a fascinating discussion of Massenet's Le Cid and Paladilhe's Patrie! richly contextualized within an overview of issues and repertory in later nineteenth-century France. He also notes that "in grand opera doing great things meant an aesthetic of monumentality achieved through the allotment of considerable weight—scenic, dramaturgical and musical—to the public and political side of the plot, although conventionally fused with an equally well-elaborated private dimension" (p. 298).

Following Charlton's introduction are four sections (with Pountney's essay a section unto itself): six chapters deal with grand opera's resources, seven with the grand operas produced for Paris, and five with the assimilation of French grand operas, including the evidence of their influence in Wagner's output and in countries outside of France. To open the first section Hervé Lacombe (chapter 2) conducts an absorbing tour of the complicated machine that was the Paris Opéra, replete with insights on its workings. Nicholas White (chapter 3) stresses the hybridity of grand opera and the secondary status of the poetic narrative, but then launches into a nice survey of the libretti of the principal grand operas associated with Paris. Simon Williams (chapter 4) skillfully places the spectacle of grand opera within developments in nineteenth-century theater. "The chorus puts the 'grand' into grand opera," declares James Parakilas to open chapter 5 (p. 76). He draws in his reader with an expertly presented commentary on scenes that feature this essential resource—the conspiracies, processions and ceremonies, and hymns of true believers. Highlighting the importance of ballet-pantomime and its relationship to the role of dance in grand opera, Marian...


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