Robert Gibson reviews Robert Letellier’s works on French Grand Opera

Robert Letellier is Cambridge Scholars’ most prolific author, with over a hundred books on opera and religion to his name. We are delighted to share a new review of Robert’s works on French Grand Opera, expertly authored by Robert Gibson. Please continue reading for the full survey below. Gibson has also produced a fantastic timeline of events influencing the themes addressed in the Books on French Grand Opera by Robert Letellier – you can read and download the timeline for free by clicking here.

Religio-Political Concerns and Literary Symbolism in French Grand Opera

Robert Letellier’s  books on Meyerbeer’s grand operas  are carefully researched and illustrated.  Apart from the historical backgrounds and  composition histories, keywords such as Faith, Power, Love, Death and Myth which are explored by him in the operatic works of composers Meyerbeer and Halévy and librettist Scribe.  Their principal operas Robert le Diable, La Juive, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète and L’Africaine, all opened at the Paris Opéra.

Letellier observes that historically they explore the unified Christian faith of the Middle Ages as it progresses through the 15th C of dissent, the 16th C of division, the 17th C of conflict and the 18th C of new scientific, philosophical and political solutions, to the very different sceptical secular world of contemporary 19th century Europe.  Thus they are written by perceptive men from the perspective of the political turmoil of 19th C France.  A timeline is included at the end of this review.

Despite the secular opinions of revolutionary France, Gautier noted the centrality of religious themes to Meyerbeer, while Letellier opines that ‘Meyerbeer’s historical operas are not simply operas on historical subjects, but operas taking the historical process itself as their subject, with this finding focus particularly in thematic concerns relating to religion and the symbolism of the Bible’.  Nevertheless, when one considers that in 1793, revolutionary Paris held the Festival of Reason to celebrate the death of God, it is surprising that issues of religious faith are recurring operatic themes in 19th C French Grand Operas.  The fact that Christian theology in particular is so knowledgably addressed is even odder, considering only Scribe was Christian.

These operas however are not evangelical.  Letellier notes that the negative issues of faith are examined such as intolerance, antisemitism, dogmatism, dissent and miscegenation.  Nevertheless, influenced by the Romantic Movement, there is a yearning for a pastoral past of unity, peace and fulfilment, rather than forwards to the utopia of the idealists.   Sadly, the brutality of the past, such as the Inquisition, the Reformation, and slavery contribute to the dramas.  No doubt this would resonate with an audience familiar with the brutality of 19th century revolutionary Europe.  Meyerbeer, the faithful German Jew, was well aware of the danger of Prussian militarism and his works can be seen as a foreboding of 19th century nihilism.   Nevertheless, juxtaposed with brutality is the power of human sacrificial love that lasts through eternity, but also filial relationships of the now.

Robert le Diable: This is set in medieval Sicily.  It is based on the German myth of Faust and explores the struggle between the forces of light and darkness, a Manichean theme of good versus evil; the unified faith versus the devil.  Letellier devotes an essay to developing comparisons with Goethe’s Faust.

Robert is a knight born of a demonic father, personifying hell, but his half-sister Alice who clings to the Cross through the patronage of Mary, personifies the heavenly through her pastoral image of light and love.   Alice and Robert’s dead mother, constituents of the Body of Christ, pray for Robert’s soul.  Thus, ultimately, this opera is about God’s grace, determinative, all-pervasive and freely bestowed on Robert to provide metaphysical redemption.  Faith is affirmed, paradise regained and religion is triumphant.  Letellier concludes there is an almost scholastic adherence to orthodoxy.  This is a medieval work that George Sand described as a Catholic opera and Gautier as an opera of faith.

Les Huguenots: This depicts 16th C division as the unitary faith disintegrates, following the century of dissent.  Letellier observes that the medieval assurance in supernatural reality had been replaced by the renaissance and human reason.  Faith still existed but rational man now selects.  Rational man, unlike God, was the product of his time, race, class and society.  Thus in this opera history is viewed as a collective social process following the philosophical ideas of its time.  It is a work of the Renaissance that George Sands describes as a Protestant opera.

The Reformation had degenerated into the French wars of religion and France entered into religious and political turmoil.  In Les Huguenots the unified faith is no longer fighting the external evil, but rather the internal evil of the fellow Christian.  France had become polarised into Catholics and Huguenots, the former portrayed as arrogant and ruthless, the latter as brave individuals, one of whom manifests Calvinistic honour and probity that reflect the old fashioned knightly code.  Set at the time of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, it is about the forbidden love of a Huguenot man, Raoul, for a Catholic woman, Valentine.  This tragically results in the deaths of both.  Notably, Valentine’s death was through self-sacrificing love.  Raoul’s religious zealot servant Marcel is so moved that he responds by blessing Valentine from his heart.  Thus the conditioning of race, class and society is overcome by the enlightened humanity of Marcel and Valentine.  Courageous love that offers itself is greater than the principles of family and faith and endures unto and beyond death, to contribute to the new world order.  Thus Letellier writes that it demonstrates that man is not slave to determinism, be it of birth, class, nation or creed.  In contrast, Valentine’s father, an unyielding spirit, epitomises pride, prejudice and bigotry, obedient only to country and religion and thus presages the implementation of militaristic ‘final solutions’.  Meyerbeer raises the question: when both parties uphold a gospel of love and forgiveness, yet are prepared to kill, what is the role of faith?   Gautier suggests that this is an opera of examination.

Meyerbeer constructively identifies the positives of both Calvinist and Catholic Christian faiths. Thus, while condemning priests, blessing weapons or Protestants drowning out the Marian litany, the Catholic noble Comte de Nevers is depicted as a hero prepared to die for truth that puts people before ideas.  His wedding depicts the pastoral images of marriage, dancing and festivity as a counter image to religious hatred.

Intriguingly, Letellier notes that there is a parent child relationship with Valentine and her father, to complement the mother son relationship in Robert le Diable.

Le Prophéte: This opera further explores the century of division.  The setting is the Anabaptist revolt 1534-35.  The Hussites, a millenarian religious sect, seek to attack the oppressive nobility who have brought about social malaise.  Unfortunately, this sect, despite their Latin prayers and preaching on social justice, are manipulated by men who use faith and idealism for their self-aggrandizement.  Thus religion is entirely discredited.  It is without substance as it is about power, greed and treachery.  Nevertheless, charismatic John of Leyden who has real faith and concern for social justice becomes an Anabaptist leader in the belief that he is the Chosen one, the Son of God.  Using Old Testament imagery of militaristic triumphalism, he resorts to the uses of terror to bring about the chiliastic revolution.  However, prior to his assault on Münster, he reflects on the lost pastoral paradise.  The salvation emerges when John is told that he is to be betrayed by the very militarism of which he was a leader.  Totally disillusioned by militarism and religious fanaticism, John seeks to regain the pastoral through new spiritual means.  This is an example of Meyerbeer’s use of counter image.

In this opera we see the intertwining of ideology and religion, idealism and fanaticism.  It highlights the dangers of excess in reform and posits the helplessness of the individual determined by the socio political realities.  If the sure faith of Robert Diable was divided and dishonoured in Les Huguenots, in Le Prophète it was swept away by the rejection of creedal faith and dogmatic politics.  The world is becoming secular, and the mystique of history is de-glamourized, so that kings and nobility are replaced by the lives of ordinary men and women.  Nevertheless, if religion has been discredited, the reality and nobility of human love has not been.  Thus Gautier calls Le Prophéte an opera of illumination.

L’Africaine: This final opera by Meyerbeer, although based on the fictional events of the voyage in 1497-99 to India by Vasco da Gama, navigator and man of the renaissance, is like Les Huegenots a depiction of history.  However it is also based on the Lusiads, a Portuguese mythical poem about the meeting of old and new worlds.  Thus like Robert Le Diable, it is also influenced by myth.  It is, as Letellier states, a mixture of human actions and the supernatural, of ancient certainties and puzzling new discovery, effectively capturing the fusion of Portuguese history and exotic invention.  Mann opines that it reflects Meyerbeer’s exploratory ego, but sadly Meyerbeer died before it was performed.

Sélika an African queen who had been sold into captivity by slavers is rescued by Vasco and falls in love with him.  They go back to Portugal but Vasco falls foul of the Inquisition.  Sélika enables him to escape and he sails again for India.  A storm wrecks the ship and although most of the survivors get massacred by natives, Sélika saves him by marrying him on an island paradise with a Hindu temple.  Tragically Vasco loves Inez and Sélika, though heartbroken, in a sacrifice of love she forgives and lets Vasco and Inez leave, and then she dies.

This opera is an exploration of opposing worlds of religion, culture and politics.  There are issues such as colonialism, slavery, miscegenation, but there are also the recurring Meyerbeer themes of human forgiveness and sacrificial love.  Vasco in his love for Inez sacrifices life in the pastoral idyll.

Letellier writes that a Hegelian dialectic can be applied to Meyerbeer’s four great operas.  This starts from a unified medieval world view in Robert le Diable, moving through antithetical divisive partisan questioning in Les Huegenots, to the synthetic attainment of a freedom of the spirit in self-sacrifice and transcendence in Le Prophète.  This culminates in the exploration of the historical politics of colonialism and the mythical pursuit of spiritual liberty in L’Africaine.  However, one can also detect an account of the medieval certainties of hierarchical power and also faith as they move through questioning, to conflict and brutal tragedy.  But at the end we encounter the irrational that is love.

La Juive:  Though Scribe was still the librettist the composer was Fromental Halévy.  It was set in Constance where in 1414-18 a Council of the Church was taking place.  The plot is about a wealthy Jewish shopkeeper, Eleazor, who has a beautiful daughter, Rachel.  They are threatened by a mob, but a cardinal saves them.  There is a complex deceptive love plot the outcome of which is that innocent and self-sacrificing Rachel and her father are condemned to death by burning in a cauldron of burning oil.  The cardinal offers Eleazor his life for baptism, but he refuses.   Eleazor, before he dies, tells the cardinal that Rachel, who has just been killed, was his long lost daughter.

This opera examines the place of Jews in society, the nature of political power and religious freedom at a time when the determinism of birthright shaped our freedom of choice in society.  Evident are the themes of power, faith and retribution.  Intriguingly, Letellier identifies references to all seven Sacraments, Baptism, Eucharist, Ordination, Marriage, Reconciliation, Confirmation and Anointing of the sick.

Letellier’s description of Scribe suggests a thoughtful man of tolerance who recognised the dignity of mankind and the need for society to safeguard this. ‘Today more than ever, the essential role played by Scribe in making grand opera a successful medium for the communication of ideas to the thinking man is understood. It is recognized that he had liberal, Voltairean beliefs, supported a political centre‑ground and the concept of le juste milieu, and opposed the repressive censorship of the reactionary reigns of the Restoration monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X. In all the genres of his work, he regarded the theatre as a medium for the promotion of social change, even for the betterment or transformation of society. He defended the right to make controversial and provocative statements, free of government restraint and interference. He also has to be seen fully in the context of the Romantic movement, as one alert to the forces of political idealism, informed by a sense of historical scholarship (in the manner of Sir Walter Scott), but also responsive to nature and the pictorial influence of the plastic arts.’

The other operas of Meyerbeer:  In addition to the thematic discussions on the French Grand Operas, Letellier alludes to themes developed in Meyerbeer’s other operas in German and Italian as well as French.

Jephthas Gelübde: This is a German opera based on Judges 11 and is based on Old Testament biblical themes.

Crociato in Egitto: This is an Italian opera that takes place at the time of 6th Crusade 1228.   It is an exploration of two opposed cultures, Christianity and Islam which Meyerbeer also did with L’Africaine.  In doing so Old Testament teachings on election, providence, right belief, commitment, steadfastness and martyrdom are examined.

Margherita d’Anjou:  This is an Italian opera that Meyerbeer wrote with Romani .  It is based on legends surrounding the War of the Roses, later adopted by Shakespeare.  The heroine is Queen Margaret of Anjou,  the widow of King Henry VI, whom Richard Duke of Gloucester had murdered after Margaret had been defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury.  The role of Margaret is unusual for a female role as she had a reputation for aggression and ruthlessness.   This enables the development of themes associated with Italian Opera such as social division, exile, and the confusion of transgendered enterprise.

L’Etoile du Nord:  This is set about 1700 and is a military opera.  It relates the love of Peter the Great for Catherine.  The romance succeeds, but Catherine must disguise herself as a soldier and serve in the Russian camp, thus transgender issues emerge.  As counter image to the military there is an idyllic pastoral backdrop.

Le Pardon de Ploërmel: This is based on a gentle pastoral Breton folktale.  It considers the interplay of romance and realism, of faith and superstition.  Thus it has a resonance with Robert le Diable.  In addition, like Robert le Diable, it is also a parable of redemption

Letellier’s books examine how these Grand Operas reflect the political, social and religious changes since the Middle Ages.  In many ways they reflect tragedies of power, in all its forms, but always we can detect the self-sacrificing love of an individual.   Calvin stated love has to flow out and I think these operas demonstrate this grace.   Thus the self-sacrificing person becomes a saint and enters eternity.  As most of these are females a Marian dimension can be detected. Thus the secular revolutionary republican 19th C is juxtaposed to the supernatural medieval.  These operas, written nearly 200 years ago, despite their plots being based on historical tragic events, are ultimately about faith, hope and above all love. These books have a potential readership in excess of what their titles might suggest.

Authored by RF Gibson

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