It is indeed Meyerbeer’s diaries and correspondence, quoted on practically every page of the present book, that constitute Letellier’s guiding thread through the creative life of this most meticulous composer. We learn in detail of the travels he undertook to further his education in France, England and Italy. Meyerbeer was a compulsive theatre-goer, always curious to hear what his colleagues were doing and eager to meet new singing talent; he was convinced that ‘only from good singers can one learn to write well for the voice’. He remained in Italy for ten years, there introducing six operas that chart his increasing independence from Rossinian models. Emma di Resburgo, premiered at Venice’s Teatro di San Benedetto in June 1819, just two months after Rossini’s Eduardo e Cristina had opened in the same house, more than held its own in the audience’s favour. The two almost exact contemporaries became friends, and it was Rossini—as director of the Théâtre-Italien—who first invited Meyerbeer to come to Paris, the city that would become his main centre of activities. Here he would compose and introduce the operas for which he is today best remembered: Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophète (1849), L’Étoile du nord (1854), Dinorah (1859) and L’Africaine/Vasco de Gama (premiered posthumously in 1865). In between he returned regularly to his native Berlin. Soon after his accession to the Prussian throne, Friedrich Wilhelm IV appointed Meyerbeer as Generalmusikdirektor to his Court, commissioning from him the festival opera Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (1844) and supporting the performance of Struensee (1846), a previously banned play by the composer’s late brother Michael Beer, featuring Meyerbeer’s incidental music.
Always following Meyerbeer’s letters and diaries, which he complements with contemporary press cuttings and multiple
other testimonies, everything copiously commented upon, Letellier offers invaluable insights into Meyerbeer’s creative processes, and also into his dealings with the practicalities of theatre life. A few weeks before the first night of Les Huguenots we see him juggling a large number of balls: ‘Tell the singers that journalists will be present. To Brodt about the machinery. Duponchel: that the bells should be repaired. Cut the Morceau d’ensemble […] to give the chorus time to change. […] Habeneck: when will we meet with [the viola d’amore player] Urhan about the romance? […] Alteration for Serda [the creator of the role of St Bris] in Act 4.’ The composer comes across as something of a control freak who left nothing to chance.
Additionally, he was permanently insecure in the face of criticism; the fear of failure didn’t leave him, even when he was the most celebrated composer in the world. When Il crociato in Egitto was revived in Paris in 1860 in spite of his efforts to prevent it, he wrote that the ‘many wounding observations about Crociato in the French papers made it impossible for me to work’. Letellier retells Wagner’s notorious volte-face regarding Meyerbeer exclusively from the latter’s perspective; in November 1851, he was ‘deeply demoralized’ at learning that Wagner had ‘vehemently attacked me in his new book on the future of opera’ (Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft), and recalls an older, less-known text by Wagner (Über dem Standpunkt der Musik Meyerbeers) in which he praises him ‘extravagantly’.
For all his anxious vulnerability, Meyerbeer was self-assured enough to send back a snuff box given to him by the King of Württemberg as reward for the dedication of Dinorah, a present that he considered demeaning (the Döhring biography includes a similar story that happened a decade earlier in Berlin, when the King of Prussia could eventually be
Opera, May 2021