Another popular type of Opera that emerged a couple of decades after the Bel Canto genre, which was also rather a bad thing for the form in the big scheme of things, was what they used to call Grand Opera. It sprung from the remains of the other major element of Baroque Opera Seria…its massive use of spectacle (which a lot of modern theater snobs would be amazed to find out the extent of…some of the Operas from both these fields made the modern Pop-Opera spectacles look downright understated by comparison). With a heavy emphasis on spectacular visuals and choreography and a penchant for historical epics, as well as a seemingly unbreakable rule of always including a lavish second-act ballet, it was primarily a French phenomenon, although several Italian composers also had success with it. The biggest problems with this format were its emphasis on spectacle over music and story (imagine a whole genre of Starlight Expresses), and the fact that its main practitioners were the team of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Eugene Scribe.
Meyerbeer, the biggest opera composer of his era, had his moments…one of his operas, The Huguenots, is almost entirely comprised of those moments, and would probably still be popular today if it were not so hard to stage and cast (it was designed as a kind of all-star extravaganza, and as a result requires, among other things, no fewer than seven star-level vocalists). Indeed, it’s worth noting that even Richard Wagner, whose hatred and jealousy of Meyerbeer were so great that they were what initially fueled the lifelong, obsessive antisemitism for which he is so notorious, felt compelled to say some positive things about individual numbers in The Huguenots. Still, too much of Meyerbeer’s material tended to be dull and perfunctory, and he wasn’t noted for his subtlety. Some have compared him to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but he didn’t approach Webber’s gifts for melody and emotion even on his best days.
As for Scribe, he ran a ‘libretto factory’…much the same model that Alexander Dumas used, except instead of literary masterpieces, it turned out clone librettos much like the clone screenplays used in the lower grades of Hollywood today. These works endlessly recycled the same formulas, heavy on shock value, with a particularly odd fixation on people accidentally killing their own family members (Meyerbeer seems to have had a particular fondness for Scribe-factory librettos about Christians killing other Christians over doctrinal disputes, probably understandable given that he was Jewish in 19th century Europe and thus had presumably been treated like dirt by bigoted Christians all his life).
Even Grand Opera librettos not by Scribe tended to use his formulas…witness Ponchielli’s La Giaconda, which had an early-career libretto by legendary librettist Arrigo Boito. Boito would eventually write some of the greatest opera libretti of all time, but his work on La Giaconda is the same kind of cartoonish bloodbath Scribe generally produced (the last line of the Opera is literally “Oh, by the way, I killed your mother!”), and has perpetually lamed an opera with otherwise wonderful music. This is a big part of why the best-known piece from La Giaconda is the easily-excerpted ballet, “The Dance of the Hours”, which is more often performed on its own at the ballet and concert hall than heard in the context of the whole Opera.
Surprisingly few Operas based on the Grand Opera model are still performed regularly, in part because they tend to be extremely expensive to produce. Even Rossini’s attempt at the genre, William Tell, which has perhaps the most famous overture in all of Opera, is rarely seen in the modern Opera house, and when it is it often consists only of its particularly admired second act divorced from the rest of the five-hour complete Opera. Granted, the aforementioned La Giaconda, while it is gradually losing ground these days, is still very much in evidence, and Camille Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah, one of the classier and subtler works in this field, is still reasonably popular. Saint-Saens was a kind of French Mendelssohn, perennially reserved and graceful, although these very qualities, combined with the fact that the piece was originally designed to be an Oratorio rather than an Opera, result in a musically lovely but dramatically rather tepid piece.
But really, the only two works in this style that rank among the top echelon of the modern Opera scene are two subversions of the form by (again) Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, a figure who seems to pop up in virtually every discussion of the artistic progress of 19th-Century Opera.
Verdi had made an earlier attempt at Grand Opera years before these works with the disappointing Il Vespri Siciliani. Scribe provided the libretto; Verdi apparently accepted it on the assumption that it was a first draft, and wound up trying to get out of his contract once he realized that Scribe intended it to be the only draft. The result was an absolute trainwreck, with an uneven score, unappealing characters, a completely out-of-place ballet sequence that wound up being far more popular than the Opera itself, some covert racism toward Italians that surely displeased Verdi (an Italian himself), and a climax so outrageously gory that it even managed to horrify Richard Wagner. Verdi seemed to have learned his lesson from the experience, however, and when he revisited the Grand Opera genre, he made sure it was on his own terms.
The first of his two mature works in the field, called Don Carlos in France and Don Carlo in Italy, is a messy, sprawling historical epic that nonetheless has a monumental emotional impact. It took a genre that had been mostly about spectacle and entertainment even at its most tragic, and used it to portray all of human endeavor as a tapestry of despair. Told as a series of intense, confrontational duets punctuated by anguished musical soliloquies and a handful of angry crowd scenes, it builds up an immense sense of anticipation and foreboding only to fade out on a deliberately anticlimactic and highly ambiguous ending in which all the possible outcomes are nonetheless tragic.
Don Carlos is also another early examples of the modular score: like Show Boat, Cabaret, and Jekyll & Hyde after it, there is no one definitive version of the score to this Opera. Quite apart from having two different librettos in both French and Italian, the entire score would take far too long to perform in one sitting, so every production picks and chooses which portions to include, with one popular version even omitting the entire first act.
The second of Verdi’s Grand Opera subversions, Aida, is the opposite, tight and focused, with the monumental scope of two nations at war but ultimately centered around just three characters: two proud princesses, locked in conflict but more alike than either of them would care to admit, and the valiant but strangely passive war hero they both love.
The score is one of the most accessible in the Opera canon, but is also deceptively complex, with many of the free-form character monologues and dialogues that had become Verdi’s trademark by then. The Opera contains perhaps the most epic ensemble scene in all of Opera in its second act, but even at that moment it never loses sight of the three true principles.
In an interesting twist, the “villainess”, Amneris, for all her frequent histrionic rages, is ultimately quite sympathetic; you feel for her just as deeply as you do Aida or Radames. Indeed, in a way she is more of a tragic figure than either of them: not only does she have to live with her grief and guilt while the other two are united in death, but she doesn’t even get the consolation of knowing she was loved back. Verdi had hinted at this kind of antivillain character before, as when he gave Il Trovatore’s antagonist the Count de Luna a breathtakingly beautiful love aria to remind us that from his own perspective, he wasn’t really a bad guy. Still, he had never done so this overtly before in his career, and indeed, never would again, as the first of his two remaining Operas, Otello, would have the most unambiguous monster in all of literature for its villain, and his last, Falstaff, is a lighthearted comedy with no real villains to speak of at all.
The other great subversion of the Grand Opera form was created by Hector Berlioz, a man who seemed to be born to subvert any and all traditions. Many of the great Classical composers were extremely eccentric (look at Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner, just to name a few of the most obvious examples), but Berlioz was in fact legitimately insane (he had once seriously contemplated murdering a romantic rival, to the point of actually arming himself. donning a disguise. and boarding a train with intent to do so), and that is definitely reflected in his music. He wrote the Symphonie Fantastique (a famous tone poem/symphony hybrid as outrageous and insane as Berlioz himself) as an expression of his doomed love for an English actress he had been stalking a few years earlier, and in one of those great Classical music anecdotes that are as sweet as they are frightening, when she heard it, it actually induced her to marry him.
His magnum opus for the theater was Les Troyens, a massive five-hour retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid that resembled Wagner’s Gotterdammurung with a more conventional aria/recitative vocal structure. Of course, because Berlioz was not Wagner and didn’t have a hoard of wealthy followers convinced he was the messiah of music, the work never actually got performed in full while he was alive, and is still very rarely performed today, even by the standards of overlong and ostentatious Grand Operas. Still, it did have an ambition and uncompromising integrity that were almost unknown to the genre outside of the two aforementioned Verdi works, and the music, like all of Berlioz’ compositions, is a wild, unfettered, almost proto-expressionistic picture of the unbalanced mind of what was perhaps Classical music’s most tortured genius of all.