Unfairly neglected operas

Here’s a list of unrecorded operas that should be revived.

First and foremost, anything by Fromental Halévy (1799-1862) that isn’t La Juive.

Halévy was the leader of the French school of opera composers; he was praised for his profound science (sometimes too advanced for contemporaries used to simpler stuff), his dramatic understanding, and his penetrating melancholy.

At the very least L’Eclair (1835) (a musical tour de force with only four singers and no chorus, written to prove that the success of La Juive didn’t rely on spectacle) and the three opéras-comiques of the late 1840s, Les Mousquetaires de la Reine (1846), Le val d’Andorre (1848), and La fée aux roses (1849), three of the biggest successes in that theatre’s history.

As to grand opéra: we need a new recording of Charles VI (1843) (Bru Zane might oblige?). Guido et Ginevra (1838) – set in Renaissance Florence during the Plague – has a superb tomb scene, but suffers from a superfluous last act.

Perhaps also Le Shérif (1839) (Berlioz: “Never has M. Halévy been so abundant, so rich, and above all so original… I experienced almost from start to finish that rare pleasure that bold, novel, and skilfully co-ordinated compositions give to musicians.”); Le Guitarrero (1841); and La dame de pique (1850), a clever plot whose score has been called a magnificent casket of jewels.

Apart from Halévy…

Étienne Méhul: Euphrosine (1790) and Mélidore et Phrosine (1794). Early landmarks in Romantic opera, praised by Berlioz.

Jean-François Le SueurOssian (1804), an epic work that anticipates grand opéra; Napoleon liked it.

Ferdinand HeroldMarie (1826), his most important opera after Zampa and Le Pré aux clercs, it reached 100 performances within a year, and confirmed Herold as Boïeldieu’s successor

Louis NiedermeyerStradella (1837) and Marie Stuart (1844). Félix Clément calls Niedermeyer a notable composer whose scores contain pieces of great merit.

Giovanni Pacini: Lorenzino de’ Medici (1858): “a superb opera by Pacini, and one that for a time made me stagger in my Verdi faith. It is so fresh, so original, and combines musical science so well with ear-haunting and simple melody that it appears to me astonishing that it has not obtained a reputation out of Italy.” (Dwight’s Journal of Music)
and Niccolò de’ Lapi (1873): “Meyerbeer and Wagner and the Verdi of Forza del Destino, of Don Carlos, of Aida, have found a powerful rival, a true titan, in the immense and stupendous finale of the second act.” (La Riforma)

Ernest Reyer: La statue (1861): Bizet thought it the most remarkable work written in France for twenty or thirty years. Massenet, who played the timpani in the orchestra, called it a superb score. Berlioz found it moving; the melody was original, witty and natural, the harmony was colourful, and the instrumentation was energetic without brutality or violence.

Erostrate (1862) might be worth resurrecting, too – it was a triumph in Germany, but failed when it was performed in Paris (1871), because Reyer had dedicated the score to the queen of Prussia. In 1899, the work was put on in Marseille; Adolphe Jullien called the first act delicate, tender and graceful, and its orchestration evoked the memories of Ancient Greece. The second act was violent and furious, a vocal and instrumental crescendo which marvellously expressed the drama with singular power.

A complete Sigurd would also be great; at least 150 pages are cut from all recordings.

Auguste MermetRoland à Roncevaux (1864). Clément places this among the third rank of operas, those who owe their success to striking qualities: the clarity of the musical style, the martial allure. But the aria Véronique Gens recorded in Tragédiennes is attractive.

Émile Paladilhe: Patrie (1886). The swansong of French grand opéra, and considered one of the most powerful and moving since Meyerbeer. Has two superb bass-baritone arias (“C’est ici le berceau” and “Pauvre martyr obscur”).

Gaston Salvayre: La dame de Monsoreau (1888). Not a success (only performed eight times, and critically panned), but David Le Marrec (Carnets sur sol) considers it a work on the level of the best Meyerbeer.

Isidore de LaraMessaline (1897). Vincent Giroud calls it “a mouthful of Roman decadence that would make Hollywood green with envy: gladiators, an ancient brothel, a vengeful poet thrown into the Tiber, a promiscuous empress, rival brothers”. Performed around the world until the late 1930s.

Camille Saint-SaënsDéjanire (1898) and L’ancêtre (1906). We need a new recording of Étienne Marcel (1879), too.

Camille ErlangerLe juif polonais (1900), Le Fils de l’étoile (1904), and Aphrodite (1906)

Henry Février: Monna Vanna (1909).

Jules Massenet: Bacchus (1909). Probably his worst opera, thanks to an abstruse, Wagnerian libretto, and it’s notorious for a battle scene accompanied by monkey noises – but it’s the only mature Massenet that hasn’t been recorded. Saint-Etienne was supposed to revive it in the last decade.

Jean Nouguès: Quo vadis? (1909). Another international success, performed until the 1930s. Giroud calls it “an efficient piece of music theatre, the operatic equivalent of a Cecil B. de Mille cinematic epic”.

5 thoughts on “Unfairly neglected operas

  1. Mine are:

    Haydn: Armida
    Spohr: Jessonda
    Goldmark: The Queen of Sheeba
    Lalo – Le roi d’Ys
    Fibich :The Bride of Messina & Sarka
    Gomes – lo Schiavo
    Massenet: Grisélidis
    Saint – Saens: Ascanio
    Faure: Penelope


    1. A lot of excellent rarities there! Grisélidis really is beautiful, and shows that there’s more to Massenet than Manon or Werther. “Ouvrez-vous sur mon front” and “Il partit au printemps” are superb, and the devil’s song in praise of solitude is delightful.


      1. Oh, I agree with you about Massenet and how beautiful Grisélidis is. I firmly believe he was the most versatile opera composer of all time – the man could do anything!


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