Introduction | Early Romantic | Opera

The Romantic period in opera, music, literature and art lasted more than a century overall, from around 1790 – the year after the French Revolution – to 1910, four years before the outbreak of the First World War. In this context, the meaning of ‘romantic’ went far beyond the usual amorous connotations: it stood for the imaginative, the exotic, the fantastic, even the occult.

This new ethos drew a line under the Classical era, which emphasized restraint and discipline, balance, good taste and expressiveness, but not the sort that spilled over into sentimentality or blurred too far the edges of musical convention.

New Social and Political Ideas

In time, Romantic music was revealed as a quantum leap away from the set-piece formulae of Baroque. It was, in its way, a metaphor for the French Revolution that caused a fundamental and ultimately fatal crack in the armour of absolute kingship in Europe. It was not simply a matter of exchanging a monarchy for a republic. The Revolution let loose new social and political ideas, which included the notion that a country belonged not to its king, but to its people. The slogan of the Revolution, ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’, and its defiant nationalistic anthem the ‘Marseillaise’ were only the start of an upheaval that made once-seditious ideas mainstream and one-time heresies respectable.

Ideology and Mythology

Opera reflected the new situation, in which a particular bête-noire was the privilege once reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The ancient Greek and Roman myths, which now lost favour, had been the staple of Baroque opera plots; they were now identified with the unfair social advantages monarchs and nobles had once enjoyed and the exploitation of the peasantry for which their supremacy stood. Kings, queens, emperors and princes ceased to be the heroes or heroines of opera. Their place was taken by stories featuring ordinary people, mainly young men who had sacrificed themselves during the Revolution.

The Ordinary Heroes of ‘Rescue Opera’

Several such men became the subjects of operas, such as Le siège de Lille (‘The Siege of Lille’, 1792) by Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766–1831), which was staged a month after the siege in question was lifted in October of that year. The new heroes also included victims of political and other persecution and this produced a new genre, the ‘rescue opera’. In rescue opera, the plot included the saving of a hero, heroine or a persecuted group from prison or some other dangerous threat. The composer Henri-Monton Berton (1767–1844), for one, lost no time in getting the first of these rescue operas into production, with his Les rigeurs du cloître (‘The Rigours of the Cloister’, 1790). The victims in this opera were monks persecuted by a vengeful authority bent on destroying their way of life.

Opera as Entertainment

All this meant that opera was in danger of being politicized. If this trend went unchecked, opera could cease to be entertainment and become propaganda. However, the didactic approach did not prove popular even with the patriotic, nationalist...

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