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Giacomo Meyerbeer

1791 - 1864

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer; 5 September 1791 – 2 May 1864) was a German opera composer of Jewish birth who has been described as perhaps the most successful stage composer of the nineteenth century. With his 1831 opera Robert le diable and its successors, he gave the genre of grand opera 'decisive character'. Meyerbeer's grand opera style was achieved by his merging of German orchestra style with Italian vocal tradition. These were employed in the context of sensational and melodramatic libretti created by Eugène Scribe and were enhanced by the up-to-date theatre technology of the Paris Opéra. They set a standard which helped to maintain Paris as the opera capital of the nineteenth century.

Key Works

(b. Vogelsdorf September 5, 1791; d. Paris, May 2, 1864)

German composer. The most successful composer of grand opera, he responded to the Zeitgeist of post-1830 France—socially conservative but hungry for vicarious thrills, earth-shaking spectacle, and awe-inspiring demonstrations of wealth, power, and prestige—by creating lavish escapist entertainments for the bourgeois multitude. His concepts in orchestration, visual effect, scene structure, and pacing were innovative and revolutionary, and his works powerfully influenced the development of opera in the 19th century, shaping the vision and style of Richard Wagner in particular, and echoing through the scores of Berlioz, Verdi, Gounod, and many others.

Meyerbeer was born into a wealthy, accomplished, cultivated Berlin Jewish family. His parents and grandparents were successful in banking and business, and he had prominent rabbinical ancestral roots as well.

The eldest of three boys, Jakob was a child prodigy on the piano and had lessons in composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter (later Mendelssohn’s teacher) and Georg Joseph Vogler. He befriended his contemporary Carl Maria von Weber (who regarded him as one of the finest pianists of the day), and in 1816, after showing promise with a couple of German operas and several cantatas and occasional pieces, he turned his attention to Italian opera. He began using the Italian form of his first name, Giacomo, and during the course of nearly a decade spent in Italy, developed his skills and built an impressive portfolio of half a dozen theatrical successes. By the mid-1820s, he was being seen as an heir to Mozart and a figure worthy to stand alongside Rossini, who recognized his rival’s talent and furthered his career by producing Il crociato in Egitto (The Crusader in Egypt), the last of Meyerbeer’s Italian operas, at the Theatre Italien in Paris in 1825. With its success Meyerbeer was securely established in Paris; with Rossini’s retirement in 1829 he got down to business ... the business of grand opera.

Despite his relatively small output—four grand operas and two comic operas in 33 years—Meyerbeer loomed large in Parisian operatic life. His debut effort for the Paris Opera, Robert le diable (1831), set to a libretto by Eugene Scribe, became one of grand opera’s touchstone works and cast a potent spell on many other artists; among its most ardent admirers were Balzac, Berlioz, and Chopin. Five years later, Les Huguenots brought the style to new heights of dramatic and musical sophistication (in many ways it remains the quintessential grand opera). Le prophete (1849) was important in several respects; its staging was a technological tour de force involving the first use of an electric spotlight, its crowd scenes gave new meaning to the word “sublime,” and the role of Fides, sung by Pauline Viardot at the premiere, proved to be one of the most magnificent and challenging parts of the 19th century. With L’Africaine (premiered posthumously, in 1865) Meyerbeer created a work at once intimate and spectacular, and introduced a taste for the exotic that was to be an influence on Aida.

Independently wealthy, Meyerbeer was able to maintain artistic control over composition and presentation to an unusual degree. All four of his grand operas were written to librettos by Scribe, and, without being formulaic in any way, all dealt with the drama that arises when individuals are caught in the flux of forces larger than themselves, whether metaphysical, religious, political, or historical (or any combination thereof). For Parisians, who liked their tumult on the stage, not in the street, they proved matchlessly entertaining. In Les Huguenots, Le prophete, and L'Africaine, the plots involve the struggle of one group against another and the efforts of individuals to deal with the tragic complications love brings to their situation. In many ways it is not so much the particular historical events that are the crux of these dramas— the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the Anabaptist revolt, the voyages of Vasco da Gama—as the historical process itself, which Meyerbeer views as his subject. This aspect gives them a richness that is lacking in many other works of the era, and looks forward to the theatrical concerns of the 20th century.

While Meyerbeer’s main focus was on pacing and scenic impact, he was not indifferent to color and characterization. His treatment of the orchestra was masterful; he was one of the first composers to exploit solo divisi strings, a technique both Wagner (Lohengrin) and Verdi (Aida, Otello) later employed to great advantage. He also made innovative use of obbligato instruments to comment on a character’s state of mind, e.g., the solo viola d’amore in Raoul’s Act I romance “Plus blanche que la blanche her-mine” in Les Huguenots. These touches were not lost on Wagner, nor were Meyerbeer’s distinctive, darkly expressive shadings of the orchestral tutti—using low horns, bassoons, bass clarinet—which found their way into Rienzi, Derfliegende Hollander, and Tannhauser, and became part of the lexicon of 19th-century orchestration.

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Emma di Resburgo - Ouverture

Emma di Resburgo, melodramma eroico in two acts, first performance 26 June 1819, Teatro San Benedetto, Venice.

Libretto: Gaetano Rossi


Orchestra: Moderntimes_1800

Conductor: Andreas Stoehr

Scene: Scotland, about 1070

Act 1
Countryside near the entrance of the castle of Tura, on the Clyde
Olfredo, lord of the castle of Tura, Etelia his daughter and the shepherds of the estate sing of their happiness, living as they do in peace. These pastoral festivities are however interrupted by the arrival of the Earl of Lanark, Norcesto. A herald then proclaims that it is forbidden to grant asylum to Edemondo, who forfeited the title of Earl of Lanark and has been on the run since he was accused of murdering his father. Olfredo, who does not seem convinced of the guilt of Edemondo, then reminds Norcesto of the circumstances in which the Earl of Lanark was murdered. Edemondo was discovered by his father's bloody corpse, holding a dagger. His insistence that he had not murdered his father did not convince others. After he was accused of the crime Edemondo disappeared, as did his wife, Emma, and their son. Norcesto's father then took the title of the Earl of Lanark and upon his death Norcesto inherited the title. Norcesto seems to dislike being reminded of these events, and goes into the castle. Then a wandering bard appears and is welcomed by Olfredo. This is really Emma in disguise, who has resorted to this device in order to be near her son, Elvino. The boy has been sheltered in the castle by Olfredo, unknown to all but himself and Emma, since both his parents fled. Olfredo assures Emma that he will protect her and her son. A poor shepherd arrives at the castle: it is Edemondo, who, tired of his fugitive life, has returned in disguise to try to find his wife and son. He is joyously recognised by Emma and Olfredo.

Great hall of the castle of Tura decorated for a party given in honour of Olfredo

Olfredo brings Edemondo to his son Elvino, while Emma and the villagers celebrate the goodness of Olfredo. Norcesto arrives to the festivities; Edemondo and Emma immediately hide in the crowd. Upon seeing Elvino, Norcesto is amazed at the likeness of the child to Edemondo. He requires Olfredo to give him information about the boy. Norcesto no longer doubts the identity of the child's father. He orders his guards to seize the boy. Unable to do more, Emma intervenes and reveals her identity. She is taken prisoner in turn while Olfredo has the greatest difficulty in restraining Edemondo who wants to defend his son and his wife.

Act 2
A gallery in the Palace of the Count of Lanark, Glasgow

Donaldo, a knight, reports to Norcesto that attempts to regain Edemondo have been unsuccessful. Very troubled, Norcesto orders that the imprisoned Emma be treated with dignity. Olfredo then arrives with his daughter and Norcesto has Emma brought in. She bitterly reproaches him for separating her from her son, to which Norcesto offers to reunite them if Emma will reveal the whereabouts of Edemondo. Emma refuses. The palace is stormed by Knights and villagers who have heard that Edemondo is in the vicinity and demand he be brought to justice for the murder of his father. Edemondo appears and reveals his identity to the crowd, protesting his innocence. This only infuriates the crowd the more, who insist he be put to death.

The Hall of Justice in the Palace

The judges come to deliver their verdict. : Edemondo is sentenced to death for the murder of his father. The execution is ordered to take place on his father's grave. However Norcesto seems reluctant to sign the execution order. Emma, shocked by the verdict, publicly accuses Norcesto of being the murderer. Embarrassed, Norcesto eventually denies being the author of this crime and signs the execution order.

The dungeon of the palace

Olfredo and Etelia his daughter visit Edemondo in the prison where he is awaiting execution. Olfredo feels that Norcesto is hiding a secret that appears to be tormenting him.

The cemetery where the counts of Lanark are buried at sunrise

Emma arrives at the monument on the grave of her husband's father. In despair at Edemondo's impending execution, she feels she will not long survive him. A funeral march with chorus is heard and the procession moves onto the stage. Guards and Knights lead Edemondo to the block. Emma throws herself into his arms and takes a last farewell. Norcesto arrives with Olfredo and Etelia at the last moment before the execution. Norcesto, disturbed by pangs of conscience, has decided to reveal the truth. It was his father who murdered Edemondo's father, and as proof Norcesto produces the deathbed confession his father signed and gave to him. Edemondo, Emma and their son are reunited, Edemondo regains his title of Earl of Lanark and all rejoice that justice has finally been done.

Ball in 1782 in the Teatro San Benedetto, Venice, where Emma di Resburgo had its first performance. By Francesco Guardi

Giacomo Meyerbeer “Margherita d'Anjou”
(Giulia de Blasis & Fabio Luisi, 2017)

Margherita d'Anjou is an opera semiseria in two acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer. The Italian libretto was by Felice Romani after a text based on legends around the English Wars of the Roses by René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt. The title role is the Queen Margaret of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, who also appears in Richard III. Margherita d'Anjou is the first opera by Meyerbeer to mix historical events and personages with fictional characters and situations, as his French grand operas Les Huguenots, Le prophète and L'Africaine were later to do. 

Margherita d'Anjou, widow of Henry VI of England    soprano   
Isaura, wife of the Duke of Lavarenne, disguised as Eugenio    mezzo-soprano 
The Duke of Lavarenne, Grand Senechal of Normandy    tenor   
Carlo Belmonte, general banished by the Queen, currently employed by Gloucester    bass 
Michele Gamautte, French physician    basso buffo 
Gertrude    soprano
Bellapunta, officer of the Queen    tenor  
Orner, officer of the Queen    bass    
Riccardo, Duke of Gloucester    bass


Scene:The highlands of Scotland, c. 1462

The widowed Queen Margherita, whose husband King Henry VI was driven off the throne and then killed in the English Civil War known as the Wars of the Roses, fled to France and has now returned to Britain with an army in an attempt to reclaim the throne on behalf of her son. She and her army met defeat in battle and she has been forced to retreat to the wilderness in Scotland with her remaining supporters. Among them are the French nobleman the Duke of Lavarenne, who fell in love with Margherita while she was in exile in France, and has left his wife to be with her. However his wife Isaura will not accept this,and, disguised as a man, has followed her husband to Scotland as an assistant to Gamautte, the French physician in waiting on the Queen. Riccardo, Duke of Gloucester, who drove Margherita's husband from the throne, has pursued her and her army to Scotland. Margherita attempts to evade him by disguising herself as a simple woman, the wife of Gamautte. The disguised Isaura has the disagreeable task of delivering love letters from her husband to Margherita in her disguise. Riccardo Duke of Gloucester sees through Margherita's disguise and seizes her son. Gamautte and the Duke of Lavarenne plot an attack to rescue Margherita and her son, which is successful. General Belmonte, who had switched allegiance from Margherita to Gloucester, returns to her service and Riccardo is defeated. The Queen and her son are saved, and the penitent Duke of Lavarenne returns to his forgiving wife.


Margaret of Anjou (23 March 1430 – 25 August 1482) was the Queen of England by marriage to King Henry VI from 1445 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471. Born in the Duchy of Lorraine into the House of Valois-Anjou, Margaret was the second eldest daughter of René, King of Naples, and Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine.

She was one of the principal figures in the series of dynastic civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses and at times personally led the Lancastrian faction. Owing to her husband's frequent bouts of insanity, Margaret ruled the kingdom in his place. It was she who called for a Great Council in May 1455 that excluded the Yorkist faction headed by Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York, and this provided the spark that ignited a civil conflict that lasted for more than 30 years, decimated the old nobility of England, and caused the deaths of thousands of men, including her only son Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

Margaret was taken prisoner by the victorious Yorkists after the Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury. In 1475, she was ransomed by her cousin, King Louis XI of France. She went to live in France as a poor relation of the French king, and she died there at the age of 52.

L'esule di Granata (The exile of Granada) is a melodramma serio (serious opera ) in two acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer. The Italian libretto was by Felice Romani based on the rivalries between the Zegridi and the Abenceraggi factions in the last days of the kingdom of Granada. It is the fifth of Meyerbeer's Italian operas but had only three confirmed stagings in the 19th century. The world premiere took place at La Scala, Milan, on 12 March, 1822.

Giacomo Meyerbeer–L'ESULE DI GRANATA – Introduzione

The opera is set in Moorish Spain; the Zegris have deposed Sulemano, the Abencerage king of Granada, and installed Boabdil, whose son Almanzor now rules.  Almanzor wants to marry Sulemano’s daughter Azema to bring the warring tribes together.

This has angered some of the Zegris, who plot to depose Almanzor.  Meanwhile Almanzor is off fighting the Spanish; Azema and her women pray for his safety, and the Abencerage leader Alamo tells them that Almanzor was victorious.  Sulemano enters (in disguise, of course), and learns to his horror that his daughter Azema is to marry Almanzor.

Azema: Laura Claycomb
Alamar: Paul Austin Kelly
Alì: Brindley Sherratt
Omar: Ashley Catling
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir

Conductor: Giuliano Carella
Opera Rara, London, 2004

Place: The Kingdom of Granada in Moorish Spain
Time: End of the 15th Century

A feud between two dynasties, the Abencerrages and the Zegris, furnishes the action of the plot. Despite the hatred between the families, Almanzor, an Abencerrage ruler, and Azema, a young Zegri princess, have fallen in love and wish to marry. When Azema's father, who has been banished, hears of this, he returns to Granada and hatches a plot to assassinate Almanzor. The conspiracy is discovered however and the murder prevented. Azema asks Almanzor to forgive her father, which he does, and Azema and Almanzor are wed, to general rejoicing.


Meyerbeer enjoyed a privileged upbringing as the son of a rich and influential Jewish merchant who was an official contractor to the army in Germany and owner of sugar factories. His mother's family were well-regarded bankers and their borne near Berlin was something of a focal point for gatherings of the cultural elite, including nobility — Meyerbeer's music teacher also coached the royal princes. The composer made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of seven.

By the age of 19 he had collaborated with the head ballet-master of the Royal Opera and created a "ballet pantomime" called Der Fischer und das Milchmadchen (The Fisher and the Milkmaid). In the same year, 1810, he moved to Darmstadt to continue his musical education. There he met other students and under the loose leadership of Carl von Weber formed a circle who wrote reviews ot each other's work under pen names. During this period he wrote two operas, Der Admiral (The Admiral) and Jephtas Gelubde (Jephta's Vow). He travelled to Munich and managed to have Jeplnas Geliibde staged at the end of 1812, to a rather indifferent audience; the following year, a comic opera, Wirth und Gast (Host and Guest), met the same fate in Stuttgart. In 1814 Meyerbeer became court composer to the Grand Duke of Hesse.

Meyerbeer's compositions continued to receive mixed receptions, while his playing generated much admiration. His friend Salien suggested he lighten the rather heavy Germanic construction of his operas and in 1816 Meyerbeer travelled to Italy to absorb the freer approaches of the Italian style. With interruptions to oversee foreign productions, he remained in Italy for nine years. During this time he was greatly influenced by the works of Rossini and wrote six increasingly successful operas. Of these, Il Grociato in Egitto (The Crusader in Egypt) in 1824 was a particular triumph and led to productions in London and Paris, where Meyerbeer met the well-known librettist Eugene Scribe.

In 1827 he and Scribe began their first collaboration, the Grand Opera Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil), performed to huge acclaim in 1831. Initially conceived as an opera comique, it was revised so that its theme of good versus evil would create a greater impression. The Revue Musicale of 1831 shows its impact: "... the score of Robert le Diable is not just M. Meyerbeer's masterpiece; it is a work remarkable in the history of art ... It incontestably places M. Meyerbeer at the head of the present German school."' Seventy-seven theatres in a dozen countries staged the opera, later described by Wagner as having a sinister "deathless" atmosphere. Meyerbeer was awarded the Legion d'Honneur three-years later, and finally settled in Fans.


Within a year of this success Meyerbeer and Scribe were again at work on Meyerbeer's greatest accomplishment, Les Huguenots, premiered at the Paris Opera in 1836. The opera drew on the conflicts between Catholics and Huguenots in sixteenth-century France, and, typically of Grand Opera, included as many ballets, choruses, and crowd scenes as possible. It was an overwhelming success and was the first opera to be performed more than one hundred times at the Paris Opera.

Scribe and Meyerbeer followed up with Le prophete, performed successfully in 1849. Meyerbeer's last opera, L'Africaine, was based on the travels of the explorer Vasco da Gama. Begun in 1837, it was laid aside for work on Le prophete and was not completed until 1863, receiving its first performance the year after Meyerbeer's death m 1865.

In all Meyerbeer's Grand Operas he gave preference to singers over the orchestra, and showed himself a composer who loved experimentation and considered music to be entertainment rather than high art. His operas made him a rich man, and although praise for his works turned to criticism in later years, his influence can be felt throughout nineteenth-century opera, especially in Verdi's Don Carlos and Aida and in Wagner's early opera Rienzi. The recommended work, Les patineurs, is a ballet score by English composer Constant Lambert, written for the Sadler's Wells Ballet, London, in 1 937. It draws on music from two Meyerbeer operas, Le prophete and L'Etoile du Nord.

The young Jacob Beer, portrait by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1803)

Il crociato in Egitto (The Crusader in Egypt) is an opera in two acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer, with a libretto by Gaetano Rossi. It was first performed at La Fenice theatre, Venice on 7 March 1824. 

Meyerbeer - IL CROCIATO IN EGITTO - Montpellier, 1990

Adriano di Montfort : Rockwell Blake, Aladino, Sultano di Damietta
Michele Pertusi, Palmide, sua Figlia : Denia Mazzola, Armando d’Orville: Martine Dupuy, Felicia : Caterina Calvi, Osmino, Gran-Visir
Jean Loupien 
Choeurs de Radio France - Orchestre de la Garde Républicaine
Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier
Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opera de Montpeller
Conductor Massimo de Bernart

Aladino, Sultan of Damietta    bass  
Palmide, his daughter, secretly married to    soprano 
Armando, a Knight of Rhodes, in the guise of Elmireno    soprano 
Felicia, his betrothed, in disguise as a Knight of Rhodes   contralto   
Adriano, Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes    tenor
Alma, Palmide’s confidante    soprano 
Osmino, Grand Vizier of Damietta    tenor
Mirva, Palmide's son


Place: Damietta
Time: During the Sixth Crusade, which commenced in 1228.
Before the opera begins, Armando, missing presumed dead in fighting, has become confidante to the Sultan Aladino, under an assumed name. He has fallen in love with Aladino's daughter, who has borne him a son, and has secretly converted her to Christianity.

Adriano arrives at the Sultan's palace to negotiate a truce. There he recognises Armando, as does Felicia, who has disguised herself as a knight to find her betrothed. Armando and the other Christian prisoners are thereupon sentenced to imprisonment and death. The ambitious Osmino arms the prisoners under Armando with the intention of killing the Sultan, but Armando exposes his treachery to the Sultan and instead kills Osmino. The Sultan relents, peace is agreed with the Knights and Armando and Palmide are 

Robert le diable (Robert the Devil) is an opera in five acts composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer from a libretto written by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne. 

Les Huguenots is a French opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of the most popular and spectacular examples of the style of grand opera. In five acts, to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps, it premiered in Paris in 1836.

Le prophète (The Prophet) is a grand opera in five acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer. The French-language libretto was by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps, after passages from the Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations by Voltaire. The plot is based on the life of John of Leiden, Anabaptist leader and self-proclaimed "King of Münster" in the 16th century.

L'Africaine (The African Woman) is a grand opera in five acts, the last work of the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe deals with fictitious events in the life of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama – Meyerbeer's working title for the opera was in fact Vasco de Gama. The opera had its first performance by the Paris Opéra at the Salle Le Peletier on 28 April 1865.

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