Arguably the first grand opera, Auber's La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) broke new ground in the magnificence of its staging and its dramatic special effects, culminating in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius at the end of the opera. It was also a sensation in another sense: the revolutionary songs of Masaniello are said to have directly inspired the insurrectionists in Belgium to revolt in 1830.
Auber's opera was first performed at the Paris Opera on 29 February 1828, the libretto having undergone many changes to gain the censor's approval. It is set in Naples and Portici in 1647 during the rebellion against the Spanish Viceroy and is a tragic tale of love and politics. Popular extracts include Masaniello's barcarole in Act 2 and the chorus 'Courons a la vengeance'. The dramatic finale is particularly reminiscent of the Act 2 finale of Mozart's Don Giovanni.
Perhaps the foremost composer of 19th century French Opera Comique, Auber's undoubted gifts for melody and clarity of musical thought spread his fame throughout the world. A fervent admirer of Mozart, he was lauded by Wagner but criticised by Berlioz, Schumann and Mendelssohn. He is best known for the opera La muette de Portici, generally considered to be the first Grand Opera.
Born in Caen on 29 January 1782, the son of a royal huntsman, Auber showed early talent for the piano and also learned the violin and cello. In 1806, having composed his first stage work Julie in 1805, he entered the Société Académique des Enfants d'Apollon in Paris and took private lessons with Cherubini. Early Parisian works included a violin concerto and 5 cello concertos.
When Auber's father became bankrupt, however, the family looked to Auber to support them. As a result, he decided to devote himself to opera composition and scored early successes with La bergère châtelaine (1820) and Emma (1821). In 1828 he began a long period of close collaboration with librettisist Eugène Scribe beginning with the opera La muette de Portici, one of the greatest of nineteenth century operatic triumphs. Its association with the Belgian revolution of 22 August 1830 has ensured its infamy as as symbol of revolutionary sentiment.
Between 1830 and 1840 Auber worked steadily, composing at least one new opera a year, most of which were comic operas. In February 1842 he was appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire and was also later appointed maître de chapelle by Napoleon III. Auber died on 12 May 1871 at the age 89.
A popular composer throughout the world, (many of his works appeared in transcriptions and arrangements), Auber lived in Paris for virtually the whole of his career and developed a quintessentially Parisian style, avoiding extremes of emotional intensity and founded on the clear lines and simplicity of Mozart-ean classicism.