The Cyclorama opened in London in 1848 with a representation of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that reportedly terrified audiences with its realistic aural and visual effects. During the first half of the century Londoners had been confronted with a rapid succession of revolutions in scientific thought, which needed to be assimilated into the emotional as well as the intellectual structures of public life. The geologist Charles Lyell had recently explained earthquakes and volcanic activity in a manner that fundamentally changed public understanding of the history of the earth, and in so doing challenged the religious narratives that had formerly underpinned it. The Cyclorama invited the spectator to confront such destruction in this new light: the frighteningly immersive visual and aural effects and the comforting narratives offered by accompanying musical excerpts (from works by Auber, Beethoven, and Rossini) were crucial to the shaping of the experience, and can be understood in the context of other artistic and poetic responses to Lyell's proposals. The music helped to articulate something of the competing perspectives on the crisis of faith that was exercising the intelligentsia at mid-century and offered a conduit for both emotional and intellectual responses.
Grand opera's love of all-consuming spectacle is evident in its cataclysmic eruptions, explosions, and shipwrecks, its magnificent processions and ceremonies, and its breathtaking reconstructions of sublime landscapes, from Auber's La Muette de Portici (1828), through Halévy's La Juive (1835), to Meyerbeer's Le Prophète (1849), and beyond. An understanding of the Parisian public's visual experiences and expectations outside the opera house can help in theorizing grand opera's distinctive aesthetic. Contemporary spectacles d'optique , including the tableau vivant , panorama, diorama, and nocturnorama, attest to the higher powers of sensory attentiveness demanded of audiences. Some offered a sensory overload that encouraged complete absorption in the spectacle; others encouraged critical reflection as music and image drew attention to themselves through a disjunction of narrative or mood. Auguste Pilati and Friedrich von Flotow's opera Le Naufrage de la Méduse (Théâtre de la Renaissance, 1839) incorporated an ambitious animated representation of Théodore Géricault's celebrated painting on the subject and generated critical discussion about the relationship between sound and vision. Le Naufrage and the spectacles d'optique of the period offer a prism through which to view opera's evolution from a contemplative to a more involving form of drama in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and to contextualize French grand opera's distinctive fascination with the interplay of music and spectacle, narrative and display, and the engagement of audiences in constructing meanings.