The Paris Opera is celebrating two significant dates this year: the 350th anniversary of the founding of the first French Opera by Louis XIV, and the 30th of the opening of the opera house at Bastille, built as a result of the grand vision of that latter-day Louis, François Mitterrand.
The Bastille building has as many detractors as it has supporters. Many find the Carlos Ott-designed building soulless and ugly, and the recent practice of placing illuminated advertising on the building’s facade, while it might be a necessary way of raising money, feels like cheap opportunism.
And yet, the fact that almost 3,000 spectators can enjoy opera in a building that provides good acoustics, an unimpeded view of the stage and ample legroom for everyone, at prices that tend to be lower than those found in most other international opera houses, makes it to my mind preferable to the uncomfortably cramped experience of watching opera in the infinitely prettier Palais Garnier, Paris’s other main opera house.
To celebrate the 350th anniversary of French opera, the Palais Garnier is holding a wonderful exhibition (co-curated by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), “Un Air d’Italie: L’Opéra de Paris de Louis XIV à la Révolution,” devoted to Italian influence on the Paris Opera from the time of Louis XIV to the Revolution. The exhibition displays a wealth of artifacts, documents, set designs, and audio and video extracts that should appeal to pedants and enthusiasts alike.
Italian opera was brought to France in the first half of the 17th century mainly through the influence of the Italians Marie de’ Medici and Cardinal Mazarin, who introduced first court ballet and then opera to the Paris stage. As a child and young man, Louis XIV himself was an enthusiastic dancer, performing more than 70 roles in the space of 18 years. He became known as the Sun King after playing the sun god Apollo in Ballet Royal de la Nuit in 1652.
The exhibition illustrates this period with such wonderful objects as a 17th-century dancer’s costume and the famous image of Louis dressed as Apollo.
The introduction of Italian opera to Paris by Mazarin in 1645 was a thing of wonder to the Parisian public, not least because of the extraordinary stage designs and use of machinery by Giacomo Torelli.
Mazarin’s enemies, however, soon began to denounce the lavish expense and the unintelligibility to the French public of Italian works. In any case, these operas disappeared from the stage during the civil war known as the Fronde (1648-53), and Italian opera gradually changed to suit French tastes, especially when Louis XIV assumed full power in 1661.
In 1669, Louis bestowed upon the poet Pierre Perrin, who worked with musician Robert Cambert, the exclusive right (or “privilège”) to found France’s first opera academy. When Perrin’s imprisonment for debt prevented him from attending the premiere of his first opera, Pomone, in 1671, the ever-opportunistic Jean-Baptiste Lully stepped in. He bought Perrin’s privilege and established his own Royal Academy of Music.
Teaming up with the librettist Quinault, the choreographer Beauchamps and the set designer Vigarani, Lully created the operatic form known as “tragédie en musique,” which was to be hugely influential, starting with his work Cadmus et Hermione (1673). Visitors to the exhibition can see the privilege granted to Perrin as well as some of Vigarani’s designs and the autograph score of Lully’s Psyché.
After the deaths of Lully in 1687 and Quinault a year later, various lighter subjects and the introduction of comic figures from the Italian commedia dell’arte led to a period of experimentation and the creation of a new form, the “opéra-ballet.”
The Italians were banished by the king in 1697 and then allowed to return to establish their own theater in 1716. They joined fairground theaters, and a profusion of parodic operas was staged. This vogue for comic operas was crowned by the appearance in 1745 of the masterpiece of the genre, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Platée (click here for a review of a past Paris production). The multidimensional model for the set used by Rameau in his prologue is on display in the exhibition.
The second half of the 18th century was marked by a series of highly public debates (querelles) about the place of comedy in opera, with fervent supporters of Neapolitan opera pitting themselves against devotees of the more respectably serious French opera. The works of composers like Lully were revived and restaged in a period leading to the arrival of Christoph Willibald Gluck in Paris in 1774, and there are many examples here of updated costume and production designs from that time.
Yet another Franco-Italian feud broke out when Gluck tried to reform opera by linking arias to recitatives and making more dramatic use of orchestral forces, in opposition to supporters of the composer Niccolò Piccini, who wanted to prioritize melody and impose various Italian conventions upon French opera.
It is fascinating to see not only musical scores from some Gluck operas but also the various treatises of dance and performance that advocated moving away from improbably lavish costumes and performance styles to a more naturalistic form of expression.
With the arrival of the French Revolution, opera lost its primacy, and a profusion of rival theaters popped up, threatening opera’s very existence. An administrator named Leroux, however, saved the day by convincing the first revolutionary government of the potential profitability of opera.
After all the obstacles encountered by French opera in the early days, as described in the exhibition, and all the financial and artistic challenges this complex art form presents, it is a relief to see that it continues to go from strength to strength in Paris at both the Garnier and Bastille houses.