On the occasion of its 350th anniversary, the Paris Opera joins forces with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to present An Italian Air – The Paris Opera from Louis XIV to the Revolution. Octave went to meet the commissioners of the exhibition, Mickaël Bouffard, Christian Schirm and Jean-Michel Vinciguerra who talk about the richness of Italian influences at the Paris Opera. An exhibition to explore at the Museum-Library of the Opera from 28th May until 1st September 2019.
Could you tell us how the exhibition “An Italian Air”, of which you are commissioners, resonates with the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera?
Christian Schirm: In the context of the Paris Opera’s 350th
anniversary, we wanted to present an exhibition retracing the history of this
operatic institution from its origins, with the privilège d’opéra granted in 1669 to Perrin, until 1791, when this
privilege came to an end. We focussed on this musical institution, the most
important under the monarchy, but we don’t claim to have covered everything in
the musical life of the period. In the 17th and 18th
centuries, there certainly existed other places where music was played: at
court, at the Chapelle royale, at the Opéra-Comique, the Concert-Spirituel and
at the Comédie-Italienne, not forgetting, of course, provincial opera houses.
This exhibition does not therefore aim to say everything about music under the
Monarchy. Our subject is the Académie Royale and its relationship with Italian
What are the origins of this Royal Academy of Music and how should the Italian influences be understood?
J.M.V. : In France at this period, operas were
performed at court with ballets in which the courtiers danced. All that changed
with the privelege of 1669. This was the birth of the first public opera house
and a heavy responsibility fell on Perrin’s shoulders. He had to start from
scratch. Perrin had to train a company of singers, dancers and musicians,
engage a stage machinist, rent a hall, find repertoire repertoire and raise funds
to cover the expenses involved. But he incurred debts, soon found himself in
prison and only three years later, in 1672, along came Lully. He bought the
privilege from his predecessor and rebaptised the first “académie d’opéra” as
the Académie royale de musique, a name the Opera was to retain until the
C.S. : Lully is not so distant from Monteverdi. He
kept Monteverdi’s harmonic simplicity, and the clarity of his vocal lines.
Lully created a synthesis between music and poetry, marrying in a sense recitar cantando and French declamation.
During the fourteen years of his reign at the Royal Academy of Music, Lully
trained performers, built up a veritable repertoire and created a model that
lasted until the end of the Monarchy: tragédie
lyrique (operatic tragedy).
J.M.V.: In the exhibition, we wanted to show how the
reference to Italy was imposed and how it was then rejected. From Lully to
Salieri, with Campra, Rameau and Gluck in between, the exhibition evokes the
different musical and aesthetic controversies that punctuated the history of
opera in which the classical French model repeatedly found itself challenged by
Italian virtuosity. The latter was prevalent in every field, in singing, dance
and even in scenography, with the highly impressive productions of Torelli,
Vigarani and Servandoni.
Mickaël Bouffard : The exhibition also evokes the artistic quarrels associated with Italian productions which shocked partisans of French music. Opera, which had become a vehicle for political expression, gave rise to scandalous works like Salieri’s Tarare, an opera with a libretto by Beaumarchais exposing revolutionary ideas. These propositions, received as affronts, had a far from negligible impact. At the dawn of the Revolution, the Royal Academy of Music prepared itself to undergo certain changes...
The Royal Academy of Music was the first institution to bring together opera and choreographic art. How did this association work?
Did these influences affect the genres practised in the following century?
C.S.: It is certain that, generally speaking, in the 18th century, the question of renewing the operatic genre of operatic tragedy became important. It was then that Italy intervened once more during the Regency period with Campra and then, under Louis XV, with Rameau. Opera Buffa provided fresh input which renewed the operatic genre from within.
How did you choose to underline the legacy of the Académie royale de musique?
M.B.: The exhibition thus presents drawings of costumes and sets, and also archive pieces showing how the Opera functioned at the time: a letter recounting the audition of a singer, the initial line-up of the orchestra in 1704, the legers showing the performance takings ...
Will you be displaying rare items or documents that have never been presented to the general public before?
M.B. AND J.M.V.: The space allotted to the exhibition being fairly tight, we have had to make some difficult choices so as to limit the number of works to a hundred and eighty-four. However, the exhibition does show a huge variety of documents: oil paintings on canvas, pastels, drawings, three-dimensional models of stage sets, prints, letters, scores and one costume, the only one from the period to have been preserved in the national collections... Headphones are available at various points throughout allowing visitors to hear the musical repertoire of the Opera in connection with the pieces we have chosen: the visitor will be able, for example, to listen to a chorus from Lully’s Proserpine and look at the set that Berain designed to allow this chorus to be performed on the stage of the Opera.Some rare works are presented here for the first to the general public. Some of these are on loan from private collections, like the portrait of Marthe Le Rochois holding a score by Lully. Others are rarely displayed because they are very fragile, like a ballet costume, embroidered with gold and silver thread, going back to the 17th century. The visitor will also be able to admire the famous drawing showing Louis XIV in his sun costume in the Ballet Royal de la Nuit, the painting L’Incendie de l’Opéra (The Opera House on Fire) by Hubert Robert or the three-dimensional set model designed by Piero Bonifazion Algieri for the revival of Proserpine by Lully in 1758.