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An Italian Air at the Paris Opera

Encounter with Mickaël Bouffard, Christian Schirm and Jean-Michel Vinciguerra

By Emilie Chatoux and Cyril Pesenti 11 June 2019


© Christophe Pelé / OnP

An Italian Air at the Paris Opera

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 culture.

What are the origins of this Royal Academy of Music and how should the Italian influences be understood?

Jean-Michel Vinciguerra: The first opera house in France was founded in 1669 with the famous letters patent in which Louis XIV and his minister Colbert granted a “privilege” for opera to the poet and entrepreneur of entertainment Pierre Perrin. On the strength of this privilege, Perrin was entitled to found “Opera Academies” and held an exclusive monopoly over “performances in music and in French verse”. When one examines this legislative act, which corresponds to French opera’s birth certificate, one realises that Perrin must have used the theatres of Venice, Rome and Florence as examples and that the “opera academies” that he was in charge of promoting everywhere in the kingdom (with the exclusion of the court) must have been established, once again, “in imitation of the Italian academies”. It is therefore in response to a form of entertainment from abroad and under the influence of a still dominant Italian model that the Paris Opera saw the light of day. Before this, Italian opera had enjoyed remarkable development during the 1640s and 1650s, thanks to the impetus given it by Cardinal Mazarin, but in the 1660s, the public began to weary of it and complained of the obscurity of the Italian language. It was necessary, then, to create a form of entertainment involving sung French combining the grace of ballet, splendid costumes, magnificent scenery and all this within a commercial, and no longer ecclesiastical, framework.

C.S. : One of the reasons for which Italian opera was no longer appreciated by the French public during the first half of the 17th century was due to the fact that works were sung in the original language. Now, at that period, French audiences set great store by the text and the clarity of the libretto. Until the French Revolution, many members of the company of the Royal Academy of Music had been actors before becoming singers.

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 Revolution.

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.   

© Christophe Pelé / OnP

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?

J.M.V.: The creation of French opera is first of all the union of two different dramatic forms: Italian opera, as it emerged at the turn of the 17th century, and French courtly ballet, the origin of which goes back to the end of the Valois dynasty. It was characteristic of operatic works performed at the Paris Opera that they unceasingly associated singing and dance. Today, the Paris Opera Ballet is devoted solely to choreographic productions. It is no longer involved in operas as it was in former times. My colleague, Mickaël Bouffard, a specialist in ballet, has been careful to maintain, in the choice of documents that we present, a balance between the operatic content and the choreographic content of the productions of the Opera.    

M.B. It is true that I was very attentive to questions concerning dance. Concerning links with Italy, it was very interesting to see that the Italians already incorporated dance in their productions, but only in the Entr’actes and with no connection to the main action. These sections functioned mainly as divertissements to renew the attention of the audience. In France, dance was integrated with the drama, as courtly ballet was strongly present until 1669. It is the cross-fertilisation between this form and Italian opera that gave rise to Lully’s operatic tragedies. The dance company remained impermeable to Italian influences until 1739, the date at which certain Italian dancers caused a stir when they appeared during the entr’actes of an opera by Rameau and distinguished themselves by their virtuosity. Some ten years later, the arrival of the Florentine dancer Vestris, with his expressive and virtuoso technique, brought a genuinely Italian air to opera, even if, like Lully, he wanted to excel in what constituted its French identity.    
© Christophe Pelé / OnP

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.

J.M.V.: Indeed. Lully invented a unique genre, that of tragédy lyrique or operatic tragedy. But after his death, tragedy no longer drew the crowds and the Royal Academy of Music offered new productions. Comedy, which Lully had chased off the operatic stage, thus made its comeback with characters drawn from the commedia dell’arte (Arlecchinos, Pulcinellas and Trivelinos) and the ballet thus became the first genre to associate comedy in a sustained way with opera. Similarly, the set no longer represented Mount Olympus or the palace of the gods, but public places, villages, as in Campra’s L’Europe Galante. It was at this period that the first musical quarrel, which opposed Lully’s partisans, faithful to the noble and serious genre of tragedy, and those of Campra who were more receptive to the new aesthetics from Italy, broke out, a quarrel which culminated, fifty years later, in the celebrated Querelle des Bouffons.

How did you choose to underline the legacy of the Académie royale de musique?

C.S. AND J.M.V.: The institution is presented as both the heir to Italian inventions and also through its own evolution in the context of French politics at that time. The Italian composers who came to the Opera at the end of the 18th century, like Salieri, were writing works within the French framework of operatic tragedy. The central debate “Primo le parole e dopo la musica” and vice versa, upon which French opera was founded and which is a constant in its history, is shown from a more artistic angle.    

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 ...

© Christophe Pelé / OnP

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.    

Un air d’Italie. L’Opéra de Paris de Louis XIV à la Révolution
Un air d’Italie. L’Opéra de Paris de Louis XIV à la Révolution 4 images

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