Emerging in France in the late 16th century, court ballets owed much to the travelling Italian performers during the reign of the last Valois kings. France admired the sophisticated entertainment put on in Italy’s courts and soon established its own choreographic speciality combining poetry, music, painting, costume and singing around dance. This is how a national genre was formed from an Italian idea, in which Louis XIII and Louis XIV themselves performed. In fact, the latter King acted more than 70 roles over an 18-year period in 26 different works, including the famous Ballet de la Nuit in which, after playing the Sun god Apollo, he became known as the Sun King. When Mazarin introduced Italian opera to France, with La Finta Pazza (1645), the Venetian Giovanni Battista Balbi choreographed intermezzi, danced between acts, as was the custom in Italy. Unrelated to the main show, these balletti made use of parrots, monkeys and ostriches for the amusement of the seven-year-old King. When Louis XIV was old enough to dance, Mazarin sought to tailor Italian opera to French tastes by incorporating ballet, such as in Caproli’s Le Nozze di Peleo e di Teti (1654), “an Italian musical play interwined with a ballet interlude on the same subject”. Despite exhibiting greater thematic consistency, this hybridization did not survive beyond the Cardinal’s death and hopes of seeing a genuine merging of genres had to wait until the advent of French opera. This inherited the three defining features of court ballets: incorporation of dance in the dramaturgy, five-part orchestral scoring and luxurious costumes.
In tribute to the performances he had organised in Rome at the Barberinis’ Court, Cardinal Mazarin, Anne of Austria’s new minister, intended to introduce the French to the full splendour of the operas of his home country. In 1645, he invited a troupe of musicians to Paris to perform Sacrati’s La Finta Pazza, composed in Venice in 1641. This Italian opera, the first ever performed in France, was fleshed out with comical ballets to amuse the young Louis XIV, but what impressed the audience the most was the theatre set and extraordinary stage machinery employed by Giacomo Torelli. The changes in scenery created a theatre wonderland the likes of which had never been seen in France before. In 1647, Luigi Rossi wrote Orfeo, “a comédie à machines set to music in the style of Italy”, which dazzled the royal circle. But it did not take long for the Cardinal’s ennemies to decry the show’s exorbitant costs and unintelligible Italian language. Their arguments won the day: not at any point during the civil wars raging in France in the mid 17th century (known as “the Fronde”) was another opera performed in Paris. But all was not lost for the tragédie à machines as this genre was known, for Corneille teamed up with Torelli and harnessed the latter’s know-how for the benefit of his plays, which were sometimes set to music. To accommodate Italian opera to French tastes, composers added show-stopping dances which proved even more popular with the public when the King himself performed in them. In 1662, to celebrate the King’s wedding no less, Cavalli composed Ercole amante, but Lully managed to insert sumptuous and exceptionally long ballet interludes, which served to rally an audience enchanted by visually appealing dance to his cause. This was the last Italian opera to be staged in Paris during Louis XIV’s reign.