With the Royal Academy of Music holding the monopoly over performances sung in French, the Italian theatre company Comédie-Italienne, based at Hôtel de Bourgogne, turned its attention to the serious genre of the Opera, epitomised by the tragédie en musique and, in the 1680s and ’90s, became the cradle of opera parodies. Palaprat and Dufresny thus composed plays about noble characters with burlesque undertones who acted in a most unrefined manner in a mixture of French and Italian. Reducing the operas of Lully and Quinault to mere farce, these pioneering “comic operas” before their time sent music lovers into fits of laughter. Driven from their theatre in 1697 for having displeased the King, the Italians were taken in by the fairground people, who made the most of this situation to adopt their performing style and broaden their repertoire. Though these fairground folk were often regarded as travelling entertainers of little importance, in the space of just a few years they rose up to become the Opera’s most serious rivals. Following the Opéra-Comique’s founding in 1715 and the Comédie-Italienne’s return in 1716, fairground comedy continued to blaze its own trail, eventually infiltrating the other rival stages. The 1740s saw the success of farcical plays at the Opera with Mouret’s Les Amours de Ragonde (1742), which tells the tale of an ugly old widow’s love for a young village lad, as well as Platée (1749) by Rameau, an undeniable masterpiece of the comic genre and pinnacle of opera parody.
The French classicism up against Italian virtuosity
The arrival of a troupe of Italian singers at the Paris Opera set the stage, in 1752, for a full-on culture clash. The resounding success of Pergolesi’s La Serva padrona sparked the querelle des Bouffons, a confrontation between the supporters of Neapolitan opera who rallied behind Grimm and Rousseau, and French music devotees who, shocked to see the “ultramontane ham actors” debase this pillar of respectable taste that was the Paris Opera, appealed to Rameau, regarded as the custodian of the great tragédie genre. Through works and pamphlets, each side questioned the place of comedy at the Opera, the precedence of melody or harmony, the expressiveness of song and how natural was the parlando recitative, which was similar to animated speech. One side considered the virtuosity of the Italians for song, the violin and dance to be ostentatious, while the other viewed the finesse of the French style as dull. Having hitherto resisted the prodigious feats and leaps of the Italians, in 1739 dance at the Opera had suddenly to contend with the sensational technical talent of one Barbara Campanini. Performing an entrechat huit, “La Barbarina” caused a furore – some fearing that French noble dance was at risk of being demoted by the cabrioles and capers of the Italian comic dancers comic actors. Similarly, regarding the set design, Servandoni’s introduction of the visually striking two-point perspective scena per angolo upended the strict symmetry which the Berains, the father and son set designers, had observed for almost half a century. Accordingly, when Boucher transposed his ethereal pictorial scenes to the Opera, some showed no qualms about comparing the shortcomings of the French “easel painter” with the ingenious optical feats of the Italian architect.
Repackaging the old as new
One of the main characteristics of the Paris Opera in the 18th century was to have kept what was known as the “old operas” in its repertoire, i.e. those harking back to Lully and his immediate successors. This phenomenon took on an altogether particular dimension in the 1750s and ‘60s, between the end of the querelle des Bouffons (1754) and Gluck’s arrival in Paris (1774), during which time the Paris Opera created no more than 13 new tragedies – mostly by adding modern touches to works from the old repertoire. Not only were pieces considered to be old-fashioned still being staged afresh, but their recurrence had implications for the very identity of French opera. For its proponents, the resurrection of “old operas” on a cyclical basis was the sign of an attachment to the “national genre”, at a time when this was being challenged by Italian music. But in the eyes of the detractors, which included Grimm, the Opera’s recycling of an “old and detestable collection” was nothing more than a case of “mutton dressed up as lamb”. Indeed, to make these old works acceptable, the Opera’s directors adapted them, re-orchestrated them, added or cut scenes and turned them into potpourris of more or less varying styles depending on the case. Reviving the grand old classics that had shaped French musical identity also required the set and costume designers to set themselves apart from their predecessors. Boquet, for example, sometimes reinvented the costumes of characters from Lully’s old tragedies, and at others simply modernised the prototypes bequeathed by Berain.
Reforming the Opera
In the 1770s, the winds of change had begun to blow on the Paris Opera. The music, dramaturgy, dance, costumes, scenery and even the administrative management of the institution were all being shaken up by reforming mindsets. A new Franco-Italian feud broke out on how French tragédie lyrique should be freshened up. One side rallied behind Gluck, who was endeavouring to roll out his reforms in France through more effective liaison of the aria and the recitative and more dramatic use of the orchestra, choirs and pantomime. The other side was urging Piccinni to impose on French opera certain conventions of the opera seria, as well as a more Italian-style musical language giving greater prominence to melody. With respect to dance, Noverre’s arrival as the Opera’s ballet director from 1776 to 1781 paved the way for him to apply his reform. Eschewing the mechanical, symmetrical and ornamental nature of French dance, he wanted to give the dancer a key role in his own right, one in which, through pantomime, he could tell a story and express emotion and passions. This called for more authentic costumes, with none of the masks, wigs, feathers, panniers and gloves that hindered dancers in their movements and deformed the proportions of their figure. But despite backing from Boquet, the Opera’s costume designer, resistance from the ballet dancers themselves prevented Noverre from being able to follow his ideas all the way through.
On the eve of the Revolution
The fire at the Opera in 1781 smouldered like a bad omen over the Royal Academy of Music. Forced to move to the Palais-Royal right out by the Saint-Martin entrance arch, a long way from the capital’s cultural hub, the Opera tried to renew its repertoire by continuing to host Italian composers, who were less concerned with promoting the music of their country and more with firmly establishing the tragédie lyrique model, which had suffered a setback after Gluck’s departure in 1780. On the basis of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary-tinged libretto, in 1787, Salieri composed Tarare which took the capital by storm. Success was not always on the cards, however, and the Opera’s future looked far from certain. The violinist Viotti wondered whether the State should keep afloat an institution that was racking up so much debt and, in a paper drafted for the King’s attention, proposed to buy out the Opera’s privilege. A few months later, Louis XVI sold the Opera – which was under the jurisdiction of the Menus Plaisirs – to a public administration, that of the City of Paris, which took over responsibility for its financial affairs in 1790. The Act of 13 January 1791, which proclaimed the freedom of theatres and abolished the privilege-based system, dealt a further blow to the Royal Academy of Music, however, by opening up scores of halls across the capital and increasing the choice of theatrical entertainment on offer. Against this backdrop, the administrator Leroux wrote a Report on the Opera which he submitted to the Paris municipal body. Certain that the City could make a profit from this institution, he managed to convince the first revolutionary government of the need to save the Opera and, for many years yet, to uphold its influence and reputation.