By the eve of the 1830 Revolution, grand opera, in gestation from the time of the Consulate, had established itself as the new operatic genre. Employing considerable technical and human resources – a large chorus, ballet and orchestra – it continued in the tradition of the grandiose initiated under Louis XIV. It also moved away from it: from ancient mythology, romantic French opera turned to the historic frescoes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The France of Louis-Philippe was keen to efface the humiliation of Waterloo and the Treaty of Vienna and discovered a passion for History, its own History. As Ludovic Vitet became the first inspector general of historic monuments and Victor Hugo published Notre Dame de Paris, Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots saw the light of day. The heroes of grand opera were no longer Theseus or Proserpine, but the Duke of Normandy and Marguerite de Valois. Sometimes a quasi-contemporary past invited itself onto the stage: in Gustave III, Auber and Scribe told the story of the assassination of the king of Sweden, which had occurred in 1792, a mere forty years earlier.
The documents brought together in this exhibition testify to the immense enthusiasm aroused by French grand opera. Even if this passion faded a little during the Revolution of 1848, some great masterpieces were still produced under the Second Republic and the Second Empire. But there were upheavals in the offing, and Wagner was to disrupt the festivities with Tannhäuser, performed in Paris in 1861. On 15th August 1867, six months after the partial failure of Don Carlos at Le Peletier, the façade of the Palais Garnier was unveiled. A new era had apparently opened, soon to be disrupted by the Sedan disaster.
Romain Feist, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Marion Mirande, Opéra national de Paris
Scenography & graphics exhibition
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