France largely continued to ignore Mozart after the composer’s death in 1791. Up until the end of the 18th century, his music was rarely heard in concert halls or on Paris stages. His name was still almost unknown when Le Mariage de Figaro, the French adaptation of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), was included in the Paris Opera’s repertoire in 1793. This first foray met with failure, understandable enough given the tragic political circumstance: the Reign of Terror was in full swing. Everything changed in 1801. Ten years after his death, Mozart found himself centre-stage on the Paris music scene. The year was marked by three major events. First of all, the Paris Opera’s production of Les Mystères d’Isis (Isis’ Mysteries), the French parody of The Magic Flute: the work was adapted to the requirements of the nation’s leading opera house and turned into a “grand opera” in four acts, an excuse for the creation of sumptuous scenery which transported audiences back to a magical ancient Egypt. Next to come were two biographies of Mozart, the first to be published in French. And finally, the Théâtre de la Cité, rebaptised “Théâtre Mozart” for the occasion, presented a German company which performed The Abduction from the Seraglio in an original version, with Mozart’s sister-in-law Aloisia Weber in the role of Constanze.
Following the resounding success that Les Mystères d’Isis enjoyed in 1801, the Paris Opera decided to put on another of Mozart’s operas. The choice fell on Don Juan. Da Ponte’s libretto was adapted by a Brigadier-General who purged it of any content he saw as being potentially provocative, and the score was arranged by a French musician of German origin, who reorchestrated the music and added ballet episodes in order to suit the tastes of French audiences. A number of singers took fright at the difficulties posed by the score and asked to be replaced, and the Opera’s principal horn-player, Frédéric Duvernoy, thought it a good idea to insert a horn solo of his own composition. The day after it premiered, on 17 September 1805, much of the press lambasted “barbarian” Mozart’s invasion of that temple of good taste, the Paris Opera. Heated debate ensued between the composer’s detractors, who denounced the German music as a “confused racket”, and his advocates, who, furious at the indignities done to his work, cried “vandalism”.
In 1809, an adaptation of Così fan tutte entitled Les Amants napolitains (The Neapolitan Lovers) was proposed, but the Opera’s director was reluctant to proceed and put off the production. Nevertheless, fragments of Così were included in Le Laboureur chinois (The Chinese Ploughman), an opera in one act by Berton and Lachnith, which was performed until 1816.
The Paris Théâtre-Italien
Under the Empire and the Restoration, another musical institution played a key role in disseminating Mozart’s operas in France: the Théâtre-Italien. In the space of a few years, four of Mozart’s works were produced there: The Marriage of Figaro (1807), Così fan tutte (1809), Don Giovanni (1811) and The Clemency of Titus (1816), performed by a company of foreign singers recruited for their international reputation. The soprano Marianna Barilli made a particularly good showing in 1807, so much so that, the following year, the press proclaimed that she far surpassed any of her French counterparts. Like the Opera, the Théâtre-Italien adapted Mozartian roles to the requirements of its singing stars. In 1820, the tenor Manuel Garcia shone in the role of Don Giovanni, although it had been written for a baritone. His performance, full of passion and fury, left a lasting impression on the young Romantic generation. Patronised by an elite audience of music lovers, who deemed that its musical interpretations often outdid the Opera’s, the Théâtre-Italien was the only venue where Mozart’s operas could be enjoyed in their original language, before their adaptation on the stages of French opera houses.
Other places, other music
While Parisian audiences could not get enough of the Mozart operas staged at the capital’s two leading theatres, the Opera and the Théâtre-Italien, other institutions set about making his religious and instrumental work known. The first French performance of his Requiem took place at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois Church in Paris on 21 December 1804, conducted by Cherubini, to be followed by the work’s publication a few months later. At the same time, music lovers got their first taste of Mozart’s instrumental music. From 1807 onwards, the “Exercices des élèves du Conservatoire”(Exercises of the Music Conservatory pupils), concerts attended by audiences eager to hear new works, regularly included his Vienna Symphonies, whose scores were also issued by the publishers Imbault and Seiber. Mozart’s operas also began to be heard in the provinces. In December 1818, thanks to Castil-Blaze, who was an indefatigable adapter of foreign librettos, audiences in Nîmes were treated to the first performances there of The Marriage of Figaro, the words of which were “adapted to Mozart’s music”. They were followed by highly successful productions of Castil-Blaze’s adaptations of Mozart operas staged at the Théâtre Royal de l’Odéon in Paris.