The production, promulgation, and politics of opera in France during the Enlightenment

Brown, Bruce Alan


The close identification of French opera with the French state began early on. A court-sponsored operatic monopoly, the "Académie Royale de Musique,"[6]  was founded in 1669 on the model of the Académie FranÇaise and the Académie Royale de Peinture, and though its Parisian performances could be attended by anyone who could afford the price of admission, it was meant to serve the king's pleasures first and foremost - with frequent command performances at Versailles and at other royal residences. The majority of its offerings were in the genre of , the five-act structure of which derived from the same Classical models that inspired the spoken tragedies of Corneille and Racine; in both spectacles an overriding concern for the clear declamation of elegantly crafted French verses is evident. Most opened with an allegorical prologue glorifying the sovereign's virtues and accomplishments, and in the early part of his reign, Louis XIV

had been an enthusiastic participant in spectacles staged at his court. After the Florentine Jean-Baptiste Lully assumed control of the Académie Royale de Musique (or Opéra, for short) in 1672, the prestige of this spectacle rose steadily - as did Lully's own. [8]  In this engraving of a portrait of him
(by a nephew of the artist who had painted the king's), the format is much the same, including a frame in which his titles of Secretary to the King and Superintendant of His Music are prominently displayed. The success of his operas, most of them to librettos by Philippe Quinault, was such that from 1679 Lully had all their scores published by the firm of


Christophe Ballard - that enterprise, too, being a royal monopoly, dating back to the mid-16th century.[10]  The Ritter Collection has one superb example of this series:
a 1720 edition by this publisher of Lully's , an opera first presented in 1675, but not issued in print until 1680. In this closer view,one can see more clearly Ballard's proud mention of his royal monopoly, and the standard Ballard woodcut ornament (little changed since the firm's founding), featuring the three royal . This score's sumptuous engravings - one per act -
were not present in the original edition of the opera. But given the conservatism of the Opéra, they offer a good idea of what the costumes, sets and staging would have looked like even when the work was new. More forcefully than any description, they show how lavish spectacle was truly a defining feature of French opera. In an ingenious feat of scenic illusion, the décor for the Prologue "represent[ed] the gardens and the façade of the palace of Versailles," even though the opera was first given at the palace at St-Germain-en-Laye. (The designs for these engravings are by Claude Gillot, the teacher of Watteau.) The plot of the opera proper is far different from the familiar tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, involving the hero in a love triangle with the Princess Eglé and the sorceress Medea (post-Jason). This casual, treatment of mythology is typical not just of French opera, but also of French art in general during this period.[11]  The presence of Medea is an excuse for several magical apparitions and transformations, including a "fearful desert" in Act III:
and an "enchanted isle" in Act IV:


With the stage technology of the time these magical effects were quite realizable, though when characters flew on stage or descended from the heavens there were occasional complaints about the cords being visible.

The opening pages of this 1720 score of Thésée are interesting for the information they offer into the marketing of Lully's music more than three decades after his death. His operas continued to dominate the repertoire of the Opéra, both because they remained popular and because revivals of them were mandated in the case of the failure of a newly written work. Nearly all of them remained in print, as one sees from this catalogue in Ritter's score;

note the distinctions made between those works available in the old, difficult-to-read notation from movable type ("Imprimé"),
as opposed to those operas in the more legible and elegant engraved format ("Gravé"),
as in this score. Note too
the availability of some works in both score and in "parties séparées" - separate instrumental parts; one could also purchase a ballet composed of fragments of various operas, and the librettos to all the works. On the preceding two pages of the score there are tables of "airs to play"
and of "airs to sing," the former neatly labelled according to key, the latter
arranged alphabetically. Clearly, users of these scores were not necessarily expected to read through the opera in order, reverently preserving its dramatic continuity.

Another index of the popularity of Lully's operas was the frequency with which they were parodied on the stages of the Opéra's lesser rivals, the Comédie Italienne and the fairground theaters (the Foire Saint-Germain and the Foire Saint-Laurent).


This was not as paradoxical as it sounds, since the success of the parodies was dependent on close knowledge of the originals. The by Charles-Simon Favart,

the foremost librettist of French comic operas during the 18th century, was first given on 17 February 1745, in the wake of a revival of Lully's original that had begun during the previous December. Favart's piece is included in the edition of his and his wife's complete works, a copy of which is among the Ritter materials:
Such parodies worked by deflating both the high-flown language and the lofty musical style of the target piece, while hewing closely to the original plot. Here, the cast is the same as in Quinault and Lully's opera,
but with the addition of an (fishwife) and her chorus of fellow , who sing in dialect during one of the . Theseus, recognized by the king as his long-lost son in the of the , is mocked as a royal bastard throughout the parody. Medea is less than entirely frightful in Favart's version; when she calls forth her monsters (as in the engraving from the Lully score), they turn out to be a "CH0ŒUR de moutons" - a chorus of sheep; mostly, she is the butt of jokes on account of her unlucky love life. The music of Favart's parody consisted largely of so-called : popular tunes, some of considerable age, retexted so as to carry the newly written dialogue. Only for the less familiar tunes was it necessary to print the music. In this pair of facing pages from the parody,
we see a tune with notation, to which the king sings of his illegitimate son who "is being raised somewhere or other," several tunes signalled just by title, and also Medea's use of a "tune and words from the opera" - the opening of the monologue "Doux repos," made ludicrous here by


the context. Favart's complete works contain numerous such parodies; one of them, - a send-up of , Lully's most famous opera - was performed recently by students at a Canadian university.
Though we are less able than were the original spectators to appreciate the subtleties of these pieces, such parodies are valuable tools with which to guage the popularity of specific , as well as critical attitudes generally toward the conventions of that genre of spectacle.


[6] Originally called simply "Académie d'opéra"; see Anthony, p. 21.

[7] Portrait of Louis XIV, engr. Pierre-Louis van Schuppen after Nicolas Mignard, 1662 (collection of the author)

[8] The Jean-Baptiste Lully Collection, University of North Texas Libraries, Music Library,

[9] Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Lully, engr. Jean-Louis Roullet after Paul Mignard (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fonds du Conservatoire, no. 19198):

[10] See Anthony, Grove "Lully," p. 12.

[11] On eighteenth-century attitudes toward mythology, see Jean Starobinski, "Le Mythe au XVIIIe siècle," Critique, 30:366 (November 1977), 975-97, and Katie Scott, "D'un siècle à l'autre: History, mythology, and decoration in early eighteenth-century Paris," in The loves of the gods: Mythological painting from Watteau to David, ed. Colin B. Bailey (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 32-59.

[12] Lully, Thésée, p. 1 of Prologue, in original typeset edition (Paris: Ballard, 1688):

[13], texts assembled and edited by the late Barry Russell.

[14] portrait of Charles-Simon Favart: engr. Claude-Antoine Littret de Montigny after Jean-Etienne Liotard, ca. 1770 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département de la Musique, Fonds estampes, Favart C. 001):

[15] Pages from Charles-Simon Favart, Thésée parodie, in vol. 7 of Théâtre de M. Favart, 10 vols. (Paris: Duchesne, 1763-72; repr. Geneva: Slatkine, 1971)

[16] Pages from Charles-Simon Favart, Thésée parodie, in vol. 7 of Théâtre de M. Favart, 10 vols. (Paris: Duchesne, 1763-72; repr. Geneva: Slatkine, 1971)

[17] Photo of production of Charles-Simon Favart, Cythère assiégée, Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, 2002: photo by Shannon Purves-Smith

  • Delivered as part of the Ritter Colloquium Series sponsored by the Department of Music at Tufts University, October 17, 2003.
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