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

Brown, Bruce Alan


Analogously to the situation in painting, the story of French opera during the latter years of the Ancien Régime and the early Revolutionary period is one of blurred boundaries between genres and styles. Serious subject matter was less of a distinguishing factor between offerings of the Opéra and the Opéra Comique than was the use of continuous music (typical at the former) or of musical numbers mixed with spoken dialogue (in the latter spectacle). Historical subjects made inroads at the one venue, while high-minded (as opposed to farcical) treatments of mythology were ventured in the other. In 1783 the Opéra Comique moved from the dilapidated Hôtel de Bourgogne to the newly constructed Salle Favart,

a theater that approached that of the Opéra in decency. With the opening early in 1789 of the Théâtre de Monsieur (named for the king's brother, and later known as the Théâtre Feydeau, after a new location),
Paris had three major theaters for opera, whose rivalry for the same public several times led to multiple treatments of the same subject matter - competing settings of by Kreutzer and Le Sueur, for instance, and of by Kreutzer and Cherubini.

As one might expect, the social ferment of these years frequently surfaced in operas staged at all these venues. And while the Ritter Collection does not include any overtly Revolutionary works, several operas take as their theme the depravity of nobly born characters. Ironically, one of the earliest of these, of 1783, was by one of the


composers most highly patronized by the royal family, the German-born Jean-Paul-Egide Martini.
Likely taking his cue from Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro, which was widely known (though not yet from public performances), Martini and his librettists Desfontaines and Laval take as their premise the ancient droit de vassellage and its implicit (though fictitious) license for a ruler to deflower a girl from his estate before her marriage. Though convoluted in plot, the opera makes clear musical contrasts between rural innocence and aristocratic oppression. The overture
serves as accompaniment to an extended pantomime of village occupations and amusements, painting "the reawakening of Nature" with a profusion of bird-like figurations. Later, for the entrance of the Seigneur,
Martini writes a "March in the old style, as if having been written at the time of the origin of the right of vasselage," in Dorian mode, with numerous pointedly antique-sounding features of rhythm and melody.

Another Ritter Collection opera in which a medieval setting provided a convenient camouflage for attacking aristocratic privilege was of 1790, by Etienne-Nicolas Méhul,

whom Elizabeth Bartlet has rightly called the most talented composer of the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary period.[50]  Even the title page of
announces an end to distinctions of class; surnames are prefaced simply by first initials rather than by "M[onsieur]," the Comédiens Italiens are no longer called "Ordinaires du Roi," and Méhul dedicates the opera ostentatiously "to my mother" - pointedly foregoing the honorarium that would have come from a dedication to a noble patron. In this work, too, archaic-sounding


music, here supplied by three importuning troubadours with their instruments, helps to specify the time period. The gruff tyrant Coradin summarily throws the musicians in his castle's keep, described later in the opera, in a transparent allusion to the recently fallen Bastille, as "cette prison obscure, / Qui fait horreur à l'homme et honte à la nature." The heroine of the piece, Euphrosine, successfully evades Coradin's scheme to give her in marriage to the winner of a tournament, by feigning death by poisoning, Juliet-like. The villain's lengthy self-recriminations at the offered the audience at least some hope that aristocrats could be turned into useful and amicable members of society.

This first of Méhul's several collaborations with the librettist François-Benoît Hoffman was in one sense a rehearsal for their second opera, Stratonice of 1792,

in that the doctor's interrogation of the love-sick Coradin is transplanted nearly verbatim into the later opera. But did break new ground, being one of the first based on a Classical source (Lucian, by way of Corneille's spoken play). Another inspiration may well have been a painting of the same subject, "Antiochus et Stratonice," by Jacques-Louis David,
with which he competed successfully for the Prix de Rome in 1774. The stage directions for the opening scene specify that Antiochus lies on a "Lit à l'antique," an indication that the décors and costumes generally were more or less authentic. Nor is it out of the question that, at the climax of the opera, spectators would have been expected to recognize David's well known painting, re-enacted on the stage. Such a theatrical was called for explicitly during Chérubin's song for the Countess in Beaumarchais's (recreating a painting by Vanloo).[52]  In the case of David's , too, the public would have been aware of the painting both from the original and from engravings.

The plot of this hour-long opera is simple and poignant: the prince Antiochus languishes near death, and indeed wishes for it, on account of his (apparently) hopeless love for his father's fiancée Stratonice. The doctor Erasistrate correctly diagnoses the problem and


cleverly manipulates the king into ceding his bride, who in fact returns Antiochus's love. Méhul's music conveys well both the psychological complexities and the Classical restraint of the drama, which is all but devoid of overt action. In the prince's lamenting first aria, as in many other passages, one hears clear echoes of Gluck - particularly in the palpitating string figure (reminiscent of music for Oreste's in ), and the sparing but effective use of low brass:


With Spontini's of 1807,
we come to the end of what Ritter seems to have considered "historical" operatic repertory. The piece marks a new era in several respects: in its dedication to a representative of a new dynasty, Empress Josephine (Spontini's pupil in singing), and in its massive orchestral forces - so redolent of Napoleonic ceremony, and so far beyond the capabilities of the amateur performers of the sort who had occasionally used the earlier scores examined here. The issue of performance is of particular significance with regard to the French opera holdings of this collection. It is heartening that operas by Lully and Rameau are regularly being heard these days, in stylish and technically superb performances, both in the theater and in recordings. But aside from a few works such as Méhul's , the operas of the other composers surveyed here have continued to slumber, just as they did during Ritter's lifetime. This situation is likely due less to the quality of the works themselves than to the relative neglect of the French language and repertory in the teaching of singing, and the stultifying effects of the conservatory and commercial operatic systems, which enshrine a small number of endlessly repeated works, to the exclusion of almost all else. The large amount and varying distribution of spoken dialogue in have been cited as factors inhibiting this genre's popularity with modern performers and audiences, but these features have not proved fatal to German operas by Mozart, Ditters, Beethoven or Weber. The educational efforts by which the Ritter Collection is now being brought to the attention of a wider public will encourage not just


performances of some of these works, but performances, which will inevitably spur further scholarly investigations of them as well.


[18] The Opéra Comique, Paris (Salle Favart), publ. by Genti (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra), reproduced in Legrand/Nicole Wild, p. 60

[48] The Théâtre de la rue Feydeau, Paris, 1791, engr. Jean-Louis Prieur (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra), reproduced in Legrand/Nicole Wild, p. 94

[49] Portrait of Etienne-Nicolas Méhul, pastel by Joseph Ducreux, 1795 (Versailles, Musée du Château), reproduced in Legrand/Nicole Wild, p. 88

[50] M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, "Méhul, Etienne-Nicolas," in Opera Grove, 3:305-11 (305)

[51] Jacques-Louis David, Antiochus et Stratonice, 1774 (Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts):

[52] See Bruce Alan Brown, "Beaumarchais, Mozart and the vaudeville: Two examples from 'The Marriage of Figaro'," The Musical Times vol. 127, no. 1718 (May 1986), 261-5.

[53] Antiochus's aria - tr. 6

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