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The French Opera Tradition

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Opera originated in Italy around 1600, but from an early stage its development took a distinctive path in France. The primacy of singers was never favoured as in Italy, and the French style always favoured a richer instrumental support, paying more attention to the words being sung than was found in the classic Italian style. Also, the French taste for centralised authority meant that opera, like many other facets of culture, was controlled by laws and was often entangled in bureaucratic regulations.

In the early 19th Century, two distinct strands of Grand Opera and Light Opera were present. After the middle of the century these strands grew closer until by 1900, a general form of French opera remained, with a new subsidiary in the form of Operetta. By the mid 20th Century the older French tradition had become fossilized, and was no longer renewed by important new works. Opera in France after 1970 can be considered as part of the general international style, rather than as a separate genre.

The 17th and 18th Centuries

Early French Opera

In the early 17th Century, some unsuccessful attempts were made to import Italian opera to the French court, but ballet remained much more popular. A distinct French style was developed in the 1670s by Lully, whose works of tragédies en musique set the dominant style for nearly a century. These works had the serious tone of the Italian Opera seria, with the distinctive French features of dance and a large chorus, but castrati singers, so popular elsewhere in Europe, never found much favour in France.

The Rise of Opéra-comique

Opéra-comique was a lighter style which partly began as a reaction against the more formal tragédies-lyriques which had developed from Lully's style. Becoming increasingly popular as the 18th Century went by, these works had ordinary people as characters rather than kings and heroes. Naturally, with the Revolution in 1789, this lighter style became the dominant form.

The Revolution also gave rise to the fairly short-lived genre of rescue opera, where the hero or heroine is rescued from prison or danger. The political turmoil of the day was expressed in these works, whose best example is actually by the German composer Beethoven, Fidelio (1805).

L'Opéra and Grand Opera

L'Opéra: an Institution and a Building

The institution controlling serious opera in France began under Louis XIV as the Academie Royale de Musique, mutating into the Academie Imperiale, Academie Nationale and various other guises as the political scene changed. However, it was usually simply known as the Opéra. The theatre in which these serious operas were performed was also known as the Opéra, but its location in Paris moved through a series of buildings through most of the 19th Century. By the time it found a permanent home in the Palais Garnier in 1875, the great days of Grand Opera were past.

Grand Opera

In the 1820s and 1830s, a distinctive genre developed at the Opéra. To count as a Grand Opera, a work needed to have sung recitative (with no spoken dialogue), four or usually five acts, and a ballet. Normally, it had elaborate sets, with lighting effects and stage machinery. Most of this was developed by Louis Daguerre, the pioneer of photography, who worked at the Opéra for most of the 1820s and 1830s. The libretti, often by Eugene Scribe, had plots based on historical episodes of conspiracy, revolution or religious persecution. A large cast of soloists was needed, and a chorus to provide the crowd scenes of battles or processions, while the huge orchestra was often further augmented by a stage band. The performance typically concluded with a dramatic final scene of massacre, shipwreck or even a volcanic eruption. The sheer scale of these productions meant that few places apart from the Opéra could afford to stage them.

The Peak Years of Grand Opera in Paris

A significant early Grand Opera was La Muette de Portici (1828) by Auber, who was also a successful composer of opéra-comique. This work is chiefly remembered today as the opera whose 1830 performance in Brussels started the successful Belgian rebellion against Dutch rule. Halévy's La Juive in 1835 was another influential work.

The most important composer of Grand Opera was Meyerbeer. He was from a German Jewish family, but worked mostly in Paris and is regarded as a key part of the French operatic tradition. His successful career at the Opéra lasted over 30 years, from Robert le Diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836) to L'Africaine (1865).

Berlioz, though probably the greatest French composer to work in the Grand Opera style, had little or no operatic success in his lifetime, and comparatively little direct influence on French opera in general. Benvenuto Cellini (1838) failed at the Opéra, partly because of the unconventional setting of the obligatory ballet as the famous Roman Carnival scene. In composing Les Troyens, based on Virgil, Berlioz paid very little attention to the practical problems of staging such a massive work. Written between 1856 and 1858, it was later divided into two parts, the second Les Troyens a Carthage being performed in Paris in 1863, the first La Prise de Troie only reaching the stage in 1890, long after Berlioz' death.

The Influence of Grand Opera Outside France

Foreign composers writing for the Opéra were expected to follow the Grand Opera pattern as strictly as the locals, and it was obligatory to present all works in French. Wagner wrote Rienzi (1842) for the Paris Opéra, though his troubled career prevented it being performed there, while with Tannhauser (1845) he was prepared to translate the libretto and to add a ballet for the Paris premiere in 1861. The unconventional placement of this ballet in the opening scene was enough to infuriate the locals, and caused the work to be withdrawn.

Verdi wrote or revised a number of Grand Operas for Paris, the most outstanding being Don Carlos, premiered in French in 1867 in five acts, though later was revised into a four act Italian version. The influence of Grand Opera on these composers' later works can be seen in the spectacular staging in Verdi's Aida and in Wagner's more complicated scenery effects, such as the fall of Klingsor's magic castle in Parsifal.

Opéra-comique, Light Opera and Operetta

Opéra-Comique: A Changing Style and a Theatre

The term opéra-comique offers real problems in translation. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries it meant a style of opera which had simple scenes and spoken dialogue, originally with everyday characters and comic plots, and calling it 'light opera' caught the flavour well. Composers that were successful in this style include Auber with Fra Diavolo (1830) and Adam with both Le postillon de Lonjumeau (1836) and Si j'étais roi (1852). Other light operas include Hérold's Zampa (1831), Halévy's L'éclair (1835) and Meyerbeer's L'étoile du nord (1854).

Later in the 19th Century opéra-comique came to mean any opera with spoken dialogue, no matter how serious the theme, and to translate this description as 'light opera' can be misleading. The Opéra-Comique was a theatre that presented these works. After 1870, as the Opéra become more hidebound by tradition, the Opéra-Comique increasingly presented foreign works, less conventional new operas, and any work which first appeared there might occasionally be described as an opéra-comique, even such gloomy operas as Lakmé or Louise.


Jacques Offenbach was almost single-handedly responsible for the popularity of French operetta in the late 19th Century. He wrote 97 operettas and one unfinished opera. The operettas, often described by the term 'opéra-bouffe', were light and satirical, with spoken dialogue and plenty of memorable tunes. Offenbach's greatest operetta was Orphée aux enfers (1858) a satire on the classical myth, where Euridice and Orpheus can't stand each other. This work contains the famous cancan tune, known to millions of people who have never set foot in a theatre. Other memorable Offenbach operettas include La Belle Hélene (1864) and La Vie Parisienne (1866). Works in this style by other composers include Bizet's Le Docteur Miracle, (1857) and Fleur-de-thé (1868) by Lecocq.

French Opera in the Later 19th Century

After Meyerbeer's death in 1864, other composers still wrote works in the Grand Opera style, for example Massenet with Hérodiade (1881), and Saint-Saëns with Henri VIII (1883). While the amount of spectacle in new works at the Opéra was gradually toned down, the opera-comique style became more serious, so that the differences between the genres often remained simply the presence or absence of a ballet and recitative.

The management of the Opéra became increasingly conservative, so that the Palais Garnier theatre presented a fossilized tradition, and its singers were isolated from international contact. Meanwhile the Opéra-Comique grew more adventurous, and kept more in touch with international trends, so that most of the best known operas of the period after 1870, including Carmen, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Manon, Lakmé, Louise, and Pelléas et Mélisande, had their premieres at the Opéra-Comique.

Well-known French Operas of 1870 - 1945

Most of these works show more influence from the opéra-comique tradition than from Grand Opera, though only Carmen still used spoken dialogue.

Gounod - Faust (1859, revised 1869)

This famous work was first performed at the Theatre Lyrique, and revised for the Opéra by adding sung recitative and a ballet. It achieved huge success after its 1869 revival, and so, while strictly outside the 1870 - 1945 period, deserves to be counted here. It represents only a small part of Goethe's Faust, by presenting the love story of Faust and Marguerite (Gretchen), and as George Martin of The Opera Companion cynically said in 1961, 'Persons go to Faust to hum and tap their feet, not to consider the problem of evil.' The work is full of easy melodies, with the soldiers' chorus, the jewel song, the flower song and many other highlights familiar to a wide audience.

Bizet - Carmen (1875)

Surprisingly, this opera was a failure at its original production. A discouraged Bizet died three months later, just before it began the run of international successes that established it as one of the world's most popular operas. It is now considered to be full of tuneful, striking arias that fit well with the dramatic story, but in 1875 the Parisian critics thought it was too Wagnerian.

Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila (1877)

This is the only one of Saint-Saëns' 13 operas still regularly performed. It was originally intended as an oratorio, and only develops a real operatic flow in the second act. Its musical fluency and dramatic qualities are superior to the rest of Saint-Saëns' output, but it has little psychological depth. It has been said that 'Samson is hardly more than a furniture mover who can't say no'1.

Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1881)

This was Offenbach's one attempt at a larger-scale work, but he died while the opera was still in rehearsal at the Opéra-Comique. The piece was partly orchestrated and re-arranged by Ernest Guiraud for the premiere, and has been cut and re-arranged many times, with no agreement on a definitive version. This was possible because of the nature of the opera, with a prologue and epilogue set in a tavern, and three acts with the three different tales, featuring Hoffmann's three former loves, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta.

Delibes - Lakmé (1883)

This work shows much influence from Bizet in the charm and tunefulness of the score. The exotic Eastern location and tragic end were both highly fashionable, though the mock-oriental melodies were not exactly authentic.

Massenet - Manon (1884)

Manon, the story of a vulnerable courtesan, was typical of Massenet's work. The ability to charm is usually seen as the most striking feature of his music. This sweet and appealing style, and a concentration on female subjects, can be found in some of his other works such as Hérodiade (1881) and Thais (1894).

Charpentier - Louise (1900)

The story of a working girl who leaves home to live with an artist, this work was strongly influenced by the Italian school of Verismo. Its success owes something to the streak of sentimentality that softened this realism, and more to the lyrical fluency of the music.

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

Based on a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, this opera by Debussy requires great attention to the actual words sung. Since its premiere, the audience has always been strongly divided between those who find it richly rewarding and those who find it dreadfully dull. In pursuit of symbolism, all features of a specific time or place have been pared away. There is a distinct lack of dramatic incident or show-off arias compared to Italian opera of the same period. The musical interludes between scenes were originally added at the rehearsals to allow time for changing the scenery, but are now considered an essential part of the work.

Ravel - L'Enfant et les Sortileges (1925)

Written to a libretto by Colette, Ravel's short two-act opera is the story of a bold child punished and returned to happiness. It avoids the danger of sentimentality by the use of clever parody in the music for the animated objects that torment the child, and lyrical passages for the animals in the later garden scene.

Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites (1957)

While outside the time period under review, this work deserves special consideration as the last flowering of the distinctly French operatic tradition. It is a deeply religious work, set during the French Revolution, with music in a simple lyrical style, influenced by Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.

Appendix - French Opera Composers

  • Lully, Jean-Baptiste (b Florence 1632, d Paris 1687)
  • Auber, Daniel-Francois-Esprit (b Caen 1782, d Paris 1871)
  • Hérold, Ferdinand (b Paris 1791, d Paris 1833)
  • Meyerbeer, Giacomo (b Jakob Beer, Vogelsdorf 1791, d Paris 1864)
  • Halévy, Fromental (b Paris 1799, d Nice 1862)
  • Berlioz, Hector (b La-Cote-Saint-André 1803, d Paris 1869)
  • Adam, Adolphe (b Paris 1803, d Paris 1856)
  • Gounod, Charles (b Paris 1818, d Saint-Cloud 1893)
  • Offenbach, Jacques (b Cologne 1819, d Paris 1880)
  • Lecocq, Charles (b Paris 1832, d Paris 1918)
  • Saint-Saëns, Camille (b Paris 1835, d Algiers 1921)
  • Delibes, Léo (b Saint-Germain-du-Val 1836, d Paris 1891)
  • Bizet, Georges, (b Paris 1838, d Bougival 1875)
  • Massenet, Jules (b Montaud 1842, d Paris 1912)
  • Charpentier, Gustave (b Dieuze 1860, d Paris 1956)
  • Debussy, Claude (b Saint-Germain-en-Laye 1862, d Paris 1918)
  • Ravel, Maurice (b Ciboure 1875, d Paris 1937)
  • Poulenc, Francis (b Paris 1899, d Paris 1963)
1George Martin again.

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