A Survey of Recorded French Opera (1670-1770)

Italian Opera in Paris (1645-60)

As in Italy, the 16th century in France had its form of entertainment mixing theatrics, voices and instruments. It was known as the ballet de cour, and its first known example was the Ballet de la Royne by Joyeuse (1581). This form of courtly entertainment remained popular with the late Valois and early Bourbons. The importation of Italian operas did not begin in earnest until the mid-1640s. At the time, the king Louis XIV was a minor, and the regency of his mother relied on an Italian cardinal, Giulio Mazarini, as prime minister. Mazarini made repeated attempts at introducing Italian opera, inviting Italian companies to perform at the court or in his palace. Here are all the Italian operas known to have been performed in Paris:

Il Cappriccio by Marco Mazzaroli, Feb 1645 (thanks to Tom Shirhall for identifying this work)
la Finta Pazza by Sacrati, Dec 1645
Egisto by Cavalli, 1646
Orfeo by Luigi Rossi, 1647
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 901358/60
Nozze di Peleo by Caproli, 1654
Xerse by Cavalli, Nov 1660
Concerto Vocale -- René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi 901175/78
Ercole Amante by Cavalli, Feb 1662
LP recording by Corboz on Erato

Mazarin dies in 1661. The next time an Italian opera seria was performed in Paris was 1811 (an opera by Paisiello).

Lully and the Foundation of French OPera

The same year, Louis XIV comes of age and takes personal control of the state. He is very fond of dancing, as were most aristocrats of the time, and danced himself on the stage of Versailles. He shows little affection for Italian music or Italian opera, and perhaps his personal resentment of Mazarini is the cause of this dislike. In any event, a young Italian immigrant by the name of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) wins the sovereign's graces by writing ballet music for the king, which was one of the young king's few pleasures in an otherwise miserable childhood. One especially famous ballet gave the king the role of Apollo, the Sun-God, whence the image of the Sun-King (a contemporary painting of the costume worn by the King was on exhibition at the Library of Congress). Also, Lully wrote incidental music for the king's favorite playwright Molière. The pair, known as "les deux Baptistes" turned out to be well-suited to each other artistically, even if they fell out soon before Molière's death in 1673. The results of this collaboration, full of humour and often slapstick comedy, is explored in Minkowski's first release in 1987. The London Oboe Band recording contains instrumental suites derived from several of Lully's smaller works.

Les Comédies-Ballets
Musiciens du Louvre -- Marc Minkowski
Erato 2292-45286-2
le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, les Nopces de Village, Cadmus et Hermione
London Oboe Band, Paul Goodwin
Harmonia Mundi 907122

The very first operas in French had already appeared outside of the French court. The cardinal Alessandro Bichi, who was bishop of Carpentras in Southern France, arranged for his maitre de chapelle Mailly to write and produce Akébar roi du Mogol in that town in 1646. Later, the abbé Perrin, librettist, and Cambert, musician, presented a "Pastoral in Music" in a private performance in Issy; emboldened by their success, obtained a patent in 1669 to perform opera in Paris, and produced Pomone and later les Peines et les Plaisirs de l'Amour (1671 and 1672). The following year, as the two associates were preparing to perform Ariane, Lully wrestled away from them the patent and forced them to cancel. Cambert went to London where Ariane enjoyed a great success (he died in London in 1677). It is said that the flutist and conductor Hugo Reyne is planning to record one of Cambert's operas in the near future.

After Molière's death, Lully moved to create the French answer to Italian opera seria, more of a sung tragedy than an opera, the first being Cadmus in 1673. His life-long librettist was Quinault, whose texts are of high quality. The 17th century was also the high point of French tragedy, as served by Corneille and Racine. Lully extended this genre of tragedy into music, hence the generic names of French opera seria, tragédies en musique or tragédies lyriques.

Lully's operas were to profoundly shape the history of French opera, down to the late 19th century. Among the main characteristics were: a substantial and rich orchestral accompaniment, the inclusion of danced interludes throughout the opera, a standard structure of a Prologue followed by 5 acts, frequent dramatic and musical use of the chorus, libretti written in refined verse, subjects drawn from classical mythology. Most of these characteristics persisted down to Verdi.

Lully shaped the melodies (if one can call them that, some can't) to emphasize the French verse and follow the diction of a spoken text. French, in contrast with most European languages, has little or no tonic accent. Scanning is done on the basis of the number of syllables, not the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The placement of stress or emphasis in a sentence will depend on the meaning and the flow of the phrase. As a result, the rhythmic contours of a phrase will be flexible, and is unlikely to display a clearly repeated pattern. Lully's writing is conditioned by this fact, and his operas consist mostly of a hybrid of aria and recitativo, with little or no vocal virtuosity. Successful interpretation will require very clear diction and pronunciation, and great attention to the text.

Also, because of Louis XIV's fondness for dance, Lully put a lot of ballet music in his operas, which you have to listen through on CD without enjoying the spectacle. As a result, unless one knows already that one will like it, I would recommend postponing purchases of Lully's tragédie music for a little while. As a sampler, I recommend a selection by Skip Sempe on DHM. It has instrumental and vocal excerpts from several operas and incidental suites, including the aria from Armide: "enfin il est en ma puissance..." which remained a hit well into the late 18th c.

Alceste (1674)
Jean-Claude Malgoire
Astrée 8527
Atys (1676)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 901257/9
Excerpts:Harmonia Mundi 901249
Phaëton (1683)
Musiciens du Louvre -- Marc Minkowski
Erato 4509-91737-2
Armide (1686)
Chapelle Royale -- Philippe Herreweghe
Harmonia Mundi
Capriccio Stravagante -- Skip Sempe
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi RD77218

Atys was performed in a full stage production of Jean-Marc Villegier in Paris in 1986, and again in 1990 in Paris and later in Brooklyn. The 1986 production was one of the great events of the decade in French musical life, and was a decisive moment in the return of the Baroque to the forefront.

The Successors of Lully

Lully's operas were written for the king in Versailles, but they were immediately performed in Paris as well, in the newly created Académie Royale de Musique or Paris opera. Banking on the Parisian crowd's desire to keep up with the latest fashionable cultural happenings at the court, the Paris opera, which was a private, for-profit venture, was a great success. And, as was typical for commercial ventures at the time, Lully had secured a legal monopoly (or privilège), which meant that only he and his cronies could place a note edgewise. His successors at the Paris opera slaved to perpetuate the model: Lully's son Louis (guess who was the godfather), Colassse, Desmarets, Destouches, Marais. There is a selection of excerpts from Destouches on Ades 14.178-2 by the Ensemble baroque de Limoges. Louis XIV once told Destouches that he was the only one who did not make him miss Lully. Alcyone by Marin Marais (1656-1724) was very popular in the 18th c. and performed for more than 70 years after its premiere. Especially famous is a sea tempest scene, with sinking ship.

Alcyone (1706)
Musiciens du Louvre -- Marc Minkowski
Erato 2292-45522-2 (2 CDs)

The greatest epigone of Lully was André Campra (1660-1744), whose style is close to that of the master, but who showed more invention in particular in the choral writing. Tancrède was quite successful, and revived until 1764. It was written for Mlle. Maupin, whose gorgeous alto voice and swashbuckling personal life were renowned, and was the first opera in Paris whose leading female role was not a soprano. The story is taken from Ariosto as usual, but thickened with the usual side-plots to reach the standard Paris length. The title-role was created, and sung for 30 years, by Thévenard. The libretto of Idoménée, by Danchet, was the source for da Ponte's Idomeneo, illustrated by Mozart. Jephté was the last great success of the pre-Rameau opera. It is actually said that its music inspired Rameau to try his hand at writing operas, and he asked the librettist Pellegrin for a libretto to set to music. Jephté was unusual in being an opera on a biblical subject.

Campra: Tancrède (1702)
Grande Écurie et Chambre du Roy -- Jean-Claude Malgoire
Erato 2292-45001-2 (2 CDs)
Campra: Idoménée (1712)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 901396/8
Monteclair: Jephté (1732)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 901424/5

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704) had too many Italianate leanings, and was not in favor with Lully, who possibly detected a serious rival. Charpentier's friendship with the king's nephew (Philippe d'Orléans, future Regent) got him a shot at the Paris opera in the form of Médée, which was killed by a lullist cabal. It was shown in 1994, fully staged, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a magnificent show. Christie's recording is from 1986, a new one will be released by Erato in April 1995. There are also lighter works and incidental music, written for private occasions and court balls.

Médée (1693)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 901139/41
Actéon (1693)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 1901095
les Arts Florissants
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 1901083

The tragédie lyrique was a pretty stilted and formal genre, and some form of lighter entertainment proved soon indispensable for the financial health of the Paris opera: whence the genre called opéra-ballet, which is a collection of several acts, at best weakly linked together, on rather light themes (no heroes). An advantage was that the more popular acts could be recycled into composite programs known as Fragments which were a common feature of the Paris opera until the 1770s.

The first of the kind was Campra's Europe Galante (1697), recorded in excerpts, which was a big success and created the genre. Each act takes place in a different country (France, Spain, Italy, Turkey) where various love stories take place. This allowed for variety, exoticism, fancy sets and amusing costumes.

L'Europe Galante
Gustav Leonhardt
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi GD77059

Also barely emerging at the time was the opéra-comique, a lowly form which evolved out of sung comedies at Paris fairs, and which would gain institutional acceptance by the 1760s. Italian opera buffa was admitted in France only rarely, and the French opéra comique developped independently. It was to a large extent based on parodies of the most recent tragédies lyriques, whose airs were set with new words (this is the original vaudeville). Over time, an increasing portion of the music was composed. Aristocrats occasionally slummed and had such pieces shown at their private parties, such as

Mouret's Amours de Ragonde (1714)
Musiciens du Louvre -- Marc Minkowski
Erato 2292-45823-2


The next big figure after Lully was Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), who came to the stage fairly late. So late, in fact, that he was already 50 years old, and the librettist demanded to be paid in advance for his work, or at least be given a promissory note (to his honor, he tore up the note after the first rehearsal). The first opera was Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), the libretto inspired by Racine's classic play Phèdre. The novelty of Rameau's music, especially in the orchestral accompaniment and the density of musical material, sparked furious controversy between between lullists and ramists; but within a few years Rameau had come to dominate the the stage, and remained the pre-eminent composer of operas to his death in 1764 (and beyond: Castor et Pollux was last staged in 1814!). Campra, after the premiere of Hippolyte, remarked that there was enough in there for 10 operas, and they would be all eclipsed by this man. Rameau worked on both fronts: tragédies lyriques (Castor et Pollux 1737, admired by Gluck, Dardanus 1739, Zoroastre 1749, les Boréades 1764) and opéras-ballets (Platée, Pygmalion, les Surprises de l'amour, les Indes galantes, Anacréon, les Boréades).

I have also written a review of a concert performance of les Indes Galantes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993.

Hippolyte et Aricie (1733)
Musiciens du Louvre -- Marc Minkowski
Archiv 445 853-2
les Indes Galantes (1735--36)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
HM 901367/9
Castor et Pollux (1737)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
HM 901435/7
Dardanus (1739-42)
Opéra de Paris -- Raymond Leppard
Erato 4509 95312-2
Platée (1745)
Musiciens du Louvre -- Marc Minkowski
Erato 2292-45028-2
Pygmalion (1748)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
HM 901381
Zoroastre (1749)
Sigiswald Kuijken
DHM GD77144M
Anacréon (1754)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
HMA 1901090
Les Paladins (1760)
Jean-Claude Malgoire
Pierre Verany PV 790121/2
les Boréades (1764)
John E. Gardiner
Erato 2292-45572-2

A contemporary of Rameau is Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), a well-known violinist:

Scylla et Glaucus (1746)
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists --J.E. Gardiner
Erato 2292-45277-2

The Querelle des Bouffons

In the early 1750s, an extraordinary controversy, called the Querelle des Bouffons, raged amidst the Paris intelligentsia.

By then, Rameau was part of the establishment himself, a regular contributor to the opera's repertoire. Which meant that he was beginning to bore fickle audiences. In 1752, the Paris opera's management, faced with slumping revenues, decided to invite a company of Italian singers for a year-long residence, to perform a slew of Italian buffas, including Pergolese's Serva Padrona. To many, the Italian music seemed so airy, so pleasing, so light and natural in contrast to the intellectual complexity and rigid pomp of the tragedie en musique. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, himself a composer, and the author of most of the music entries in the Encyclopédie, naturally led the camp of the pro-Italians. Not coincidentally, he and Rameau were already engaged in a rather bitter controversy over those articles, some of which attacked Rameau's treatise on harmony (Rameau was a proponent of equal temperament, which Rousseau claimed was a mathematician's delight but a musician's nightmare).

The controversy was furious. Rousseau was burned in effigy by the musicians of the Paris opera, who rightly saw that an invasion of Italian imports would put them out of a job. He was almost sent to jail, although at the last minute reason prevailed. The government got involved most actively. Pamphlets, epigrams, satires flew back and forth, with many hacks hired by the government to attack the philosophers. If the controversy flared so quickly and was so violent, it was because it followed exactly the same forms as all other controversies of the time, whether they be on Voltaire's articles on Christianity in the Encyclopedie, or the Parliaments' opposition to papal bulls on Jansenism, etc.

In 18th century France, political dissent was repressed, and especially attacks on the king's government were stifled. This meant that controversies often erupted on topics seemingly unrelated to politics, as a conduit for the expression of dissent. The French opera as represented by Rameau was the establishment, ever since Lully, and therefore a natural target. The battle-lines were already drawn, the printing presses were waiting. It was just a matter of writing epigrams on Rameau instead of on the bulle Unigenitus. The 1750s and 1760s were probably the most difficult period for the French government: its military ventures were turning into disasters, it was buckling under the weight of a crippling debt and faced stiff opposition in its attempts at reform, and the Parliaments were increasingly flexing their muscle on a wide range of policy issued. At the same time the philosophers were starting to think out loud. As near as one can tell, the typical audience of the Paris opera, besides the aristocrats and wealthy financiers who owned boxes, was largely made up of parliamentaries, law clerks and students, and professionals, the same crowd which was so active in the political struggles with the king's government.

In order to counter-attack, the government commissioned Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-72) to write an opera which could serve as rallying point for the French party. This he did with Titon et l'Aurore:

Titon et l'Aurore
Musiciens du Louvre -- Marc Minkowski
Erato 2292-45715-2

It won the day, in particular because Louis XV sent soldiers to take over the pit held by the pro-Italian subscribers; during the night of the creation, reports of the battle were sent every 15mn to Versailles. The battle was won by the French side, although the war raged for months. In the end, the pro-French party won and Italian music was expelled from the Opera.

Nevertheless, it had a big impact: in fact, Mondonville's opera was beginning to move away from the French style. Also, opera buffa found its way onto the stage at the Opera Comique, which obtained official recognition in the 1760s after the phenomenal success of Dauvergne's Troqueurs (1753), very much inspired by the buffa:

les Troqueurs (1753)
Arts Florissants -- William Christie
Harmonia Mundi 901454


After Lully and Rameau, the next big event in Paris was Gluck. The 19th c. Germans have made him into the great German composer, but, after all, the Iphigenies and Armide were written for Paris, and in some respects are not far removed from the French tradition of the tragédie lyrique (much closer to it than to the opera seria that Gluck was reacting against). His operas were performed into the 1820s, alongside those of Piccinni, Sacchini and Grétry (1780s and 1790s), Paisiello and Spontini (1800s), until Rossini came along. Nevertheless, a major break took place around 1770. Rameau and Lully both disappeared from the repertory after having stayed decades, and generally almost nothing from before that date was performed after it. ``French music'' became synonymous with pre-1770 music in the eyes of the 19th century, until, in the 1890s, French composers seeking a counter-weight to Gluck and Wagner resurrected Rameau (Vincent d'Indy and Saint-Saëns, who published his works, and performed Castor et Pollux in 1903 to the delight of Debussy, who exclaimed: "Vive Rameau! A bas Gluck!"). Of course, opera and politics still mingled, and do so to this day in Paris.

Appendix: Composition of the Paris Orchestra, 17th-18th c.

Here's a table of the composition of the orchestra roster, from Castil-Blaze and an article by Graham Sadler.

                1719    1738    1750    1756    1763    1775
harpsichord       1       1       1       1       1       -
theorbo           2       -       -       -       -       -
violins          16      16      16      16      16      24
violas            6       5       6       6       6       4
b.viols + cellos 10      11      10      10       8      10
contreb.          2       2       2       2       4       4
flutes/ oboes     2       5       5       6      3+3      ?
bassoon           4       5       4       5       4       ?
trumpets          -       -       1       1       2       ?
horns             -       -       -       -       2       ?
clarinet          -       -       -       -       -      (1)
trombone          -       -       -       -       -       ? 
harp              -       -       -       -       -      (1)

total            45      45      45      47      49      66

That's the roster: not all players necessarily played at the same time. The last date already belongs to another era, since this is the post-Gluck orchestra (no harpsichord, increased violin and cello section, reduced violas, new instruments).

Interesting note: the average salary of the orchestra player went up about 70% in real terms from 1713 to 1778. It went up 20% for choir members, 65% for dancers and 210% for singers. Composers and librettists were paid a fixed fee plus a variable fee if the number of consecutive performances exceeded 20. After the first run, the work remained the property of the opera. Successful works were often revived, sometimes decades after their premiere. The fees for composers increased considerably after Gluck, who was himself paid extravagant fees for his compositions, on top of his rights to publish the score for his own profit.

François R. Velde <velde@jhu.edu>