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Opéra comique


(Fr.).

Term for a French stage work of the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries with vocal and instrumental music and spoken dialogue (though it may also include recitative). Its origins are found in the 18th-century Parisian Fair Theatres (known from about 1715 as the Opéra-Comique) and also the Comédie-Italienne (see Paris, §IV, 3 and Théâtres de la Foire). The essentially popular appeal of these repertories formed the antithesis of the stately tragédie mise en musique and allied works at the Académie Royale de Musique (the Opéra). Soon, however, a broad range of subjects and styles was developed: drame and other literary and dramatic models became important. The word ‘comique’ should thus be broadly construed, in the spirit of Balzac’s term ‘la comédie humaine’.



1. Terminology.

2. 18th-century antecedents and models.

3. From the Querelle des Bouffons to the end of the ‘ancien régime’.

4. From the Revolution to the Restoration (1789–1830).

5. 1830–70.

6. 1870–1918.

7. Epilogue.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

M. ELIZABETH C. BARTLET (5–7, with RICHARD LANGHAM SMITH)



Opéra comique

1. Terminology.


The term first appears in current usage in the 18th century when, in the phrase ‘opéra-comique en vaudevilles’ (or similar expression), it designated stage works using pre-existing tunes and usually spoken dialogue (as in C.S. Favart’s L’amour au village, 1745). Sometimes modified, for example by ‘en ariettes et en vaudevilles’, it was extended to works using a mixture of timbres (or traditional ditties) and newly composed airs (e.g. La fausse aventurière, libretto by Anseaume and P.A.L. de Marcouville, with additional music by Laruette, 1757). At this time it rarely designated opéras comiques in the modern sense.

In spite of inconsistencies in terminology among some theorists, critics and authors during the 1750s and 60s, the phrase comédie mêlée d’ariettes soon became the generally accepted designation during the ancien régime for the majority of what are now called opéras comiques (there are numerous examples in the output of Egidio Duni, Monsigny, F.-A.D. Philidor, Grétry and their contemporaries). ‘Comédie’ attests to the significance of certain literary norms in part judged by the standards of French spoken theatre, and ‘mêlée d’ariettes’ to the unique quality of the genre in which specially written music (mostly, though not exclusively, lighter airs for soloists was implied) had an increasingly significant role.

Other words or phrases also appear either on the title-pages of librettos and scores or in contemporary descriptions. Some point to additional literary models; others to subject matter (‘féerie’ for fairy stories, ‘chevaleresque’ for knightly or pseudo-medieval tales); still others to style or tone dominating the text and sometimes matched by the music (e.g. ‘larmoyant’ for sentimental comedies). M.-J. Sedaine (1764) was not alone in protesting that ‘ariettes’ could not effectively describe the range of music in the new genre: ‘mêlée de musique’ or ‘mise en musique’ became alternatives.

By the Revolution, ‘comédie mêlée d’ariettes’ declined in usage and was restricted, in the main, to lighter, old-fashioned works. ‘Opéra comique’ still almost always meant ‘vaudeville’. Many librettists and composers sought greater precision: they continued to borrow terms from spoken theatre (as in ‘comédie héroïque’), modifying the phrases with ‘mise en musique’ or ‘lyrique’, as had occasionally been found before. More works were called drames lyriques, and the rise in the number of operas based on recent historical events resulted in a huge increase in the designation fait historique (particularly in 1793–4). More frequently, authors opted for the comparatively neutral ‘opéra’ for their works in a serious tone. Frankly comic operas, especially those influenced by opera buffa models, were termed opéras bouffons, as custom dictated.

Only with the Empire and the Restoration, in the early decades of the 19th century, does ‘opéra comique’ appear in its modern sense – French operas with spoken dialogue – with any frequency, and even then authors were loath to apply it to their works where comic elements were less important than dramatic or melodramatic ones (for example, Méhul’s Joseph is called an opéra or drame mêlé de chants). Castil-Blaze (1821), among others, agreed with librettists and composers and argued that the repertory of the Opéra-Comique was too varied to fall into a single category and that the term was entirely misapplied to many items performed there. Authors’ continuing commitment to accurate labelling remained a feature into the 20th century, and often newly invented terms or unusual ones appear: ‘roman musical’, ‘complainte’, ‘fantaisie lyrique’, to cite but a few. Monsigny’s Le déserteur (1769), Cherubini’s Médée (1797), Gounod’s Faust (1859), Bizet’s Carmen (1875), Massenet’s Manon (1884), Milhaud’s Le pauvre matelot (1927) and many others were not called ‘opéras comiques’ by their librettists and composers; indeed, the use (or misuse) of the term to cover all French operas with spoken dialogue, at least those given at the Opéra-Comique, seems to date from the late 19th century (it so appears in the writings of Pougin, Félix Clément and Larousse, and the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary).

Finally, the French ‘comédie’ and ‘comique’, when used by librettists, composers and their contemporaries, have no precise equivalents in other languages: European traditions differ, at times substantially. J.F. Marmontel (Encyclopédie) defined comédie as ‘staged mores’ designed to portray the human condition and human frailties while entertaining (sentiments in part echoed in Balzac’s phrase ‘la comédie humaine’). Marmontel divided comédie into three distinct categories – ‘bas’, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘noble’ (or ‘haut’) – based not just on the rank and social position of the leading characters, but also on the tone (from the farcical to the tear-jerker) and type of humour (or absence thereof). Even so, he oversimplified the then current situation, as his own qualifications (for example, his exclusion of satire and the ‘comique grossier’ of the comédie-parade) indicate, and a survey of theatrical productions including works using music would support. French playwrights drew on a rich heritage that included the works of Rabelais, the satirical and licentious 16th-century poet, Marivaux, the witty early 18th-century playwright noted for sparkling bourgeois dialogues, and Molière, whom Marmontel and others took as the model for comédie. It is impossible to define Gallic humour in a few words; Marmontel mentioned ‘malice naturelle’, certainly a component, but repartee, word-play and other elements contribute as well.

Rather than the blind labelling of all French lyric works with spoken dialogue as ‘opéras-comiques’, a more fruitful approach to individual works is to heed the terminology of the authors and their contemporaries and, with that as a guide, to place them in appropriate theatrical, musical, literary and aesthetic traditions. In any case, ‘opéra comique’, as currently used, is not so much a genre (with many sub-genres) as an indication of procedure: the mixing of spoken and sung elements.

Opéra comique

2. 18th-century antecedents and models.


Mid-18th-century opéra comique drew on a rich theatrical heritage. The Théâtres de la Foire of St Germain and St Laurent (the Opéra-Comique) offered passers-by numerous vaudevilles in which earthy humour and social and sometimes political critique were often intermingled, and the official, prestigious theatres (the Opéra and the Comédie-Française) were not spared biting satirical treatment in parodies. The mixture of well-known airs, the audience’s interpretation of the couplets (in part informed by the recollection of the original words and an appreciation of the irony resulting from a comparison with the new) and, in the spoken dialogue, witty repartee among the actors (in which improvisation had a significant role) all contributed to the popularity of the genre. Many of the early librettists of opéra comique had extensive experience in the vaudeville (Favart is an excellent example), and the tradition continued well into the 19th century (in the works of Eugène Scribe and his contemporaries). Occasionally an opéra comique en vaudevilles was reset as a comédie mêlée d’ariettes (e.g. J.-P.-E. Martini’s Annette et Lubin of 1789, based on Favart’s 1762 work). A.-F. Quétant (1765) and others felt that the vaudeville was the major source of the opéra comique. The Théâtres de la Foire and the Comédie-Italienne provided other models in their comédies-parades with stock characters drawn from the commedia dell’arte tradition, but now with a distinctive Gallic accent and with slapstick remaining an important ingredient.

Other successful theatrical entertainments, too, showed the way for later 18th-century authors. Divertissements were a frequent and popular feature of the Comédie-Italienne play repertory, though little of the music survives (except in Mouret’s work). Dance forms and rhythms permeated many vaudevilles and ariettes. Molière’s comédies-ballets often lampooned middle-class stereotypes in a way that had a lasting appeal; they not only combined vocal music, dance and dialogue effectively but also proved that verbal finesse and comedy could co-exist. In fact, to separate ‘opera’ and ‘play’ into neat categories does a disservice to French theatre of the 18th century. Marivaux, the most famous Comédie-Italienne playwright of the first half of the century, provided enduring bourgeois characters and situations in sparkling dialogue exploited by librettists for more than 100 years. The tighter dramatic structure, the ‘better’ tone and other features distinguishing his works from the vaudevilles and comédies-parades influenced, among others, Favart, whom Voltaire credited with the creation of opéras comiques suitable for polite society (unlike the offerings of the Théâtres de la Foire). Finally, authors at the Opéra-Comique and the Comédie-Italienne (which absorbed its rival in 1762) were sensitive to the elements that contributed to favourable reactions to the repertory at the Académie Royale de Musique, particularly certain opéras-ballets. Though the staging and costumes could not compare with those at the premier théâtre lyrique, the taste for the fanciful and exotic, for an idealized villageois and for a display to please the eye as well as the ear was common to both.

No single genre provided the unique source for opéra comique. Authors drew from different parts of the French heritage in varying degrees and sometimes added to it elements from foreign theatrical traditions in plays (such as the English) and in operas (particularly the Italian opera buffa). But the result was truly French, and the best works had continuing popularity in Paris and a wider, European appeal.

Opéra comique

3. From the Querelle des Bouffons to the end of the ‘ancien régime’.


Opera buffa and intermezzos had made occasional appearances in France before the mid-18th century without arousing much interest or controversy. But in 1752–4 a visiting Italian troupe’s performances of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona and other works at the Académie Royale de Musique initiated the Querelle des Bouffons, during which the merits of Italian (comic) opera and French (serious) opera were hotly debated. An ardent italophile, J.-J. Rousseau nevertheless produced a charming intermède, Le devin du village (1752), French in spirit though using some buffo forms. In it he sought to capture village innocence in naive melodies: his strengths lie in a sensitivity to declamation, and even his lack of interest in complex harmonies and orchestral textures becomes an asset for the unsophisticated tale. Sung throughout and in the repertory of the Académie Royale, this work as well as the opere buffe served as a model for comédies mêlées d’ariettes.

The entrepreneurs of the Théâtres de la Foire and the sociétaires of the Comédie-Italienne soon capitalized on the public curiosity and fondness for these works. During the 1750s opere buffe in French translation and sometimes with additional pieces appeared, and other works with new plots and dialogue parodied Italian models for the music. La servante maîtresse, Baurans’ translation of Pergolesi’s masterpiece at the Comédie-Italienne (1754), proved a favourite. Sedaine’s Le diable à quatre at the Opéra-Comique (1756) drew on pieces by several composers, including Galuppi and Duni. Newly composed scores in similar vein soon appeared. Dauvergne’s Les troqueurs (libretto by J.-J. Vadé, Opéra-Comique, 1753), at first falsely announced as an Italian-based work for publicity purposes, is the earliest example.

By the 1760s comédies mêlées d’ariettes were more than mere opere buffe in French. Lively spoken dialogue and constructions of scenes and acts in accordance with comédie principles reflected the native heritage. Audiences required excellence in acting as well as in singing. From the vaudeville and the divertissement composers inherited strophic and other simple forms for their airs and a vocal style often close to popular songs. Librettists (who were often also playwrights) ensured that the texts presented a variety of theatrical entertainment and kept up with the latest trends. But opera buffa did provide important models for more florid airs (generally assigned to the heroine), for conversational duets and for an occasional extended ensemble.

Three composers merit special mention. Duni, an Italian who arrived in Paris in 1757, immediately achieved a stunning success with Le peintre amoureux de son modèle (Opéra-Comique, libretto by Anseaume), in which he showed his assimilation of French features within a light and lyrical style. Other influential works at the Comédie-Italienne soon followed, such as the villageois Les deux chasseurs et la laitière (Anseaume, 1763) and the féerie La fée Urgèle (Favart, 1765). Philidor, from a long line of French musicians, also had English experience, and in Tom Jones (Poinsinet, 1765), based on Fielding’s novel, he sought to exploit a growing anglophile trend. In it he handled duets and ensembles with dramatic and musical flair. In collaboration with Sedaine, Monsigny contributed to the variety of types – from the lighthearted On ne s’avise jamais de tout (Opéra-Comique, 1761) to another English-based work, Le roi et le fermier (Opéra-Comique, 1762), in which a benevolent monarch appears as a central character, and the drame lyrique Le déserteur (Comédie-Italienne, 1769), in which comedy and pathos are adroitly juxtaposed in the libretto and supported by an appropriate musical translation.

The works of Grétry at the Comédie-Italienne best represent the achievements in comédie mêlée d’ariettes and other operatic types of the ancien régime. He combined a gift for lyricism matching the declamation of the words with a fine dramatic sense and an ability to depict individual characterization musically. He experimented with matching musical forms to scenic requirements, and particularly in his later works sought more extended structures. Marmontel’s librettos often reflect a moralizing sentimental tone and exploit currently fashionable themes: for example, the noble savage (Le Huron, 1768), intrinsic merit as more important than birth (Lucile, 1769) and conjugal love in adversity (Silvain, 1770). The most popular of his collaborations was Zémire et Azor (1771), an ambitious opéra féerie in four acts. Grétry responded with scores dominated by touching airs, but ones in which duets and ensembles played an increasingly important role in defining characters and translating their emotional states (in Zémire the trio of the heroine’s grieving family shown to her in a magic picture is an excellent example of Grétry’s artistry; fig.1). He also continued to set more frankly comic works reminiscent of the repertory of the Théâtres de la Foire: the comédie-parade Le tableau parlant (Anseaume, 1769), with its witty dialogue and light airs, proved an enduring opera.

With the mid-1770s and 1780s came some works in a consistently serious tone, although comedies remained the core of the Comédie-Italienne’s repertory. The librettist B.F. de Rosoi led the way with his patriotic Henri IV (set by J.-P.-G. Martini, who used a military and heroic musical style to good effect, 1774) and his classical drame Les mariages samnites (set by Grétry, 1776); significantly, neither was a popular success. A much better man of the theatre, Sedaine provided Grétry with a series of challenges in ‘chevaleresque’, pseudo-historical and drame or drame-influenced works, including Aucassin et Nicolette (1779), their masterpiece Richard Coeur-de-lion (1784), Le comte d’Albert (1786) and Raoul Barbe-bleue (1789). Grétry responded with scores in which some attention was given to aspects of ‘local colour’ or music’s contribution to definition of a specific setting (such as Blondel’s ‘Une fièvre brûlante’, in which Grétry re-created, though did not precisely imitate, a medieval tune and used it symbolically in recurring fashion at strategic moments in Richard Coeur-de-Lion). Barbe-bleue especially is remarkable for its time for the freedom and continuity of musical forms to underline the dramatic situations. A newcomer, Dalayrac, also made notable additions to the repertory in Nina (1786), on a larmoyant subject, and in the ‘chevaleresque’ Sargines (1788). Both composers made effective use of expansion of resources at the theatre in terms of personnel (a greater number of soloists, a newly formed chorus and a slightly larger orchestra) and of staging (with an increase in spectacle, particularly in ‘chevaleresque’ works). While air-dominated operas, true comédies mêlées d’ariettes, remained very popular, these works pointed the way to the next decade.

By the eve of the Revolution, operas with spoken dialogue on a wide range of subjects and in a variety of styles were the most important part of the Comédie-Italienne’s repertory, so much so that Italian plays were dropped in 1780 and the proportion of new vaudevilles and French plays declined. The troupe enjoyed increasing aristocratic and royal patronage (particularly that of Queen Marie-Antoinette) during the final two decades of the ancien régime. The move to a new theatre building in a better quarter (1783) was one sign that it had become accepted by polite and fashionable society: its Fair origins were scarcely mentioned. Furthermore, the export of the operatic successes to the provinces (Lyons and Bordeaux, for example) and to other European centres (Vienna and St Petersburg among them) is a measure of their extraordinary popularity.

Opéra comique

4. From the Revolution to the Restoration (1789–1830).


To be sure, genuinely comic or lighthearted ‘villageois’ works did not disappear altogether from the stage during the 1790s. Popular items from the ancien régime repertory (such as Grétry’s Le tableau parlant and Monsigny’s Rose et Colas) were still performed in Paris and elsewhere. New works relying on tested formulae, such as J.-P. Solié’s Le secret (libretto by F.-B. Hoffman, 1796), with its plot turning on mistaken identities and unfounded jealousy, were successfully given. But more often comedy was combined with and subordinated to dramatic twists and melodramatic elements, as in Le Sueur’s La caverne (libretto by Dercy, 1793).

Still, 1789 and the early years of the Revolution brought major changes to the Comédie-Italienne (from 1793, the year French plays were dropped, called the Opéra-Comique). First, its monopoly on operas with spoken dialogue was challenged and soon disappeared, the Théâtre de Monsieur (from 1791 the Théâtre Feydeau) becoming a powerful rival. Other theatres sprang up and many put on vaudevilles and shorter operas. The Opéra-Comique had to compete for audiences and for authors – the more so since court patronage, of course, disappeared and some of the other rich patrons suffered (although both it and the Feydeau remained out of the reach of all but the better-off). The 1790s saw a huge increase in the number of lyric works; few achieved lasting success. In 1801 the Feydeau and Opéra-Comique, both beset by financial troubles, merged, and in 1807 Napoleon again extended a measure of official protection by regulating the repertories of other theatres and suppressing several.

The Revolution brought changes to the repertory. ‘Royalist’ works (such as Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-lion) disappeared after 1792 and the declaration of the Republic, and ‘aristocratic’ ones (such as Dalayrac’s Raoul, sire de Créqui, 1789) were subject to revision or suppression. Topical references to recent events or political and social questions were frequent. Indeed, faits historiques, hurriedly written and staged, were little more than dramatic re-enactments fleshed out with appropriate additional details created by the authors; the rhetoric often mirrors that of government leaders and influential journalists. While most of these ephemeral works were by minor librettists and composers, occasionally recognized authors contributed, as did Grétry in Callias (libretto by Hoffman, Opéra-Comique, 1794) and Méhul in Le pont de Lody (libretto by E.-J.-B. Delrieu, Feydeau, 1797).

More significant musically and theatrically are substantial works without such obvious propagandist intentions (though less direct reflections of current ideals are not infrequent). In several exceptional compositions, so far have the composers moved from the models of their predecessors one may detect in them a new spirit and even the development of style and procedures important for Romanticism (as Dean, 1967–8, and Dent, 1976, have done). In this group, best represented in the works of Méhul, Le Sueur and Cherubini, the comédie mêlée d’ariettes virtually disappeared in fact as well as in terminology. Drame lyrique, comédie lyrique and opéra became the most frequent designations: they were not merely semantic choices, but proof of their authors’ intentions to point to aesthetic principles of French dramaturgy and the importance of models from serious opéra (though the heritage of the Comédie-Italienne persisted in the romances and the increasingly few comic pieces). Hitherto forbidden subjects on these stages were tackled, from classical tragedy (Cherubini’s Médée, 1797) to incest (Méhul’s Mélidore et Phrosine, 1794), and the general tone was heroic, at times violent.

Individual numbers, even most of the airs, are more substantial and have greater musical weight than those of the previous generation. Méhul’s Stratonice (libretto by Hoffman, Comédie-Italienne, 1792), with only six pieces in one act, takes longer to perform than his predecessors’ scores with double that number. Principles of symphonic development were exploited in often complex textures, as in the quartet from the same opera. Here and elsewhere, the orchestra is more than mere accompaniment to tuneful vocal lines: it becomes the main means of cohesion and of articulation of form. Distinctive timbres and orchestral effects are used for expressive purposes. Much of the dramatic action takes place in huge ensembles, as in Cherubini’s Lodoïska (Fillette-Loraux, Feydeau, 1791), Le Sueur’s La caverne and Méhul’s Ariodant (Hoffman, Opéra-Comique, 1799). More extended harmonic vocabularies and sometimes remote modulations, too, set the works of all three apart from 1780 norms. Musical contrast (as in Grétry) becomes at times striking musical confrontation: contemporaries considered Méhul’s jealousy duet from Euphrosine (Hoffman, Comédie-Italienne, 1790) particularly impressive. The chorus, often representing a picturesque group (brigands, Savoyards, monks, sailors) or even two opposing groups in conflict, take on major roles. Romantic aspects in the libretto prompted often descriptive musical responses: a violent storm in Le Sueur’s Paul et Virginie (Dubreuil, Feydeau, 1794) and an avalanche in Cherubini’s Elisa (Saint-Cyr, Feydeau, 1794). Against a more symphonic orchestral part, composers could write emotionally heightened parts for the voice where beauty of melody took second place to theatrical truth: the Countess in Méhul’s Euphrosine, Calypso in Le Sueur’s Télémaque (Dercy, Feydeau, 1796) and the title character in Cherubini’s Médée are examples. All three composers experimented with making opera with spoken dialogue a more continuous and integrated form. Among the techniques found in varying degrees were the reduction of spoken dialogue, effective employment of mélodrame, linking of pieces, overall tonal structures to scenes, acts and sometimes entire operas, and sophisticated orchestral use of reminiscence motifs as much more than melodic tags. Cherubini’s Médée and Le Sueur’s Télémaque, both on librettos intended for the Opéra, reflect concern for unity, but probably the most remarkable work from this point of view is Méhul’s Mélidore et Phrosine (A.-V. Arnault, Opéra-Comique, 1794), particularly for its third act.

Beginning with the Thermidorian reaction and more pronounced during the Consulate and Empire, audiences favoured lighter, less moralizing and dramatic fare. Comédies-parades again became popular (for example Méhul’s L’irato, B.-J. Marsollier des Vivetières, Opéra-Comique, 1801). The Maltese composer Isouard excelled in ensemble writing in buffo tone and style (Les rendez-vous bourgeois, Hoffman, Opéra-Comique, 1807, and other works). Successes among the drame-influenced works again included comic figures and situations with greater frequency, as in Cherubini’s Les deux journées (J.-N. Bouilly, Feydeau, 1800). Entirely serious works, such as Méhul’s biblical opera Joseph (A. Duval, Opéra-Comique, 1807), were more admired than popular in Paris. Boieldieu’s La dame blanche (Scribe, after Scott, Opéra-Comique, 1825; fig.2), whose plot combined in a mildly Romantic brew a long lost hero, a haunted castle and buried treasure, had a tuneful score with touches of ‘local colour’ (such as the citation of ‘Robin Adair’ in the last act) and proved a long-lasting crowd pleaser. The achievements of Revolutionary opera (in orchestration and structure) were not forgotten entirely (Méhul continued to experiment with the sombre middle range of the orchestra, going so far as to replace the violins with violas for his Ossianic Uthal; J.M.B.B. de Saint-Victor, Opéra-Comique, 1806), but the spirit in the majority of works – and nearly all those that stayed in the repertory – ranged from sentimental to comic: in short, more in keeping with the aesthetics of the generation of Grétry (many of whose works were revived at this time), though without a return to forms of that period.



Opéra comique

5. 1830–70.


Between the July Revolution and the Franco-Prussian war, the Opéra-Comique offered Parisians numerous new works in accordance with its policies of promoting the French language and French composers and artists, generally eschewing the low humour of the boulevard theatres and the often farcical or satirical situations of the opéra bouffe. Opéra comique authors provided romantic tales allowing for the exploitation of ‘local colour’ and with happy endings as well as ‘chevaleresque’ works and comedies relying on traditional formulae. Rossini's influence was strong, demanding Italian vocal virtuosity, but these grands airs contrasted with sentimental romances and comic strophic songs, the French heritage. Auber (in collaboration with Scribe) was one of the most prolific and popular: Fra Diavolo (1830) and Le domino noir (1837) remained repertory items into the 20th century. The contributions of Hérold and Adam held the stage in Paris for over 50 years.

Foreigners also tried their hand at opéra comique: the most successful example was Donizetti's La fille du régiment (1840), which remains close to opera buffa in style. Meyerbeer's works for the Opéra-Comique are richer orchestrally and scenically than the norm: his L'étoile du nord (1854) demonstrates most clearly the influence of grand opéra.

Specifically French in flavour and almost an opéra bouffe, Massé's Les noces de Jeannette (1853) proved with its over 1500 performances in Paris alone the continuing vitality of well-known plot formulae. Better known for his operas and ballets for the Opéra, Halévy also wrote for the Opéra-Comique: Les mousquetaires de la reine (1846) is a fine example of the ‘chevaleresque’ and sentimental. Increasing interest in the exotic is perhaps best exemplified in David's Lalla-Roukh (1862), set in Kashmir. Finally, towards the end of this period there was a shift to a predominantly serious tone. In Thomas' Mignon (1866), after Goethe, melodic grace and gentle, chromatic harmonies match the melancholy of the libretto.

The Opéra-Comique was not the only Parisian theatre to put on opera with spoken dialogue. Though generally presenting a more conservative and traditional repertory (including revivals of Grétry and Méhul) and introducing the public to foreign works in translation and adaptation (including operas by Verdi), the Opéra-National also provided opportunities for French operatic newcomers, such as David and Bizet (Les pêcheurs de perles, 1863). Furthermore, composers were allowed to experiment in more intense, almost psychological dramas, avoiding the grandiose favoured at the Opéra and the sometimes facile humour and resolutions of the plot preferred at the Opéra-Comique. The best example is surely the original version of Gounod's Faust (1859), still among the most admired of 19th-century French works in the repertory.

In short, there was at the Opéra-Comique and the Théâtre Lyrique a wide range of subjects, an eclecticism in musical styles and forms and a willingness to adapt from other genres. Tradition dictated that acting and stage presence remained important. The costume and set designs and mise en scène now often more elaborate than in previous generations and newly prepared for each work, were exported along with the scores.

In 1856 Offenbach published an extensive guide to the traditions of opéra comique, sending a copy to potential entrants to a competition for a one-act operetta. He saw it as a particularly French creation, distinguishable from the Italian opera buffa, on which it had originally been modelled, by its love of wit and mischief. He lamented the hybrid forms, leaning more towards the traditions of grand opéra, which had seduced several composers away from the pure traditions of opéra comique and which he regarded as a stream that had turned into a river and subsequently burst its banks.

Certain features can be considered to distinguish opéra comique traditions from those of grand opéra, apart from its convention of spoken dialogue rather than recitative. First, there was a tendency for grand spectacle at the Opéra, only rarely matched by the Opéra-Comique. A tendency, around 1860, for the theatre to become ‘a branch of the Opéra’ did not pass unnoticed among the critics. Secondly, while ballet was de rigueur at the Opéra, it was not at the Opéra-Comique which preferred crowd scenes involving choral writing.

While large-scale works at the Opéra generally had two prominent and vocally demanding female roles, the Opéra-Comique tended to require a leading soprano role with a flexible and agile voice (sopran à roulades) and a supporting soprano, light rather than virtuoso or dramatic in character, for whom many a composer wrote couplets or romances that were a hallmark of opéra comique. There was a similar preference for a lighter voice in the male roles, the ténor léger and the basse chantante. It was not until 1871 that a fort-ténor was employed at the Opéra-Comique.

These four decades saw the premières of some of the most popular operas ever produced, and they remained in virtually continuous repertory in Paris and throughout the world wherever French opera was staged until World War II. Many had more than 1000 performances at the Opéra-Comique alone and were the staples of regional theatres in Germany and Austria as well as francophone countries.

Opéra comique

6. 1870–1918.


The Théâtre Lyrique did not long survive the Franco-Prussian War. The Opéra-Comique took over part of its repertory and, to a greater extent than before, included recent foreign works (by Mascagni and Puccini, for example). The most memorable of the new operas by Frenchmen departed from the conventional mould for this theatre. In all of them comedy is minimal or entirely absent, and there were several works that included no spoken diologue. Of these Gounod's Roméo et Juliette was the first, followed by Massenet' Werther and La Navarraise and Bizet' Les pêcheurs de perles as well as operas by Bruneau. Works performed at the Opéra-Comique were less and less frequently characterized by their composers as opéras comiques, and there was a return to the practice of naming each work appropriately. Thus titles such as comédie lyrique, roman musical and conte lyrique were used, and once and for all the link between genre and theatre was broken.

Among the most enterprising in finding ways of combining spoken dialogue with sung sections was Bizet's Carmen (1875). Here melodrama, pantomime, recitative and aria were combined with spoken sections with offstage military and bull-fight music. Its Spanish setting, incorporating hispanic modes, dance forms and popular song, was a model for subsequent composers. Offenbach in Les contes d'Hoffmann (1881) produced an episodic fantasy while Massenet's Manon (1884) presented another strong heroine. In Louise, a roman musical (1900), Charpentier sought social realism in a working-class setting. Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) finally demonstrated that the Opéra-Comique could rival the Opéra in terms of seriousness. Debussy wrote a subtle work in which the natural quality of conversation contributes to its lightness of touch. Its fairy tale setting and unspecific historical place accorded with the essential definition of opéra comique as a play turned into opera.



Opéra comique

7. Epilogue.


After World War I the Opéra-Comique remained committed to producing new works for its audience, but the genre of opéra comique took on a new lease of life with the neo-classicists and Les Six. Although none of Milhaud's works is named as an opéra comique several have a buffo element and Esther de Carpentras is categorized as an opéra bouffe. These trends were continued by Jacques Ibert, whose tight style matched that of Milhaud and whose Le roi d'Yvetot he called an opéra comique.

Situation comedies and operas with a ‘kitchen-sink’ setting, as well as parodies of classical myths and commedia dell'arte subjects, also became prime material for opéra comique or opéra bouffe. Into these categories fall Roussel's Le testament de la tante Caroline (1963), Barraud's Lavinia (1969) and André Bloch's Guignol (1949), along with many of the operas for which Nino wrote the librettos.

The Opéra-Comique also mounted premières of operas written for other theatres, such as Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951; 1953) and Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (1946; 1971) and a few world premières of works by French composers. Among the most significant were Milhaud's Le pauvre matelot (1927) and two works by Poulenc: Les mamelles de Tirésias (1947), an opéra bouffe whose mordant wit caused an uproar at its première and La voix humaine (1959), a tragédie lyrique for solo soprano.

But the Opéra-Comique was no longer the leader: theatres in Monte Carlo, Brussels and Geneva rivalled or surpassed it in the performance of new works (as sometimes benefited Honegger, among others). Dramatic composers preferred to write operas sung throughout or to explore new areas, such as film music or works for radio. Furthermore, the Opéra-Comique's audience dwindled for the recent operas, whatever their critical reception, to the extent that none of the post-World War I works entered the standard repertory as had those by earlier composers from Grétry to Massenet; only warhorses, such as Mignon, Carmen and Manon, could draw the public consistently. The dissolving of the resident troupe in 1972 marked the end of a distinguished tradition, which for over two centuries had given Paris and other cities some of the most endearing and enduring examples of music theatre.



See also Opera, §§IV, 2(ii) and V, 4.

Opéra comique

BIBLIOGRAPHY

writings to 1900


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J.F. Fulcher: French Cultural Politics & Music: from the Dreyfus Affair to the First World War (Oxford, 1999)

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