- Opéra-bouffon in 1 act
- Composer: Antoine Dauvergne
- Libretto: Jean-Joseph Vadé, after La Fontaine
- First performed: Opéra-Comique, Foire Saint-Laurent, 30 July 1753
And then the opéra-comique appeared. And lo, there was much rejoicing.
This mixture of elegant music and spoken dialogue is the quintessential French form, Camille Bellaigue declared in 1886. “Notre oeuvre, à nous … ce n’est que lui, mais nous y avons excellé.” Lighter than the tragédie lyrique of the 18th century, or the grand opéra of the 19th, it embodies the Gallic virtues of clarity, taste, and, above all, measure. Remember, though, that it is not necessarily comic; the most famous example, after all, ends with a brutal murder.
The opéras comiques of Grétry, Boieldieu, Herold, Auber, and Adam were popular throughout Europe, particularly in German-speaking countries. (They were still performed in translation there long after France had forgotten them.) They represented reason and wit, in contrast to the passion of Germany and Italy, Weber thought.
“Here is true French music!” the poet Heine enthused. “The most serene grace, an ingenuous gentleness, a freshness similar to the perfume of woodland flowers, a true naturalness, truth and nature, and even poetry. Yes, the latter is not absent; but it is a poetry without the frisson of the infinite, without mysterious charm, without bitterness, without irony, without morbidezza. I would almost say a poetry enjoying good health.”
The Singspiel and the Viennese operetta – with their relatable characters, and more domestic settings – owe much to the opéra-comique, as does, more distantly, 20th century American musical theatre.
The tradition began with the comédies en vaudevilles performed at Paris’s two yearly fairs, the Foire St Germain (February 3 to Palm Sunday) and the Foire St Laurent (mid-June to September). These were not yet opera, but rather spoken plays with popular songs, dances, and parodies of Lullyan tragédie lyrique. These were great favourites with the public, but the Opéra and the Comédie-Française jealously tried to stifle the infant genre.
The fairground stages were flimsy, Bellaigue records, and more than once they were rudely assaulted. The performances were stormy; people brawled, and benches were shattered. From time to time, authority intervened; they closed the theatre. But the brave little theatre defended itself well and wittily. They may be forced to reduce or eliminate the orchestra; the songs continued, and were better heard. If performers were forbidden to sing the lyrics, they wrote them on cue cards in large letters – and the audience all sang them in chorus. “One does not prevent the French from laughing – and they laughed at the fair, with or without permission.”
In 1715, the year of Louis XIV’s death, some of the vaudeville theatres formed the Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique, and gained permission to perform light musical comedies. They were still not yet opéra-comique as we understand it, but the old form of old songs with new words. The music, Félix Clément claimed, was no more than a banal accompaniment.
So it continued for nearly 40 years, until Pergolesi’s Serva padrona was performed in 1752.
The little Italian intermezzo took Paris by storm. (It had been performed a few years before, without causing a furore.) Audiences and critics tired of the dreary, stereotyped tragédie lyrique hailed it as a model for French opera to follow: fast-paced, natural, human. A dozen more Italian opera buffas were performed in Paris between 1752 and 1753, by Scarlatti, Cocchi, Latilla, and Jomelli.
And the Querelle des Bouffons erupted between the pro-Italian faction led by Rousseau, and the conservative defenders of Rameau and the tragédie lyrique. Rousseau followed his Devin du village (1752) with his Lettre sur la musique françoise, which concluded that the French, in fact, had none.
The enterprising Jean Monnet, director of the Foire St Laurent theatre, saw his chance. He commissioned Antoine Dauvergne, superintendent of the King’s music, to write Les troqueurs (1753), based on a tale of La Fontaine.
It’s a fast-paced tale of fiancée swapping, 18th-century style. The peasant lads Lubin and Lucas are soon to marry Margot and Fanchon – but Margot is flighty, and Fanchon slow and lazy. They decide to exchange ladies – much to their disgust. They pretend to accept, and the boys are happy – at first. Margot terrifies Lucas: she loves games, dancing, and spending money, and throws tantrums if she’s crossed; while Fanchon sits around yawning. The men, on their knees, beg their original fiancées to forgive them, and take them back. The ladies mock them, but relent – on the proviso that they will be the mistress in the house, and their husband obey them unquestioningly.
The opera proper only lasts half an hour, between a three-part Italianate overture and a 15-minute ballet. (Could it work as a curtain-raiser for Mozart’s Così fan tutte?) It’s an attractively spirited little work, full of duos (“Troquons, troquons!”, da capo arias, and quartets.
Knowing that an impartial judgement would be impossible, Monnet passed the work off as the work of an Italian composer living in Vienna, who wanted to exercise his skill in French. “The fanatics of Italian music, convinced that the French had no music, would not have let the work succeed.” Both parties, in fact, were pleased with the work. Rameau admired the refinement of the score; Rousseau its verve and naturalism. When Monnet revealed that a Frenchman was the real Orpheus of Vienna, all hell broke loose.
The work was performed until September 1753, withdrawn only because ticket sales overshadowed those at the Opéra. It was soon performed in Brussels, Stockholm, Vienna, Frankfurt, St Petersburg, and Dresden: the first of many opéras comiques to travel abroad.
And it established a genre: the comédie mêlée d’ariette (play with songs), combining French words with Italianate music. Unlike its descendants, the action was conveyed through sung recitative, rather than spoken dialogue. It was soon followed by Edigio Duni’s Ninette à la cour and Philidor’s Blaise le savetier.
“The works are still more than naïve: insignificant accompaniment, monotonous cadences, clumsy modulations, but we can already feel the melody and the mischief.”
A decade later, in 1762, the Opéra-Comique merged with the Comédie-Italienne, gaining a home in the Hôtel de Bourgogne. (They occupied the site until 1783, when they moved into the Salle Favart, home of today’s Opéra-Comique.) By dint of intrigue, Bellaigue wrote, the Comédie-Italienne managed to close the Théâtre de la Foire, under the condition of incorporating its troupe and repertory into itself.
“The fate of the opéra-comique has been decided,” playwright and theatre manager Charles-Simon Favart wrote. “No more opéra-comique at the fairs, but at the Théâtre-Italien all year round, except for Holy Week, during which we will perform, as usual, on the Opéra-Comique theatre, at the foire Saint-Germain, our little farces for the enjoyment of the poor and the edification of onlookers.”
The plan misfired. Far from suppressing the Opéra-Comique, the Opéra-Comique frenchified the Italian comedy. “Actors, plays, music, everything became French at the theatre in the rue Mauconseil, and the Comédie-Italienne, which had flattered itself on absorbing the Opéra-Comique, was absorbed by it,” Bellaigue wrote.
“Our national genre was founded.”
Mary Saint-Palais, Sophie Marin-Degor, Nicolas Rivenq, and Jean-Marc Salzmann, with William Christie conducting Capella Coloniensis. Harmonia Mundi, 1994.
- Thomas Bauman, “The eighteenth century: Comic opera”, in The Oxford History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, Oxford University Press, 1996
- Camille Bellaigue, “Un Siècle de musique français – l’Opéra-comique”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1886
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Arthur Pougin, Monsigny et son temps: L’opéra-comique et l’opéra italienne: Les auteurs, les compositeurs, les chanteurs, Paris: Librairie Fischbacher, 1908
- “Les Troqueurs”, Opéra Baroque