Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Genius of French Opera

La Marseillaise (Jean Béraud, 1880)

In honor of Seattle Opera's upcoming premiere of Beatrice and Benedict, today we celebrate French opera! (We're singing B&B in English, since our production kicks off Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare; but it's a very French opera.)

Ever since opera first came to France from Italy in the seventeenth century, the French have had their own wonderful way of blending the arts to create the hybrid which is opera. French opera has always been a balancing act: balancing poetry with music, musical delights with visual spectacle, dance with stasis, public with private, sorrow with high spirits, and above all balancing—and sometimes encouraging the tug-of-war between—passion and reason.

The following survey of French opera history features moments from some of our favorite French operas as performed at Seattle Opera. CLICK HERE to listen to a full playlist without interruption.


Orphée Leads Eurydice from the Underworld (Corot, 1861)

Opera is fundamentally a fusion of music and drama, words and notes. Throughout opera's history, these partners tend to separate out. They're like oil and vinegar, they can be combined; but left to their own devices they usually drift to separate sides of the plate: text-heavy recitative over here (too many WORDS!), florid coloratura arias over there (too many NOTES!). The great 'reformers' of opera, people like Gluck and Wagner, are the ones who insist on the perfect fusion of music and text. Berlioz was on board with them; he was a pal of Wagner's and worshipped Gluck. Indeed, Berlioz himself adapted Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice for a Paris theater in 1859.

In the mid-1700s Gluck had composed dozens of operas (mostly in Italian) for theaters in Milan, Dresden, London, Rome, Copenhagen, and Vienna. But he headed for Paris when his old music student Marie Antoinette became queen of France, and his mission to reform opera, to restore music and drama to their proper relationship, quickly became a cause célebre in the City of Lights. Gluck first triumphed over his Italian rival Piccini with Orphée et Eurydice, a French adaptation of an opera he had originally written in Italian, and starring a castrato as the hero. The French found castrati unacceptable, so Gluck rewrote Orpheus for high tenor; and the French loved ballet in their operas, so Gluck added fantastic dance sequences to the opera. Indeed, the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits"—which Orpheus witnesses upon entering the Elysian Fields in quest of his Eurydice—may be the most recognizable and beloved music Gluck ever wrote.

Gluck's final opera, Iphigénie en Tauride (Paris Opéra, 1779), features most of the hallmarks of French opera: a exotic setting which is both alluring and dangerous, music and text in a mutually supportive relationship, opportunities for dance, and something that became a tradition in French opera—an intense relationship between tenor and baritone. In this case it's Orestes and Pylades, characters from the ancient Greek saga of the Trojan War; best friends, all but brothers, and (if you like) lovers who in this opera have been captured by the savage Taurians, a faraway tribe who are big on human sacrifice. One of the two young men will have to die; the other will be released. Here they struggle over which of them will have the honor of laying down his life for his friend.


Interior of the Théâtre des Italiens, c. 1840 (drawing by Egène Lami)

As late as 1870 a wit could define (in a satirical dictionary) the Paris Opéra as a "Grand French theater consecrated by the French taxpayers to the glory of foreign composers." For all sorts of interesting cultural and historical reasons, non-French composers have tended to have more success in France than native composers. This tradition began with the court composer to France's Sun King, Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Lully (originally Italy's Giovanni Battista Lulli). Thanks to the Code Napoléon, which integrated the Jews of nineteenth-century France when Jews were still segregated into ghettos in much of Europe, two German-Jewish composers moved to Paris where they became famous as Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jacques Offenbach.

And all the Italian bel canto composers eventually came to Paris. The theaters of Paris—especially the Théâtre des Italiens, where they performed Italian opera—paid better and commanded greater forces than most of the theaters in Italy. Rossini eventually moved to Paris, where he became a famous gourmand after he quit composing. Bellini died just outside Paris, and Verdi created several important works for "la grande boutique" (his scornful name for the Paris Opéra). And French composer and music critic Hector Berlioz, who wrote Beatrice and Benedict for a theater in Germany, envied Donizetti's great success in Paris, success which Berlioz himself never achieved there: "Donizetti seems to treat us like a conquered country; it is a veritable invasion. One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti."

But these foreign composers did find they had to write French-style operas if they wanted to succeed in the Paris theaters. Rossini's first opera in French was Count Ory, a deliciously sly, bawdy sex comedy which concludes with this gorgeously Romantic French music, a far cry from the zany Looney Tunes sound of Rossini's popular Italian comedies:

One of Donizetti's most successful French-language operas was La fille du régiment, like Beatrice and Benedict an opéra-comique—that is, a lighter opera with spoken dialogue in French. Donizetti's comedies always mix aching melancholy with brilliant hilarity; in the case of Fille, he achieves a balance of loveliness and sorrow which is perhaps particularly French.

Verdi, who came from a conservative, rural background in northern Italy, loved spending time in Paris, that hotbed of liberalism and modern urban culture. He transmuted many of his Italian operas for French audiences and wrote two operas originally in French, Les vêpres Siciliennes and Don Carlos, his most ambitious work. Don Carlos is French grand opera par excellence, complete with the battle between passion and reason, unnecessary ballet, overwhelming spectacle (including the famous scene where the Spanish Inquisition burns heretics at the stake) and tenor-baritone bromance. Here's the gorgeous martyr-death scene for the baritone, who is spectacularly happy to offer up his life to give his tenor a fighting chance.

French lyric theater in the nineteenth-century eventually organized itself into three basic tiers, with carefully codified genre expectations:

Lobby Staircase of the Palais Garnier

Grand opera meant no spoken dialogue (yes recitatives), tragedy with no comic relief, loads of scenic spectacle including obligatory ballet, at least six principal characters plus substantial chorus, and a big orchestra. It was lavish and long. The plots were typically garbled versions of some fascinating and bloody chapter of European history. Les Troyens, Berlioz's answer to Wagner's mighty Ring cycle, is perhaps the grandest of all French grand operas.

Inside the Opéra-Comique, 1843

Opéra-comique was not so high-falutin'; comique in this case doesn't mean 'comedy,' but rather 'play,' as in comédie, spoken drama. Opéra-comiques always had dialogue scenes, easier music (especially the ubiquitous 'couplets,' a two-verse song with refrain sung by chorus), smaller musical forces, and happy endings. The plots were less about the high and mighty—the provenance of grand opera—and more often sentimental stories about everyday Joes and Josephines who triumph over hardships. Beatrice and Benedict is an atypical opéra-comique; Shakespeare's text is much, much better-written than the typical opéra-comique dialogues.

The public at Offenbach's Bouffes-Parisiens Theater

And by the second half of the nineteenth century, a third tier had emerged: Opéra-bouffe, what we would probably call operetta. These pieces were satirical, ridiculous, and hilarious; they featured zany dialogue and music that was always catchy and decorative, even if it was never profound. Berlioz never wrote an opéra-bouffe. Instead, you can enjoy his hysterical sense of humor in his wonderfully readable Memoirs.

The distinction between these three types of theater was extremely rigid. In some cases, governmental rules and restrictions went into amazing details about what could and couldn't happen at each theater. (Vive la bureaucratie!) One theater could only advance the plot in spoken dialogue, for example, while another had to use recitative. Others had to restrict themselves to pantomime. (Watch the great 1945 film Children of Paradise to learn more!)

Listen to the following examples for a bit of the musical flavor associated with these different tiers.

The idea of Grand Opera is to overwhelm the spectator with sublime immensity. One typically French trick: subdivide a majestically slow march (that is, music in a dignified 4) into triplets (so the rhythm pulses in a kind of 12/8, with an overwhelmingly potent effect). You'll hear this kind of music in the second act climax to Bizet's Pearl Fishers, when the community of superstitious pearl fishers pray to their gods to save them from the dread tsunami. (They're praying to Brahma, but with extremely French Catholic music. That's a testament either to the confused historiography of your typical nineteenth-century opera, or to the adaptability that particular religion!)

Opéra-comique, by contrast, happens on the human scale. It's about the individual, the voice, and the urge to render complex human emotions in song. There's a kind of sentimentality in opéra-comique which you don't find in sublime, tragic grand opera, or in satiric, ridiculous opéra-bouffe, and which became extremely unfashionable in the twentieth century (one reason we don't do so many opéra-comiques today). For instance, in Faust, the soldier-brother Valentin's tearful parting from his beloved sister Marguerite gives rise to the famous baritone aria "Avant de quitter ces lieux"—once upon a time, one of the world's favorite arias. But not all modern audiences automatically connect to this scene, in which a manly young soldier heading off to war chokes back his tears as he entrusts his sister to God and worries about what might become of her without him there to protect her. (Of course his fears for her chastity prove to be well-founded!)

We haven't done much Opéra-bouffe, or indeed any kind of operetta, at Seattle Opera. But we often perform a much more ambitious piece, the magnum opus by Offenbach, the father of opéra-bouffe, and that's The Tales of Hoffmann. This lively drinking song from the first scene of Hoffmann has all the fizz and energy of Offenbach's enjoyable operettas.


Still from Cocteau's 1946 film La belle et la bête

The love stories of the many of the most popular French operas echo that archetypal romance between the Beauty and the Beast. The man, the Romantic or Byronic hero, is always morally or physically vile: Quasimodo, Faust, Jean de Florette. The woman, whether waif or princess, chaste goddess or femme fatale, always offers both angelic beauty and an otherworldly sex appeal. You'll find these archetypes in much of the music Berlioz wrote inspired by Shakespeare, not to mention in the composer's own tormented romantic life. Here are some other typically French romantic pairings:

Crazed Geezer & Sultry Temptress: Don Quichotte & Dulcinée
In Massenet's Don Quichotte, everyone's favorite foolish fond old Spanish knight-errant wannabe serenades his haughty beauty with masterfully French orchestration.

Funny Monster & Elusive Beauty: Kleinzach & 'Elle'
In Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, the drunken writer's first 'Tale' goes off the rails when, in his confusion, he stops singing about Kleinzach, an odd little dwarf, and starts remembering his hopeless pursuit of a nameless vision of beauty.

Explosive Ex-Con & Fatal Femme: Don José & Carmen
In Carmen's eternal game of bull and bullfighter, repressed Mama's boy soldier and free-spirited gypsy, which is the beauty and which the beast?


La Grand Odalisque (Ingres, 1814)

Orientalism, or European art dealing in fantasies of the East, is a big topic in all opera. But the French, racing the British Empire through the nineteenth century to dominate the world, were particularly obsessed with orientalism and exoticism. When Hector Berlioz was a boy, instead of studying music he spent his time pouring over the atlas, memorizing the names and locations of every island in the South Seas. The composer's son, Louis Berlioz, lived out his father's boyhood fantasies when he became a sailor in the merchant marine and eventually a naval captain. Many of the most beloved French operas deal with the beauty and danger of all that is distant, foreign, lost in a haze of romantic fantasy.

Bizet's Pearl Fishers switched its location, shortly before its 1863 premiere, from Mexico to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka. But it really doesn't matter where it claims to be set; the work is French through and through. Only a French composer could have written the gorgeous bromance of its famous duet.

A couple decades after Pearl Fishers, French composer Léo Délibes scored big with Lakmé, a romantic fantasy purpotedly about the British Raj in India. But once again, all the characters are as French as can be. Lakmé's most famous number, the beautiful 'Flower Duet' for soprano and mezzo, is actually modeled on the gorgeous Nocturne that concludes Act One of Beatrice and Benedict.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the French even considered Spain 'exotic,' and used it as an appealing fantasy backdrop for stories about mad passion and religion gone wrong, with plenty of crumbling ruins, lush tropical gardens, brightly-dressed gypsies, and processions of monks, toreadors, and ballet dancers bearing all the spoils of the New World. The music of Carmen may have planted a powerful image of Spain in the mind of the world; never forget that it's French music.


Advertisements using scenes from Thomas' Mignon, a French opera based on Goethe's Wilhelm Meister

French opera in the nineteenth century also had a habit of taking complex literary masterpieces from other languages and boiling them down into something tuneful, popular, and perhaps a bit oversimplified; something like making a comic book out of Moby-Dick. Beatrice and Benedict greatly simplified Shakespeare's original Much Ado About Nothing. Another French composer, Ambroise Thomas, made a French opera of Hamlet, although a British critic objected strenuously to its tacked-on happy ending: "No one but a barbarian or a Frenchman would have dared to make such a lamentable burlesque of so tragic a theme as Hamlet." Here are some French simplifications of complex German literature worth the listening:

Faust. In Germany, they call Gounod's popular French opera Margarethe, since she's the main character. Goethe's character of Faust, a great mythic figure for modern man searching for meaning, is nowhere to be found (although there's a crooning, lovesick French tenor who goes by that name in the opera). The opera is a cautionary tale about the dangers of premarital sex. Its hugely dramatic, overwhelmingly powerful finale is thrilling in the theater, but it's not at all the story as told by Goethe.

The Tales of Hoffmann. The works of the great German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann are so diffuse and varied it was a minor miracle that a team of French writers, plus composer Jacques Offenbach, managed to organize them into a coherent and ambitious opera masterwork. (Actually, The Tales of Hoffmann, like many French operas, exists in a bewildering proliferation of different versions; so maybe they didn't really manage that too successfully.) The opera is a kaleidoscope of the many moods of Hoffmann's stories, and even translates into opera the eerie atmosphere of paranoia and fear this German contemporary of Edgar Allen Poe created so powerfully in fiction.

Werther. Massenet's lovely opera simplifies and sentimentalizes Goethe's extremely complex original. In Goethe's novel, which was said to have launched the Romantic movement (and even to have inspired several copycat suicides), there's an ironic distance between reader and tormented antihero. In the opera, however, Werther's plangent French singing removes that distance. You lose track of the fact that the character is his own worst enemy when he's singing so beautifully.


Paris World's Fair, 1900

French music took a fascinating turn at the beginning of the twentieth century. While Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes were causing riots on the Champs-Elysées, composers like Debussy and Ravel were creating a new and entirely French musical language, an alternative both to following in Wagner's footsteps and to the First and Second Viennese schools. Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, is both a great opera masterpiece and a work that's completely unique. You can't really compare it to anything else, except to say it's entirely French. Berlioz was long gone, but I suspect he'd have applauded the originality of these utterly French artists.


The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, by Odilon Redon (1910)

The French opera tradition added a new masterpiece in 1957 with the world premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. A typically French balancing act between text and music, this opera culminates in a shattering conclusion—a finale whose power no one who's attended a performance will ever forget—when a group of nuns go to the guillotine singing a prayer, and their voices drop out of the music, one by one. We've met many operatic martyrs on our tour of French opera today—Orestes and Pylades, each desperate to die for the other, in ancient Tauris; Verdi's Rodrigue in Don Carlos, Gounod's Marguerite, Don Quichotte tormented and ridiculed for his ideals, or Carmen dying for her freedom, or Werther for his agonized love, or Hoffmann, suffering for the sake of his art. Music, and especially, it seems, French opera music, has the power to turn suffering into beatification.

Some closing words, from a favorite French opera:

Des cendres de ton coeur
réchauffe ton génie,
dans la serenité
souris à tes douleurs!
La Muse apaisera
ta souffrance benie,
On est grand par l'amour
et plus grand par les pleurs.

Let genius warm itself
In the ashes of your heart.
From serenity,
smile at your sorrow.
Your Muse will ease
The suffering which blesses you.
Love makes us great,
And the pain of love makes us greater.

--From The Tales of Hoffmann


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