A little political history might be in order. Following the revolution of 1789, which displaced Louis XVI and the ancien régime, the Jacobin Republic was established by 1791, followed by the Thermidorian Republic in 1794. As war was declared on the new government by Europe’s other powers (especially Austria, whose royal family member, Marie-Antoinette, had been executed by the rebels) France began to push beyond its national boundaries, and the new government found among its generals one of stellar quality. Little did they know young Napoleon Bonaparte would seize enough power to install his own Consulate in 1799 and crown himself emperor in 1804. His glory was short-lived, however, as his expansionist designs turned back at him — by 1814 he was ousted and exiled, and Louis XVI’s brothers, first Louis XVIII then Charles X, were restored to power.
Napoleon III’s interest in the arts was more than passing, but his true passion lay in positioning France as a major world player (especially in Italy, which was experiencing its own Risorgimento), and rebuilding the capital city to be the darling of Europe. With newly appointed Prefect of Paris Baron Georges Eugène Hausmann, he redrew the map, smashing through old neighborhoods to create wide promenades (boulevards) that were both attractive and useful — an army could be quickly mobilized during times of civil distress. Napoleon took ample opportunity to show off his new jewel with two world’s fairs, both of which would figure prominently in the city’s artistic growth.
In the first decade of the 19th century, Napoleon I had decreed that Paris would have only eight theaters — four primary (Académie Impériale de Musique, known informally as the Opéra, Opéra-Comique, Théâtre Italien and Théâtre Français) and four secondary (Théâtre du Vaudeville, Théâtre des Variétés, Théâtre de la Gaîté and Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique). By 1820, two more theaters (Théâtre de la Porte-St-Martin and Gymnase-Dramatique) had surreptitiously joined the pack. During the reign of Louis-Philippe, as restrictions relaxed, there was demand for another opera house to spotlight younger, untested talent generally refused admittance to the existing institutions. Nothing permanent was in place until the Opéra-National (later renamed Théâtre Lyrique) opened in 1847.
The Opéra was in its prime the 1830s as French Grand Opera exploded on the scene with the sensational eruption of Mount Vesuvius. La muette de Portici(1828), by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, exploited the spectacular stage effects already known to French audiences (a trait dating back, along with the Opéra’s lineage, to the days of Louis XIV). Soon to follow was the genius of the German expatriate Giacomo Meyerbeer, first with Robert le diable (1831), then with Les Huguenots (1836). Auber’s Gustave III, ou Le bal masqueé (1833) and Fromental Halévy’s La Juive (1835) soon followed. Romanticism had opened up the possibilities of historical and supernatural worlds, and within those settings, the five-act grand opera offered a unique collaboration between composer, librettist, stage and costume artisans and choreographer (a ballet, of course, being mandatory). The commercial demand for mind-numbing special effects (spectacles d’optique), each designed to outdo the last, was enormous. (One can easily draw a parallel to the modern motion-picture industry.) Louis Véron, director of the Opéra during its heyday, was the first to turn a profit since the days of Lully.
Grand opera was performed at the Salle Le Peletier, home of the Opéra since 1821. Previously it had been housed at the first Salle Favart, but the theater was leveled after the heir to the Bourbon dynasty, the Duc du Berry, was assassinated on its steps. In 1858 a bomb was tossed at Napoleon III as he was about to enter Le Peletier, and yet another opera house (with better security) was immediately commissioned. Charles Garnier won the contest, and the new Opéra became a centerpiece in the new Parisian landscape, eventually opening in 1875, ironically after Emperor Napoleon III’s fall from grace.
Not far away was the Théâtre Italien, the point of entry for Italian composers hoping to make it big in the French capital. Operas were routinely performed there in their original language unlike at other theaters, where they were invariably sung in French. Rossini’s works became a staple of the house and the “Swan of Pesaro” became director for a short time (1824-26). Eventually settling in Paris, Rossini reconfigured two of his Italian works for the Opéra [Le siège de Corinthe (1826) and Moïse et Pharaon (1827)] and wrote two new pieces — Le Comte Ory (1828) and Guillaume Tell (1829) — the latter of which was cast as a grand opéra. His arrival greatly invigorated the style of French singing and stagecraft. The younger generation, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, followed suit — most of their major Italian works were seen at the Théâtre Italien, and several received their world premieres: Marino Faliero (1835) and Don Pasquale (1843) by Donizetti and I puritani (1835) by Bellini. For the Opéra Donizetti produced Les martyrs (1840 — reworked from an earlier work Poliuto), La favorite (1840) andDom Sébastien(1843), and for the Opéra-Comique, La fille du régiment (1840).
Giuseppe Verdi also made it to Paris by way of the Théâtre Italien — Nabucco was presented in 1845 and Ernani in 1846. But, like his compatriots before him, he was aware that, in order to be known as a composer of first rank, he had to go head-to-head with Meyerbeer at the Opéra. In his battle for the top, he intended to be on equal footing every step of the way and engaged Eugène Scribe, librettist for many a grand opera and noted author of “the well-made play.” Verdi had been at the Opéra before. Hastily approached in 1847 for a new commission, he instead reconfigured an older work, I Lombardi, into the French grand opera formula. Retitled Jérusalem and refitted with a new plot, new characters and a ballet, it scored a mediocre premiere. Verdi’s collaboration with Scribe yielded Les vêpres siciliennes (1855 — the work immediately following La traviata), based on France ‘s 13th-century domination of Sicily. Perhaps the grandiosity of this art form did not fit Verdi’s special attention to the intimate relationships of his characters. The opera failed to please, and Verdi began to develop a distaste for the flagship of French theaters.
Richard Wagner fared no better at the Opéra — his French premiere of Tannhäuser(1861) was one of the most notorious fiascos of the century. Also forced to provide the traditional ballet, the reluctant composer insisted on inserting it in the first act instead of the more customary placement in the second or third. One of the scions of Parisian “good taste,” the Jockey Club (formally the “Society for the Encouragement of the Improvement of Horse Breeding in France,” a holdover from the Restoration), frequented the Opéra but generally arrived after the second act had begun — their real purpose being to ogle the exposed legs of the ballerinas currently under or vying for their protection. The whistles and hisses virtually broughtTannhäuser to a standstill. Its detractors were persistent and similarly disrupted each of the three performances. Wagner was sent into a professional tailspin and decreed no work of his would be performed again at the Opéra until after his death.
As the century progressed, the Opéra’s repertoire began to stale. Grand opera had run its course, and a new competitor was rising to prominence. The Théâtre Lyrique, formed out of Adolphe Adam’s short-lived Opéra-National, filled a void by offering a place for untried young composers to premiere new works. Under the eventual guardianship of an astute impresario, Léon Carvalho, the theater mounted some of the Second Empire’s most memorable shows: Gounod’s Faust(1859), Mireille (1864) and Roméo et Juliette (1867), Verdi’s revised Macbeth(1865), Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (1863) and La jolie fille de Perth(1867), Berlioz’s Les Troyens à Carthage (1863) and Wagner’s French premiere of Rienzi(1869). Carvalho’s repertoire was an intriguing combination of both the new and the unusual with a few standards (in French translation) by Mozart, Rossini and Verdi thrown in the mix. In spite of his clever programming, Carvalho fell into bankruptcy on several occasions. He gave up his directorship in 1860 only to be reappointed in 1862, then ousted for good in 1868 (but not out of the theater industry — he went on to run the Opéra-Comique from 1876 to 1887).
As “Hausmannization” continued, the Lyrique’s first home on the Boulevard du Temple found itself in the way of progress. Several other theaters also were located in the highly populated neighborhood (Napoleon III having rescinded his uncle’s restrictive theater licensing decree) — the street had become known informally to its denizens as the “Boulevard du Crime” for the tawdry melodramas frequenting its stages. Everyone scurried for new locales. The Lyrique, together with its neighbor, the Théâtre Impérial du Cirque (which at first focused on equestrian and acrobatic entertainment) found lodgings at the Place du Châtelet, just on the edge of the Seine. In 1862, two new theaters were designed and constructed by the same architect, Gabriel Davioud. Unfortunately, the Théâtre Lyrique officially ceased production in 1870 as a result of the Franco-Prussian war, its history spanning exactly that of the Second Empire, and its repertoire nearly eponymous with the regime. Symbolically the house was blasted during the Commune and burned to the ground (another theater has since taken its place). The Théâtre Impérial du Cirque still stands today as the Théâtre du Châtelet, offering a diverse program of opera, ballet and recitals.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera