As already explained, French opera is divided into two styles, known as Opéra Comique and Grand Opéra, according to the use of dialogue or recitative. Not that this is the only difference. The Grand Opéra is naturally adapted to subjects of a large or heroic scope; the Opéra Comique, like the Spieloper in Germany, to lighter episodes of a romantic or humorous nature. As will be seen, however, it not infrequently happens that the latter form is adopted for serious subjects, owing to the fact that it is generally easier for a composer to find acceptance at the Opéra Comique than at the Grand Opéra. The youthful composer or the one who has not yet acquired, a name for himself is expected to win his spurs in the former before attempting to enter the latter. Hence, even if his work is somber or tragic in character he often finds it advisable to cast it into the lighter form for the sake of having it produced.
The Opéra Comique.The Opéra Cornique had its origin in the introduction of the Opéra Buffa in Paris by an Italian company about the middle of the 18th century, which led to the Gluck-Piccini controversy. Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona in particular awakened great admiration and brought about the creation of a similar type of French opera. It was at first hardly more than an elaboration of the already existing vaudeville, or play with songs. François Philidor (1726-1795) and André Grétry (1741-1813) were its founders. Grace and simplicity, scrupulous adaptation of the music to the clearness of diction always demanded by French taste were its distinguishing characteristics.
Its Development.Étienne Méhul (1763-1817) , a pupil of Gluck, gave it a larger musical development and a greater depth of dramatic feeling. His Joseph (1807), founded on Biblical history, is a classic of this school. Its dignity, its severe and noble style won less cordial recognition in France than in Germany ; a generation later it was to exercise a decisive influence on the future creator of the music drama. It was through a performance of Joseph that Richard Wagner, then director of the opera in Riga, first felt inspired to battle against the empty conventionalities of the operatic stage. Méhul’s enlargement of the Opéra Comique was carried on by Cherubini, who through the ill-will of Napoleon found the doors of the Académie de Musique, the technical title of the Grand Opéra, closed against him. Even his greatest tragic opera, Medée (Medea), was produced (1797) as an opéra comique without recitative and ballet, the latter being also reserved exclusively for Grand Opéra. Thus it often happened that there was little, in many cases no intrinsic difference between the music of the two schools.
The Typical Opéra Comique.There was, on the other hand, a development of a type more closely corresponding to the original scheme of the Opéra Comique. Strongly influenced by the romantic tendencies of the day, its romanticism by no means resembles that of the German school as represented by Weber and his followers. This, in its appeal to the deeper emotions by the idealization of nature and recourse to the supernatural, is thoroughly alien to the Gallic temperament, and had no appreciable effect on French composers. Gaiety and humor, freshness of invent:on, lightness of touch, elegance and finish characterize the true Opéra Comique. Its pathos never sinks below a certain sentiment which is skilfully used rather for the sake of contrast than from any persistent attempt at awakening the more somber feelings. The singer and the actor both meet with consideration; the former by sparkling melodies, expressive and grateful to sing, not over-burdened with the technical difficulties in which the Italian school abounds ; the latter by a drama furnishing piquant situations, seasoned with wit and interesting in itself as a play.
Boieldieu, its Founder.-As Méhul gave the impulse to the graver, more dignified style, so Francois Boieldieu (1775-1834) laid the foundation of the typical Opéra Comique, the most original and essentially national French operatic form. His Jean de Paris ( John of Paris) and La Dame Blanche (The White Lady) placed him at the head of this school. The latter in particular, based on a curious combination of situations taken from two of Scott’s novels, “The Monastery” and “Guy Mannering,” has been sung the world over and still remains an unsurpassed example of the Opéra Comique in its best estate.
Auber.The most prolific composer in this style was Daniel Auber (1782-1871). Though he began as an amateur and after years spent in other pursuits, he outlived all his early contemporaries and became its most widely known representative. With one exception, to be noticed later, his works reveal the salient characteristics of the schoolfreshness and melodic charm, finesse of rhythm and instrumentation, delicacy and refinement rather than power and depth. His most popular opera, Fra Diavolo (1830), has been sung on all stages and in almost all languages. Others less known but equally meritorious are Le Maçon (The Mason and the Locksmith), Le Domino Noir (The Black Domino) and Les Diamants de la Couronne (The Crown Diamonds.)
Hérold and Adam.Louis Hérold (1791-1833), as a pupil of. Méhul, inclines to a more serious style. His Zampa contains strongly romantic features which made it more successful in Germany than the melodious Le Pré aux Clercs (The Clerks’ Meadowa noted duelling ground in Paris during the 17th century), though in France this vies with La Dame Blanche in the distinction of being the most popular Opéra Comique in the repertory. Though less significant than any of the foregoing, Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), the composer of Le Postillon de Longjumeau (The Postilion of Longjumeau), deserves mention for the grace and fluency of his melodies, albeit they show a decline in character and style which prefigures the decadent school of the Opéra Bouffe (burlesque opera).
Opéra Bouffe.The attentive observer can hardly fail to perceive that the opera as appealing to the people at large more than any other form of music is peculiarly susceptible to social and political influences. The Opéra Bouffe being a degenerate off-shoot from the Opéra Comique, it is no mere accident that the period of its most extended popularity coincided with the extravagance and folly of the Second Empire. As a distinct type it is due to Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), a German by birth, who took ad-vantage of the taste of the time by turning his attention to the parody of the classical and mythological subjects which had furnished material for the early operas. Frivolous and mocking in text, sprightly and vivacious in melody and rhythm, his operettas possess undoubted piquancy and an effervescent style which for a time intoxicated the public. Their vogue was happily broken by a series of light operas of much more worth. Of these, Les Cloches de Corneville, known to Americans as “The Chimes of Normandy,” by Robert Planquette (1840-1903) is the best example.
The Influence of the Opéra Comique.The Opéra Cornique, as founded by Boieldieu and continued by Auber and Hérold, bears a distinctively national character to a much greater degree than the more cosmopolitan Grand Opéra. Unlike this, its development was entirely due to native composers who gave it the thoroughly Gallic impress of spirit, vivacity, and truth to nature which carried it triumphantly through all the theatres of Europe. Thus it served to counteract in part the reactionary tendency of Italian opera. In Paris, as elsewhere, during the first quarter of the 19th century Italian influences were very powerful ; Rossini’s works and those of his imitators had the undesirable effect of reviving in a modernized form the conventionalized opera of the 18th century, the chief object of which was the display of the singer. The Opéra Comique, though limited to the lighter phases of the drama, performed a service of no small value in upholding a standard of legitimate musical expression at a time when the allurements of florid song were obscuring the dramatic ideals which Gluck had established at the cost of so much labor and effort.
Grand Opéra. About the same time, important changes were impending in Grand Opéra, though these were more in the nature of a development from the type founded by Lully and afterward enlarged by Rameau, Gluck and Spontini than a revolution such as Weber and his followers had effected in Germany. They were, however, the outcome of the same romantic influences modified by the characteristic French adherence to established form. A grand opera ac-cording to tradition must have five acts, consisting of arias. ensembles, choruses, etc., connected by recitatives, with a ballet in one or two of the middle acts, generally the second and fourth.
Its Change of Style.Auber’s La Muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Porticiknown also as Masaniello), produced at the Académie de Musique in 1828, formed the point of departure for the new style. Though it held to the traditional form of Grand Opéra, it was in spirit, theme and treatment a startling change from the ordinarily genial works of this composer, characterized as it was by a force and fire, a vigor and decision which he had never shown before and was never to show again. It marks the be-ginning of the modern historical opera, the complete abandonment of classical and ancient history as the only appropriate material for Grand Opéra. The people were brought upon the stage not as slaves or as meekly acquiescing in the will of those in authority, but as insurrectionists demanding rights of which they had been defrauded. The story of the Neapolitan fisherman leading his comrades into rebellion against their tyrannical rulers had a powerful effect in the agitated state of political affairs which culminated in the revolutions of 1830. It is significant that a performance of La Muette de Portici immediately preceded the riots in Brussels, which in that year resulted in the expulsion of the Dutch from Belgium. Rossini’s William Tell, which followed in 1829, manifested precisely the same tendencies, musically as well as dramatically. Both were destined to be cast into the shade by the works of a third composer who gave the French grand opera a style which practically dictated conditions on all stages for half a century and is still not without influence.
Meyerbeer. This composer was Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), German by birth and early education, Italian by training in more mature years, and finally French by adoption. A juvenile pianist of great promise, he studied with Clementi ; he went through a severe course of fugue and counterpoint with Zelter, the teacher of Mendelssohn ; in composition he was a fellow-student with Weber under the famous Abbé Vogler. In Vienna he knew Beethoven and was advised by Salieri to study in Italy, where he wrote a number of Italian operas after the style of Rossini. In 1826, he went to Paris, the Mecca of all opera composers, with the design of making himself familiar with the conditions of Grand Opéra.
His First Grand Opera.The result of his studies was Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil) produced in 1831. This created a veritable sensation. Nothing of so comprehensive a style had been seen or heard before. Meyerbeer’s cosmopolitan education, his receptive rather than original mind, enabled him to combine the outward characteristics at least of the three schoolsFrench, German, Italianas no one had ever attempted. The story of the arch-enemy of mankind seeking to ensnare a son by an earthly mother into sharing his lost condition, the struggle between the powers of good and evil for the mastery of the tempted soul gave full scope to such an amalgamation of styles. The ballet and spectacular effects of Lully, the supernaturalism of Weber, the roulades of Rossini were all brought together with an art that dazzled and intoxicated an admiring public.
His Other Grand Operas.Five years later Robert was followed by Les Huguenots (The Huguenots), which achieved a still greater success, and is the one opera of Meyerbeer which continues to hold its own against the encroachments of time. In one or two episodes of Le Prophète (The Prophet), which was produced in 1849, the composer reached the highest level of his creative activity, notwithstanding the manifest artificiality of his scheme. His last work, L’Africaine (The African), was brought out the year after his death and like the others owed its success to a skilful mingling of all the elements, musical, spectacular, and dramatic, which go to make up this type of opera. His L’Étoile du Nord (Star of the North) and Le Pardon de Ploërmel (better known as Dinorah) were composed for the Opéra Comique.
Influence of Meyerbeer.Meyerbeer so held the public in his grip that other composers of Grand Opéra gained but slight attention during his lifetime. Only Jacques Halévy (1799-1862) was able to meet him on equal terms in this field with La Juive (The Jewess), in which he shows the earnest spirit of his master Cherubini. Though Meyer-beer’s watchword was success at any cost and his aim to assure it by the accumulation of cunningly devised sensations rather than through the innate power of his music, his works had a powerful and, on the whole, a beneficial influence on the course of modern dramatic music. They placed living, palpitating beings on the stage instead of the cold abstractions of mythology and antiquity ; the singer was forced to impersonate as well as to sing. His insistence on all means of expression–vocal, instrumental, and scenic though often exaggerated and fatal to purity of style, led to an extension of technical ability in all these directions. and prepared the way for a master of greater power and higher aims. It must not be overlooked that Richard Wagner frankly modeled his Rienzi (1842) after Les Huguenots, and that Meyerbeer in Le Prophète shows plainly the influence of this work by his German contemporary.