Vive la différence! – French Opera 101

Iain Scott explains the key ingredients of French opera


First, the bad news. French opera, like French cuisine, is not for everyone. It requires a sophisticated and refined palate, an exalted appreciation for nuance, based on rich, worldly experience. It lacks the warmth, immediacy, openness and generosity of the Italians. For those seeking meaning or intellectual depth, it comes a poor second to the Germans. As a result, if you scan your local CD racks, or the up-coming programming of opera companies around the world, French opera accounts for only some ten percent of the “market”. German composers claim twice that share and the Italians dominate with over sixty percent.

More bad news. In the last half-century it appeared that French opera was either dead or dying – notwithstanding the curious anomaly that Carmen is one of the world’s most frequently produced works. Opera producers often say that they would like to programme more French operas. They are often frustrated, however, by the paucity of singers who understand the restrained requirements of French style and by the inherent costs of production – of which more later.

It was not always so. For most of opera’s history, no composer could be considered a success, whatever his nationality, until he had written in French for one of the major Parisian houses. A long list of foreigners attests to this principle, starting with Lully in the 17th century, continuing with Gluck and Spontini in the 18th, and with Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Wagner and Verdi in the 19th. The cumulative effect of this focus on Paris was that by the end of the 19th century, French operas had achieved widespread popularity. It was an emphatically French opera that was chosen for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in 1883, Gounod’s Faust. Over the next decades, this work was so frequently performed there that the building became wryly known as the “Faustspielhaus”.

Here in Canada, we have a unique appreciation for French opera, based in part on our bi-cultural heritage. This is reinforced by the treasure trove of international-class singers who have come from Quebec. In Ontario, Opera Atelier has selected many French operas for performance, influenced in part by their largely balletic values. Even more influential has been the enthusiastic and indefatigable championing of 19th century French opera by our “beloved national treasure” Stuart Hamilton in his many years with Opera in Concert and on the CBC.

The good news? French opera now appears to be reviving. It was not so long ago that the Metropolitan opera could have an entire season without a French opera. Not so today. After a long period with very few top-notch French singers, Nathalie Dessay and Roberto Alagna are encouraging more and more companies to mount French operas for them. Nowadays, it is now more fashionable to perform the French versions of Don Carlos, La Favorite or Lucie de Lammermoor, for example.

Part of the problem, and part of the charm of French opera is that it has always striven to assert its cultural distinctness. From its beginnings, it has been conscious of the dangerously pervasive power of foreign variants of the art-form – particularly from the Italians in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Germans, more particularly Wagner, in the later half of the 19th century. The history of opera in France is highlighted with periodic cultural intellectual “wars” – between those embracing the foreign influences and those determined to promote and protect the distinctly native Gallic forms. French opera has, from the days of Louis XIV and Lully, wanted to be different and to celebrate its distinctive characteristics.

What, then, are the features that characterize French opera? Like many things French, this involves an exquisite paradox. On the one hand, there is a sense of restraint, of distance, even of reserve – especially when compared to the unashamed openness of Italian opera. On the other hand, the words that best sum up most of French opera are the antithesis of restraint – “spectacular”, “extravagant” … the “grand” in opera!

One way to understand the ‘yin’ side of this paradox, restraint, is to compare ideal styles of singing. An Italian tenor is expected to thrill an audience with his high notes, loud and full throated; whereas a French tenor is expected to sing them softly, inwardly, with delicate head tone. Italians often find this element of French style underwhelming, disappointing; the French, correspondingly, tend to find the Italian approach somewhat brash.

The second characteristic, the paradoxical emphasis on the spectacular, is easier to explain. They alone could afford it. Paris was by far the richest city in Europe. In comparison to the myriad small principalities of Italy and Germany, all the tax revenues from the huge land-mass of France poured into one capital. First at Versailles and then in Paris, the French government saw the arts and especially the opera as a reflection of their gloire. Only the French could afford, for example, to include a ballet, a particularly expensive addition to any opera, and large choruses. The emphasis on the inclusion of ballet dates back to Louis XIV. The King was proud of his legs and enjoyed dancing. Dance, therefore, became an indispensable element of French court opera from that moment.

Later, in the 19th century, the French invented the term “grand opera”. In the 1830s, after the (les Misérables) revolution of 1830, the main Paris State Opera came under the management of a brilliant marketer, Louis Véron. His vision was to produce operas that astonished, that celebrated extravagance. For his house, operas were to be to a scope and scale that only the French could possibly afford. There were to be five acts, with a full ballet in the second act, large choral scenes and spectacular costumes and scenery. Opera were to be through-composed, with frequent opportunities for the best singers money could buy to show off their virtuosity. Librettos were to focus on historical moments of crisis, where processions, coronations, battles or massacres were to follow one another in an endless series of dazzling tableaux. The staging was to be spectacular. The singing was to be spectacular. Paris was to show why it was the centre of the world! It worked. Parisian “grand opera” became the top-of-the-line.

There are other particularly Gallic characteristics. The French frequently cast the lead female role for a mezzo-soprano, rather than a soprano. There is a theatre-based appreciation for “la pièce bien faite” – a play in which all loose ends are neatly tied.

Three of the up-coming operas to be broadcast on “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” are French. Chronologically, the first to be composed was Meyerbeer’s “les Huguenots” a quintessential “grand opera” from 1836. Half a century later, Chabrier produced his brilliant failure “le Roi malgré lui” – a particular favourite of Stuart Hamilton, to be broadcast in his honour. Four years later, in 1890, Massenet scored his second big hit with “Werther”. See the side-bars for more information.