A Trip to the Operatic Cineplex
Pretend for a second that we're in Paris, 200 years ago, give or take a decade or two. We feel like doing something tonight, so we head to the nearest Thêatreplex, where we can choose among five different shows. Except what was showing was not moving pictures — they hadn't been invented yet, silly! — but live music theater. What choices might we have for this evening's entertainment?
Let's see: In Thêatre I, there's a thrilling pirate adventure, à la Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp. In Thêatre II, there's a romantic comedy with an ancient exotic setting, complete with plucky but impoverished hero, beautiful princess, scimitar-swinging henchmen and plenty of colorful natives. Think Aladdin, pre-Disney. Thêatre III features a ghost story, in which the spirit of a wronged woman haunts the house and lives of newlyweds. The show in Thêatre IV follows the trail of a legendary thief and lover (a renegade nobleman, of course), along with the gendarmes set on nabbing him — a precursor to Billy the Kid or John Dillinger. And in Thêatre V — Gypsies. Lots of Gypsies. Gotta have Gypsies.
Welcome to the wild, wonderful world of opéra-comique! The leading French popular music theater genre for over 100 years, the opéra-comique provided thrills, chills, laughter, tears and hit tunes galore to a huge and varied audience. And while most of its leading composers have made their way into the chronicles of classical music, make no mistake about it — this was popular music, designed for mass appeal and financial profit. (Insert obligatory lecture here about how artistic quality and broad appeal not only can go hand-in-hand, they usually do.)
Descended in part from the early 18th-century comédie en vaudevilles (other terms were used interchangeably), a spoken comedy interspersed with pre-existing songs, the opéra-comique also bore the strong imprint of the Italian opera buffa (more about which here), introduced into Paris in mid-century via Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La serva padrona. The melodic invention of Pergolesi's charming masterwork unflatteringly exposed the musical threadbareness of the prevailing French style, while Pergolesi's comic interplay of high- and low-born characters spawned many a French imitator. The French style didn't go down without a fight, and the war-of-words between advocates of the French and Italian styles has gone down in musical annals as the querelle des bouffons ("the quarrel of the buffoons," much more about which in this earlier blog post).
So what makes for a classic opéra-comique? An exciting plot, colorful characters, hummable songs, a modicum of vocal virtuosity, choruses representing brigands, bandits, peasants, or other hearty folk, and to start, a rip-roaring overture. And oh, by the way, unlike in the Italian buffa, spoken dialogue rather then recitiative ("sung speech") between the musical numbers. The French, they like their acting as much as their singing. Also unlike the buffa, the opéra-comique, despite its name, was not always comic. Indeed, it could be downright tragic.
Some famous works and composers? Let's go back to the Thêatreplex envisioned above. Now playing in Thêatre I is Ferdinand Hérold's 1831 Zampa, named for a count-turned-pirate who meets a fiery fate similar to that of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Thêatre II is presenting Adolphe Adam's 1852 Si j'étais roi ("If I Were King"), about a fisherman in ancient Goa named Zéphoris who indeed becomes king for a day, and wins the hand of the beautiful Princess Néméa. In Thêatre III, you'll find François-Adrien Boieldieu's 1825 La dame blanche ("The White Lady"), based on several stories by Sir Walter Scott, and named for the guardian spirit of a stately manor where very bad things took place. Over in Thêatre IV is Daniel-François Auber's Fra Diavolo, an 1830 work based loosely on the exploits of a real-life Neapolitan bandit of the early 19th century. He also made one heck of a spicy sauce! And in Thêatre V? Why, none other than Georges Bizet's immortal 1875 Carmen! I told you that the opéra-comique could also be tragique. It should be noted, by the way, that all of the above works save Adam's were premiered by the still-extant company and at the theater that bear the genre's name, the Opéra-Comique.
Eventually, as happens to all genres, the opéra-comique ran out of steam, in this case to be overtaken by the more topical and satirical operettes of the great Jacques Offenbach. But its theatrical DNA can be found in many subsquent music theater works. Think, for instance, the operettas that Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy used to warble in the movies, like Sigmund Romberg's The New Moon or Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta. No opéra-comique, no Jeanette and Nelson. And I, for one, think that would be a very bad thing.