Music, Theater and Cultural Transfer: Paris, 1830-1914

April 22, 2010

What place can there be for opera? The question is still asked today, as debates surrounding arts funding and the validity of state subventions persist. What merits funding and what does not? What other sources of backing can be found to mount ambitious musical projects? Should an opera house be driven by box-office revenues or by aesthetic innovation?

In 19th-century Paris these questions were hotly debated and played themselves out on numerous stages. As this book explores, competition between subsidised and non-subsidised houses was fierce, and as a result companies faltered, folded and reformed at a dizzying rate of change. Readers less familiar with the various incarnations of the Opera, the Opera-Comique, the Theatre-Italien and the Theatre-Lyrique (among others) should start by reading the beautifully compiled appendix by Alicia C. Levin, which outlines the changes in name, location, director and status of each house, alongside a list of notable premieres.

Distinctions between a grand opera, an opera-comique, a drame lyrique and an operette affected where and how each genre was allowed to be performed. Directors of subsidised houses were bound by the rules of their state licence, the terms of which they frequently managed to circumvent. As operas were adapted to fit specific venues, and to match Parisian conventions, the ramifications could be calamitous (such as the infamous 1861 production of Richard Wagner's Tannhauser, the subject of Annegret Fauser's chapter) or the source of unexpected acclaim (such as the success of Daniel Auber's Gustave III, the subject of Sarah Hibberd's contribution).

What this book achieves is a brilliant set of tales about the interplay between directors, ministers, composers, librettists, opera houses, singers, audiences and critics during this exciting era of development for opera in France. It does this by exploiting a full range of materials including opera scores, libretti, staging manuals, journalistic reports, theatrical documents, correspondence, adaptations and translations. We encounter tales of choruses going on strike, as Lesley Wright elaborates in the context of the not-much-loved director of the Opera-Comique, Leon Carvalho, and of directors buying up costumes and props on the cheap after a Russian troupe had been forced to leave them behind, as David Grayson explains in relation to Victorin de Joncieres' Dimitri. We are also entertained by catty journalistic reviews, such as those compiled by Diana R. Hallman in her chapter on Fromental Halevy, and by musical satires, such as Jacques Offenbach's Le Carnaval des Revues, as both Fauser and Mark Everist explore.

Yet, entertainment aside, the amount of scholarly work that has gone into unearthing such lively and significant material is palpable. Chapters are dripping in difficult-to-obtain documentation, such as Rebecca Harris-Warrick's compilation of press reports on performances of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at three different Parisian theatres.

The "cultural transfer" referred to in the title does not just signal the incorporation of works by foreign composers into the French "vernacular". Jules Massenet's Herodiade was the first French opera to have its Paris premiere in Italian translation, at the Theatre-Italien. Georges Bizet's Carmen, meanwhile, exploits a French obsession with "Spanishness" during the late 19th century (as Kerry Murphy and Ralph P. Locke explore in particular).

Whether we are dealing with specific operas (such as Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor or La Juive) or with opera stars and typecasting (such as Olivier Bara on Jean-Baptiste Chollet, or Steven Huebner on Emma Calve) or the travails of particular composers (with chapters on Auber, Halevy, Offenbach, Massenet and Wagner) or specific houses (such as Katharine Ellis on the Theatre-Lyrique) or the role of directors (such as Carvalho), this book brings the music and theatre of Paris in the long 19th century very much to life.

Music, Theater and Cultural Transfer: Paris, 1830-1914

Edited by Annegret Fauser and Mark Everist. University of Chicago Press. 456pp, £38.00. ISBN 9780226239262. Published 4 December 2009

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