A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Comic Opera

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COMIC OPERA. Opera has in recent times been cultivated more or less successfully by every people having any claim to be called musical. The particular branch of it which is the subject of this article, as it originated, so it has attained its highest development, among the French. In the dramas with music of the Trouvères of the 13th century we find at least the germ of 'opera comique'; and in one of them, 'Li Gieus de Robin et de Marion,' of Adam de la Hale, which has reached us intact, an example of its class of great interest, whether regarded from a literary or a musical point of view. The renascence of 'opera comique' in France dates from the latter part of the 17th century, and is attributable in great part to the decline in popularity of the style of Lully and his imitators. In his 'Parallèle des Italiens et des Français, en ce qui regarde la musique et les opera,'—the result of a visit to Naples, the school of which under Alessandro Scarlatti had already given earnest of its future supremacy—the Abbé François Raguenet first gave utterance to the extent of this decline in the year 1702. Some years prior to this publication d'Allard and Vanderberg, proprietors of 'marionette' or puppet theatres, had introduced music into their performances at the 'Foire St. Germain' with such success as to excite the jealousy of Lully, who obtained an order forbidding the performance of vocal music in the marionette theatre, and reducing the orchestra to four stringed instruments and an oboe. Moreover the entrepreneurs of the 'Comédie Française,' on whose domain the marionettes would seem considerably to have encroached, obtained another order forbidding even speech in their representations. At the instigation of two ingenious playwrights, Chaillot and Remy, the difficulty created by these orders was in some sort met by furnishing each performer with a placard on which were inscribed the words he would or should have uttered under other circumstances. These placards, of necessity large, being found to impede the action and even sight of the performers, their 'parts' were subsequently appended to the scene. The utterance, musical or other, of the songs of which these were largely made up, though forbidden to the actors were not unallowable for the audience, who, perfectly familiar with the airs to which (vaudeville-wise) they had been written, took on themselves this portion of the dumb actors' duties—doubtless with sufficient spirit and intensity. The popularity of these performances, which, in spite or because of the restrictions upon them, increased day by day, eventually brought about a treaty of peace between the would-be monopolists of speech and song and the 'marionettes.' In 1716 Catherine Vanderberg, then directress, obtained a licence for the presentation of dramatic pieces interspersed with singing and dancing, and accompanied by instruments, to which the [1]name 'opéra comique' was given, and has since in France always been applied.

Meanwhile the numerous alumni of the Neapolitan school, of whose existence the Abbé Raguenet had first made his countrymen aware, had been continuing the important work, initiated by the Florentine Academy a century earlier, of cultivating and refining musical expression—the widest sphere for whose exercise is unquestionably the musical drama. As among the French 'opera comique,' so among the Italians 'opera buffa,' took root and flourished, though restricted for a long time to short pieces of one act only, which were given (as 'divertissements' continued to be till our own time) between the acts of 'opere serie.' One of the most successful of these (it still keeps the stage), the 'Serva Padrona' of Pergolesi, was produced in Paris by French performers in 1746—ten years after the untimely death of its composer—with favour, but without any perceptible effect on the French taste. But its second production, in 1752, resulted in bringing the new Italian and the old French tastes into direct and fierce antagonism. Among the leaders in this war, of which that of the Gluckists and Piccinnists was but a continuation, one of the most distinguished was Jean Jacques Rousseau, who indulged his love of paradox to the extent of endeavouring to prove that, the French language being incapable of association with music, French music was and always must be non-existent. Rousseau's practical commentary on this thesis was the subsequent and very successful production of 'Le Devin du Village.'

Since the beginning of the 18th century comic opera has everywhere divided with serious the attention and affection alike of composers and audiences. Among every people cultivating musical drama it has had its creators and admirers. The conditions of comic opera in Italy and France, where it has as yet taken the deepest root and branched out most luxuriantly, have remained unchanged since its first growth in either country. In the former the dialogue of opera is still uttered musically; in the latter it is for the most part spoken. A class of comedian has consequently been formed, and indeed brought to perfection, in France, which has no existence in Italy—a class formed of actors, and therefore on the French stage speakers, who are also not unfrequently singers of considerable, and indeed very considerable, skill. On the Italian stage the singing actor never speaks. The progress therefore of comic opera in the direction it has taken in France has in Italy been impossible; and whether from this or some other cause productiveness in this delightful form of art on the part of Italian composers may be said to have come to an end. More than sixty years have elapsed since the production of 'Il Barbiere,' thirty since that of 'Don Pasquale.' Moreover some of the best modern works of this class, whether by Italian or other composers, have been formed on the French model and first produced on the French stage. 'Le Comte Ory' of Rossini, and 'La Fille du Regiment' of Donizetti, are to all intents and purposes French operas. The present undisputed representative of Italian musical drama, Verdi, made some experiments in opera buflfa at the outset of his career; but with such small success as to have discouraged him from renewing them.

[ J. H. ]

  1. Comic opera is the opera of comedy, not 'comic' in the vulgar English sense.