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MARTHA PERRY/LAURA YOUNG
A genre of French lyric theatre, cultivated in the period following Lully’s death in 1687. An opéra-ballet normally consists of a prologue and three or four acts (called entrées), each with its own set of characters and its own plot; the plot usually relates in a general way to a collective idea expressed in the overall title of the work, and each entrée includes at least one divertissement of songs and dances.
The first opéra-ballet is generally considered to be L’Europe galante by André Campra, to a libretto by A.H. de Lamotte, first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1697 (see illustration). Immediate structural models are Collasse’s Ballet des Saisons (1695) and quite possibly the ballet Les jeux à l’honneur de la victoire (1691, music lost) by Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (see Cessac, 1995).
The innovatory nature of L’Europe galante, however, lay less in its structure than in its subject matter. This was recognized by Cahusac, who wrote: ‘In creating a completely new genre, Lamotte gained the advantage of being copied in turn … L’Europe galante is the first of our lyric works that bears no resemblance to the operas of Quinault’ (1754, iii, 108–10). The key words ‘completely new’ and ‘no resemblance to the operas of Quinault’ refer to more than just formal structure. The opéras-ballets represent a musical parallel to the ‘pretty Watteaus’ of Cahusac’s own happy image. The main contribution to the opéra-ballet, then, by Campra and his followers, Mouret and Montéclair, was the introduction of flesh-and-blood characters in recognizable, contemporary settings. Country seigneurs, petits-maîtres, elegant ladies and their amorous confidantes replaced the mythological and allegorical figures of the earlier ballets and tragédies en musique. ‘L’opéra’ from Campra’s Les fêtes vénitiennes takes place in the Grimani Palace in Venice; ‘Les âges rivaux’, from his Les âges, is set in Hamburg; while Marseilles is the location of Mouret’s ‘La fille’ from Les fêtes ou Le triomphe de Thalie. The libretto to this last tells us that this is the first opera in which female performers were ‘habillées à la françoise’; and in the entrée ‘La Provençale’, added in 1722, Mouret introduced local costumes, local musical instruments and popular meridional tunes sung in Provençal dialect.
Beginning with Les fêtes vénitiennes (1710), comic intrigue was skilfully exploited in the opéra-ballet. Les fêtes ou Le triomphe de Thalie (1714) had a succès de scandale because of the humiliating defeat of Melpomene (muse of tragedy) by Thalia (muse of comedy) in its prologue, set on the stage of the Paris Opéra.
There was also an increasing effort to mirror the social and cultural mores of court life during the declining years of Louis XIV and, after 1715, the Regency. Rémond de Saint-Mard clearly understood the appeal of opéra-ballet for a public grown weary of the heroic gestures of the grand siècle: ‘We have reached the point, Monsieur, where one desires only [opéras-]ballets. … Each act must be composed of a fast-moving, light and, if you wish, a rather galant plot. … You will find there the portrait of our mores. They are, to be sure, rather vile [vilaines], but they are nonetheless ours’ (1741, pp.94–6).
For the librettist P.-C. Roy, the opéra-ballet ‘pleases by its variety and sympathizes with French impatience’ (1749, ii, 18). Flexibility of format made it possible to add or subtract entrées on a trial and error basis. From June to December of 1710, for example, eight entrées had been composed for Les fêtes vénitiennes, making this opéra-ballet a most kaleidoscopic translation of ‘French impatience’.
The 23 years between 1697 and 1719 may be said to constitute the ‘first period’ of the genre on the basis of subject matter and structure. The end of the Regency of Philippe de Bourbon and the end of the first-period opéra-ballet followed closely upon one another. On 13 July 1723 the first performance of Collin de Blamont’s ballet-héroïque, Les festes grecques et romaines, took place at the Paris Opéra. For the librettist, Fuzelier, this was a ‘completely new type of ballet … that brought together all the best known Festivals of Antiquity, which appeared to be the most adaptable to the stage’ (Avertissement). Various causes have been put forward for the sudden demise of the first-period opéra-ballet: the continuing opposition of many aestheticians to comedy on the French lyric stage; the return of a king (albeit a boy king) to the French throne; and the reversion by librettist and composer alike to the elusive tragic muse (Cahusac wrote that Lamotte believed that only tragédie en musique was ‘worthy of his attention’).
In any case, the ballet-héroïque, with all the trappings of monarchical opera, replaced the more frivolous earlier type. The fanciful characters, amorous ladies and lively petits-maîtres of the first-period opéra-ballet disappeared, to find a place in parodies, vaudevilles and the budding opéra comique. The structure of the ballet-héroïque is identical with that of the opéra-ballet – that is, three or four acts, each with its own plot; it may be thought of as a specific type of opéra-ballet that made up the second and final period of the genre.
By the time of Mouret’s Les amours des dieux (1727), any pretence of avoiding a return to mythology was cast aside, although the Avertissement states that the work is ‘absolutely in the heroic genre’ in spite of its mythological characters. The rare use of comedy in the ballet-héroïque demands explanation: ‘The public has decided that if Comedy is allowed on the stage, it may be only a noble Comedy that bears the character of Antiquity’ (Avertissement to Destouches’ Les stratagèmes de l’amour, 1726). The musical highpoint of the ballet-héroïque was reached in the examples by Rameau of which several are specifically called ballets-héroïques, among them Les Indes galantes (1735), Les fêtes de Polymnie (1745) and Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour (1747). Zaïs (1748), which has a unified plot, is also described as a Pastorale-héroïque, a type of ballet-héroïque whose plot is generally concerned with the loves in an Arcadian setting between nobles or gods (or goddesses) and shepherdesses (or shepherds). The last ballet-héroïque performed at the Paris Opéra was E.J. Floquet’s L’union de l’Amour et des arts (1773).
Single entrées from the more popular opéras-ballets and ballets-héroïques survived into the second half of the 18th century as parts of fragments (known also as ‘spectacles coupés’), a curious genre in which a new production was formed from three or four acts picked arbitrarily from different opéras-ballets, one-act operas or actes de ballet (one-act ballets). Thus in 1759, ‘Les devins de la Place St Marc’ from Les fêtes vénitiennes formed part of a set of fragments that also included Rousseau’s Le devin du village (1752) and Ismène (1747), an acte de ballet by Rebel and Francoeur.
GroveO (M.E.C. Bartlett)
MGG2 (H. Schneider)
R.de Saint-Mard: Réflexions sur l’opéra (Paris, 1741/R)
P.-C.Roy: ‘Lettres sur l’opéra’, Lettres sur quelques écrits de ce tems, ed. E.C. Fréron (Geneva, 1749)
L.de Cahusac: ‘Ballet’, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, ed. D. Diderot and others (Paris, 1751–80)
L.de Cahusac: La danse ancienne et moderne, ou Traité historique de la danse (The Hague, 1754/R)
J.-J.Rousseau: Dictionnaire de musique (Amsterdam, 1768/R)
P.-J.-B.Nougaret: De l’art du théâtre (Paris, 1769/R)
N.Framery: ‘Ballet-opéra’, Encyclopédie méthodique: Musique, i, ed. N. Framery and P.-L. Ginguené (Paris, 1791)