Jacques Offenbach: the music of the past and the image of the present.
Music, Theater and Cultural Transfer: Paris 1830-1914.
Chicago University Press.
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Jacques Offenbach used a number of strategies to define the identity of the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens and the emergent genre of opérette. Central to this self-positioning were attempts to situate the theatre and its products within the context of eighteenth-century comic opera in general and opéra comique in particular. This was achieved by the promotion of eighteenth-century works at the Bouffes-Parisiens and by Offenbach’s judicious moves to locate his new works in the context of the past.
During the first three years of the life of the Bouffes Parisiens (1855-58), Offenbach attempted to mount four key works from the ‘long’ eighteenth century: Rousseau’s Le devin du village, Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor and Rossini’s Il signor Bruschino. Of these, the Rossini and Mozart both reached the stage, in versions that required varying degrees of modification. Le devin du village most likely fell foul of the imperial administration since it belonged to the repertory of the Académie Impériale de Musique, and Gevaert’s attempts to rework La serva padrona were diverted to the Opéra-Comique where the work was presented in 1862.
When Offenbach announced his competition for composers of new opérettes in 1856, he took the opportunity to write the history of opéra comique according to his own understanding and preferences. In his diagnosis of various phases of the development of the genre he emplotted its history in a way that stressed the inflation of the genre from its origins to the recent première of Meyerbeer’s L’etoile du nord (1854), and that traced a progressive distancing of the genre from what Offenbach thought were its eighteenth-century origins. He called for a revival of the spirit of the works of Monsigny, Dalayrac and Grétry in the works of the competitors for his prize. This spirit was of course already embodied in those works currently in the repertory of the Bouffes Parisiens, and in emplotting the history of opéra comique in this fashion, he was claiming a legitimacy for opérette by allying it with the country’s national lyric genre.
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