Grand opéra–petit opéra: Parisian opera and ballet from the Restoration to the Second Empire.
19th-Century Music, 33, (3), Spring Issue, . (doi:10.1525/ncm.2010.33.3.195).
The emergence of grand opéra around 1830 resulted in large-scale works in five acts setting libretti largely based on historical subjects that dominated much European stage music until the first world war. But such shifts in generic paradigm came at a price. The repertory of the Paris Opéra was based as much on ballet-pantomime as on opera, and until 1830 both genres would share the stage in a single evening. Although the aesthetic impulses behind grand opéra made programming new opera and ballet henceforth impossible, the state required the Opéra to maintain the balance between opera and ballet in order to reserve the institution’s “pompe et luxe;” such a situation called forth a number of responses from its management during the period that all Parisian opera houses were controlled by license (1806-7 to 1864).
In the short term, the Opéra continued using older smaller-scale works to accompany ballet as part of the same evening’s entertainment, but despite the canonic pressures this exerted it was a practice that could not be sustained indefinitely. A second alternative was to shorten up-to-date grand opéra, to bring them down to dimensions at which they could be performed with ballets; the best known example of this procedure is the reduction of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell from four acts (1829) to three (1831). A third possibility was the process of morcellement: the extraction of individual acts or pairs of acts from grand opéra and their performance alongside ballet.
A longer-term strategy, and one so far entirely ignored in modern scholarship, was the development of a new type of stage music specifically to accompany ballet: petit opéra. Emerging from two closely-related works the same time as the birth of grand opéra, Rossini’s Le comte Ory (1828) and Auber’s Le philtre (1831), petit opéra was the direct result of institutional pressure from the state for the Opéra to mount productions of both opera and ballet, the preference of the institution and its audiences for evenings with both opera and ballet, and the indirect aesthetic pressure engendered by the appearance of grand opéra. The tradition of composing petit opéra continued up to the end of the licensing period in 1864, and encompassed, among such foreign imports as Weber, Verdi and Donizetti, works by Halévy, Adam, Thomas, Auber and Rossini; two of the best-known casualties of the complexities surrounding the genre were Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini (1838) and Wagner’s scenario for Le hollandais volant. Petit opéra was characterized by libretti in two acts with a limited number of musical compositions, a clear distinction between composed number and following recitative (a decisive break with grand opéra), a limited number of characters and a comic register; it developed a set of conventions that remained consistent from its origins c1830 to its latest presentations in Alary’s La voix humaine (1861) and Massé’s La mule de Pedro (1863).
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