FRENCH OPERA AT THE COURT OF THE SUN KING

Introduced by Dr William Brooks, University of Bath, on 19 May 1998

William Brooks began his talk on opera at the court of the Sun King by describing the origins of opera in Italy. Opera was brought to the French court in the 1640s by Cardinal Mazarin. In France, however, the Italian form of opera was never fully accepted, and after Mazarin's death a distinct French variant was developed in the 1670s by Jean-Baptiste Lully, an expatriate Italian who had worked at the French court for a quarter of a century.
Just like their Italian predecessors, Lully and his librettist Philippe Quinault sought their subject matter in mythological sources and featured sumptuous spectacle and exciting machine effects, but in other respects French operas differed from Italian. The spectacle and the machine effects were integrated much more rigorously into the narrative structure. Likewise, the ballet episodes, always popular with French audiences, were fully integrated. Lully and Quinault made their operas much shorter than Italian models had been, and placed less reliance on ornament for its own sake. French musical forms dominated and the words of the libretto were given due prominence.
French opera as conceived by Lully was quickly taken up by the Sun King, Louis XIV. He appreciated it partly for its Frenchness, but mostly because he and his court could see in the gods and heroes allegorical references to Louis XIV himself. For a dozen brilliant years opera was an essential part of entertainments at the French court. By the time that the king, weighed down with other concerns, ceased regular patronage of French opera at his court, the prestige his special interest had given it had ensured that it was well established in the public theatre in Paris.
.Dr Brooks showed engravings of aspects of French operas in performance at court, played recorded extracts to show various aspects of the music and argued that by helping to establish a distinct French opera in France, this period of royal patronage shaped the history of opera by giving French composers the opportunity to show, long before Gluck and Mozart, that opera did not have to be Italian to be great.
W. Brooks