One of the drawers in the Napoleonic chest was certainly marked ‘Opera’, and inside were two files: ‘Opera—Official’; and ‘Opera—Personal’. They were rather different things.
The contents of the first are better known. Having established himself as First Consul in 1799 and Emperor in 1804, Napoleon felt the desirability of a reign coincident with a glorious artistic blossoming. He could be a lavish patron of the arts, and a distinctive First Empire style emerged, reflective of Napoleonic ideals. On the operatic stage, this was perhaps best represented by Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale, premiered at the Paris Opéra on 15 December 1807 with the Emperor and his family in attendance. Both Spontini and his librettist, Étienne de Jouy, were subsequently, in 1810, awarded 10,000-franc prizes when La Vestale won the first (and, as it would turn out, only) Decennial Prize as the finest French opera of the decade. (Only in France, at this time, would a librettist be considered of equal importance to a composer!) While La Vestale represents the classical grandeur, heroic virtue and love of spectacle so redolent of First Empire taste, its successor, Fernand Cortez (1809), a celebration of conquest and exoticism, was very precisely a work of Napoleonic propaganda, as well as establishing a blueprint for the subsequent development of grand opéra. But although Napoleon understood the value of encouraging such efforts by Spontini, and rival works by such composers as Charles-Simon Catel (whose Sémiramis, 1802, was a runner-up for the Decennial Prize), Jean-François Le Sueur and Étienne Méhul, his heart was always elsewhere. On St Helena he struck up a friendship with Betsy Balcombe, a young British girl, and made his views clear: ‘He [Napoleon] expressed a great dislike to French music, which, he said, was almost as bad as the English, and [maintained] that the Italians were the only people who could produce an opera.’ In this context, ‘French music’ would certainly have included Spontini’s French operas.
In the ‘Opera—Personal’ file were the Italian operas of the Neapolitan school which proved Napoleon’s early and enduring favourites. His preference for these almost certainly has something to do with his being Corsican and speaking Italian, Corsica having been annexed by France only in 1769; the possible etymology of his name, from Napoli (Naples) plus leone (lion), may have contributed too. But far more important was Napoleon’s early infatuation with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). Napoleon was looking at a much shorter, more circumscribed history of opera than we do, and in that history Rousseau figured largely. The future emperor was born in 1769, less than a century after Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault had effectively invented French opera in the form of the tragédie en musique. From the start, ‘French style’ was consciously classical and monumental, and, importantly, a direct representation of the power and culture of the Sun King, Louis XIV, himself. This is what made the famous ‘Querelle des Bouffons’ of 1752-4, the great stand-off between supporters of French and of Italian opera, so profoundly significant: everyone involved knew that the dispute was not just about operatic aesthetics, but about the relationship between music and power, art and society. Rousseau emerged as the leading French champion of Italian opera, and it was his political thinking—perhaps best encapsulated in the famous ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’—that both inspired and was used to legitimize the French Revolution. Rousseau linked music to larger ideas about the interrelationship between human society and a romantically
Opera, May 2021