This article draws upon archival evidence to trace the development of opéra-comique—and its broader political import—in the final years of the ancien régime. It focuses in particular on the opening of the Salle Favart, the first new and custom-built theater for the Comédie-Italienne, in 1783. This change in venue attracted elite crowds to France's second lyric stage, solidifying a prominent rift between the generic status of opéra-comique and the social status of its audiences. The patronage of wealthy Parisians, in turn, enabled the company to augment its staging resources and present works on an increasingly expansive scale. On the eve of the Revolution, the theater's programming committee supported the production of operas on heroic, historical subjects. Not only did such patriotic tales inspire fantastical scenery and effects, but they also enhanced the prestige of opéra-comique, which came to challenge its tragic counterpart as a legitimate, and legitimately national, lyric form. An examination of Sargines (1788), by Nicolas-Marie Dalayrac and Jacques-Marie Boutet (known as Monvel), demonstrates how such “heroic” works played into disputes over the traditional limitations of the genre. It also underscores how the aesthetic we now associate with the turbulent 1790s was, in many cases, created out of materials developed in the previous decade, shedding light on the complex relationship between ancien-régime culture and revolutionary art.
This article was the recipient of the 2016 Alfred Einstein Award from the American Musicological Society, honoring a “musicological article of exceptional merit published by a scholar in the early stages of his or her career.”