Opera in Paris was big news. In the 19th century, the comings and goings of Rossini, Grisi or Rubini were regularly reported and widely discussed, the leading performers achieving a level of celebrity and financial recompense not unlike that of today’s sporting superstars. It was to Paris that the greatest singers came to find their loudest acclaim and highest fees, here that the grandest productions were mounted, and famous composers wrote their most ambitious works. No composer could be said to have ascended to the park of the operatic world until his work had been well received in Paris.
In the Autumn of 1853 Verdi took up residence in Paris. His next opera, Les vêpres siciliennes, was to star the German singer Sophie Cruvelli. She was recognised as a fine performer of Verdi’s soprano roles, having appeared in Ernani and Nabucco in London in 1848, and Luisa Miller in Milan in 1850. On 9 October 1855 she was due to perform the role of Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Hugenots, but Cruvelli vanished! Her disappearance became a sensation and she was sought across Europe. In London a new farce was staged, entitled Where’s Cruvelli? A month later La Cruvelli reappeared after spending time on the Côte d’Azur with Baron Vigier, a Parisian of immense fortune. On her return she performed the role of Valentine, and at her character’s first entry the Queen addresses her with the words ‘Tell me the result of your bold journey’. The question was so fitting that the audience burst into disarmed laughter. Les vêpres siciliennes was premiered on 13 June 1855 at the Théâtre Impérial de L’Opéra, with Sophie Cruvelli performing the role of Hélène.
Less than six years later Richard Wagner was invited to stage a French version of Tannhäuser by order of Napoleon III. Difficulties arose when Wagner was told that he would have to insert a ballet into his opera to conform with Parisian conventions. Ballets were usually performed at the end of an opera’s second act, in time for the arrival of the influential group of young, aristocratic male audience members known as the Jockey Club. Instead, Wagner decided to expand the first act of his work, inserting a short ballet into the scene set in Venus’ bacchanalian realm. The opening night was greeted with dog whistles and booing: a claque had been organised by the Jockey Club in response to the placing of the ballet. After three disrupted performances the opera was pulled from the stage and Wagner left Paris, never to return.
In 1872 Georges Bizet was asked to write a new work for Paris’s Opéra-Comique, which for a century had specialised in presenting light moralistic pieces, in which virtue is ultimately rewarded. No doubt Bizet was expected to write something in that vein, but one of the directors of the opera house resigned because instead of the conventional happy ending, Carmen finished with murder. One of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the world, it’s hard to believe that Carmen’s premiere was a total failure. The audience and the press objected to such an explicit and realistic portrayal of female sexuality. In the 1870s women were usually kept in the background, or at best, confined to historical subjects in period dress or presented as mythological goddesses. Depicting a real and up to date contemporary situation, telling the story of a young, working class woman was simply not something opera audiences had faced before.
The opera’s content wasn’t the only thing to cause a scandal in Paris. During Carmen’s 33rd performance on 2 June 1875, Galli-Marié, the original Carmen, fainted in the wings after the card trio in Act III, in which Carmen foretells her own death. She claimed that she had a premonition of death and later that night Bizet died of a heart attack, aged just 36, unaware that his opera would become a spectacular and enduring success.