Parisian Opera Houses in the Age of Donizetti

During the 19th century, Paris was known as the cultural capital of Europe, due in large part to the dozens of opera houses and theaters that dotted its cityscape. Of these, four became Donizetti’s Parisian stomping grounds:

The Opéra: Paris’s premiere opera house during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Opéra was founded in 1669, during the reign of Louis XIV. It specialized in grand opéra, a genre defined by extreme length (usually five acts), ballets between individual acts, extraordinary scenic effects, and plots drawn from ancient mythology and history. Throughout its history, the Opéra was supported and run by the French government. As such, it often produced works with a clear propagandistic bent. For instance, during the 17th and 18th centuries, operas about ancient Greek and Roman emperors and heroes represented the grandeur of the monarchy, while after the French Revolution, stories about senatorial Rome represented the new French Republic.

Opéra Comique: As its name suggests, the Opéra Comique specialized in the genre of opéra comique. In contrast to grand opéra, “comic opera” stories focus on lower-class characters and often use the interaction between nobility and peasants as fodder for comic situations. The genre of opéra comique also includes portions of spoken dialogue, whereas grand opéra is entirely sung. The Opéra Comique, which grew out of a pre-existing theater company, was founded in 1715.

Théâtre Italien: Most of the opera houses in Paris produced French-language opera, either original works by French composers or operas from other countries translated into French. The Théâtre Italien, by contrast, presented Italian operas in their original language. The first performances of Donizetti’s operas were at the Théâtre Italien.

Théâtre de la Renaissance: Founded by the novelists Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, the Théâtre de la Renaissance opened its doors in 1838. In 1839, it performed a French translation of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that sparked the meteoric rise of Donizetti’s fame among Parisian opera fans. Unfortunately, the Théâtre de la Rénaissance was unable to compete with its more famous and profitable peers and closed in 1841. It 1872, however, the name “Théâtre de la Rénaissance” was given to a newly constructed auditorium, where theatergoers may still enjoy performances to this day.

Although the Opéra and Théâtre Italien have since closed, the Opéra Comique and the new Théâtre de la Renaissance can still be visited. The two most important opera houses in today’s Paris, the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille, were both constructed after Donizetti’s death.

Critical Inquiry
Is there a theater or opera house in your hometown? Have you ever been there? Do a little research to find out more about this building: When was it built? What kinds of shows has it hosted? Has it ever been renovated? Does the history of this building tell you anything about the city or town where you live?