Thursday 1 February 2018

Grandeur et décadence: a century of Theâtre Français in a nutshell

Grandeur et décadence: a century of Theâtre Français in a nutshell

There was a time that the Koninklijke Schouwburg – OPERA2DAY’s base – was the focus of every opera enthusiast in the Netherlands. It was the largest opera-house in the country and there were not many other cities in Europe giving so many French operas than The Hague. The Schouwburg owed its prominent position to the Théâtre Français de la Haye, a company staging at least three different operas a week – between 1804 and 1919 - at the Korte Voorhout.

The Théâtre Français set the seal on a long-standing The Hague tradition. In the 17th and early 18th centuries travelling opera troupes played French pieces in fives courts and riding stables. In 1709 the Comédie Française opened its doors at the Casuariestraat. Although the performances were attended by the upper class, the building was dingy. Less than a century later the audience was craving for a new theatre.  At the Korte Voorhout, around the corner of the Comédie, there was a semi-circular little palace in Louis XVI style. It was built by Charles Christian of Nassau-Weilburg, stadholder William V’s brother-in-law, for himself and his wife: Princess Carolina of Orange-Nassau. Political developments made them flee to Germany, leaving their new abode vacant. Five wealthy citizens of The Hague had the property converted into a cosy theatre for a maximum of 712 spectators. In 1804 the Koninklijke Schouwburg was inaugurated.

Two companies set the programming. The Hollandsche Schouwburg produced Dutch plays. The Théâtre Français gave French musical theatre, which appealed to a large audience. In cosmopolitan The Hague French was the language used by the court and its circles. It is thought that the Théâtre Français catered mainly for high society with sophisticated entertainment. However, the company also organised affordable shows for those less well off. Feelings in the theatre could run high. Singers that were not liked by the audience were booed mercilessly. In 1825 an inferior tenor caused such an uproar that police and soldiers had to intervene.

The programming was enviably varied, especially in de eyes of 21st-century opera enthusiasts.  French opera had many genres. The opéra comique, an opera containing spoken dialogues, was well-liked, as was the entirely sung drame lyrique. The vaudevilles, too, were popular for a long time: farces containing songs. Moreover, the Théâtre Français expanded its repertoire more and more with Italian and German operas in translation.

The performances often started as early as half past six. Usually, the audience could see several pieces in one evening. For example, on 4 November 1871 the evening began with the comedy Le Post-scriptum by Emile Augier. Then came Verdi’s La Traviata. The evening ended lightly with Offenbach’s operetta M. Choufleurie restera chez lui le. To be able to offer such a varied triple bill making cuts was the rule rather than the exception. The Théâtre Français constantly extended its repertoire. In those days an opera-house was not yet an institution offering year in, year out mostly the same classics.

On 5 July 1830, the audience was presented with a novelty: the opera La muette de Portici by Auber lasted the whole evening. It was a grand opéra, a genre which had gained immense popularity in Paris within a few seasons: an opera with five acts, dozens of extras, ballet, extravagant costumes, spectacular stage settings and special effects – thanks to an ingenious device the The Hague audience could gape at a volcanic eruption in the final act. The audience was so enthusiastic that Auber’s opera had to be repeated six times during the same month.

Supply was matched with demand on the spot. Unlike today the theatrical season was flexible. For that matter, in order to play the grand opéra in the cosy Haagse Schouwburg the orchestra had to be considerably reduced. La muette de Portici did not only impress in The Hague. More than six weeks after the first performance by the Théâtre Français the opera caused an uprising in Brussels and the separation of Belgium.

The audience, which had seen mainly light comedies in the first decades of the Théâtre Français, was spoilt by the grand pageants. The grand opéra was to stay. The overwhelming operas by Meyerbeer, such as Les Huguenots and Robert le diable, were also part of the programme of the Théâtre Français, up to into the 20th century. Les Huguenots was played 359 times, a number only surpassed by Gounod’s Faust with 382 performances. The company was staggeringly productive.

The Théâtre Français is often described as a company having loads of money. This reputation ensues from the often-quoted memoirs of Marcel Briol, régisseur-général du théâtre. In Grandeur et décadence du Théâtre Royal Français de la Haye he wrote: “There was plenty of everything, decors, weaponry, props, furniture, wallpaper, costumes, all equally ravishing and splendid.”

Briol referred to the period from 1840 to 1851. King William II had adopted the company and spent a small fortune on it. He also put his entire court orchestra at the company’s disposal. The fees were royal indeed. Not just star singers appeared in The Hague but also the great virtuosos of those days, among them the piano player Franz Liszt and the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps.

King William III cut down on his father’s project. From then on the Théâtre Français had his ups and downs and was sometimes on the brink of ruin.  The company kept its entrepreneurial flair, however. Big stars triumphed in The Hague, such as Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba, the ideal interpreter of Ophélie in the eyes of Ambroise Thomas.

In 1868 music-loving Paris gathered for the première of Hamlet, the new grand opéra by Ambroise Thomas, the libretto of which was produced by the successful duo Michel Carré and Jules Barbier – the librettists of Gounod’s Faust. The performance took place at a time when even regional newspapers in the Netherlands covered cultural scoops from abroad. The readers were informed that Hamlet was not received entirely favourably. The free take on Shakespeare’s play was critically commented on as well as the Wagnerian sub-harmonics in the score. Perhaps this is why Hamlet was not included in the Théâtre Français’ repertoire until eight years later, when the initial criticism was blown over. For until the Théâtre Français’ final season in 1919 the opera was performed no less than 153 times.

Over more than a century the population of The Hague underwent drastic changes. The Hague no longer was predominantly a royal residence. Besides, the rival Gebouw voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen organised successful Italian opera performances.

On Sunday 4 May 1919, the curtain fell for the Théâtre Français. The company presented its last show: an evening during which the successes of the season appeared in revue. Until deep in the night the audience was regaled with a generous programme: the second act from Carmen by Bizet, the third act from Rigoletto, the third act from La vie de Bohème (the French version of Puccini’s opera), the second act from Mignon by Thomas and the fourth act from Louise by Charpentier. Understandably, for decades opera enthusiasts looked back wistfully on the heyday of the French opera in the Koninklijke Schouwburg

In the above paragraphs, more than a century of the Théâtre Français was roughed out. Paul Korenhof devoted an extensive chapter to the Théâtre Français in the jubilee publication De Koninklijke Schouwburg 1804 – 2004, which he edited. François Boulangé dedicated his life to his research on the company. He wrote exhaustively about the repertoire and the singers in copybooks he published himself. They can be found in a few libraries. The relations between the stations of life in the The Hague cultural institutions from 1840 to 1890 is described in Plaatsen van beschaafd vertier, a dissertation by Jan Hein Furnée. Aldo Lieffering wrote a detailed study on the Comédie Française in the 18th century: The French Comedy in The Hague 1749 – 1793.

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