FRENCH OPERA, a short history
By Vincent Giroud
2010, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.


At 366 pages, this history is “short” only in relation to the immense volume of material to be covered. French opera, Giroud not unreasonably claims, is the second most important manifestation of this musical art form, after Italian, and has been to the forefront of musical innovation since its inception in the seventeenth century. Contrary to Italian opera however, it has experienced a disastrous fall from favour both on the international scene and on its own home ground. This debacle can however by no means be attributed to any deficiency in either the music or the theatre involved, a major theme developed throughout the whole book.

Vincent Giroud is doubtlessly well known to many readers of Opera Nostalgia as the author of authoritative sleeve notes for several Marston re-editions (Early French Tenors and Firebirds of Paris the most recent) and as co-organiser of the international conference which accompanies the biennial Saint-Etienne Massenet festival He is also a specialist of comparative literature and a leading scholar in cultural history, so the story of French opera is presented here in both broad perspective, with the links to the other arts clearly brought out, but also in depth when needed. In addition, the author is a recognised specialist on a range of operatic composers, some well-known such as Massenet, but also those unjustly forgotten like Bruneau, so the book affords much penetrating analysis of individual composers’ output. The result therefore goes far beyond a summary of existing primary sources, so that all readers will not only gain new perspectives (for example how late nineteenth century realism translated into French or indeed how the French language influences operatic composition), but also make many fascinating discoveries. One feature of this remarkable survey is its even-handedness: there is a constant search for a fair perspective, which means that the entire period is covered – from the forerunners of Lully to Messian – in similar depth, with no undue emphasis put on the well-known composers. Indeed, for those who are known for just one work – and there are many of these – the famous opera is not described in any great detail, but is put into perspective with the other compositions. This regard for perspective means that many hitherto neglected composers are given their due, and the unknown works of better known musicians are brought to light. Lesser known aspects of the musical theatre, such as French operetta, which has undergone an even more precipitous decline than opera, are also reappraised in some detail.

It should not be assumed that a book written by an academic is dry and abstruse. Giroud wears his scholarship lightly, and has a gift of turning analysis into story telling. And he doesn’t beat about the bush, for example when he claims “the best biography of Offenbach is Yon 2000” (it is!). The many footnotes (which in fact appear at the end of the book) are fascinating complements to the story as it unfolds, giving details for example of the often unique recording of the operas analysed. It would be fair to say that there is no equivalent work in French, in particular in terms of both breadth and depth.

This book can be heartily recommended to lovers of opera in general, who will certainly find much to be discovered in this vast and unjustly neglected field. It is indeed an invitation to a voyage of discovery or rediscovery of an extremely rich past… and present.

John Humbley

Two volumes on French opera co-edited by Vincent Giroud.

Figures de l'Antiquité dans l'opéra français : des Troyens de Berlioz à Œdipe d'Enesco. Actes du colloque du IXe Festival Massenet. Sous la direction de Jean-Christophe Branger et Vincent Giroud. Saint-Étienne, Publications de l'Université de Saint-Étienne, 2008 (Centre interdisciplinaire d'études et de recherches sur l'expression contemporaine, Travaux 140 ; Musicologie, Cahiers de l'Esplanade, no 5), 380 p.
 Aspects de l'opéra français de Meyerbeer à Honegger, coordonné par Jean-Christophe Branger et Vincent Giroud, Lyon, Symétrie, 2009, 258 p.