Costume designs by Eugène Du Faget for the original production: Laure Cinti-Damoreau as Mathilde, Adolphe Nourrit as Arnold Melchtal, and Nicolas Levasseur as Walter Furst
Rameau, Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Messiaen; Lully, Gluck, Salieri, Cherubini, Spontini, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Offenbach. These are all composers who had a significant impact on French opera and molded it as one of Europe's most important operatic traditions.
But why is it so important and why is it so different from the rest of opera?
Although there had been iterations of French Opera before the court of Louis XIV, French opera is credited to Jean-Baptiste Lully and his opera, Cadmus et Hermione (1673). Lully and his librettist Quinault created tragédie en musique, a form in which dance music and choral writing were particularly prominent. After Lully, the most important successor was Rameau. After Rameau's death at 81 from fever, as his operas were not appreciated by Frederick II of Prussia, Christoph Willibald Gluck began to focus on France in the 1770s. Under the patronage of Marie Antoinette, who had married the future French King Louis XVI, Gluck signed a contract for six stage works with the management of the Paris Opéra.
At the same time, by the middle of the 18th century another genre was gaining popularity in France: opéra comique, in which arias alternated with spoken dialogue. By the 1820s, Gluck's influence was overtaken by Giacomo Rossini.
Rossini's Guillaume Tell helped found the new genre of Grand opera. Lighter opéra comique also enjoyed tremendous success with composers such as Boïeldieu, Auber, Hérold and Adam. Unofrtunately, the operas of the French-born composer Hector Berlioz struggled to gain a following during this time. Berlioz's epic masterpiece Les Troyens, the culmination of the Gluckian tradition, was not given a full performance for almost a hundred years after it was written.
In the second half of the 19th century, Jacques Offenbach dominated the new genre of operetta with witty and cynical works such as Orphée aux enfers, where he comically shows the dissolution of Orpheus and Eurydice's marriage.
Charles Gounod scored a massive success with Faust. and Georges Bizet composed Carmen, probably the most famous French opera of all.
At the same time, Richard Wagner's influence was gaining traction and was felt as a challenge to the French tradition. Perhaps the most interesting response to Wagnerian influence was Claude Debussy's unique operatic masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). Other notable 20th-century composers include Ravel, Poulenc and Messiaen.