Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Legacy of a One-Woman Show: A Performance History of Julie Candeille's Catherine, Ou la Belle Fermiere

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Legacy of a One-Woman Show: A Performance History of Julie Candeille's Catherine, Ou la Belle Fermiere

Article excerpt

Recent research has demonstrated that a central feature of many women's operatic creations from late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France was a marked autobiographical element. (1) Although this autobiographical style resulted in numerous box-office successes, it also limited the lifespan of these successes because it linked the works too closely with their authors. This article will discuss a work that appears to be an exception to this rule: Julie Candeille's Catherine, ou la belle fermiere, a musical comedy that became the longest-running operatic work by a woman in history, playing virtually uninterruptedly for forty-seven consecutive years, between 1792 and 1839. (2) Indeed in 1823, the theater historian Lepeintre, who anthologized the repertoire of the Comedie-Francaise, saw no reason why this work, which was still very popular, would not remain in the repertoire forever (20: 166). What makes this particular work all the more interesting is that it seems the least likely of all works to endure beyond its first performances, since it was intimately tied to the presence of its author.

This self-reflexive nature of women-authored opera was part of a trend toward transparency and unmediated communication of emotion that had earlier been theorized by Rousseau. In his Lettre a d'Alembert (233-34) he had condemned theater on the grounds that it alienated people from each other and from their authentic emotions. Theater, according to Rousseau, created an unreal environment because it used a fiction to mediate between author and audience. Instead he called for spectacles that celebrated unmediated transparency. Jean Starobinski (96) interprets Rousseau's position as a condemnation of representation, opposed to the ideal of direct communication between people. Women who chose simple plots of young love in which they represented situations that could be construed as derived from their own lives exemplified the ideal of transparency. This strategy had the advantage of diverting the public's attention away from their identities as creative artists in the male-dominated field of opera, but it risked turning their works into ephemeral pieces de circomstances that would lose their appeal when the authors aged or disappeared from the public eye.

When Catherine, ou la belle fermiere was first performed in 1792 at the Theatre de la Republique in Paris it had all the attributes of a fleeting success. Performed on the eve of the Terror, at a time of great political and social turmoil, it provided an escape to a bucolic world of sentimentality. Julie Candeille (1767-1834), who had been an unappreciated actress at the Comedie-Francaise, had created for her new theater (the Theatre de la Republique, which was the revolutionary splinter troupe of the Comedie-Francaise) this musical comedy in which she could shine not only as a lead actress, singer, and harpist, but also as a composer and librettist. The public and the critics were equally enchanted by the work, in great part because they saw it as fitting that this comedy, "so clearly written by a woman," was also played by the woman who was its author. On 28 December 1792, a writer for La Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur wrote:

   La Belle Fermiere vient d'avoir le plus brillant succes ... l'on
   voit bien qu'une femme en est l'auteur. Cette femme est Mlle
   Candeille qui en joue le role principal: elle y chante des airs
   qu'elle a composes, et s'accompagne de la harpe dont elle joue
   tres bien: beaute, talent, esprit, elle ne perd aucun de ses
   avantages et trouve a les developper tous: le role, l'actrice, et
   l'auteur se confondent sans cesse dans les applaudissement qu'elle
   recoit. Les hommes aimeront cette piece comme ils aiment une femme
   charmante, les femmes s'y plairont par amour-propre. (qtd. in
   Lumiere 116)

Besides wanting to create a flattering role for herself, Candeille had good reasons to cultivate the collapse between her own identity and that of her heroine. …

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