THE FRENCH REVOLUTION and the Napoleonic Empire affected the course of opera no less than that of European life in general. The spirit of the Revolution gave a serious and ethical turn to what was officially called comic opera. What the French designated as opéra comique was opera with spoken dialogue, and the adjective lost its original meaning so completely that in later years the French had to invent a new category, opéra bouffe (from the Italian word buffo, "comic") to signify operas the main function of which was to stimulate laughter.
We find this serious turn in the operas of Méhul, whose Joseph, composed during the Revolution, is still performed in France and Germany; it deals in a style of great dignity with the Biblical story of Joseph and his brethren. The most important composer of this period is Cherubini, an Italian who spent most of his life in Paris. Cherubini was associated with the musicians of the Conservatoire founded by the Republic in 1795, and was never on good terms with Napoleon, who disliked his independence of spirit and preferred Paesiello. Cherubini is remembered now only by Les Deux Journées (1800-known in English as The Water-Carrier), for which Beethoven had a profound admiration. Another Italian composer favoured by Napoleon was Spontini, whose La Vestale came out in Paris in 1807. La Vestale is thoroughly typical of the Empire; it has all the frigid stateliness of Empire architecture and furniture. Like Mozart's Idomeneo, it achieves with greater technical skill what Gluck set out to do, but it lacks Mozart's warmth and sensuous beauty; its dignity is too deliberately "antique," at any rate to modern audiences. It is still revived occasionally in France and Italy, and it deserves revival, as a museum piece on the grand scale.