The title is accurate, but incomplete. The arias that follow are all from operas that are rarely, if ever, heard today. Most of them are equally infrequent guests at recitals. But they all have some interest and are worth an occasional hearing. They are predominantly by French composers. I have not included Italians masquerading as French composers, eg Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi who all wrote Italian operas set to French texts. The only exception is Meyerbeer. Though he was from Germany, he is best known as a composer of French opera, but he did a lot of work for Berlin as well. I’ve also included one Cherubini selection. He was born in Florence, but spent most of his life in France.
I’ll start with an instrumental piece from Saint-Saens’ opera Henry VIII (1883). The Gypsy Dance lasts a little more than two minutes. but is very cleverly done.
Étienne Nicolas Méhul was a very important composer around the time of the French Revolution. Today his work is mostly of historical importance. Vainement Pharaon . . . Champs paternels, Hébron, douce vallée is from his opera Joseph first performed in 1807. A number of tenors have recorded the aria. Richard Tucker is the singer here.
Luigi Cherubini wrote Les Abencérages in 1813. The last staged performance of the opera, as far as I can tell, was more than 40 years ago. Suspendez de ses murses is sung by Roberto Alagna. George Thill also recorded the aria. We’ll get to him below.
François-Adrien Boieldieu wrote 38 operas, none of which has survived in the standard operatic repertory. La fête du village voisin is from 1816. Profitez de la vie is sung by Natalie Dessay.
Ernest Reyer wrote five operas. The most successful of these was Sigurd based on the same legends that Wagner used for his Ring Cycle. But Wagner was not his guide. He was most influenced by the music of Hector Berlioz. Bryan Hymel recently recorded Le bruit des chants s’étend from Sigurd. Berlioz’s influence is easily detected.
Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable revolutionized French opera. Its sensational premiere in 1831 marmorealized grand opera to five acts and a big ballet. In Robert it was dancing nuns that scandalized and delighted Parisians and then the rest of the opera world. Chopin was dazzled by the opera. Mendelssohn hated it. It is occasionally revived. Anna Moffo sings Isabelle’s 4th act aria Robert, toi que j’aime.
Meyerbeer’s best opera was Les Huguenots. Immensely popular in the 19th century, it faded in the 20th. More recently there have been a number of productions of the work. Joan Sutherland give a brilliant reading to Queen Marguerite’s 2nd act aria O beau pays de la Touraine
Fromental Halévy is best known as the composer of La Juive. His opéra comique L’eclair was premiered in 1835 the same year as La Juive. It was initially a great success and was often staged during the 19th century. Mabel Garrison was a high soprano who gave 109 performances at the Met between 1914 and 1921. Most of these were in secondary roles, though she did occasionally sing a leading part. Call me thine own is set to an English text as the opera centers around an Englishman and an American.
Only two of Charles Gounod’s 12 operas are regularly performed. La Reine de Saba was first mounted by the Paris Opera in 1862. It is best known for the 2nd act tenor aria Faiblesse de la race humaine!…Inspirez-moi, race divine here sung by Enrico Caruso.
Gounod’s equally obscure opera Polyeucte was also first produced by the Paris opera in 1878. Based on a play of the same name by Corneille about Saint Polyeuctus, the opera disappeared after 29 performances. Source délicieuse is sung by the title character in Act 4. Jose Luccioni is the tenor in this recording.
Ambroise Thomas composed Hamlet and Mignon which are occasionally done. The remaining 22 are virtually never staged. Le caïd (1849) wracked up about 400 performances at the Opéra Comique before vanishing. It has a jaunty bass aria, Je comprends que la belle aime le militaire caïd sung by Joseph Rouleau. I am not aware of any recent performances.
Jules Massenet wrote more than 30 opera, only two of which are regularly performed. Herodiade (1877) is based on a novel by Flaubert. It was overwhelmed by Strauss’s super spectacular on the same subject – John the Baptist and Salome. Vision fugitive from Act 2 is occasionally performed in recitals or on disc. Hérode has taken a drug that gives him visions of Salomé. Robert Merrill is in great voice on this recording. Ne pouvant réprimer les élans de la foi from Act 4 expresses Jean’s meditation on his faith. The tenor is the renowned French singer Georges Thill. Thill was known more for the elegance of his expression rather than the beauty of his voice. He only appeared 19 times at the Met (1931-32).
Le Cid by Massenet is again taken from a play by Corneille. It was premiered at the Paris Opera with Jean de Reszke as Rodrigue (Le Cid). It is best known for the tenor aria ‘O souverain, o juge, o père’, but the first act also has a good tenor solo – O noble lame étincelante. Ben Heppner is the singer. Pleurez! pleurez mes yeux is sung in Act 3 by Chimène Rodrigue’s conflicted lover. He killed her father in a duel protecting the honor of his father. Eventually, after 4 acts, she forgives him. The soprano is Maria Callas.
Éduard Lalo’s opera Le Roi d’Ys was very popular in 19th century France. The tenor’s aubade from Act 3 is often performed, but the rest of the opera is mostly neglected. It’s based on the Breton legend of the drowned city of Ys. De tous côtés j’aperçois is sung in the second act by the work’s villainess, Maragred. Denyce Graves sings the aria.
One could fill a phone book, if you could find one, with forgotten French arias. But this is enough for now.