|Costume for Apollon (danced by Louis XIV)|
in the Ballet de la Nuit (1653)
Opera came to France in the 1640s in the form of imports from Italy such as the Italian composer Luigi Rossi who wrote Orfeo for Paris in 1647 (see my review of the recent production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). The French had their own form a spectacular musical entertainment, the ballet du cour, which combined complex dance with formal social dancing, music and spectacle in often long events (the Ballet de la Nuit of 1653 lasted 13 hours).
|Cardinal Mazarin by Pierre Mignard|
The Paris Opera, the Academie Royal de Musique, was founded in 1669 at the urging of the poet Pierre Perrin who wanted to create a new synthesis of French poetry and French music (the French language being rather different from Italian, needed a different way of setting to music). From its founding, the Paris Opera was a monopoly giving the holder exclusive rights to court opera. The monopoly was taken over by Lully in 1672 (ironically an Italian who had naturalised in France). Lully had performed in the Ballet de la Nuit with Louis XIV. From Lully's first tragedie lyrique Cadmus et Hermione the haute-contre voice comes into prominence.
So what was it? The voice type has suffered in Anglophone areas somewhat from translation problems, often rendered into English as an alto or counter-tenor. The voice is essentially a high tenor, but extended up to around D. Tenors of the period would generally take their full voice up to G above middle C. But is is what happens above this that is uncertain, what technique did the voices use to extend the voice upwards? Part of the problem in this field is that there is no definitive vocabulary for the various techniques, and different schools of teaching use different words so that the same singer can talk about the same technique in completely different terms. If you read articles you are blinded with a selection of terms including chest voice, head voice, falsetto, falsettino, voix mixte, tenor altino, contraltino... But here goes!