Caroline Carvalho and nineteenth-century coloratura

I just finished reading the article “Caroline Carvalho and nineteenth-century coloratura” by Sean M. Parr, written in 2011. This was a fascinating article!

Caroline Carvalho (aka Marie Miolan) was a French soprano in the mid-nineteenth century that created sixteen operatic roles between 1850 and 1867. Of the sixteen, five of those premieres were Gounod operas. She was highly popular and adored for her extensive range and coloratura precision, as well as her expressive acting abilities.  She was married to Léon Carvalho, who was the impresario at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris, where many of Gounod’s operas including Roméo et Juliette premiered. 

Because of her abilities, many composers wrote specifically for her. She changed the way that composers wrote for the operatic soprano, and she blazed the trail for many women in the opera industry. Composers like Gounod would write specific virtuosic and impressive arias because they knew it would please the audiences. For example, Marguerite’s famous aria “The Jewel song” from Faust was not in the opera when it was premiered, but Carvalho specifically requested for an entrance/display aria to be inserted. Gounod knew it would aid in the success of the work if he showcased the famous soprano’s technical prowess. 

This article was so interesting and relevant because Parr discusses many gender norms of the nineteenth-century Parisian and operatic world. In a few of my classes we have discussed gender roles and issues, but I’ve never learned about Caroline Carvalho, which is really surprising considering her impact on the genre and industry. 

One of the first topics Parr discusses in regards to gender is the fact that virtuosity was typically considered a male (and usually instrumentalist) endeavor. Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt are two men that the article mentions as establishing this highly virtuosic and presentational style. Carvalho’s abilities brought her (and women in general) up to the same level of the men in this period. The ‘Carnaval de Venise’ aria in Massé’s La Reine Topaze (1856) was one of the first moments that Carvalho established her vocal authority and was seen as the composer. On the score of her composed ornaments and variations she included her name at the top and signature at the bottom as if she herself was the composer. 

The second topic that Parr discusses which also touches on the idea of gender (and sexuality) is the idea of the waltz aria or valse-arietta. This genre is defined as having triple meter with emphasis on the downbeat, including fanfare openings, codas with highly decorative and virustosic coloratura and rondo form (ABACA). 

The fact that this new genre of aria was in waltz form was a BIG deal. Apparently in early nineteenth-century France, the waltz dance was considered extremely sensual and provocative because it was the first dance in which the partners were torso to torso and face to face. The waltz was considered to excite and arouse women’s sexual and emotional senses. It was even banned in some parts of Europe. 

When we consider this history of the waltz, the fact that “Je veux vivre” and many other arias are set in this waltz aria form has so much more meaning than I ever imagined. For a woman to sing a waltz which was also highly ornamented and virtuosic was a watershed moment for women in the performing arts. 

Musical elements of “Je veux vivre” 

Turns in coloratura lines: Like the spinning and turning of the waltz which gain in speed and intensity and could cause dizziness. Also, during the waltz, dance partners would have to hold on tighter and make eye contact to avoid getting dizzy or losing control. I feel like this directly translates to the musicality of the coloratura lines. The gaining intensity and speed of Juliette’s runs could be translated as her getting dizzy with joy or even aroused. 

Breathlessness of the refrain: The refrain “Je…veux…vivre…” of Juliette’s aria employs grace notes and rests between each word. This breathlessness could be considered as sensual and provocative, and to show the youthful eagerness of the young girl. The grace notes are flirtatious and bashful which show her youth and innocence as well. 

Top focus/goal: Gain more understanding of the nineteenth-century Parisian opera culture and style, learn about Caroline Carvalho who premiered Juliette and established a new foundation for women singers and performers.

Topics to explore: Others arias that are set in this valse-arietta form: Marguerite’s “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust, Other arias/roles that Carvalho created: Mireille by Gounod, feminine sexuality (both in Parisian culture and Renaissance) – How would this sexual physicality be expressed in the body?

Challenges: I think it’s important to not make too many generalizations about gender and equality at this time and how Carvalho impacted the industry. However, it is crucial to consider how Carvalho affected composers and their compositional process/output. 

Characterization of Juliette: “Je veux vivre” is in this waltz form. The implied sensuality of this genre informs my performance because I haven’t really considered Juliette as highly provocative or sexual, but knowing the history and implications behind this genre, I realize that I must include some of that flirtatious and coquettish behavior into my portrayal. Sometimes it can be hard to give exact meaning to the runs on “Ah!” as there is no text, but reading this article gave me so many ideas on how I can incorporate some of this growing intensity and sensuality into the aria. Maybe Juliette is discovering her sensuality for the first time? Maybe this is the moment in the opera where she is no longer just a young child, but is growing into a woman who has the capabilities for love and romance. There is such an interesting juxtaposition in this idea because Juliette is literally singing about how she doesn’t want to be troubled with love, but the music is quite contrary. 

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