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Départ des comédiens italiens en 1697, engraving by L. Jacob of the painting by Watteau

"Italien", "Théâtre-Italien", or the "Comédie-Italienne" are names which, over time, have been applied to several buildings and several theatrical companies in Paris.

Following the times, the theatre has shown both plays and operas. For convenience, this article distinguishes between the original Comédie-Italienne, the Théâtre-Lyrique Italien (itself known under different names), and the modern Comédie-Italienne.

Early years and expulsion from France[edit]

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the historical Comédie-Italienne was supported by the king. At that time, a distinction was made between so-called legitimate theatre, which could be performed in royally-sanctioned theatres, and the more lowbrow street theatre, which did not undergo the scrutiny of royal censors. The troupe performed in the Hôtel de Bourgogne up to their expulsion in 1697.

Mohammed Temim, Ambassadeur du Maroc, à la Comédie Italienne (1682), Antoine Coypel (1661–1722), Versailles

The historical Comédie-Italienne presented to the French-speaking public spectacles performed by professional Italian actors. At first, these actors performed commedia dell'arte in their native Italian. Commedia dell'arte is an improvisational type of theatre; there were no scripts. They had multiple scenarios that they would pick from to perform, but inside that scenario they really did not have anything else planned out. They did however have specific character types, called Stock Characters, that became famous and loved by the theatre goers. The actors later worked with the greatest French playwrights of the era, from Molière to Marivaux, along with Dufresny, Regnard, Houdar de la Motte, Nolant de Fatouville (fr), Brugière de Barente, Évariste Gherardi, Jacques Losme de Monchesnay, Palaprat, Eustache Le Noble, Louis Biancolelli, Mongin or Boisfranc. Around the same time the troupe became widely popular, King Louis XIV gave the newly formed national theatre of France, the Comedie Francaise, a monopoly on spoken French drama. The royalty saw the troupe's cooperation with French playwrights as a threat and began to consider refusing the troupe their annual pension.

In 1697, a single event caused the King to finalize his decision.The actors had just announced upcoming performances of the play La fausse prude, or The False Hypocrite, a play that directly ridiculed King Louis XIV of France's wife, Madame de Maintenon. There is a debate among scholars as to whether or not the play was actually performed or if the play was simply advertised and the King learned of its existence. Regardless, upon his knowledge of the play's existence, the king had the actors sent away and the theatre shut down.

Shortly after Louis XIV's death, the troupe was recalled by the Duke of Orléans in 1716, and later combined with the Théâtre national de l'Opéra-Comique in 1762. The newly combined company returned once again to the Hôtel de Bourgogne and created a new style of performance which combined French elegance and Italian exuberance, which is what the troupe had sought to do from the beginning.[1]

The Théâtre-Lyrique Italien or Opéra-Italien[edit]

L'amour au théâtre italien by Watteau

The first operas shown in Paris (in the mid-17th century) had been Italian; however, Italian opera was quickly abandoned in favour of French opera, as witnessed by the creation of the Académie Royale de Musique. Despite this, over the course of the 18th century, Italian musical performers came to Paris. In particular, in 1752, performances of the opera buffa La serva padrona led to the Querelle des Bouffons, a debate about the relative superiorities of French and Italian musical traditions.

In 1787, after the particular success of one troupe of Italian singers, came the idea of establishing a resident theatrical company for opera buffa. This initiative became reality in January 1789 with the founding of the Théâtre de Monsieur company, which was soon put under the auspices of the Count of Provence, the king's brother, and derived its name from the Count. They first performed at the Tuileries Palace theatre, before moving to the Théâtre Feydeau. However, in 1792, this theatre closed upon the departure of the company.

The Théâtre-Italien de Paris was reformed in 1801, this time for performing opera seria as well as opera buffa. This new company took residence at the Salle Favart, then at the Théâtre Louvois (fr). In 1808, the singers moved to the Théâtre de l'Odéon, at that time called the "Théâtre de l'Impératrice". They stayed there until 1815.

At the time of the Bourbon Restoration, King Louis XVIII wanted to entrust the theatre to the soprano Angelica Catalani. Almost everything was set for the transfer, when the return of Napoleon and his reign of a Hundred Days disrupted the King's plans. The actors therefore stayed a little longer at the Théâtre de l'Impératrice. Upon the restoration of King Louis XVIII to power, Madame Catalani joined the troupe. However, she soon went on a tour across Europe, leaving control of the theatre to Ferdinando Paër.

In 1818, Madame Catalani's privilège, or royal permission to perform, was revoked, and the theatre shut down. It was then decided to hand over administration of the theatre, now known as the "Théâtre royal italien", to the Academie Royale de Musique, while maintaining the autonomy of each establishment. This system only lasted until 1827, when the theatre regained its independence from the crown and lost the appellation "royal". The Théâtre-Italien later made known the works of William Shakespeare to the Parisian public.

The Théâtre-Italien presented works by Ferdinando Paër, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Domenico Cimarosa, and especially the grand operas by Gioachino Rossini, who had first come to Paris in 1823. It also saw the premiere of Rossini's Stabat Mater. The Théâtre-Italien also produced popular works by Giacomo Meyerbeer and Giuseppe Verdi, but the theatre was later forced to close in 1878.

Despite the closing of the Théâtre-Italien, operas continued to be performed in Paris, sometimes at the Théâtre de la Gaîté or the Théâtre du Châtelet, but especially at the Opéra.

The modern Comédie-Italienne[edit]

La Comédie italienne, Rue de la Gaîté, Paris 14.jpg

The present-day Comédie-Italienne is situated on the rue de la Gaîté (fr). It was founded in 1980 by the director Attilio Maggiulli, after the closing of his Teatrino Italiano on the avenue du Maine. The Comédie-Italienne remains the only Italian theatre in France and performs exclusively plays by Italian writers, classic and contemporary, in French translation.



  1. ^ "Comédie-Italienne",


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