Oct. 24 marks the 300th birthday of Marie Fel, the most celebrated French soprano of her time — a time that was one of the most divisive in French musical history. The “Querelle des Bouffons,” the Quarrel of the Buffoons, raged in the early 1750s, the height of Fel’s fame. The buffoons in question were an Italian troupe who came to Paris to give performances of Italian comic operas. It prompted a faction of literary Paris to extol Italian opera as superior to the tragédie lyrique, the refined, formalized French style that had reigned at the Paris Opéra for over half a century, beginning with the works of Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian-born, but disdaining Italian style), culminating in the operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau. The Querelle was a print-based war: Polemics condemning and defending each side crisscrossed like grapeshot.
The intensity and historical resonance of what was, essentially, a disagreement over melodic style might seem excessive, but opera has always been about far more than what transpires on stage. In the Querelle, it became a barricade foreshadowing future French upheaval. The tragédie lyrique had enjoyed near-monopolistic royal patronage and protection; adherents of Italian opera tilted toward the pro-Enlightenment philosophes — such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, and Denis Diderot — whose ideas would later spark the revolution. The politics of the combatants immediately and forever tinged (and distorted) the nature of the original dispute.
Fel had Italian training — her teacher was the daughter of the violinist Pugnani — but she became a favorite of Rameau and other Opéra composers. Still, philosophes, too, were fans. Rousseau, a sometime composer, wrote for Fel, and remarked that the tragédie lyrique was only viable in her interpretations. Grimm was so taken with Fel that her rejection of his advances triggered a bout of inconsolable, bedridden depression. In “The Little Prophet of Boemischbroda,” a satirical book of musical revelation, Grimm imagined even a divine critic being converted by Fel’s charms. “And they will admire you, even as they mock the tediousness of your Opéra,” Grimm’s God proclaims, “and they will shout: Ah, here is the Singer! here is the Singer!”