Smith in the city: night at the (comic) opera

During his nine-month sojourn in Paris in 1766, Adam Smith most likely found time to enjoy many of the famed diversions of the metropolis, including the royal gardens of Paris and the fair of Saint-Germain.[1] Among other things, we know that Smith attended a comic opera on Sunday, March 2, 1766, the first of many. Walpole’s journal entry for that day reads: “To Italian play with Lord and Lady G. Lennox, Duke of Buccleuch, Dr Smith, Sir H. Echlin and Captain Jones, Tom Jones.”[2]

Adam Smith not only attended a play on this day (Sunday, March 2); his theater party included an impressive assemblage of English-speaking individuals, such as Horace Walpole, one of England’s leading literary lights, and Lord George Lennox (1737–1805), a colonel in the British Army and a member of the House of Commons from 1761 to 1790. At the time, Lord Lennox was serving as the Secretary to the British Embassy at Paris.[3] In addition to Walpole and Lord Lennox, the other members of this Sunday soirée included Lord Lennox’s wife, Lady Louisa Kerr (1739–1830),[4] and Smith’s pupil Duke Henry (1746–1812), the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. Although I am not certain who the reference to “Captain Jones” in Walpole’s entry is, “Sir H.Echlin” most likely refers to an Irishman, Sir Henry Echlin, the 3rd Baronet (1740–1799) of the Echlin Baronetcy.[5]

The “Italian play” in Walpole’s journal entry refers to the theater company where this work was performed, the Théâtre-Italien, one of three royally-privileged theater houses in Paris.[6] The Théâtre-Italien held a royal privilege for the performance of opera with spoken dialogue, known as opéra-comique.[7] (At the time, the most prestigious of all French theatrical institutions was the Opéra, whose formal name was the Academie Royale de Musique.[8] The Opéra had enjoyed a royal monopoly on musical theater of all kinds since the reign of XIV; so no other company wishing to employ music could do so without having bought or leased the privilege from the nation’s first stage.[9])

In 1766, the Théâtre-Italien or Comédie-Italienne, as it was also known, was housed in the Hotel de Bourgogne (pictured below), which was located on the old rue Mauconseil, not far from the Jardin du Palais-Royal and the Louvre. (The rue Mauconseil is now the rue Étienne Marcel, which runs across the 1st and 2nd arrondissements of Paris. See Hillairet 1964.) The Hotel de Bourgogne on the rue Mauconseil was located about two kilometers from the Hotel du Parc-Royal on the Rue du Colombier, where Adam Smith and Horace Walpole, and presumably the other members of Smith’s party, were staying at the time. Given the size of their party–eight, if we include Duke Henry’s younger brother–it is likely they hired separate carriages and rode across the historic Pont Neuf to reach the theater that afternoon.

Nicole Wild and David Charlton have published a comprehensive catalogue of the complete repertory of the Comédie-Italienne,[10] and their catalogue confirms that Tom Jones was indeed playing at the Hotel de Bourgogne at the time of Smith’s visit to Paris.[11] Tom Jones was a French-language comédie-lyrique in three acts. The musical score was composed by the famed François-André Danican Philidor (1726–1795),[12] and the libretto (the words accompanying Philidor’s music), which was written by Antoine-Alexandre-Henri Poisenet and Bertin Davesne, is loosely based on Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel of the same name.[13] At the time of Smith’s visit, Philidor was not only among the leading composers in France;[14] he was also considered the strongest chess player in the world.[15]

As an aside, Tom Jones had originally premiered at the Comédie-Italienne on February 17, 1765, but it was a flop.[16] Philidor then commissioned Michel-Jean Sedaine to revise the libretto, and Tom Jones re-opened at the Comédie-Italienne on January 30, 1766, this time to great acclaim.[17] In fact, the revised production proved to be one of the most popular opéras comiques of the late 18th century; it was later staged in several other countries and was translated into German, Swedish, and Russian.[18]

Alas, we don’t know what Adam Smith thought of this particular production, but we do know that Tom Jones was one of many theatrical performances Smith attended during his stay in Paris, many of these in the company of Madame Riccoboni, an accomplished actress and novelist in her own right, who Smith will meet for the first time in May of 1766.[19] Smith writes about opera and music in his extended essay on the imitative arts, an essay that was first published after his death, and he also makes two substantive references to “players, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” in The Wealth of Nations. I shall revisit those passages in my next post.

Hôtel de Bourgogne (theatre) - Wikipedia

[1] As I shall describe further below, Smith may have visited one of the public gardens of Paris with Horace Walpole as early as Tuesday, March 11 as well as the annual fair of Saint-Germain on Saturday, March 22.

[2] Lewis 1939, p. 305 (footnotes omitted). That is just the first part of Walpole’s journal entry; the rest of his entry for this day reads (ibid., footnote omitted): “Supped at Comte de Broglie’s, with his brother the Abbé, his sister [Marie-Thérèse de Broglie], Mmes de Luxembourg, Duchesse de Boufflers, Comtesse de Boufflers and Biron, Chevalier d’Entreville and Comte de Guines. After supper to Mme du Deffand’s, Duchesse d’Aiguillon, Mme de Forcalquier, M. and Mme de Caraman, Mme de Crussol and M. Sceaux.” As an aside, “supper” here refers to le souper, the late evening meal of Parisian high society. In any case, Walpole’s journal entry contains a who’s who of Parisian high society and provides a glimpse of the Paris dinner party circuit.

[3] Lord Lennox was the Secretary to the Embassy at Paris from August 1765 to July 1766. See Namier 1964, which is also available at

[4] As an aside, there are several portraits of Lady Louisa in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. See

[5] See Ball 1926, p. *. See also entry for “Echlin of Clonagh” in the online database The Baronetage of England, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom, available at

[6] The Théâtre-Italien was often referred to as the Comédie-Italienne or Opéra-Comique because the performances at this theater were originally in Italian and because the original Italian-language theater company had merged in 1762 with another theater company, the Opéra-Comique of the Théâtre de la Foire. See Roy 1995, pp. 233–234. The new combined theater company then opened at the Hotel de Bourgogne on 3 February 3, 1762, but eventually moved to the Salle Favart in 1783. See Forman 2010, p. 134; Wild 1989, pp. 100–101. The company later merged with the Théâtre Feydeau in 1801. See Hartnoll 1983, pp. 169–170.

[7] Doe 2010b, p. 1.

[8] Root-Bernstein 1984, p. 15.

[9] Doe 2010a, p. 3.

[10] See Wild & Charlton 2005.

[11] Ibid., p. 422.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rushton 2004.

[15] Allen & von Heydebrand 1865, p. 150.

[16] Allen & von Heydebrand 1865, p. 47; Rushton 2004.

[17] Wild & Charlton 2005, p. 422; Rushton 2004.

[18] See Casaglia 2005.

[19] I will have much more to say about Adam Smith and Madame Riccoboni later in Part 2 of my “Smith in the City” series of papers.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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