Mid-nineteenth century French opera composer Ambroise Thomas is today remembered almost exclusively for his two major triumphs in serious dramatic opera -- Mignon (1866) and Hamlet (1868) -- but, before achieving success in the hallowed halls of Parisian dramatic theaters, Thomas was a champion composer for the city's just slightly less-exalted comic opera houses. In 1849, the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart (a venue then only recently rebuilt after succumbing to fire) was the location of the event that made Thomas' name and the first part of his considerable fortune: the premiere on January 3 of the comic opera Le caïd [The Boss]. Little remembered and infrequently performed though it is today, Le caïd was a smashing success, and the aftermath of its run at the Salle Favart was a very good time for Thomas. He had money, and within seven years he had a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire -- which in many French musicians' views (then and now), is about as high as a French musician can aspire.
Le caïd was composed to a two-act libretto written by Thomas Sauvage. Rossini's operas were all the rage during the first half of the nineteenth century, and what better way to make a cartload of money than to write a take-off on one of his operas? Le caïd is at heart a parody of Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri (1813), which is itself only half-serious (how serious can an opera whose second act begins with a number called "Uno stupido," as L'italiana in Algeri does, be?). Then, as now, one comedian could poke fun at another, with no disrespect intended -- and Rossini was alive and quite well in 1849, though he hadn't composed any operas in two decades. No doubt, having himself grown tired of Italian opera, Rossini could enjoy the silly antics of Le caïd's characters: Virginie, Fatma, Birotteau, Michel, and their not-so-European-sounding plotmates Ali-Bajou (to be sung by a "comic tenor") and Aboul-Y-Far (a "comic bass").