Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera: A History.
In reflections on the relative importance of music, text, and gesture to an integrated musical drama, thoughts often turn to Richard Wagner's famously amalgamated Gesamtkunstwerk and his personification of the "three primeval sisters"--the arts of tone, poetry, and dance--in The Art-Work of the Future (Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993], 95-96; reprint from Richard Wagner's Prose Works, vol. 1 [London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1895]). According to Wagner, this trinity, "tight-clasped, breast on breast, and limb to limb ... ever themselves and ever for each other," reunited in his works after a long and shameful separation in the march of operatic history. Wagner casts the muse of Dance as a "tricked-out figure" (Wagner, p. 106) who must atone for her former independence and fallen ways in order to repair the ancient and lofty sisterly bond. Between the lines of his manifesto, of course, we can easily read Wagner's contempt for what had become of dance in French opera. The very tradition he despised, however, had long nourished an arguably more genuine, more fully realized Gesamt-kunstwerk than his own abstract ideal. Tangled definitions of "gesture" and "dance" aside, it is fair to say--and even more confidently now with Rebecca Harris-Warrick's book--that the French had scooped Wagner's fabled reunion of the muses by over a century.
With her thorough account of the essential role dance played at the Academie Royale de Musique, Harris-Warrick joins a growing list of scholars who have recently addressed the long-neglected role of dance in the history of opera: Jennifer Nevile, ed., Dance, Spectacle, and the Body Politick, 12501750 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); Sarah Yuill McLeave, Dance in Handel's London Operas (Eastman Studies in Music 96 [Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2013]); Marian Elizabeth Smith, Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle (Princeton Studies in Opera [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000]); Mary Ann Smart, Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera (California Studies in 19th-century Music 13 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004]); and Davinia Caddy, The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Epoque Paris (New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism 22 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012]). Turning away from the prevailing misconception that divertissements were parenthetical and inconsequential to the French opera's dramatic impact, Harris-Warrick finds new cause to examine the role of dance in what she calls "the lushest and most expansive" music of Jean-Baptiste Lully's time (p. 2). While she is careful to acknowledge that the term "divertissement" suggests a distraction from the real business of the drama, she presents a contrary view: these interludes are "conventionally circumscribed" portions of every act that in fact reverberate throughout the overall drama (p. 8). Using a work-centered approach, Harris-Warrick documents in meticulous detail how dance functioned in Lully's operas and those of his successors in various Parisian theaters. Librettos, scores, and the erratically dispersed didascalies ("stage directions," defined on p. 29) noted in them, make up the primary evidence of this study of the French operatic repertoire from 1672 to 1735 (with a second book planned for Jean-Philippe Rameau's works of the period following). Also invoking the muses, Harris-Warrick elegantly prefaces her study by recalling the prologue of Lully's first opera, in which three of them sing, "Let us mingle our loveliest songs with the most beautiful dances" (p. 7). As both an invitation into a visual spectacle and a "statement of aesthetic purpose," these words encapsulate the integration of dance and dramaturgy that Harris-Warrick exposes in her study.
She divides the book into two parts: the first devoted to the works of Lully and the second to their imitation and alteration after his death. Chapter 1 explains her analytical approach and the interpretive advantages that emerge when we understand how the divertissements participate--in both subtle and obvious ways--in the dramatic significance of the whole. The spatial relationships of crowds and protagonists on the stage, for instance, reveal through movement the power structures and social relations at work in Philippe Quinault's librettos. Diegetically conceived dance scenes subdy convey the hierarchical features of life at court, where skill in dancing was no small social advantage. Harris-Warrick also suggests that dancing functions as emotional surrogacy in cases where a protagonist's emotions and interests are displaced for propriety's sake onto their subordinates' bodies, advancing subplots and denouements outside the accepted expressive and emotional fields of royal or divine characters. With examples from three of Lully's operas (Alceste, Atys, and Armide), Harris-Warrick points to interpretive options that arise when we understand dance as an agent of drama in Lully's divertissements. The substrate of this amalgamated dramaturgy lies in the integration by Lully and his collaborators of text, music, and visual spectacle--a synthesis that Wagner only later so famously theorized.
Harris-Warrick turns next to the mechanics of Lully's stage productions. With admittedly scant evidence, she deduces a general catalog of conventions for how dances were staged and concludes that the dancers functioned primarily as "body doubles" for the chorus (and possibly minor soloists), typically to provide movement on behalf of the singing participants but nearly always in alternation with singing (p. 68). She outlines possibilities for the number, distribution, and deployment of dancers, along with their mimetic, gestural, and choreographic vocabularies. Added to this, she describes how music and dance cooperate in the continuous dramatic arc of the divertissements. Details of key, texture, orchestration, form, and periodicity (or its disruption) contribute to a picture of rich dramatic effect. Part 1 concludes with a chapter on Lully's comic works (masquerades, pastorals, ballets) opening the lens for the second half of the book, which is devoted to the period after Lully's death, when lighter fare that included yet more dancing rose to popularity.
In order to illustrate the tension between comic and tragic conventions that played out on French stages after Lully's death, Harris-Warrick allows the muses of tragedy, comedy, and dance--Melpomene, Thalie, and Terpsichore--to preside over the chapters in part 2. Her more varied sources from this period still permit only general patterns to emerge as to the staging and personnel of the dances. Even so, HarrisWarrick reveals fascinating insights on the integration of Italian conventions into the Lullian template inherited by Andre Campra and his preramiste contemporaries. In four chapters on the ideologically dominant, yet variously and ingeniously altered tragedie en musique, Harris-Warrick catalogs the role of dance in multiple recalibrations of the tragic and comic and its disposition in the public theaters according to Italian influence during this period.
Allowing Terpsichore to take the reins from Melpomene and Thalie, Harris-Warrick, in the final chapters of the book, brings new evidence to bear on the transition of dance from opera divertissement to the autonomous ballet pantomime of the 1720s. Using personnel records and archival evidence of theater regulations, Harris-Warrick constructs a biography of the Opera's ballet troupe to trace the emergence of independent dance sequences. Jean-Fery Rebel's Les caracteres de la danse (1715) and Francois Colin de Blamont's Les fetes grecques et romaines (1723) provide examples of the increasing prominence of dance and roles for women. Harris-Warrick adds evidence from extant dance notations of the period to round out her work-centered study, aiming to settle practical questions "that could help us envisage how such scenes looked on stage" (p. 411).
Harris-Warrick's premise that historians of opera have neglected Terpsichore becomes most convincing in the second half of her book, where the open competition and reconciliations between the muses on stage make a strong case for equal consideration from historians as well. In a scene from Jean-Joseph Mouret's Les fetes de Thalie, for instance, Polymnie, Thalie, and Terpsichore engage in a spat over the merits of their respective arts (pp. 296-97). Terpsichore's equal and sometimes superior standing with her sister muses became, by the 1730s, a matter of course on the French stage. Harris-Warrick convincingly demonstrates that the muses' nuanced and ever-shifting relationship in French Baroque opera carried an expressive purpose that requires a three-dimensional viewpoint. In Harris-Warrick we have that rare scholar who speaks equally well the languages of music, dance, and theater--a "triple threat," so to speak, in the historiography of a stage tradition that gave parity to each of the muses and asks the same of its historians. This book will be of tremendous interest to specialists in Baroque opera, particularly those fluent in both music and dance notation; those wishing to reconstruct these works will benefit most.
Harris-Warrick's promise to uncover the dramatic significance of dance in French Baroque opera goes somewhat unfulfilled, however, when she sidesteps the larger import of visuality in aristocratic French culture and the social arrangements that made the person of Louis XIV "the sun," the absolute center of a hierarchical society that scrutinized physical presentation of the courtly body. In chapter 8, for instance, she acknowledges the dramatic advantages of dance, which could inflect or even escape "the restraints put on language" (p. 219), yet she allows a plethora of plot and staging details to go unexplained. She suggests the visual deployment of groups of people on stage as a key conveyor of social relationships, yet commentary on the nature and meaning of these relationships often does not follow. And so it goes with topical content as well. She identifies a spike in the popularity of nautical divertissements, for instance (p. 368), but makes no mention of what might account for such a trend. Throughout the book Harris-Warrick documents fascinating abutments of Italian and French culture but only occasionally comments on the larger social and political conditions from which they emanated. An indispensable resource for those reconstructing this repertoire for the stage, Harris-Warrick's book also offers much of interest to scholars in many subspecialties of early modern European history who are willing to do the work of connecting her impressive study to the world beyond the stage.
California State University, Sacramento
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
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