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Jean-Noel Laurenti. Valeurs morales et religieuses sur la scene de l'Academie royale de musique (1663-1737).

Jean-Noel Laurenti. Valeurs morales et religieuses sur la scene de l'Academie royale de musique (1663-1737). Geneva: Droz, 2002. 440 pp. CHF 148. Review by DOWNING A. THOMAS, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA.

Opera is a serious matter, Jean-Noel Laurenti tells us in his introduction, which is why he has decided to focus not on the aesthetic qualities of the tragedie en musique or its political or social functions during the Ancien Regime, but rather on the moral, philosophical, even theological meanings explored on the lyric stage. Moving against the grain of accepted notions of opera as mere fluff, Laurenti bases his arguments on tendencies in the repertory over the first seventy-four years of its history, primarily through comparisons of individual works and references to contemporary writings on the theater, philosophy, and moral or religious matters. Taking into account the shifting philosophical orientations over the years, he reminds his readers that spoken theater was also a form of "spectacle" in order to bring home the point that opera was not only spectacle, even though it was manifestly spectacular. Recognizing the limitations of an approach to opera that leaves out any consideration of the music and dance that were essential to it, Laurenti nonetheless defends his decision to restrict his study to the libretti by noting that the texts allow us to get a snapshot of opera's thematic concerns, albeit without full resolution on the genre. His corpus has also been limited to the selection of libretti published as the Recueil general des operas. This selection allows him to focus on works seen by a relatively large public in Paris, but necessarily excludes court productions or works seen only in smaller venues (such as the parodies of tragedies en musique given at the fair theaters). The endpoint of his study--1737--is, he suggests, the point at which music begins to dominate the libretto, previously considered the central element of the tragedie en musique. Finally, Laurenti chooses not to take into account variations or changes to works made during or after the publication of the libretto. His approach to this repertory as a body of works fixed on paper has, of course, the advantage of providing the critic with a clearly defined object of study; but, as he recognizes, it also disregards in many cases what audiences actually witnessed, particularly during revivals of the operas.

Laurenti's study is divided into two large sections: the first delves into the Epicurean foundations of French opera, while the second examines the relationship posed in these works between the human and the divine. An introduction situates opera in the context of seventeenth-century Epicureanism, showing how it drew from this intellectual current its celebration of love and pleasure. The first chapter continues this reflection through analysis of operas such as Quinault's Alceste and Roland, in particular the accommodation of love and glory one finds in these works. The next chapter focuses on the pleasures and virtues of tranquility (le repos) and peace, examining the operatic device of the sommeil (taking among others Quinault's Armide as example) and the prologue that characterized early French operas where the monarch is represented as above (and as resolving) all conflict. The pastoral ideal, in which love is represented as carefree, figures prominently here. Chapter three delves into the worldly qualities of operatic Epicureanism, examining opera's allegories of the arts (and of Louis XIVs promotion of the arts) in the prologue. Laurenti argues that the traditional Epicurean discourse glorifying the simple pleasures of pastoral tranquility is supplanted, beginning already in Quinault, by "un discours a la gloire de la civilisation citadine," offering praise of commerce, luxury, and the arts and sciences (174). Chapter four is devoted to the moral cautions of these early French operas, so many of which urge us to love, "mais sans alarmes" (180). Overall, he sees in these operas an affirmation of 'la confiance dans la possibilite d'un bonheur terrestre" (211).

Laurenti explains that opera allowed for a mondaine version of moral truths. Through the vehicle of the merveilleux, opera also affirmed "l'intelligibilite du monde," in part because the spectator knew that the actions of the gods on the stage were in reality made possible by that of theatrical machines in the flies (221). The first chapter of the second section reviews the representation of each of the primary divinities from antiquity. Examining the critical representation of the gods (who are enslaved, like humans, by their passions), Laurenti debunks the received opinion that operas must always end happily. Though Quinault often avoids resolutely tragic endings, his successors take a different tack: "de 1687 a 1699, periode ou produisent notamment Campistron, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau et du Boulay, le nombre des denouements malheureux est de huit contre sept" (269). The second chapter shifts to the representation of humanity (the fatal nature of love, the ravages of jealousy, ambition, and human weakness) and opera's "casuistique" with respect to human frailty (273). After 1712, however, Laurenti sees a shift away from Quinault's ambiguous treatment of the hero, citing works such as Danchet's Telephe (1714) and his Achille et Deidamie (1735): "Les heros [des operas] du XVIIIe siecle, eux, sont des militants de la vertu, courent a l'action, voire au sacrifice; ils sont peu portes a l'hesitation et a la nostalgie, lesquelles sont reservees comme ornements passagers pour les monologues; les criminels, eux, persecuteurs opiniAtres de l'innocence, peu partages, ne suscitent guere la terreur admirative ou la compassion que meritaient leurs predecesseurs" (383). Laurenti sees the 1670s as a period of gallant Epicureanism, the 1680s as a period of growing pessimism and at the same time of heedless Bacchic pleasures, and finally a reorientation of opera in the new century toward responsibility, action, and free will. Laurenti's periodization goes against the traditional view of the Regency as a time for "[la] course effrenee aux plaisirs," since that notion characterizes more accurately the operatic repertory from end of the reign of Louis XIV (397). In the end, Laurenti argues, "l'image d'une divinite providentielle, intervenant activement dans le cours des choses, resurgit et vient coexister avec la thematique des Lumieres" (399). Despite its limitations noted above, Laurenti's study has the advantage of exploring some of the complexities and contradictions of a corpus of dramatic literature that does not fit tidily into the accepted frameworks of social or literary history. The volume includes appendices listing the works included in the Recueil general des operas, a bibliography, and an index nominum.
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Author:Thomas, Downing A.
Publication:Seventeenth-Century News
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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