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Downing A. Thomas: Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime, 1647-1785
04 Jul 2005

THOMAS: Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime, 1647-1785

Contrary to what one might expect from its title, Downing A. Thomas' book on Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime is not a comprehensive historical treatment of the subject. Instead, the chapters — which seem to have been drawn from separate articles or other studies — cover a wide range of topics, but are successfully drawn together through a view of aesthetics from a pre-nineteenth-century vantage point; according to Thomas, discussions of aesthetics from the time of the ancien régime "rose out of the many developments in medicine and philosophy ... in relation to questions of sensibility, sympathy, and taste" (p. 323). Cultural and aesthetic issues of the day centered on "the experience of passion, of intersubjective feeling, and of pleasure" (p. 323). Thomas' work rests on extensive studies of philosophical and theoretical writings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it also shows a broad knowledge of present-day analytical approaches and musical and cultural studies. Thomas uses this broad range of sources to argue for the importance of opera as an influence on — and a reflection of — French culture and thought during the ancien régime. The author identifies two basic assumptions that lie behind the varied studies in the book: "First, ... individual operas not only display traces of the aesthetic and ideological circumstances of their creation, but ... they also engage productively in those circumstances. Second, ... opera came to serve as a touchstone in the eighteenth century for understanding the mechanisms behind human feeling and for reflecting upon how emotion impacts social relations."

Downing A. Thomas: Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime, 1647-1785

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. viii, 411 pp.

ISBN 0521801885


The book is structured as a collection of essay-chapters that range from historical-philosophical overviews to studies of individual works by Lully, Charpentier, Rameau, and Grétry. The chapters are tied together through recurring themes of tragedy, sympathy, and identification and are grouped into two sections: "French opera in the shadow of tragedy" and "Opera and Enlightenment: from private sensation to public feeling."

The first chapter, "Song as performance and the emergence of French opera," traces the origins of French opera and its relationship to its Italian roots, and discusses the aesthetic and theoretical problems created by the use of song within a dramatic presentation. The relationship between early French opera (called tragédie en musique — literally, tragedy set to music) and staged tragedy (which had a long and tradition-filled history in France) was problematic and complex. Thomas provides an excellent distillation of the conflict between seventeeth-century writers who championed staged tragedy and those who welcomed and defended tragédie en musique. The former viewed tragedy as a moral vehicle, one that challenged the mind and enlightened the spectator; to these writers, opera was a spectacle for the eyes and ears, whose sensual distraction was an "outright sinister, malevolent force" (p. 34). The latter saw opera as another form of tragedy, one that used music as a mode of delivery; these writers argued that music contributed to the moral workings of tragedy by enhancing its effects.

Chapter 2, "The Opera King," examines opera as a representation of power during the reign of the Sun King, pointing in particular to the use of the opera prologue to create associations between Louis XIV and the fanciful narrative of the opera to follow. A major part of the chapter is devoted to discussions of architecture and painting that highlight the various types of pictorial representations of Louis XIV and how allegory could be used to make specific political allusions. Through a discussion of Cadmus et Hermione (1673), Thomas argues for the recognition of the prologues of Lully and Quinault's tragédies en musique as "celebrations of the king and his military exploits through allegorical and mythological characters, expanding the traditional poetic domain of the panegyric to spectacular extremes" (p. 75).

The next three chapters are studies of individual tragédies en musique by Lully, Charpentier, and Rameau, each highlighting different aspects of the relationship between the aesthetics of French tragedy and French opera. Chapter 3, "The ascendance of music and the disintegration of the hero in Armide," deals with the important role of merveilleux in tragédie en music and how its withdrawal in the pivotal Act 2, Scene 5, of Armide underscores the "inner scene of passion" that is at the center of tragedy; through the absence of the visual in this sung monologue, the dramatic focus is on the character of Armide and her internal struggle. In the chapter entitled "The disruption of poetics I: Médée's excessive voice," Thomas focuses on two aspects of Charpentier's opera: how seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commentators identified the composer with his character Medea; and how the composer and librettist worked together to leave open the possibility of Medea as a sympathetic figure. Two characteristics linked composer and character in the minds of Charpentier's contemporaries: their status as foreigners, and their knowledge and use of magic to terrible ends. Thomas argues that "the magic that Medea deploys for her revenge evoked the dubious musical wizardry of Italianate harmony" for which Charpentier was known (p. 135). Moreover, by relying more on the works of the Greek poet Euripides than on the familiar contemporary tragedy by Pierre Corneille, Charpentier and his librettist — Pierre Corneille's brother, Thomas — transformed Medea from a thoroughly monstrous character to one who finds herself "slowly spiraling beyond the confines of ordinary rationality" (p. 133).

In Chapter 5, "The disruption of poetics II: Hippolyte et Aricie and the reinvention of tragedy," the author views Rameau's tragédies en musique as both "absolutely unprecedented (in their sonorities) and completely orthodox ( as lyric tragedies in the Lullian model)" (p. 160). By using the subject of the famous playwright Racine's last tragedy, Phèdre, to set as a tragédie en musique, Rameau and his librettist, Pellegrin, were able to rely on the precedents of Racine and Lully to "soften the blow his music would make on the public" (p. 161). The chapter focuses primarily on the celebrated "Trio des parques" — with its use of the Greek enharmonic genre of composition, which includes quarter tones — as an extreme example of how Rameau used music to generate passionate responses in audiences. Thomas argues that Rameau used music and operatic narrative to change the spectator's view of tragedy; operas could no longer be viewed simply as tragedies with music, but could stand alone as a separate genre.

The chapters of the second section of the book are more closely drawn together than those of the first. Chapter 6, "Heart strings," is a discussion of changing ideas on the power of music — from the Renaissance assertion that music acted directly on the human body, to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century viewpoint of music as an imitation of the natural world. The contemporary fascination with the effects of music is exemplified by the preoccupation of writers with the ideas of sympathy and sensibility — in the eighteenth-century meaning of responding to complex emotional and aesthetic influences. Thomas' discussion of sympathy leads smoothly to the next chapter, "Music, sympathy, and identification at the Opéra-Comique," in which the author uses opéra comique — a mixture of spoken text and sung ariettes — to focus his discussion on the experience of the spectator. Thomas treats the concept of sympathy from the medical and moral perspective of eighteenth-century writers, using specific scenes from opéras comiques to show how sympathy was used to elicit identification with the characters onstage.

Chapter 8, "Architectural visions of lyric theater and spectatorship," moves to the physical space inhabited by opera. The new opera houses that were designed and built in the second half of the eighteenth century redefined the relationship between spectator and drama, and between opera house and its physical space. By rejecting the traditional jeu de paume design of early French theaters and adopting the ellipse of Italian opera houses, French architects reflected the changing relationship between spectator and spectacle. Audience members were brought closer to the stage, but were still separated by the newly sunken orchestra pit, thereby making spectators more a part of the action, but also rendering the action less artificial. Accommodations were made in the location of the boxes so that the stage was more easily visible, but the inhabitants of the boxes still could be seen by their fellow audience members. The author also discusses the design of the theater as the center of a city site, and how it reflects the development of the post-absolutist concept of the citizen.

The final chapter, "Opera and common sense: Lacépède's Poétique de la musique," focuses on how the opening of this important treatise reflects eighteenth-century attitudes toward sympathy and identification. Lacépède viewed opera as a medium for reconciling the spectator with the earliest human feelings of loss through physical responses to music within dramatic situations: "The spectator undergoes a reconciliation with the origins of his or her humanity through an emotional engagement in what could be described as a flashback of 'collective memory,' vicariously returning the spectator to the moment at which the original conditions of passionate response to loss activated intersubjective feeling" (p. 319).

Downing Thomas' book is an important addition to the study of the development of French opera, particularly for its blend of historical, philosophical, cultural, and critical studies. While a reader without an extensive knowledge of the mechanics of music should have no trouble following the author's discussion of the musical works included, the scholarly level of the writing and the loftiness of the philosophical viewpoints expressed would very likely not appeal to the casual reader.

Deborah Kauffman
University of Northern Colorado

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