Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime, 1647-1785

Article excerpt

FRANCE AND FRENCH CULTURAL AREAS Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Regime, 1647-1785. By Downing A. Thomas. (Cambridge Studies in Opera.) Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [vii, 411 p. ISBN 0-521-80188-5. $70.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

The development of French opera provided a flashpoint for the heated aesthetic debates in seventeenth-century France, most notably the "Querelle des Anciens et Modernes"-a series of literary arguments in which one side held up the forms and language of classical texts as unequalled exemplars, while the other argued that new genres and forms equaled, and even surpassed, those of ancient Greece and Rome. Opera, with its claims of ties to ancient Greek theater, posited as sung drama by the Florentine Camerala, caused particular anxiety in France where those in the traditionalist camp viewed it as an upstart genre far inferior to spoken tragedy. Furthermore, because opera was a foreign (Italian) invention, tragedie en musique also found itself implicated in the ongoing discussions of the relative merits of French and Italian music that had their roots in the sixteenth century (Georgia Cowart, The Origins of Modem. Musical Criticism: French and Italian Music, 1600-1750 [Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981]). The complexities of early modem Kreuch aesthetics provide a view of ways in which tragedie en musique participated in important cultural shifts in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Fiance, as its admirers and detractors sought to come to tenus with its aesthetic impact. These aesthetic debates invite interdisciplinary readings that yield a rich picture of early modern French culture that has fascinated a number of scholars. Notably, Georgia Cowart (cited above) has explored the connections between early modern French aesthetics and the development of the language and intellectual tools of modern music criticism (see also Cowan, ed., French Musical Thought, 1600-1800 [Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1989]). While Downing Thomas's Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Regime, 1647-1785 covers some of the same ground from the literary side, he opens up different questions, demonstrating how French opera became interwoven in multiple aesthetic discourses. Thomas argues that the close lies between opera and aesthetics experienced in the eighteenth century are quite different from post-Kantian "disinterested" aesthetics and our experience of opera (p. 322).

Drawing together an illuminating array of sources, Thomas is as interested in opera imagined as in opera performed in Ihe seventeenlh and eighteenth centuries. Thus most of his chapter on architectural designs of opera houses examines plans lhal were nol, in fact, ever realized. His fascinating reading of Bernard Germain Etienne Mcdard de la Ville-sur-Illon, comte de Lacepede's imagined opera on the subject of Adam and Eve in his La poetique de la musique (Paris: de l'imprimerie de Monsieur, 1785; reprint, Geneve: Slatkine, 1970) demonstrates how deeply opera had hecome embedded in ihe experience of French culture by the late eighteenth century. Thomas's sources include literary, historical, visual, architectural, and musical materials, and for the most pan, he handles them deftly.

Thomas does not presume to give a complete survey of opera, or even thought about opera, in ancien regime France. Instead, he selects particular moments, works, and texts that served as aesthetic touchstones for writers, musicians, crilics, and audiences for in-depth discussion. The book divides into two parts, the first examining tragedie and its relationship with spoken tragedy; the second, on opera more broadly conceived, focusing on eighteenth-century sensibility and sensation with particular emphasis on opfra comique.

The book's greatest strength lies in the diversity of the material Thomas brings to bear on his subject and his insightful readings of it. Of particular inlerest is his reading of Abbe Jean Terrasson's (1670-1750) Dissertations critique suer 'l'Iliade d'Homere (Paris: chez Francois Fournier et Antoine-Urbain Goustelier, 1715; reprint, Geneve: Slatkine, 1970). …