Scènes D'exposition

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Scènes D'exposition

Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times

Scènes d'exposition French opera: a short history Vincent Giroud Yale UP (New Haven & London, 2010); x, 3<>6pp; £25. ISBN 978 o 300 1 1765 3.

'I wouLD give the whole of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet's Manon,' declared that ardent Francophile Sir Thomas Beecham, 'and would think that I had vastly profited from the exchange.' Not many MT readers would agree with that, I imagine. By comparison with the great traditions of Italy and Germany, French opera in general is perceived as merely lightweight and hedonistic, at best a matter of exquisitely cultivated taste and special rapport with the nuances of Gallic civilisation. Indeed, only a tiny fraction of this huge output is well known outside its own national borders, for little besides Carmen, Faust, Samson et Dalila and Pélleas et Mélisande is regularly to be found in the international repertoire alongside Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, while such underappreciated masterpieces as Rameau's tragédies lyriques and Berlioz's Les Troyens receive only occasional special revivals. In this realm, as in many others, the French have proved to be their own worst enemies, as throughout its history their opera has been bedevilled by cultural warfare, with virulent literary and political issues predominating over purely musical considerations. Vincent Giroud 's new study, French opera: a short history, is a valiant attempt to break through entrenched prejudices and make a strong case for this art form in its totality and on its intrinsic merits. An enthusiast for his subject, he writes in a clear narrative style but without much musicological detail or any musical illustrations. Though his book can hardly bear comparison with David Kimbell's distinguished Italian opera (CUP, 1991), its large bibliography and copious endnotes do indicate that he has thoroughly researched in a wide range of secondary sources, while his uncommon ability to present the gist of an opera in a nutshell is admirable. Mercifully, the ever-present socio-political dimension is kept within due proportion, the ideological steamroller being firmly confined to its shed. Professor Giroud, however, is fully aware of the complexities of his field, pointing out mat French opera is hard to pin down during its evolution from 1671 to the present day, with no neat equivalence between cultural form, national identity and language; a constant feature is its cosmopolitan character and frequent domination by a host of expatriate Italians and Germans.

Giroud 's survey of the baroque and classical eras - from Cardinal Mazarin's introduction of Italian opera to Paris, through the highly stylised development of the tragédie lyrique in the hands of Lully at the court of Louis XIV, to the Age of the Enlightenment, throws up much of interest. We learn that in the last years of le roi soleil, the influence of his deeply religious second wife Mme de Maintenon, together with attacks by the celebrated theologian and court preacher Bossuet on the grounds of immorality, led to the monarch's disaffection with opera. In this hostile climate, the efforts of Charpentier, Marais, Campra, Desmarets and Destouches suffered accordingly; in fact, Charpentier's superb Médée notably failed at the Opéra in 1693. In the following century, however, a significant cultural renewal took place during the 1750s with Monteclair's biblical tragedy Jepthe and Rameau's Hippolyte et Ance; the latter proved controversial since the Lullist faction - which asserted the primacy of the literary texts and spectacular elements - was offended by the richness and sophistication of the music. Rameau nevertheless retained his favour with the court of Louis XV into the 1750s, collaborating with the great dramatist and freethinker Voltaire on the comédie-ballet La princesse de Navarre and La temple de la gloire; his operas exploited a high degree of vocalità and sublime vocal writing, as well as rejuvenating traditional dance forms. By then the ageing composer in his turn found himself cast as the representative of the now outmoded French style in the notorious Querelle des Bouffons, itself a reflection of the lively intellectual climate of Diderot's Encyclopédie.

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