Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera: A History

By Frankenbach, Chantal | Notes, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera: A History


Frankenbach, Chantal, Notes


Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera: A History. By Rebecca Harris-Warrick. (Cambridge Studies in Opera.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. [xx, 484 p. ISBN 9781107137899 (hardback), $135; ISBN 9781316777596 (e-book), $108.] Music examples, illustrations, tables, appendices, bibliography, index.

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. …

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