Staging the French Revolution: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opéra, 1789-1794

By Mahiet, Damien | Notes, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Staging the French Revolution: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opéra, 1789-1794


Mahiet, Damien, Notes


Staging the French Revolution: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opéra, 1789-1794. By Mark Darlow. (The New Cultural History of Music.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. [xiv, 421 p. ISBN 9780199773725. $65.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

On January 27, 1793, Parisians in search of entertainment would have had the opportunity to attend the first performance of Le triomphe de la République, with a libretto by Chénier, music by Gossec, and choreography by Gardel. The work smacks of politicization, in the strictest sense of the word: text and sound directly record past and current affairs, with music borrowed from the festival repertoire of 1791 (Chant du 14 juillet) and 1792 (Choeur à la liberté, in honor of the Suisses de Châteauvieux). Its plot cast contemporary events in a generic light that is decidedly baroque, from the pastoral celebration of social harmony to the discordant interruption of a générale calling citizens to arms against a bellicose enemy, and from the music of martial unanimity and military battles to a ballet des nations that, retracing the story of liberty from ancient Greece to the present, culminates in the performance of Republican France. This was a few months after the proclamation of the Republic on September 21, 1792, in the midst of a revolutionary war effort that would soon intensify, and only six days after the execution of Louis XVI; was there ever a more blatant case of the government instrumentalizing the Opéra? This, surely, is propaganda in its very essence.

Not so, says Mark Darlow, in a refined argument that benefits from his extensive study of primary sources and his thorough knowledge of a secondary literature that encompasses history, politics, theatre, and music. In this volume, Darlow tackles several questions that concern the institution's transition from an Old Regime establishment to a national theatre. There is, first, the question of the supervisory authorities that regulated and funded the theatre. There is, then, the question of the Opéra's compliance with official injunctions (and therefore of its degree of freedom). And finally, there is the question of each work's reception and the influence of this reception on operatic productions. To these questions, Darlow brings interesting answers.

The Opéra's continuous service throughout the revolutionary period, he observes, does indicate a consensus on the institution's "pre-eminent importance": in the day-to-day operations of the Opéra, this consensus allowed for both "procedural continuity" and "discursive rupture," "stability of repertory" and "tentative reform" (p. 384). But it did not prevent "confusion and competition" among the authorities supervising the institution and its productions. Between 1791 and 1793, the authorities remained uncertain about the legitimacy, nature, time, and scope of the censorship they ought to exercise. Within the Constituent Assembly ( July 1789 to September 1791), legislators oscillated between principled proclamations of deregulation and a reflection on the educational mission of cultural institutions, as Darlow's reading of Le Chapelier's report ( January 1791) makes clear (p. 119ff.). At the same time, the apparent consensus on the virtue of private entrepreneurship did not prevent the Paris municipality from exerting its police power over the Opéra (in the name of public order) or from allocating funding to theatres on a "case-by-case basis," generally for patriotic purposes (p. 131). Successively under the control of the Crown (March 1789 to April 1790), the Paris municipality (April 1790 to April 1792), the private entrepreneurs Francoeur and Cellerier (from April 1792 to their arrest in September 1793), and the artists themselves (September 1793 to July 1794), the Opéra continued to depend on subsidies for its survival. It was, then, vulnerable to the authorities' "carrot-and-stick" approach: institutional incentives (if not political clientelism) partially determined the Opéra's repertoire. …

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