The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera

By McClellan, Michael E. | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera


McClellan, Michael E., Notes


The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera. Edited by David Charlton. (Cambridge Companions to Music.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. [xxi, 495 p. ISBN 0521-64118-7. $70 (hbk.); ISBN 0-521-64683-9. $26 (pbk.)] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Defining a genre is always a tricky business, but few musical labels have posed as many problems for scholars as "grand opera." Even the most narrowly delimited definitions must make allowances for an extraordinary degree of variation. The authors whose work is included in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, however, are less concerned with setting limits for the genre than with challenging its generic boundaries. They do not approach grand opera as a discrete repertory of the nineteenth century, but instead focus on the genre as a set of broad aesthetic, institutional, political, and cultural influences. In doing so, the authors aim to foster a historically grounded, interdisciplinary discussion that moves beyond those easily invoked, textbook connections linking grand opera to France of the July Monarchy. Whether focusing on particular works, composers, or performers, most chapters in this collection challenge the facile assumptions that are too often made concerning these operas and demonstrate just how lively the study of this genre has become in the past fifteen to twenty years. Although the many borrowings from boulevard theaters and the undisguised pandering to bourgeois taste were once maligned, the eclectic mixing of media and appropriations of popular culture typical of works like Les Huguenots and La Juive now appear to be signs of vitality, crucial factors in the success and influence of the genre as a whole. To accommodate this complexity, the authors have adopted flexible methods of interpretation that highlight the relationship of these works to nineteenth-century cultural values and their negotiation of socio-political tensions via novel technologies of entertainment.

La Muette di Portici-customarily tagged the "first" grand opera-is mentioned several times in the collection, and the treatment it receives illustrates how recent research has enlarged our appreciation for grand opera in general. The historical significance of La Muette has frequently been reduced to its depiction of a violent peasant insurrection and the subsequent association of the opera with revolutions in Belgium and France. Although the authors remain sensitive to the many political uses that this opera has served, they do not confine their discussions of it to the rebellious sentiments or populist ideals that it may contain. In "La Muette and Her Contexts," for example, Sarah Hibberd investigates the various modes by which the work conveyed its messages to audiences, emphasizing the interaction of its component parts within performance and the resulting ambiguities. Not surprisingly, some of her best observations focus on the eponymous heroine, the mute character Fenella, whose inability to sing forces us to consider how movement, instrumental color, and gesture, as well as mise-en-scène signify both alone and in conjunction with one another. The relative importance of any one parameter of the opera will, of course, vary from moment to moment, but as Hibberd argues, only by remaining cognisant of all aspects of a production can we hope to understand the power that La Muette exerted. Indeed, it was by means of this heterogeneous mix of elements that the opera acquired such enormous popularity. Furthermore, by identifying connections between La Muette and traditions of early nineteenth-century French theater, Hibberd conveys a firm sense of the way in which the composer, librettists, and others involved in its production jointly achieved an innovative blend of existing conventions with new ideas and techniques that, unlike the Neapolitan uprising the plot recounts, brought about a successful revolution, one that inaugurated a new era in opera history.

The influence of grand opera outside of France is frequently invoked in discussions of the genre, but few studies have considered this topic as broadly as the last five chapters of this companion. …

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