Opera was born in Florence in 1600 as a courtly art form. In festive Venice it had flourished as a commercial venture by the 1630s – often satirical and risqué, and in thrall to celebrity singers. It took a while longer to catch on in France, the earliest examples being introduced from Italy by Giulio Mazzarino, better known as Cardinal Mazarin, in the 1640s.
When, in 1670, Louis XIV decided it was time to hang up his dancing pumps and retreat from the stage to the auditorium, he promoted the uniquely French operatic genre of tragédie lyrique as a vehicle for the display and mythologisation of what Olivia Bloechl describes as the “sacral authority” of the French monarchy, with lavish theatrical machines that performed sovereign-like transformations of the world and rhetorical modes of singing and acting in which words and gestures could command. The power of the monarch himself was represented by the gods and heroes who were the protagonists of these dramas.
So far, so familiar. But historians these days tend to question whether absolutism was ever quite so absolute. Bloechl probes this narrative to ask some productive questions about aspects of tragédie lyrique that have been overlooked. For instance, why is it that so many operas include scenes in the underworld, in which the kingdom of Pluto is clearly represented as a shadow political state? What does that say about the French regime’s self-image? And even more fundamentally, if French opera was about the display of glory, “why does power need glory?” (as the Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben once asked).
To answer these questions, Bloechl turns to writers such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Agamben, who have all theorised the ways in which power operates not only through the exercise of violence – actual or threatened – and reward, but also in the micro-regimes of a culture that becomes naturalised and internalised in the subject.
Obligatory displays of ritualised grief at the passing of public figures are re-enacted in the scenes of choral lament in tragédie lyrique. The passivity of the subject in the face of power is replicated in the lack of agency of the chorus.
Foucault’s self-disciplinary regime of the “confessing society” is conveyed through the ubiquity of self-punishing confessions in French opera, in which there is a transition from an externally imposed sense of moral obligation in the 17th century to an internalised mode that is represented by the advent of the “tormenting orchestra” in 18th-century operas. Bloechl also demonstrates that in the near century of tragédie lyrique’s ascendancy, power in the ancien régime shifted from the personal absolutism of Louis XIV to the more remote rulership of his great-grandson Louis XV. This is conveyed in dramatic narratives in which it is not the god or ruler who exercises authority or justice, but a mediating representative. And Pluto’s underworld? It resembles “nothing so much as an absolutist monarchical state”, founded on the principle of the precarity of the subject under the permanent threat of death.
This is a relatively short book dealing with a large and complex subject. It is selective and suggestive rather than comprehensive and conclusive. Hopefully, employing the methodologies opened up so productively by Bloechl, others will take up the baton.
Nicholas Till is professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies.
Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France
By Olivia Bloechl
University of Chicago Press
Published 10 April 2018