Opera in the Age of Rousseau: Music, Confrontation, Realism

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Date: Summer 2014
Publisher: University of California Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,891 words
Lexile Measure: 1590L

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Opera in the Age of Rousseau: Music, Confrontation, Realism, by David Charlton. Cambridge Studies in Opera. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xxi, 413 pp.

Like David Charlton's earlier study of Andre Gretry's operas-comiques,1 his latest book reveals a profound knowledge of a repertoire that has until recently attracted little musicological attention. In Opera in the Age of Rousseau, the author surveys French opera from 1739 to 1774 (between "Rameau's zenith and Gluck's advent" [p. xi]). Within this frame, he traces a series of clashes between old and new, French and Italian, comedy and tragedy, convention and experiment. The central focus is a reassessment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's one-act opera Le Devin du village (1752) in the wider context of courtly opera, pastoral, opera-ballet, and opera buffa. Charlton analyzes Rousseau's opera, not as an exception or even an aberration, but rather as the hub of an intricate web of genres and individual works, all embodying an era of confrontation, assimilation, and change. The overarching argument is that Le Devin du village reflects a nascent spirit of opera reform at midcentury, and that many of the reforms associated with the period of Gluck were already in place, or in development, during "the Age of Rousseau."

Part I, "Princely Theatre," looks at operatic cycles, seasons, and performances at Versailles and Fontainebleau, autumn home of Louis XV's court, and at the Academie Royale de Musique (the Opera) in Paris. It brings forward evidence that the king embraced a new style of opera (partly because he could sing its tunes) and that taste at court was more progressive than we have thought. The chamber concerts sponsored by the queen between 1742 and 1752 featured new operas by young composers like Jean-Baptiste Cardonne (b. 1730) and Jean-Baptiste Chretien (b. 1728), and Mme. de Pompadour's theatrical troupe favored the metatheatrical "song-opera," which, along with the mid-century pastoral, offered a model for integrating popular song styles into princely opera. At the Opera, an interest in the reforms of David Garrick and a systematic and surprisingly comprehensive approach to acting, gesture, and costume (even among chorus members) reveals the existence of reforms in these areas well before the period of "reform opera."

Part II, Opinion," skims over the deeper critical and aesthetic issues to focus on questions of context and reception. Charlton's discussion of audience behavior and listening practice bads on and engages with recent studies., notably James H. Johnson's Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. (2) Challenging the extent to which Johnson pushes his claims, the author nonetheless acknowledges that the popularity of Rameau in the 1740s and of the Bouffons in the 1750s may have been due to an increase in the kind of "musical" listening Johnson describes, as opposed to a more social orientation in the earlier part of the century. The section closes with a...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A384100737