The Keys to French Opera in the Nineteenth Century (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 372-374



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Lacombe, Hervé. The Keys to French Opera in the Nineteenth Century. Trans. Edward Schneider. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 2001. Pp. xv + 415. ISBN 0-520-21719-5

The appearance of Edward Schneider's translation of Hervé Lacombe's Les Voies de l'opéra français au XIX esiècle (Fayard, 1997) disseminates to a wider body of readers a brilliant, multi-faceted exploration of nineteenth-century French opera. While retaining essentially the same content and construction as the Fayard edition, this version offers a twist on the original title, "new arguments" (xiii) enriched by additional unpublished correspondence and secondary sources, and several revised, expanded, or added sections (e.g., "Running an Opera House" [33-38], "History as a Framework for Drama" [102-04], and "History as an Aesthetic Power" [261-65]). Artfully translated, with rare spins on original meaning, this edition presents more clearly formatted tables and long quotations, a list of illustrations, and essentially the same appendix material. Among the "keys" to understanding - rather than "voies" (paths) of the original - are myriad sociological, aesthetic, musical, literary, and dramatic perspectives, largely centered in the latter half of the century. Lacombe uses the "crisis" of opera under the Second Empire (1852-1870) to illuminate significant [End Page 372] elements throughout the century, leading to aesthetic interpretations of early-century genres from a strongly retrospective vantage point, and appropriately contextualizes French opera within the musical and political capital of Paris. Woven through the book's three parts ("Genesis, Performance, and Reception"; "Drama, Poetry, and Music"; and "French Opera: Society, Genre, and Aesthetics") is a detailed discussion of one opera, George Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles (Théâtre-Lyrique, 1863) that serves to illustrate, usually effectively, general concepts.

A strength of Lacombe's book lies in his ability to articulate operatic realities that are frequently assumed but unstated in other studies. His impressive range of topics includes the complexities of authorship and intricacies of operatic construction, the codes, conventions, and restrictions associated with genre and institution, and the aesthetic and societal values supporting or hindering operatic development. He highlights the "mutability of opera" (2) from rehearsals to early performances and revivals, and "vagaries" (33) affecting operatic production and reception, from theatrical policies, systems, and etiquette to the roles of audiences and claques. He addresses the aesthetics of staging, in particular the Opéra's emphasis on scenic splendor and accuracy, and (thankfully) considers evolving vocal categories and performance practices. Especially fascinating is Lacombe's discussion of varied manipulations of space and time (Chapter 5) - including the coordination between stage and musical space and anticipations of cinematic techniques - and of poetic and musical expression (Chapter 6).

In aiming to construct general statements that hold true over a wide time span and across different genres, the author largely succeeds in avoiding gross over-sim-plications. However, some discussions that subsume both opéra-comique and grand opéra at times de-emphasize significant genre distinctions and apply more to the former than the latter - as in his characterization of the "pleasant, subtle, and light" (1), his portrait of Auber as quintessential figure, and his focus on the "rejection of profundity" and "conversational" aesthetic of French opera (286-88). Lacombe reinforces his narrative with sharp, often sardonic opinions of Berlioz and other professional composer-critics valorized today, and draws liberally from writings of 1863, the year of Bizet's Pêcheurs and Berlioz's failed production of Les Troyens. The danger of applying commentary from one decade to all others becomes most evident in discussions of grand opéra. While giving a solid depiction of the ever-present tension between tradition and "renewal" and the growing fatigue with grand opéra excesses, Lacombe somewhat misleadingly implies that the genre not only "lost its luster" but became outdated as early as the 1850 s, not long after its July Monarchy maturation and very shortly after the 1849 première of Meyerbeer's Le Prophète...


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