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  • Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera: A Historyby Rebecca Harris-Warrick
  • Blake Stevens
Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera: A History. By Rebecca Harris-Warrick. Pp. vv + 484. Cambridge Studies in Opera. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2016. £89.99. ISBN 978-1-107-13789-9.)

In this meticulously documented study, Rebecca Harris-Warrick mobilizes a wide array of musical, iconographic, and textual evidence to argue for the dramaturgical significance of dance in French Baroque opera. The primary objective is to establish 'an integrative model for French opera that includes the dancing instead of marginalizing it' (p. 1). Harris-Warrick aims to correct what she views as a pervasive misconception concerning the role of the divertissement in the works of Jean-Baptiste Lully and his successors. She deliberately downplays the presence of theoretical accounts of dance and does not, for instance, offer a close parsing of the critical texts that have laid the foundation for the mistaken view that dance is merely decorative and of negligible dramatic import. She advances a 'work-centered approach' that places the emphasis on 'librettos, scores, and—where they exist—choreographic notations, more than on theoretical writings, past or present' (p. 1). The book's coverage of the tradition extends from Lully to the early 1730s, while a projected second volume will examine the operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The clarity of organization and style of presentation are exemplary. The first part of the study examines Lully's output in both tragic and 'lighter' genres. The opening chapter usefully sketches a range of functions for the divertissement through snapshots of three of his best-known collaborations with the dramatist Philippe Quinault: Alceste, Atys, and Armide. A principle highlighted here that inflects some of the most stimulating readings of works later in the volume is the social aspect of group activity embodied by dancing: Harris-Warrick interprets the various subject positions and functions assumed by the dancers in Alceste(1674) to mirror, if not directly to imitate, the types of social behaviour prevalent in Louis XIV's court (pp. 11–12). Other interpretative insights with further ramifications are that divertissements may displace communication among dramatic agents onto the bodies of dancers and that they may function as outlets of conflict. The chapters that follow skilfully survey the range of sources and methodological principles that bring the 'mechanics' of Lully's divertissements into focus. This section offers both general and work-specific insights that will undoubtedly shape continuing scholarly work and historically informed performance of this repertory.

The second part of the book is organized around the concept of 'rival muses', as Harris-Warrick surveys the landscape of the Académie Royale de Musique after Lully's death with the muses of comedy (Thalie), tragedy (Melpome'ne), and dance (Terpsichore) serving as notional guides. This section examines important developments at the Opéra between Lully and Rameau: the rise of opéra-ballet, exchanges between Italian and French traditions, new approaches and challenges to the tragédie en musique(with an increased significance of divertissements, 'crucial sites where such tensions played themselves out' (p. 204)), and a turn towards greater 'theatricality' and comic licence under the influence of spoken theatre and parodies in works such as André Campra's Le Carnaval de Venise(1699) and Les Fêtes vénitiennes(1710). The period from 1687 to the early 1730s forms a central part of the story Harris-Warrick is telling about the complex role of dance in the evolution of French opera. The historiographical irony is that the availability of [End Page 121]reliable musical scores becomes more convoluted in a period when other facets of production emerge into sharper definition: for instance, dancers begin to be identified regularly in livrets(allowing for a clearer picture of the trajectories of individual careers) and more choreographies are notated, yet this precision is countered by the 'messiness' (p. 212) of the surviving musical sources. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why this territory has suffered relative neglect in the scholarly literature. Along with Georgia Cowart's The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle(2008), which extends its...


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