- Monstrous Opera: Rameau and the Tragic Tradition, and: English Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London: Stephen Storace at Drury Lane
These two studies have more in common than one might suppose. Rameau and Storace may seem apples and oranges, but Charles Gill and Jane Girdham each studies an opera composer in reference to larger social contexts, and generally to good effect. And they both approach the music in intelligent critical terms, trying to establish what was better and worse in the musician’s work.
Charles Dill’s Monstrous Opera is a broad, original, and very interesting work. Its main goal is to study the relationship of Jean-Philippe Rameau to his public, starting from Jeffrey Kallberg’s conceptualization of the contract between composer and listeners. “What makes Rameau’s operas significant is at least in part that they serve as a ground upon which the composer [End Page 157] and his audiences contested the issues related to authorship” (xv). He begins with the puzzle of what Rameau’s omission of recitative from the edition of Les Indes Galantes had to do with his interaction with the public; he ends up concluding that, “however entertaining it might have been, Rameau’s work represented the failure of the generic contract between composer and public, the failure of the circuit through which artist and audience communicated” (138).
Dill’s argument is that Rameau began his work on tragédie en musique with a dramatic approach that went far beyond its origins in the productions of Jean-Baptiste Lully and that challenged his audiences to listen on an unusually serious plane. But when he made revisions to these works he drew back from that goal, providing either simple word painting or light divertissement. Dill quotes Friedrich Melchior Grimm in arguing that the 1756 version of the 1748 Zoroastre amounted to a “trivialization” of the story by Cahusac (119). What that involved was the tension between music and poetry in the French context, the pressures to keep music in a subservient position to the drama. Dill makes a lucid discussion of the problem, showing the complexities by which Voltaire approached opera.
The problem with this thesis, however, is that it draws a terribly exaggerated dichotomy between tragedy and what Dill persists in calling mere “entertainment.” In using that term he draws upon the extreme cultural values of our massified society; he makes Rameau’s revised scores serve virtually as background music. He does not go so far as to say that people did not listen, and indeed illustrates the vitality of the audience’s engagement with what it heard. But he fails to grasp how vague and contradictory eighteenth-century people were in defining the more casual or serious genres and cultural experiences. Dill neglects to draw upon work by historians on the public, indeed the public sphere. My article on revivals of old works at the Opera, for example, published in the Journal of Modern History in 1984 (not cited), shows that after the 1750s Rameau’s works were performed far more impressively than he suggests. Nor are any of the important publications by the musicologist Elisabeth Bartlet named.
Jane Girdham makes a marvelous contribution in studying the career in the London theatre made by Stephen Storace, a still much too little-known composer of significance. She does not approach her subject with quite the imagination that Charles Dill displays, but she accomplishes her tasks with great care and discernment. She starts from the premise that composing for the musical theater was by definition a collective effort for which one cannot ask too much idealism. She defines nicely just how Storace conducted his business, with whom, and under what practical circumstances. The book is a handy guide to the important details one might want to know about how English opera institutions operated.
One of the more current issues Girdham takes up is borrowing—how Storace inserted...