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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 345-348

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Operatic Fantasia

University of Iowa
David Charlton. French Opera 1730-1830: Meaning and Media (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000). Pp. xii + 316. $105.95.
Annette Richards. The Free Fantasia and the Musical Picturesque (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Pp. xiv + 256. $75.00.
Caroline Wood and Graham Sadler, eds. French Baroque Opera: A Reader (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000). Pp. x + 160. $79.95.

There is a decided reticence on the part of literary scholars to engage in the contemplation of music or musical works. This may be because they understand such works to require specialized or technical knowledge that is beyond their capacities; yet, I would wager that this inhibition is not felt to the same degree for the fields of history, art history, or film studies, areas where scholars trained in literature regularly tread. It is certainly not the case that music is perceived to be irrelevant to letters in the eighteenth century, since the writings of spectators and critics from the period offer ample testimony to the contrary. The reluctance also seems to go both ways. Few musicologists have published articles or chosen to review books in Eighteenth-Century Studies, though in this case it is certainly not for the same reasons, since these days citations of literary theorists abound in the pages of the Journal of the American Musicology Society and the Cambridge Opera Journal, and the authors of the following books cite literary scholars and art historians. If I had to identify a single purpose for this review, then, it would be to argue for the accessibility and relevance to the study of eighteenth-century literary culture of recent scholarship in the field of musicology.

Caroline Wood and Graham Sadler have provided the non-specialized public with a useful and well-chosen array of snapshots of early French opera. Scholars in other fields with varying conventions regarding periodization will quickly realize that for musicologists, the French "baroque" is an awkward catch-all covering a wide array of music from the seventeenth through the eighteenth century. This collection of translations—some only two sentences long, others running two to three pages—touches upon all aspects of opera, from the details of ticket prices, gossip about the director, and complaints about awkwardly situated buckets of urine, to the critical debates surrounding French and Italian works, aesthetic issues, and the experience of spectators, many of whom sought that particular ivresse de plaisir ("pleasurable intoxication") that one could only find at the opera (40). Less well-known texts have been preferred over those already available in translation. The chosen texts focus solely on the Académie Royale de Musique (the official institution of the Paris Opéra) and range from fiction (La Morlière's pointed description of opera-going in Angola), to legal documents (the royal privilege that gave Lully a monopoly over opera), pamphlets, treatises, letters, prefaces, and reviews.

Historians and literary scholars will find a wealth of material documenting the experience of theater-going at the time. While operas began at four o'clock in the late seventeenth-century, for example, they were moved to a quarter past five by 1714 (23). Students of material culture will learn of the many problems the opera building itself posed. One critic noted, for example, that it could take [End Page 345] nearly an hour to get out of the building, and complained of the all-too-human fumes and unbearable heat that afflicted the paradis, the ironically-named uppermost level of the auditorium (25). The material concerns of performance are also included, as when a dragon malfunctioned during a revival of Bellérophon, breaking open to expose its operator, "stark naked" (125). Material and social questions extend as well to the filles de l'opéra, who were sometimes forced to take six-month leaves following instances of "human frailty" (141). Contrary to the surely exaggerated view that no one listened to operas before the nineteenth century, many commentators remarked on their absorption in the spectacle despite the numerous enticing distractions in the loges or the parterre...


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