- The Bals publics at the Paris Opera in the Eighteenth Century
Initiated under the Regent, Philippe II d'Orléans, in 1716 and staged in the same theater where the Académie Royale de Musique held its performances, the bals de l'Opéra occupied a central position in the cultural life of Paris until the Revolution. They also played an important part in the eighteenth-century shift in center of gravity from Versailles to Paris and from private princely pleasures to public performance for a paying audience of mixed social levels. In response to these various issues raised by the Opera balls, Richard Semmens has written a book that is equal parts institutional history, cultural history, and dance history. The book is a particularly welcome contribution to scholarship on early ballroom dance, which has been dominated by the period of Louis XIV, and Semmens's perspicacity in linking trends in music and dance repertoires with the social and cultural context in which they were performed reveals them in a new light.
The book is organized by historical approach, including one chapter each for the balls' institutional, economic, social, and finally musical and dance histories. Semmens's first chapter, "Context, Genesis, and Overview" acts as an introduction to the concepts treated in the following chapters and as a summary of the balls' history. From the beginning Semmens emphasizes the social role played by the balls, differentiating them not only from formal royal balls (bals parés), which were danced only by individual couples chosen from the highest nobility while the rest of the court looked on, but also from more informal bals masqués, where courtly etiquette was relaxed somewhat because the rank of the dancers was obscured (at least in theory) by their masks. The concept of the public ball, Semmens points out, did not originate with the bals de l'Opéra, but had precedent in masked balls given during carnival by individual members of the nobility during the late reign of Louis XIV that were open to all comers. That the Opera balls in fact drew on this tradition of open masked carnival balls is also evident from the organization of their season, which culminated with Mardi Gras. Nevertheless, the Opera balls were unique in having no host, and everyone who could pay the 6 livre admission charge was free to enter. The high cost of admission certainly limited the society of the bals de l'Opéra to the upper bourgeoisie and the nobility, but these two classes mixed freely during the bals as they did virtually nowhere else in France, anonymous behind their masks and virtually free from restrictions of rank.
The second and third chapters form a unit in their consideration of the political, financial, and administrative history of the Opera balls. Observing that the balls were instituted by the Regent and held in the theater that formed part of his Parisian home, Semmens suggests that Orléans continued Louis XIV's tactic of using entertainment to occupy an unruly nobility under his watchful eye. This idea of a "substitute court at the Opéra" (p. 35) is a problematic one, and a notion whose complexity and tradition of scholarship warrants more space than Semmens devotes to it. It should suffice to point out here that because attendance at the balls was voluntary (and indeed quite spotty) and because its participants valued their very anonymity, it seems unlikely that these events served the political purpose Semmens attributes to them. As he himself observes, the main impetus for the institution of the bals was a reaction against the strict etiquette and omnipresent emphasis on rank distinction that royal court culture fostered. It was precisely this culture that the organization of the bals de l'Opéra was designed to subvert.
Semmens' treatment of the space occupied by the bals publics in the theater of the Palais-royal and the balls' administration by the Opéra is more successful. Drawing...