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Notes 58.4 (2002) 811-813

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Book Review

Women Writing Opera:
Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution

Women Writing Opera: Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution. By Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelson. (Studies in the History of Society and Culture.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. [xvii, 341 p. ISBN 0-520-22653-4. $48.]

The title of this book dangles before us the prospect of a hitherto unknown repertory of opera. The authors additionally suggest that these musical works were written by women under difficult circumstances despite sexual discrimination by a "male dominated" French society that ironically boasted about, among its other revolutionary goals, equality. Beginning with the origins of opera under the despotic reign of Louis XIV, in which we (curiously) read all too briefly of the splendid works of Elisabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, and ending with a long exegesis of the opera-without-music failures of Isabelle de Charrière (Belle van Zuylen) during the revolutionary period, Letzter, professor of French, and Adelson, professor of clarinet, present a survey of women's musical theatrical efforts in France.

We are not told which of the authors is responsible for what, but, as over half of the volume is itself directly concerned with de Charrière, it would seem that Women Writing Opera is largely the work of Letzter, whose excellent Harvard doctoral thesis (1995) on de Charrière was substantially published as Intellectual Tacking: Questions of Education in the Works of Isabelle de Charrière (Amsterdam, Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1998). The fact that there is almost no musical commentary, and that a notice in the Harvard Graduate School's alumni quarterly Colloquy (Fall 2001:19) attributes Women Writing Opera to Letzter, with rather than and Robert Adelson, would seem to confirm his lesser role. Perhaps Adelson's contribution will become more evident in [End Page 811] the forthcoming Letzter and Adelson article for Revue d'histoire du théâtre, "Un drame d'ambitions déçues: les opéras d'Isabelle de Charrière," announced in Letzter's Intellectual Tacking (p. 13 n. 10). At any rate, note the characterization of de Charrière's operatic ambitions as déçues or "disappointed," using the past participle of décevoir, a word that carries with it the connotation of deception or even delusion. It is, therefore, no surprise that the usual understanding of the term opera has been expanded for the author's purposes to include all creative—rather than executive— endeavors involving music and words with the stage, even if music is missing (as indeed it is in the case of Isabelle de Charrière) from these endeavors.

Such an expansion of the term opera was apparently necessary to accommodate the unfortunate dearth of musical documents to support their thesis. Of the seventy-three works by French women from 1670 to 1820 listed by Letzter and Adelson in their most valuable appendix (p. 219-37), approximately half were merely librettos, including some written with male collaboration. This transsexual cooperation is also indicated in the authorship of the few extant musical scores. For example, the more well-known André Grétry orchestrated his gifted daughter Lucile's music for Le marriage d'Antonio (Paris, 1792). Sophie Gail's Angel, ou l'atelier de Jean Cousin (Paris, 1814) was written together with the celebrated François Adrien Boieldieu. Some attributions either suppress her name or mention her as co-composer. In this regard, Letzter's and Adelson's naming of Adrien Boieldieu or simply A. Boieldieu (p. 40, 237) as Gail's joint author is at the least confusing, since Louis Adrien, born in 1815 (the natural son of François Adrien), was also a composer of some merit.

Divided into two parts, the book first delves into a prehistory of the topic by discussing in turn women authors, their education, operatic politics, and lastly "authority and identity," all from a feminist perspective. Part 1 ends with sketches of, besides the talented Jacquet de la Guerre (1666...


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