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  • Opera, Dispossession, and the Sublime: The Case of Armide
  • Downing A. Thomas (bio)

“La scène invisible hante”

—Pascal Quignard 1

Opera was new to late-seventeenth-century France, at once an object of fascination and revulsion. Beginning in 1672, Philippe Quinault and Jean-Baptiste Lully (né Giovanni Battista Lulli) created the first French operas as tragédies en musique. Spectators were seduced; theorists were skeptical. What was one to do with a genre that Aristotle could not have said anything about? What would the sensuousness of music do to the intellectual force of French tragedy? To many, furthermore, opera was yet another example of ruinous Italian influence. In France, where music-making often had political overtones, Lully carefully sought to distinguish the tragédie en musique as something other than an Italian import. By creating a musical fabric that was a near continuum of air and récit, Lully distanced himself from the discrete alternation of aria and recitative that characterized Italian opera. 2 By making air and recitative virtually indistinguishable, and thereby defining the musical voice as a consistent entity, Lully created an effect of continuous subjectivity rather than drawing attention to the operatic form itself as an alternation of two formally distinct vocal modes. In other words, through a specific kind of vocal writing, he attempted to create an effect of continuity of character rather than to display the virtuosity of the singers. It was in part through this “naturalization” of the musical voice within the context of the French theatrical tradition that Lully created French opera. I want to contrast Quinault’s and Lully’s emphasis on the voice with the extraordinary visual impact of early French opera in order to speculate that their last tragédie en musique, Armide (staged in the [End Page 169] Palais-Royal in 1686 and revived frequently through the 1760s) created a new space for opera within the context of seventeenth-century aesthetics by placing passion and the musical voice above the supernatural effects that were commonly associated with the genre.

One of the more complex and sensitive aspects of the tragédie en musique within the context of seventeenth-century French theatre involves the question of visual representation. Seventeenth-century dramatic theory was exceedingly concerned with determining how things could, should, or should not, be placed before the eyes of the spectator. The tragédie en musique, to a greater degree than any other dramatic idiom, highlighted the visual merveilleux of supernatural appearances and special effects. Catherine Kintzler has asserted that “opera is not satisfied with the imaginary: it is obliged to represent.” 3 Though Kintzler is undoubtedly correct about the general commitment of the tragédie en musique to magnificent display, Armide reveals the question of representation in early French opera to be somewhat more complex than it would appear from her account. For if early French opera is to be defined by the merveilleux in relation to its spoken counterpart (French classical tragedy), how are we to interpret the fact that the single scene of Armide universally recognized by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commentators as the most moving of any tragédie en musique is one in which the visual interest is all but suspended?

One might be tempted simply to point to the music; yet this reaction would not have been a common one in the late 1680s. Whereas we tend to see the singularity of opera’s function as lyric theatre as determined by its use of music (if, indeed, we consider opera to be theatre at all), music raised more problems than it resolved for Quinault’s and Lully’s contemporaries. As beautiful as opera may be, Le Cerf de la Viéville claimed, “whatever draws its principal beauty from the fancywork that the musician adds is nothing but cheap goods.” 4 The tragedy was considered the centerpiece of the tragédie en musique; the music cautiously maintained a secondary and supplementary status. At a time when music was required to play second fiddle to the drama and was often condemned as dangerously sensual, since it was not clear exactly what meaning music might convey, we witness a self-conscious effort in Armide to...

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