- Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater
In his 1733 Discours sur les Spectacles, the Jesuit Charles Porée praised theatre's ability to enliven textual lessons: "If examples attached to dead letters, [...] still have a sort of soul, a vestige of their ancient warmth, then what force and life will they have when they are reborn in action, when they are vivified by the fire of movement, when they themselves speak to the heart, to the ear, to the eye [...]! Such is the innocent magic the stage proposes." Many of Porée's contemporaries, of course, disputed theatre's innocence, and by 1752 stage magic was itself caught up in a public debate known as the Querelle des Bouffons. Amidst rhetorical volleys over the comparative merits of French and Italian opera, writers assailed or defended "marvelous" representations—the sundry flights, charms, transformations, and apparitions that populated France's Enlightenment-era musical stage. Some saw these effects as harmless amusement; others considered them a decadent scourge that squandered the edifying potential of the theatre.
One of the achievements of David J. Buch's impressive Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests is that it provides context for deciphering this midcentury controversy. Buch extensively and meticulously documents supernatural events in French, Italian, and German musical genres—proving along the way that these became a staple of the popular stage even as European natural philosophy attempted to consolidate a rationalized, experience-based world picture hostile to metaphysics and superstition. He argues that, in fact, new musical conventions denoting le merveilleux arose partly in reaction to the Enlightenment's disenchantment of music as a whole; "its presence alone no longer indicated a supernatural character or event. Music moved to the mortal, rational, and natural realm" (359). Thus stripped of its supernatural aura, the music that helped frame representations of otherworldly phenomena increasingly took on a "descriptive" function as composers deployed a new vocabulary of musical imagery to set apart the new understanding of the paranormal.
This analysis, while convincing, is confined to the book's preface and brief postscript and seems remote from his procedure in the main chapters. Buch is concerned foremost with correcting the long-standing neglect of a significant genre in 18th-century music. He aptly points [End Page 229] out that no book-length work apart from a German dissertation of 1896 on fairy-tale opera has examined the "magic opera" of the 18th century. Modern histories have tended to either minimize supernatural opera in service to narratives that foreground the reformist polemics of Diderot and Rousseau, or else denigrate the plays as vehicles for trivial machine-driven effects. Against such commonplaces, Buch has compiled an encyclopedic survey of examples from Continental theatre detailing examples of supernatural, magical, or otherwise marvelous theatre scored by the major French, Italian, and German composers, and many lesser-known figures.
Because its scope well exceeds the operatic tradition, Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests will doubtless prove an important resource for students and scholars of 18th-century theatre. Buch does not merely build on the studies of official opera by adding a few case studies from mixed, comic, or popular theatre genres, but dedicates whole chapters to France's Opéra-comique and Italian comic genres that match his attention to grand opera. These chapters, along with shorter sections on Viennese magic comedy, "false magic" stories, German fairy-tale theatre, and Haydn's marionette plays pursue the supernatural into less-traveled regions of the 18th-century theatrical imaginary. The study also details patterns of influence and appropriation of source material, particularly the diffusion of commedia dell'arte scenarios in France and Germany, and the staging of German fairy-tale collections in the 1780s.
The author's procedure for most operas and plays is to pair plot synopsis with analysis of the extant musical accompaniment. The synopses disclose some delightfully eccentric Enlightenment-era visions: Lorenzo Da Ponte's L'arbore de Diana features a...