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  • French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination by Sarah Hibberd
  • Gabriela Cruz (bio)
Sarah Hibberd : French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 294 pages, $36.99

Sarah Hibberd's French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination concerns opera's entanglement with a known French Romantic obsession with the past and the notion of pastness. Grand opera has long been understood as a genre peculiarly circumscribed by the thematics and the poetics of history, and recent scholarship on the period has emphasized its involvement with the idea of history, reading grand opera perhaps too optimistically as an alternative form of Romantic historical writing. This line of scholarship, cultivated by Mark Pottinger and Anna McCready most recently, forms the immediate intellectual background to Hibberd's own meditation on the topic.1 French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination proceeds from the identification of historical themes in the tragic repertory of grand opera—revolution, regicide, victimization, religion, patriotism, and the nation loom large in its pages. Yet the book also offers a salutary correction to the recent obsession with decoding historical messages in opera, for rather than conflating the lyrical and the historical, its argument proceeds from the recognition that in the 1830s opera and history remained separate and distinct institutions that nevertheless bore a significant affinity. As Hibberd herself notes, the affinity between history and opera warrants critical examination, an effort that the book might have pursued in a somewhat more critical fashion.

Hibberd notes that grand opera, a creation of the July Monarchy, has long suffered with the bad political reputation of the latter. The ingrained habit of dismissing the July Monarchy as a form of governance given to a very impure form of politicking, a juste milieu, has long left a stain on the reputation of the genre, understood similarly as a form of spectacular compromise. Thus we routinely lose sight of the radical political nature of the regime and of grand opera. The monarchy headed by Louis Philippe, the direct continental antecedent to modern parliamentary regimes, was very much the brainchild of the modern discipline of history. Its architect was Benjamin Constant, the first prominent liberal constitutionalist. Its better-known practitioners were historians François Guizot and Adolphe Thiers, then ministers of the kingdom. Thiers and Guizot saw history as [End Page 259] a source of political knowledge, offering crucial insight into human motivation and action in power, shedding crucial light unto the very domain of governance which the pure doctrines of absolutism and revolution obscured. Famously, they traded an earlier politics of absolutes—in power, truth, and morality—for a new parliamentary system in which the banal and often sordid workings of public life were readily acknowledged. Thus the juste milieu, a doctrine of no doctrine, inaugurated a new political matrix, founded on the modern admission that the state is itself the object of conflict, defined by a jostling of agencies and permeable to the private and public interests of those closest to it.

As many recognized even in the 1830s, the new thematics of grand opera served this new form of political awareness well. Its plots delved into the unseemly linings of public life frequently enough, laying out the mechanisms of private interest in public affairs. Under the July Monarchy, composers, librettists, and artists in general working for the Opéra tackled a new vocabulary of political sins and vices. Venality, cynicism, dogma, indifference in power, and violent ruthlessness, to name but a few, were fleshed out on stage with extraordinary verve. Purposefully, they added a new sphere of moral and aesthetic impurity to opera, addressed through technical means that were, like those of contemporary political action, eclectic. In this sense at least, those works performed at the Opéra appear to have been dutiful children of a new history-minded form of political envisioning. Hibberd's observations that operas belonging to the period embraced "diverse political viewpoints and borrowed from a range of cultural sources" (8) and that in individual works "fluidity and diversity of political meaning was articulated through the aesthetic effects that in turn characterized the genre" (16) speak directly to the relativist mindset of the monarchy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-2870
Print ISSN
0736-0053
Pages
pp. 259-267
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-09
Open Access
No
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