The production, promulgation, and politics of opera in France during the Enlightenment

Brown, Bruce Alan


Ritter's selection of scores, though dependent on opportunity as well as choice, is a fairly good sample of the different approaches to the genre over several decades. It includes one other collaboration between Sedaine and Monsigny, the masterful of 1769. Based loosely on an actual incident, this opera was called "drame" (rather than ) on its title page on account of its kinship with similarly designated spoken plays by authors such as Diderot and Beaumarchais. Though comic elements are not entirely absent, the work's tone is pervasively somber; in the second act especially, which takes place entirely in a prison,



Monsigny rarely leaves the minor mode. The confinement of prison is conveyed also through counterpoint, with a trio in the form of a "FUGA," and a comic duet that combines vertically two solo numbers heard just previously.

André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, originally from Liège,

one of the most popular composers of , is represented by of 1771,
whose text by Marmontel is a retelling of the tale of "Beauty and the Beast"; the work was an important reintroduction into of the fantastic element that had been largely lacking since the upheavals of the .[40]  This illustration
is of the "tableau magique" by means of which the beast allows Zémire to see her absent father and sisters, to the accompaniment of off-stage wind instruments. The engraving, as sumptuous as the stage décor it depicts, is dedicated to the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette.

One type of not represented in the Ritter Collection is that in which various - crafts or professions - are showcased. There was a veritable craze for such works during the late 1750s and '60s, in part on account of their onomatopoeic possibilities. But it is suggestive that these pieces appeared during the period in which the majority of volumes of the - both text and plates - were published. One of the most novel features of this vast undertaking was its detailed coverage not just of the higher arts and sciences, but also of the entire range of professions, however humble, in all of their technical detail. D'Alembert, in his "Preliminary Discourse" to the , credits Denis Diderot with the lion's share of this work, noting that he had relied not only on the reports of others, but on his own first-hand observations in the workshops of the artisans themselves. One result of this effort was a new respect for manual labor and laborers; an early theorist of the post- sort of , Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Nougaret, saw a similar social utility in the flood of . Writing somewhat condescendingly in his treatise of 1769, he observed that these works "accustome[d] rich people to cast their


eyes upon the poor," yet without any loss of dignity. To the objection that "it is useless to go to the Opéra Comique to contemplate the portrayal of a blacksmith, a cobbler, &c., since any day we can see the originals," Nougaret responded:

One would blush at seeking the company of the real characters. It is more seemly to go to the theater than to the shop of a lowly artisan; and besides, the woodchoppers, blacksmiths, cobblers whom one sees on stage sing a bit better than those in the real world.

Nougaret, pseud. [P. J. Discret], De l'Art du théâtre; où il est parlé des differens genres de spectacles, et de la musique adaptée au théâtre, 2 vols. (Paris: Cailleau, 1769) 1: 111 and 138: "Il est clair qu'on s'accoutumera enfin à regarder d'un œil favorable les paysans, les savetiers, & d'autres gens de cette espèce, qu'on voit paraître sur la Sçene.... On doit se garder de conclure des sages paroles de ce Roi [quoted from Plutarch's Lives] qu'il est inutile d'aller à L'Opéra-Bourron, contempler la peinture d'un Maréchal-ferrant, d'un Savetier, &c. puisque chaque jour nous pouvons voir les originaux. On rougirait de chercher la compagnie des vrais personnnages. Il est plus séant d'aller au Spectacle que dans la boutique d'un vil Artisan; & puis d'ailleurs, les Bucherons, les Maréchaux, les Cordonniers qu'on nous représente sur le Théâtre, chantent un peu mieux que ceux qui sont par le monde."

In mentioning these trades, Nougaret had specific operas by André Danican Philidor in mind: (on a libretto by Sedaine, 1759), (by Quétant, 1761) , and (by Guichard and Castet, 1763). Were one seeking to fill in gaps in the Ritter Collection's coverage of French opera, one or more of these works would be obvious candidates for acquisition.


[38] Act II, Sc. 5 from Michel-Jean Sedaine/Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny, Le Déserteur, engr. Jean-Baptiste Chatelain after François Queverdo (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra), reproduced in Legrand/Nicole Wild, p. 58

[39] Portrait of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (Versailles, Musée du Château), reproduced in Legrand/Nicole Wild, p. 75

[40] On Grétry's operas generally, see David Charlton, Grétry and the growth of opéra-comique (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); on Zémire et Azor, see pp. 98-108.

[41] Scene of the tableau magique in André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, Zémire et Azor, engr. Voye le jeune after Jacques-Louis Touzé (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra), reproduced in Legrand/Nicole Wild, p. 73

  • Delivered as part of the Ritter Colloquium Series sponsored by the Department of Music at Tufts University, October 17, 2003.
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