In the mid-1700s, notorious rake Giacomo Casanova attended a performance of André Campra's Les fêtes vénitiennes (1710) at the Paris Opéra. His reactions varied from amusement (the backdrop placed the bell tower and the ducal palace on the wrong side of Saint Mark's Square) to boredom induced by Campra's music. Most noteworthy to him, however, was the enthusiastic response of the audience to the dancer Louis Dupré, marked by total silence during his appearance and vigorous applause upon its conclusion. According to Casanova, his French companion explained this reverence by stating, “Such is the power of beauty and goodness, of the sublime and the truth to nature which penetrate the soul. … This is true dance.”1
Although the French passion for dance has long been acknowledged by scholars, histories of French Baroque opera have primarily pursued an ideological or evolutionary approach to the development of the genre. No previous work on French Baroque opera has fully addressed the tutued elephant in the room—the pervasiveness of dance within these genres. Rebecca Harris-Warrick's Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera seeks to redress this omission, tracing developments from 1672 (the premiere of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Cadmus et Hermione) to 1735.
Harris-Warrick's thesis is that dance, far from being a supplemental or incidental aspect of French Baroque musical theater, is in fact fundamental to its dramaturgy, and that those parts of a French Baroque theatrical piece that contain dancing are as essential to the drama as those that do not. Earlier research in this area, while valuable, has been limited in scope, at least partially because of the ephemeral nature of its subject matter. Scholars specializing in this period are fortunate in the quantity of evidence that survives, including scores, librettos, and choreographies. Of these, the nearly fifty extant choreographies would appear to be the best form of evidence, but these were preserved and published separately from their original contexts in specialized notation, and they principally record dances à deux, even though ensemble dances were common. Scores provide musical evidence, but they rarely include descriptions of the movement, and while the librettos include stage directions (for which Harris-Warrick uses the French term “didascalies”) and, after 1700, cast lists, they do not indicate the order or names of the specific dances. Indeed, this body of evidence requires a familiarity with each type of source and a sensitive interpretive approach. Harris-Warrick couples these skills with approachable and effective writing, striving to bring the reader into the world of French opera throughout this handsomely illustrated book.
Dance and Drama is divided into two sections. The first serves as an introduction to the genres and analytical elements that will return throughout the book, concentrating on the efforts of founding composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. The second takes up developments from Lully's death to just prior to the debut of his most famous successor, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Harris-Warrick opens with a discussion in Chapter 1 of “The Dramaturgy of Lully's Divertissements,” those sections of his operas that relied most heavily on the communicative and expressive potential of dance, as demonstrated in three tragédies en musique (Lully's term for the more serious of his operas)—Alceste (1674), Atys (1676), and Armide (1686). Harris-Warrick's thoughtful analysis foregrounds the way in which the divertissements found in each act contribute to the overall dramatic effect, and the care taken by Lully and his main collaborator, librettist Philippe Quinault, to ensure that each divertissement was fully embedded in the action as a whole. The second chapter, “Constructing the Divertissement,” builds on its predecessor, introducing basic principles common to these scenes. Harris-Warrick is not content simply to present a series of definitions: in this chapter she provides several additional readings of divertissements, concentrating on the effect of the scenes in performance. Chapters 3 and 4 introduce “Dance Foundations,” an overview of the principles of French Baroque dance and its notation systems, and “Dance Practices on Stage,” which extrapolates from these principles to the ways in which dancing was deployed on stage, drawing on a diverse range of evidence. Chapters 5 and 6 extend Harris-Warrick's study in two directions not often covered by Lully scholars—his prologues, and genres other than the tragédies. In both chapters, her inquiries produce thoughtful and nuanced insights; the fifth chapter, in particular, explores subtle differences between the treatment of dance in prologues and the stricter requirements of the main action's divertissements. Her survey of Lully's lighter pieces revises the standard historiography of the comic in the period: she demonstrates that the comic elements of Lully's early operas, far from disappearing entirely, were retained throughout the following years of revivals; meanwhile the composer continued to create comic works throughout his career, many of which also enjoyed lasting popularity.
While the first half of the book derives a strong sense of unity from its clear focus on the output of a single composer and the establishment of an analytical framework, the second half, encompassing the period 1687–1735, is broader in scope and consequently more varied in content. Harris-Warrick pauses in Chapter 7 to orient the reader to the changes that occurred subsequent to Lully's death and introduce one of her themes for this section, the increasing importance of dance throughout the period. To unify the more diversified nature of this half of her study, Harris-Warrick borrows a device from contemporary librettists: she draws on the Muses Thalia (comedy), Melpomene (tragedy), and Terpsichore (dance), and groups chapters around the themes personified by each Muse, beginning with Thalia. In Chapter 8, she traces the first cautious efforts of the era to assimilate comic elements as composers such as André Campra drew on Italian influences in their productions, suggesting that an “ephemeral humor” (p. 233) might have been embodied by the dancers. Chapter 9 describes the development of a lively environment of creative exchange among the various Parisian theatrical communities that resulted in a greater sense of performativity, as seen in the increased popularity of metatheatrical scenes whose action includes the staging of an opera or ball, the appearance of simultaneous singing and dancing for comic effect, and several new productions, known in French as “fragments,” constructed from excerpts from previous works. In the last of the three chapters focused on Thalia, “The Contested Comic,” Harris-Warrick argues that the naturalization of these formerly “Italian” comic devices permitted pastoral elements to assume greater importance, as well as a brief experiment with fully Italianate productions on the operatic stage.
Melpomene, the tragic Muse, steps forward in the next two chapters. Chapter 11 takes an approach similar to that of the first chapter, using individual works as a foundation from which to generate a set of principles; thus a survey of five tragédies selected from throughout the period serves to demonstrate an overview of changes in the divertissement. Chapter 12, “Melpomène Adapts,” considers three specific types of divertissement (Italianate, pastoral, and nautical) that were partly influenced by the popularity of comic elements. This chapter concludes with a study of the changes made during the many revivals of Lully's operas, supporting Harris-Warrick's continuing assertion that individual dancers became more prominent throughout the period.
The last two chapters center on Terpsichore, taking up dance and the dancers themselves, regardless of genre. Chapter 13 presents information on the troupe of dancers associated with the Paris Opéra, including the rise of individual stars such as the Dumoulin brothers and Mlle Prévost. Harris-Warrick also highlights the creation of pieces built primarily on dancing, and the ongoing cross-fertilization of practices between the Opéra and other Paris theaters. Chapter 14, “In the Traces of Terpsichore,” parallels Chapter 4, “Dance Practices on Stage,” mining the surviving choreographies as evidence for dance practices, and enriching the notation with insights drawn from a combination of sources including cast lists and reports in the court newspaper.
The utility of Harris-Warrick's book is enhanced by its three appendices. The first of these provides a list of works that she has identified as showing Italian influences. The book's overall aim of placing each opera into a more fully developed repertoire context is evident from the inclusion of both premieres and revivals, together with a brief description of most of the items. The second appendix presents a partial list of productions of fragments, the French equivalent of the Italian pasticcio. Deriving from a list created by the eighteenth-century authors Claude and François Parfaict, the amount of content included for each fragment varies, highlighting the ephemeral nature of what Harris-Warrick terms a “modular approach to constructing some events at the Opéra” (p. 283). The third appendix, available as a downloadable PDF file, will be of much interest for scholars of Baroque dance and opera.2 Here Harris-Warrick situates the nearly fifty choreographies that were likely performed at the Paris Opéra within their original contexts, suggesting performance dates, identifying the dancers involved, interpreting the actions surrounding the dance, and providing relevant scholarly references.
One of the challenges facing the author of a longitudinal approach to the development of multiple genres is deciding what to include and to exclude. Harris-Warrick has chosen to keep the book mostly tightly focused on the repertoire, with infrequent references to the social and political contexts that have often formed an important component of the historiography of French Baroque music. Thus readers expecting a narrative exploring correlations between events outside and developments inside the opera house (other than the influx of Italian elements into French opera after the Italian troupe was banished in 1697) may be disappointed. Ideological critique, a mainstay of French Baroque studies, appears briefly in the chapter on Lully's prologues, as Harris-Warrick connects the prologue not only to praise of the king but also to France's fortunes in war and peace. It is more difficult to follow the prologue in the post-Lully period: there is not a specific chapter on the topic, and the index does not include “prologue” as an independent term. Searching under individual titles reveals that the purpose of the prologue changes after Lully, as Harris-Warrick argues that it becomes involved in the presentation of “institutional and aesthetic concerns” (p. 205). A more sustained discussion of these changes, and of if and how they impacted dance, especially in the context of the other developments in the post-Lully period that are discussed, would enrich the level of analysis.
In bringing the world of French Baroque opera to life, Harris-Warrick has had to provide a great deal of background information to help newcomers find their footing. The first section of the book effectively introduces analytical ideas and concepts, supporting them with nuanced, performance-centered analysis; in the second section, however, there are a number of leaps that might confuse the nonspecialist reader. For example, when Chapter 9 (“Thalie Visits the Fairs”) brings the reader into the theatrical circuit of early eighteenth-century France, the substitution of troupe name for theatrical home and vice versa could cause misunderstandings as to the group being referenced. An additional appendix listing the theaters and their aliases would have been helpful in clarifying references.
Overall, Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera provides a solid argument in favor of the integration of its two main subjects. The evenhanded treatment of the period's multiplicity of genres, coupled with Harris-Warrick's confident and perceptive analysis of the available evidence, creates a vivid impression of this ephemeral art form. The analytical models she proposes deepen our understanding of the repertoire and will certainly stimulate further important research, beginning with the second volume promised in the introduction to the book. A worthwhile addition to the collection of studies focusing on the French Baroque, Harris-Warrick's book will surely be welcomed by all admirers of Baroque opera.