This article explores changing attitudes toward actors' bodies at the Paris Opera through the performance history of D. F. E. Auber's opera La Muette de Portici from 1828 to 1879. Because a mime performed the role of Fenella and the chorus played an active role in the mise en scene, the opera placed unusual emphasis on the physical. Over this period, however, emphasis shifted from appreciation of acting to emphasis on singing. For example, during the tenor Adolphe Nourrit's tenure at the Opera critics admired his skill as an actor in the role of Masaniello. When replaced by Gilbert Duprez in 1837, critics praised the tenor's vocal power and lack of emphasis on the histrionic. During this same time, critics began to interpret the gestures of the mime playing Fenella as semantically empty, and her body as filling a space that a singer should occupy. The important role that the barcarolle plays in the opera allows in part for these transitions. Viewed as a chanson napolitaine, it accentuates the rocking of a boat and the physical body at work; however, interpreted as the song of a Venetian gondolier, the song emphasizes the enunciation of a singing voice at the expense of the body. Reviews of La Muette reflect this ambivalence toward performance styles that call attention to the body, particularly those that might be interpreted as belonging to the working classes.
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Maribeth Clark; The Body and the Voice in La Muette de Portici. 19th-Century Music 1 November 2003; 27 (2): 116–131. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2003.27.2.116
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