Abstract

Grand opera's love of all-consuming spectacle is evident in its cataclysmic eruptions, explosions, and shipwrecks, its magnificent processions and ceremonies, and its breathtaking reconstructions of sublime landscapes, from Auber's La Muette de Portici (1828), through Halévy's La Juive (1835), to Meyerbeer's Le Prophète (1849), and beyond. An understanding of the Parisian public's visual experiences and expectations outside the opera house can help in theorizing grand opera's distinctive aesthetic.

Contemporary spectacles d'optique, including the tableau vivant, panorama, diorama, and nocturnorama, attest to the higher powers of sensory attentiveness demanded of audiences. Some offered a sensory overload that encouraged complete absorption in the spectacle; others encouraged critical reflection as music and image drew attention to themselves through a disjunction of narrative or mood. Auguste Pilati and Friedrich von Flotow's opera Le Naufrage de la Méduse (Théâtre de la Renaissance, 1839) incorporated an ambitious animated representation of Théodore Géricault's celebrated painting on the subject and generated critical discussion about the relationship between sound and vision. Le Naufrage and the spectacles d'optique of the period offer a prism through which to view opera's evolution from a contemplative to a more involving form of drama in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and to contextualize French grand opera's distinctive fascination with the interplay of music and spectacle, narrative and display, and the engagement of audiences in constructing meanings.

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