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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

French Opera at the Italian Theater (1762-93): Opéra-Comique and the Development of National Style in France
by Doe, Julia I., Ph.D., Yale University, 2013, 254; 3578332
Abstract (Summary)

National operatic style was a major musical, literary, and philosophical concern in Europe throughout the eighteenth century. Nowhere was this issue more fiercely disputed than in Paris, where preeminent literati argued publicly over the influence of Italian music and the future directions of French-language opera. Previous scholarship on these controversies has centered largely on the most prestigious of French theatrical institutions, the Opéra, and the elite tragédie lyrique performed on its stages. Long neglected, however, is the Opéra's upstart rival—the Comédie-Italienne—which produced opéra-comique from 1762 onwards and served as a more important site of contest in the stylistic quarrels. This study investigates the impact of comic theater on the evolution of French music as a whole, demonstrating how the Comédie-Italienne emerged as a legitimate competitor to the Opéra and a locus of national pride and debate in the final decades of the ancien régime. I contend that the unique organization of the Comédie-Italienne—as well as the hybrid nature of the spectacles it produced—fostered an environment where the predominant operatic cultures of Europe were destined to clash.

This dissertation examines both the music of opéra-comique and the broader institutional forces that shaped its development and reception. I trace the growth of the comic genre through a study of its most successful composers (including Duni, Monsigny, Philidor, Grétry, and Dalayrac). I argue that opéra-comique functioned as an ideal testing ground for the competing national styles, emphasizing its unique mixtures of French and Italian music, serious and comic elements, and spoken dialogue and song. The critical reappraisal of comic opera was not, however, effected solely by the initiative of its authors. New archival research reveals that the development of the genre was also closely linked to changes in the finances and infrastructure of the venue where it was staged. The records of the Comédie-Italienne show that its leadership worked constantly to expand the resources of the company, enabling it to threaten the supremacy of the Opéra in the years after mid-century.

The rise of a popular tradition of lyric theater seems to invite political interpretation, especially given that this process occurred during a period of tremendous social change. It is clear that this development represented a challenge to many of the structures that governed artistic production in eighteenth-century France: to the strict organization of theatrical institutions; to the division between national and cosmopolitan styles; and to the conventional correlation between hierarchies of genre and hierarchies of class. And yet, focusing solely on the more progressive aspects of opéra-comique provides an incomplete picture of the role it played in society; the low status of the genre did not necessarily translate into the low status of its audiences or the radical nature of its politics. In the decades after 1762, the Comédie-Italienne began to draw spectators from the highest circles of Parisian society. While many comic works continued to contain elements of social critique, others mirrored the conservative worldview of their aristocratic audiences. The legitimization of comic opera was thus not simply the triumph of a "people's" art but the incorporation of a "people's" art into elite culture. An eagerness to read back from 1789 has obscured the multivalent social and political meanings inherent in the comic opera of the late ancien régime—meanings that the present study aims to explicate.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Rosand, Ellen
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 75/05(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Music
Publication Number: 3578332
ISBN: 978-1-303-71589-1
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