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Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France

From its origins in the 1670s through the French Revolution, serious opera in France was associated with the power of the absolute monarchy, and its ties to the crown remain at the heart of our understanding of this opera tradition (especially its foremost genre, the tragédie en musique).
In Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France, however, Olivia Bloechl reveals another layer of French opera’s political theater. The make-believe worlds on stage, she shows, involved not just fantasies of sovereign rule but also aspects of government. Plot conflicts over public conduct, morality, security, and law thus appear side-by-side with tableaus hailing glorious majesty. What’s more, opera’s creators dispersed sovereign-like dignity and powers well beyond the genre’s larger-than-life rulers and gods, to its lovers, magicians, and artists. This speaks to the genre’s distinctive combination of a theological political vocabulary with a concern for mundane human capacities, which is explored here for the first time.
By looking at the political relations among opera characters and choruses in recurring scenes of mourning, confession, punishment, and pardoning, we can glimpse a collective political experience underlying, and sometimes working against, ancienrégime absolutism. Through this lens, French opera of the period emerges as a deeply conservative, yet also more politically nuanced, genre than previously thought.

272 pages | 9 halftones, 31 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: European History

Music: General Music

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


“This book brings brilliant critical insights to the understanding of French opera under the old order, along with agile handling of a range of works that far exceeds the usual canons of study. Using a Foucauldian notion of governance to reconstruct the ‘political imaginary’ of opera in France’s old regime, it gives us a text of unparalleled probity, showing that the operatic fashioning of French sovereignty was less an echo of real-life politics than a projection of its ideals, decorums, and anxieties.”

Martha Feldman, Mabel Greene Myers Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College, University of Chicago

This original and well-argued book offers a fresh approach to tragédie lyrique that rethinks the political meanings available to the genre's publics. Drawn from notions of governmentality by Foucault, Agamben, and Butler, Bloechl creates an interpretative framework focused not on representations of kingship, sovereignty, and the state, but on the genre's role in producing a French political imaginary that linked gloire and efficacy. The resulting interpretations of deftly chosen examples illuminate not only the political functions of the genre, but the relationship of artistic practice to practices of nonstate power—a theme so pertinent to contemporary life that the book deserves to be widely read.

Suzanne G. Cusick, professor of music, New York University

“Bloechl’s elegant book takes on a familiar topic, the political and ideological basis of the tragédie en musique, and analyzes it with new depth and intimacy, not as allegory but as something present, familiar, and ‘lived in’ by audiences. Focusing on some particular ways in which the French government manifested itself in individual lives—confession, guilt, and punishment; public acts of mourning; bureaucracy—she traces these same themes in the storytelling of opera. Never losing sight of musical texts, Bloechl moves with ease through a vast network of governmental, institutional, and popular sources, tracing the great historical transformations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

Charles Dill, professor of musicology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Offering a novel analysis of the political imaginary in opera–illustrated through plot, orchestral accompaniment, or chorus–Olivia Bloechl describes how each aspect of opera's performance contributed to the glorification of the Ancien Régime and its rulers. Through an in-depth analysis ranging from the Lully/Quinault collaborations in the late seventeenth century to those of Rameau and Gluck and their librettists in the eighteenth, Bloechl explains how opera's musical and dramatic fluctuations reified the majesty of the king and royal court." 

New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century

"In this insightful book, Olivia Bloechl takes as a starting point the traditional view of the tragédie en musique as an art form designed to mythologize absolutist kingship. . . [Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France] shows the genre as a projection of both the ideals and the anxieties of Ancien Régime politics. It achieves this result by introducing a compelling new model for explaining the tragédie’s political thematics, “articulated along axes of sovereignty and government”. . . and by applying that model to a series of recurring themes in the repertory’s storytelling. The argument is original, complex, and ultimately rewarding."

Lois Rosow | Revue de musicologie

Table of Contents

Editorial Principles
Introduction. Sovereignty and Government in the Tragédie en musique
1. The Politics of Glory: Angelic Citizenship and the Contemplative Chorus
2. Choral Lament and the Mourning Public
3. True Confessions: Opera’s Theater of Guilt and Remorse
4. The Tormenting Orchestra
5. Spectral Kingdoms: Poetics and Politics of Les Enfers
6. Pluto, the Underworld King
Conclusion. A Theater of Precarity
Appendix. Operas and Ballets Cited

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