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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 10 (2004) No. 1

From Marvel to Camp: Medusa for the Twenty-First Century**

Benoît Bolduc*

Ne nous étonnons pas, nous nous émerveillerons mieux.
          —Jean Genet, Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs


The character Méduse in Philippe Quinault’s libretto for Persée (1682) by Jean-Baptiste Lully belongs to a tradition of theatrical political allegory. Not satirical, Méduse personifies rage and proud vengeance born of injustice. She proclaims her identity through an extraordinary act of will that raises critical issues of enunciation and identity within the classical system of representation. The anachronistic “camping” of Méduse in Opera Atelier’s production (Toronto, 2000) is interpreted as a post-modern response to the aesthetic conventions of the tragédie en musique. It restored the shock and appeal of this character for an audience not invested in the rules of seventeenth-century poetics.

1. Introduction

2. Quinault’s Sources for Méduse: Satire or Allegory?

3. Medusa Speaks!

4. The Poetics and Politics of Méduse’s Soliloquy

5. Pleasure in Horror: Music as Paradox

6. Camp as Marvel


Musical Examples

Audio Examples



1. Introduction

1.1 In the third and central act of Philippe Quinault and Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Persée (first performed in Paris in 1682), a disturbing figure appears before the spectators’ eyes. Méduse, once a beautiful woman, now metamorphosed into a snake-headed monster, instrument of Juno’s vengeance against the subjects of the vain Queen Cassiope, loses herself to fury: “I have lost my beauty,” says she, “because of Pallas’s jealousy. My pleasure now is to bring fear and death wherever the gods want me to bring them.”1 Her sadistic euphoria is interrupted by the entrance of the god Mercure, who puts her to sleep, thus allowing Persée to cut off her head and so liberate the Ethiopians—and the young Princess Andromède—from fatally beholding Méduse.

1.2 In adapting books 4 and 5 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Quinault transported Medusa from an earlier episode and placed her in Perseus’s subsequent Ethiopian exploits. This, along with the new character Mérope (sister to Queen Cassiopeia), is one of the writer’s most important inventions, for it provided important opportunities for the merveilleux (the “marvelous”), the supernatural spectacle that is a central element of the tragédie en musique. Thus, while not faithful to Ovid, Quinault’s design offered the setting of a daunting grotto, an air de sommeil (a lullaby leading to magical sleep), and a ballet for monsters born from Méduse’s blood. Nevertheless, by adding the Méduse episode to the plot, Quinault threatened the heroic and dramatic qualities of his title hero. After witnessing Persée’s “heroic” action in Act III, one may question the valor of a man who kills a monster conveniently put to sleep by a god. In a letter to abbé Dubos, Louis Ladvocat remarked that this weakness in Ovid’s tale should be enough to prevent anyone from trying to put it on stage. Indeed, after having seen Quinault and Lully’s tragédie en musique, he concluded that “Persée is more the executioner of Méduse than a hero,” and that just about anybody “honored” with Medusa’s head, Pallas’s shield, Pluto’s helmet, and Mercury’s wings could have turned his enemies into stone, as did Dumesnil who sang the title role.2

1.3 Opera Atelier’s fall 2000 production of Persée in Toronto intensified for me the questions that are already present in the work itself,3 not only about the legitimacy of Persée’s action, but about Méduse’s presence, critical issues of enunciation and identity within the classical system of representation. This paper explores the possible sources of the character of Méduse, the poetical and political repercussions of her integration into the plot of Persée, and the convoluted means that Baroque opera uses to give pleasure to its publics.

2. Quinault’s Sources for Méduse: Satire or Allegory?

2.1 Despite Ladvocat’s severe judgment, Persée is recognized as one of Quinault and Lully’s best tragédies en musique from the point of view of plot construction and musical complexity. Persée involves a variety of scene structures and eight substantial characters, both human and divine; it expresses through poetry, music, and dance a wide range of emotions. The action progresses logically and is driven both by internal sentiments of the mortals and external interventions of the gods.4 Into this intricate plot Quinault has carefully stitched the figure of Méduse.

2.2 It is clear that Quinault knew Aurelio Aureli’s Perseo, first performed at the Teatro Grimano in Venice in 1665, for it is from Aureli’s Merope that Quinault takes the name of his character Mérope, though he transforms her completely. In the same libretto he could have found Medusa as well, staged as a comic figure. In the tradition of much Venetian opera of the period, Aureli’s adaptation of the story of Perseus is satirical. The hero is accompanied by a faceto (comical) servant, Siro, whose presence ensures that the tone stays light and cynical. Thus, when Perseo explains to him that he is about to confront a monstrous woman whose appearance can petrify, he does not miss the chance to make an obscene play on words:

O se ti muta in pietra Con la Dama, ch’adori havrai fortuna; Vuol della donna il capriccioso humore, Che sia sodo l’amante à tutte l’hore.5

[Or if she transforms you into a rock, with the Lady that you adore you’ll have good fortune. Woman’s capricious mood wants the lover to be hard all the time.]

2.3 It is not surprising after such an introduction that Aureli’s scene of the encounter between Perseo and Medusa (transcribed in the Appendix) comes across as a comical caricature, broadly playing on such classical topoi as illicit love, dangerous sirens, and the like. Most of Perseo’s and Medusa’s words are uttered as asides, turning Aureli’s scene into a dialogue of the deaf that mimics the impossibility of looking at Medusa. At first shocked by the fact that a mortal dares to enter her domain, Medusa then tries to destroy Perseo by seducing him. She claims that she is not the monster that he has heard, that she is actually beautiful, and she shows her breasts for him to contemplate. But the hero resists the temptation of looking at her and kills her as she tries to embrace him.6

2.4 Aureli’s Medusa could not have been a direct source for Quinault, for as we know, after including comic characters in his first three librettos, Quinault jettisoned the idea in order to achieve a more unified tone. Instead, the character of Méduse is more in keeping with a 1677 Jesuit tragédie-ballet, dedicated to the glory of Louis XIV. Performed at the Collège de Clermont in Paris five years before Quinault’s Persée, it gives a good idea of what would be Quinault’s gambit a few years later. The livret clearly positions Méduse as an evil threat:

Persée animé par la grandeur de son courage à quelque haute entreprise, fait paraître sa prudence dans le choix de son ennemie et dans les préparatifs de la guerre. L’ennemi qu’il se propose est Méduse qui doit l’être aussi de tout l’Univers. Elle avait attiré sur elle la haine du ciel par la profanation du temple de Pallas. Elle était devenue l’effroi de la terre depuis que sa vue rendait les hommes immobiles et les transformait en rochers. Persée, persuadé que son entreprise contre un tel ennemi sera secondé du secours du ciel et des vœux de toute la terre, a peu d’égards aux difficultés qui l’accompagnent. Il sait qu’il faut l’aller chercher dans des îles inaccessibles; que tous les serpents qui forment sa tête sont autant d’ennemis ligués et réunis contre lui; que plusieurs rois s’intéressent à sa défense. Cependant sa prudence lui fait connaître que la piété et la justice étant de son parti, les dieux ne manqueront pas d’en être.7

[Persée, moved to some noble undertaking by the greatness of his courage, shows his good judgment in the choice of his enemy and in his preparation for war. The enemy that he has in mind is Méduse, who should also be the enemy of the whole universe. She had brought upon herself the hatred of heaven by profaning the temple of Pallas. She had become the terror of the earth when the sight of her first made men immobile and transformed them into rocks. Persée, persuaded that his venture against such an enemy will be seconded by help from heaven and the desires of the whole earth, has little concern for the difficulties involved. He knows that it is necessary to look for her in inaccessible islands; that all the snakes that form her head are so many enemies united and in league against him; that many kings are defending her. However, his good judgment tells him that piety and justice being on his side, the gods will not fail to be there, too.]

2.5 The Jesuit explains in this passage why Méduse should be despised by the “whole universe.” Her rape by Neptune in the Temple of Pallas was considered a profanation for which she was the guilty party. Consequently, Méduse was made the bane of the earth. The wisdom of Persée, by contrast, was in choosing well his enemy. The political metaphor is not lost. With Méduse’s head crowned by as many serpents as Persée had enemies “in league” against him, Persée stands in as a cipher for the monarchy and divine right. A prudent hero, he fearlessly confronts his enemies. Piety, justice, and God are on his side.

3. Medusa Speaks!

3.1 The description of Méduse’s entrée in the Jesuit tragédie-ballet corresponds precisely to the analogous description in Quinault’s libretto. She appears, as the ballet livret explains, “at the entrance of a cave, and she lets it be known by her extraordinary movements the cruel violence of her soul.”8 The Jesuit Medusa, however, is a silent role for a dancer. In Quinault, by contrast, Méduse speaks.

3.2 According to Quinault’s critics, the verses that Méduse sings are among the finest in his work. Voltaire praised the versification of Quinault’s Persée as, “like all that came from his pen, tender, ingenious, and easy.”9 Marmontel wrote that the words expressing Méduse’s “tumultuous and violent passions” are full of heart and movement, both forceful and harmonious, and they are endowed with an incredible ease of expression (facilité): “Nobody interwove the lines of verse and rounded out the poetic period with as much intelligence and taste; and he who is insensitive to this merit either has no ear or has not the slightest idea of the difficulty of the art of writing poetry.”10

3.3 Like Virgil’s Fama (“Rumor”), Méduse appears in Quinault’s tragédie en musique as a personification of rage born from lust and injustice.11 At the opening of Act III, Quinault represented in words the monstrous body of Méduse (part human, part snake) through the structuring figure of antithesis. Medusa describes herself as the site of an encounter between beauty and monstrosity, the excess of her ugliness resulting from the excess of her beauty:

J’ai perdu la beauté qui me rendit si vaine; Je n’ai plus ces cheveux si beaux Dont autrefois le Dieu des eaux Sentit lier son cœur d’une si douce chaîne. Pallas, la barbare Pallas, Fut jalouse de mes appas, Et me rendit affreuse autant que j’étais belle; Mais l’excès étonnant de la difformité Dont me punit sa cruauté, Fera connaître, en dépit d’elle, Quel fut l’excès de ma beauté. Je ne puis trop montrer sa vengeance cruelle; Ma tête est fière encor d’avoir pour ornement Des serpents dont le sifflement Excite une frayeur mortelle.12

[I have lost the beauty that made me so vain. I no longer have those beautiful tresses that in times past the god of the sea felt binding his heart in such delightful confinement. Pallas, the barbarous Pallas, was jealous of my charms and made me as repulsive as I had been beautiful. But the astonishing excess of the deformity with which her cruelty punishes me will proclaim, in spite of her, how excessive was my beauty. I cannot do enough to display her cruel vengeance. My head is still proud to have as ornaments serpents whose hissing incites a deadly fright.]

3.4 If injustice is clearly decried in the words “barbare,” “cruauté,” “vengeance,” and “cruelle,” lust is suggested through the classical device of litotes. Quinault’s sinuous imaging of Neptune has the sea god feeling that his heart is softly bound by Méduse’s irresistible enticements: “sentit lier son cœur d’une si douce chaîne.” For the public of the seventeenth century, it was common knowledge that from this lust came Neptune’s rape and Pallas’s punishment of Medusa. By alluding to the rape using an understatement that is harmonious and light in tone, Méduse thus suggests what decorum could not let her spell out: lust and sexual violence. The subtle art of Quinault’s versification resides in a choice and order of words that yield evocative associations. Alliteration abounds and leads to a suggestive sibilance: the consonants [f] and [s] that mimic the hissing of snakes. (This device is reminiscent of a well-known line from Racine’s Andromaque [V, 5]: “Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos têtes?”) Favoring feminine line endings at the conclusion of major syntactical units, Quinault invites a melodious inflection. The words “vaine,” “chaîne,” “belle,” “cruelle” and “mortelle” are not merely rhymes; their positions mark the articulation of the text. The only feminine rhyme that does not close a syntactic group is “d’elle.” The masculine rhyme “beauté” closes the syntactic group that starts with “L’excès étonnant”; this group is marked by the strong accentuation of octosyllabic lines in equal segments, four syllables plus four syllables, instead of the more common 3-5 or 5-3 rhythms. With this simple contrast, Quinault expresses the rage and determination that move Méduse from regret to pride and eventually to vengeance.

3.5 The stakes are very high for Méduse since for a seventeenth-century woman at court, the loss of beauty represented the loss of a major part of her identity. More than just effacing her former self, Méduse proclaims her new identity through an extraordinary act of will: “Ma tête est fière …,” emphasizing the intellectual force of character required. Feeling herself justified by the excess of Pallas’s cruelty, Méduse sees no bounds to the expression of her rage. In the ensuing air she proclaims that she has decided to become the world’s fright, having once been its love. This is her new pleasure. What was broad and comic in Aureli’s Venetian opera is funny no more:

Je porte l’épouvante et la mort en tous lieux; Tout se change en rocher à mon aspect horrible. Les traits que Jupiter lance du haut des Cieux N’ont rien de si terrible Qu’un regard de mes yeux. Les plus grands Dieux du Ciel de la Terre et de l’Onde Du soin de se venger se repose sur moi; Si je perds la douceur d’être l’amour du monde, J’ai le plaisir nouveau d’en devenir l’effroi.13

[I bring fear and death everywhere; everything turns to stone at my horrible looks. The thunderbolts that Jupiter throws from heaven’s heights are not as terrible as one look from my eyes. The greatest gods of heaven, earth, and sea are counting on me to avenge them. I may have lost the pleasure of being loved by the world, but I have the new delight of becoming its fright.]

3.6 Her limitless furor gains for her an unprecedented independence of action. With the words of Quinault rather than the dance movements called for by the Jesuit poet, Méduse indeed “lets it be known by her extraordinary movements the cruel violence of her soul.”14 Nowhere else in Persée does one find such a performative declaration of the self, and this from a character who appears in most other operas as a disembodied head, an appendage to Perseus.15

4. The Poetics and Politics of Méduse’s Soliloquy

4.1 Méduse’s speech differs greatly from Quinault’s soliloquies on the whole. Within Persée, the monologues of Mérope and the speeches of Andromède (who in Act II speaks introspectively in the presence of another character, and in Act IV invokes the gods as others watch), for instance, never lead to such performative developments. Even in comparison with soliloquies outside of Persée, Méduse’s remains apart, for it serves not to advance the plot, but to give her character a certain ethos conveyed in the performance itself.16

4.2 To better understand the peculiarity of Méduse’s speech in Persée, it is necessary to recall the logic that informs the construction of the tragédie en musique. It is a rigorously coded genre where, as Marmontel put it, “everything is false, but everything is in agreement; and it is this agreement that constitutes truth. Music gives charm to the merveilleux, the merveilleux gives credibility to music. There we are in a new world—nature in a state of enchantment, clearly animated by a host of intelligent spirits who provide its rules.”17 Filled with supernatural characters and situations that justify the presence of song and dance, the tragédie en musique is a “new” world, logical and coherent on its own but separate from the ordinary world of the spectator. Nature is present but only as transformed by the merveilleux. In their turn, music, dance, stage design, and direction help realize the poet’s goal and the endgame of the genre: moving the audience emotionally and intellectually.

4.3 For the effect to succeed, the poetic rules that guided the fabrication of the tragédie en musique held that characters’ utterances had to be plausible (vraisemblables) according to their status and fictional situation. In applying those rules, librettists conformed to the poetics of French spoken tragedy that were progressively put into place in the first half of the seventeenth century. According to the abbé d’Aubignac who summarized the system in his Pratique du Théâtre (1657), theatre’s greatest achievement was the playwright’s capacity to ensure perfect communication between actors and audience while, at the same time, maintaining the illusion that this communication did not exist. Considering these two levels of representation, he called the plot “action considered as truthful” and the play “action such as it is represented.”18 Acknowledging that while composing his play, the poet must always have in mind that information must be clearly communicated to the spectator, he stressed the importance of hiding this communication with what he called appropriate “colors,” motivation and rational justification that gives every speech and every action on stage the illusion that it occurs in the absence of the spectator:

In the theatre a character must speak because the spectator must know his plans and his passions.… This is shaping the action in so far as it is represented, and it is the poet’s duty, and even his principal intention. But he must hide that intention beneath some color that results from the truthfulness of the action. As a result, a character who must speak will come on stage because he must find someone or happens to be summoned.19

4.4 If we apply the logic of d’Aubignac to the third act of Persée, we see that Quinault stretches the rules to their limits. From the point of view of the action as represented, Méduse does not need to be introduced to such an extent. There is no real need for this character to recall the circumstances of her metamorphosis and her vow. The spectator has known, since the beginning of the first act, that she is a monster sent by Juno to punish Cassiope for her vanity. That information is found in the very first lines sung by King Céphée (I, 1):

Je crains que Junon ne refuse D’appaiser sa haine pour nous; Je crains, malgré nos vœux, que l’affreuse Méduse Ne revienne servir son funeste courroux.

[I fear that Juno refuses to calm her hatred for us; I fear, despite our vows, that hideous Méduse returns to wreak her deadly wrath.]

4.5 In order to justify this scene from the point of view of truth of action, Quinault indeed employed “colors.” Méduse addresses her sisters, Euryale and Stenone, to tell them of her decision to give meaning to her misery: confronted by her cruel fate, she has decided to follow the vengeful heroines of tragedy.20 Still, her celebratory air “Je porte l’épouvante” recalls facts that her sisters know very well. Although it may not be a blunt violation of the rule of verisimilitude, Méduse’s insistence on self-presentation seems to occur outside the normal convention of representation for the tragédie en musique. It is a rare moment when Quinault gives the impression that a character turns directly to the public and says, “This is what I am, this is what I can do,” in the way a character in a ballet de cour would do. The same tone used by the Méduse of Quinault’s Persée, may be found in, for instance, the récit of a magician who appeared in a Ballet des métamorphoses danced during the reign of Louis XIII:

Les démons de l’air des Avernes, Des monts, des déserts et des bois, Des eaux, des rochers, des cavernes, Sont assujettis à mes lois. Je sais commander à la lune, Je sais surmonter la fortune Par la vertu de mon savoir, Et je fais quand je le désire Trembler l’Amour et son empire Dessous mon magique pouvoir.21

[The flying demons of Hades, the demons of the hills, the deserts and the woods, of the waters, the rocks, the caves, are subject to my law. I know how to command the moon, I know how to overcome fortune by virtue of my knowledge, and, when I want, I can make Cupid and his empire tremble beneath my magic power.]

4.6 The credibility of Méduse’s speech, then, could be found less in the strict application of the poetic conventions of the tragédie en musique than in the ones of the ballet de cour, a means that puts the character in a unique position within the “new world” of the merveilleux described by Marmontel. Here the merveilleux seems to give credibility not only to music, but to a distinct posture of enunciation that shakes up the conventions protecting reality from fiction, and pushes the limits of the division between the fictional world and the world of the public.

4.7 The first spectators of Persée might have experienced extra fright in recognizing a ballet character who insisted so much on defining herself and on the fact that all the forces of nature were enslaved to her, almost addressing them directly. When she is killed by Persée with the help of the gods who had earlier supplied supernatural weapons (see the last three scenes of Act II, in which Persée receives wings, a sword, a shield, and a helmet that renders him invisible22) and who allow Mercure to put her to sleep before the hero approaches her, both levels of action (“truthful” and “represented”) find resolution: the hero liberates Céphée’s kingdom from a monster of seditious dissent whose rage and vanity threaten the order of the world, but he also destroys a character who does not comply with the poetical rules of the tragédie en musique.

5. Pleasure in Horror: Music as Paradox

5.1 Music plays a crucial part in conveying Méduse’s “violent and tumultuous passions.” The prelude that accompanies her entrance, in Lully’s conventional style for depicting monsters, conjures up the supernatural world, the undulating lines of fast-moving sixteenth notes evoking the movement of the snakes on the monster’s head (Example 1, Figure 1, Audio 1). Méduse’s entire speech is accompanied by the full five-part orchestra for maximum expressive force. The initial recitative follows closely the rhythm and modulation of a simple but effective declamation of the text. Upon completion of the recitative, without break, the orchestra presents a ritornello in triple meter, introducing the air (“Je porte l’épouvante”); the same ritornello occurs as punctuation between the two segments of the air (Example 2, Figure 2, Audio 2). Again without break the orchestra presents a different ritornello, this one introducing the trio of Gorgons (“Ô le doux emploi pour la rage”); the trio will also be divided into segments punctuated by instrumental passages. Triple meter unifies the air and trio. Despite the frightening themes of the text, the extended passage in triple meter is meant to be (oddly) gay for, after all, it represents Méduse’s “new pleasure,” which is to strike terror.

5.2 As Raphaelle Legrand has recently shown, despite the lively rhythm and victorious impression made by Méduse’s air, the music is set in the tonality of F major, which is associated elsewhere in Persée with terror.23 From this point of view, Lully could not have better expressed the paradox of pleasure taken in terror and death.

5.3 In setting the music for this monstrous incarnation of rage, Lully chose the tenor (taille) voice, the voice type traditionally used for old or ridiculous female characters. Well-known tenors took the role in several eighteenth-century revivals: Mantienne, who sang Méduse in 1710 and 1722, specialized in “side-kick” and comic roles. Cuvillier, who sang Méduse in 1737, was renowned for his “pleasant” interpretation of old women.24 While the tradition of having men play ugly and old women was said to protect actresses from having to hide their allure, in 1746 the tradition was broken, and it was a woman who played Méduse. The novelty was announced with some excitement by the Mercure: “There is a charming novelty in the performance, which we are announcing to the public. In past productions, the role of Méduse, along with those of her two sisters, was performed by a man, whereas today it is played by Mademoiselle Metz.”25

5.4 The pleasing artificiality of a man playing a woman had now become the pleasing incongruity of a beautiful woman playing a monster: “[Mademoiselle Metz’s] youth and her charms, set off against the terrifying costume and hairpiece composed of snakes appropriate to Medusa, produce an admirable effect. The contrast between the words that she sings and reality delights everybody.… One sees that this role would be difficult to fill with any other than an actress as appealing as Mademoiselle Metz, and that it could be said to some that, unfortunately for them, they speak the truth when they boast of being a bit horrible.”26 Mademoiselle Metz’s performance, like that of the male singers before her, suggests that the character’s many paradoxes invite almost inevitable cross-casting that enriches the opera.

6. Camp as Marvel

6.1 If we consider the production that took place in a North-American city at the end of the twentieth century, we find a surprising and rewarding similarity between the effects sought by Lully and Quinault in their day—moving the audience emotionally and intellectually—and those sensed in Toronto in ours, when the rusty machine of the merveilleux was cranked up again, newly oiled by this era’s poetics of camp.

6.2 This is what the audience at the Elgin Theatre saw when, after intermission, the curtain went up on Act III. The actor representing Méduse (baritone Michael Chioldi, Figure 3) was standing center front in a tight suit of dissipated shades of green, open on his hairy chest. Wearing an elaborate headpiece, he held a mirror before him and struck a pose that suggested both the gracious figure of a Berain costume sketch27 and the attitude of a flamboyant drag queen (Figure 4). Around his hips a skillfully sewn skirt of intertwined snakes shimmered and bounced as the baritone strutted magnificently this way and that. When Méduse’s two sisters (tenor Michiel Schrey and baritone Curtis Sullivan) joined her in similar costumes, cheeks sucked in, in symmetrical poses at each side, the image that came to mind was more that of a Las Vegas night-club act than that of a noble entertainment at the Académie Royale de Musique. At a certain point, the three Gorgons struck grotesque poses and pounded the stage with their feet in resistance to the suave and gentle god Mercure and his hypnotic song. But they finally gave in, and gently fell at the feet of the god, who then called Persée (Figure 5). Fast tempos and energetic performances made up for the elimination of the divertissement that ends the act,28 and contributed to the decisively camp flavor of this tableau.

6.3 Far from being simply amusing or grotesque, this interpretation provoked a predictably varied response from the audience at the Elgin Theatre. Some laughter was heard, but some people seemed surprised and embarrassed. Some traditionalists I spoke with afterwards were critical, seeking in the strict rules of the tragédie en musique a purity, a distance, and a decorum that they saw violated. What I have tried to show above, however, is that a hybridity of character, of music, and of theatrical genre had always been present and enriching in Persée. Although anachronistic in this “historically informed” production, camping Méduse succeeded in restoring the luster and the profound shock and appeal of this character for an audience largely not invested in the rules of seventeenth-century poetics.

6.4 In Opera Atelier’s production, camp could be interpreted as a post-modern response or homage to the complex and highly artificial conventions that preside over the aesthetics of tragédie en musique. Even if it resists a clear definition (which is part of its subversive nature),29 camp can be understood as a mode of representation or discourse characterized by detachment, theatricality, ironical distance, and parodic self-commitment. Camp does provoke laughter, but it conveys at the same time something deeply tragic about the construction and experience of a self set against mainstream culture. Like a camp heroine, Méduse builds an identity. From abjection and devastation, she affirmatively creates herself, no matter how terrifying that self may be to others. When in her opening address, Opera Atelier’s Méduse begins by primping before a hand-held mirror, we might at first think the interpretation is meant to be a facile condemnation of female vanity, or perhaps a jocular contrast between the freaky but fabulous Méduse and actions otherwise associated with a beautiful princess who gazes at her reflection, asking who is the fairest of them all. But when, a couple of phrases later, she throws away the mirror and addresses the audience directly (Figure 6), the audience is asked to throw away its reliable clichés and contemplate her ferocious self-possession.30

6.5 As readers of Quinault’s text, and even more as witnesses of the Toronto production, the audience sees how identity may be willed from within and communicated through external signs. Social status and subject identity (ostensibly that which is interior) are fabricated out of that which is exterior. The subject is neither unchanging nor unified, and its identity is deliberately put on display in a sequence of performative auto-declarations.

6.6 The production’s highly ornamented clothing (Figure 7), machines (Figure 8), stylized stage movement (Figure 9), and scenic transformations exemplified artifice. Like the jarringly rigorous Baroque dance steps, these techniques, rather than merely serving antiquarianism, had the effect of reinforcing Méduse’s self-enunciated identity reflective of camp aesthetics. Like a camp position that revels in its exile from acceptability, its resistance to stable definitions, Méduse’s rousing self-introduction, supported by her sisterly devotees, makes exhilaratingly clear how the unrepresentable Méduse might have originally troubled the old, monarchic order.

6.7 In the year 2000, the “camping” of Méduse in the Toronto production, as diminishing or disturbing as it may have seemed, might actually have been not only one of the keys to the production’s commercial success, but an ingenious device that makes us realize the subversive power of the merveilleux—not so much from the point of view of poetics or the political topicality that Persée had at the moment of its creation, but from the point of view of dissension and identity, questions that are part of the fabric of Persée and still talk to us today. Marie-Françoise Christout once declared that “each epoch has the merveilleux it deserves.”31 Toronto’s Persée demonstrates that some eras might get the merveilleux they need.


* Benoît Bolduc (benoit.bolduc@utoronto.ca), Professor of French Literature at the University of Toronto, is the author of Andromède au rocher: Fortune théâtrale d’une image en France et en Italie (1587–1712) (Florence: Olschki, 2002), a study of the theatrical adaptations of the Perseus-and-Andromeda myth in France and Italy. He served as historical consultant for Opera Atelier’s production of Lully’s Persée (Toronto, 2000).

** Preliminary versions of this paper were given at the Ninth Interdisciplinary Symposium of New College, Oxford, “Gods, Men & Monsters,” on April 4, 2001, and the Thirty-Third Annual Conference of the North-American Society for Seventeenth-Century Literature, Tempe, Arizona, on May 4, 2001. I am thankful to Todd Porterfield and Lois Rosow for editing this text and for their input as cultural historian and musicologist.

1 Paraphrase of the opening of Act III, to be quoted in full below.

2 Louis Ladvocat, letter of January 13, 1695, to Jean-Baptiste Dubos, in Lettres sur l’opéra à l’abbé Dubos (1694–1698) (Paris: Cicero, 1993), 37.

3 Toronto, Elgin Theatre, October–November 2000. Marshall Pynkoski, co-artistic director; Jeannette Zingg, co-artistic director and choreographer; Hervé Niquet, conductor; Gerard Gauci, set designer; Dora Rust-D’Eye, costumes. I must acknowledge that I am conducting this analysis from a privileged point of view, for I was involved in the last months of this production as research consultant. I must on the other hand clarify that I never discussed the staging of Act III with Opera Atelier’s director, Marshall Pynkoski. This staging resulted from a 1994 workshop with conductor Mark Minkowski at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. My purpose here is therefore not so much a defense of dramaturgical choice as an appreciation of a problematic interpretation.

4 For a more detailed summary of its virtues, see Cuthbert Girdlestone, La Tragédie en musique (1673–1750) considérée comme genre littéraire (Geneva: Droz, 1972), 84–6. Girdlestone’s opinion is shared by Étienne Gros, Philippe Quinault: Sa vie et son œuvre (Paris: Champion, 1926; reprint, Geneva: Slatkine, 1970), 140; Gros cites François and Claude Parfaict (attrib.), “Histoire de l’Académie Royale de Musique,” F-Pn MS fr. 12335. Raphaëlle Legrand, in “Persée de Lully et Quinault: Orientations pour l’analyse dramaturgique d’une tragédie en musique,” Analyse musicale 27 (1992): 9–14, has shown that the rigorous construction of the libretto is matched by a learned musical construction.

5 Aurelio Aureli, Perseo (Venice: Nicolini, 1665), 3. This play on words is also employed in a 1722 parody of Quinault’s Persée written by Louis Fuzelier. In this version, Persée is hesitant and relies entirely on Mercure. When he is sure that the Gorgons are soundly sleeping, he approaches (II, 4): “Voilà de jolies Princesses à surprendre au lit… morbleu. Si j’allois être pétrifié… il me semble que je durcis… je n’ai pourtant point regardé Meduse. Cherchons sa tête… ah ! je la tiens, & je l’ai coupée net comme un navet.” (“Here are pretty princesses to catch in bed… Zounds! If I were to become petrified… I feel that I am becoming hard… yet I haven’t looked at Méduse. Let’s find her head… Oh! I am holding it, and I cut it off clean like a turnip.”) Arlequin Persée: Comédie (1722) in Les Parodies du nouveau théâtre italien (Paris: Briasson, 1731), 1:207.

6 Comic effects are also part of the scene involving Medusa in Pedro Calderòn de la Barca’s Perseo y Andromeda (Madrid, 1653). Surprised by her own reflection in Perseo’s shield, Medusa flees offstage and “comes back” as a mannequin whose head, cut off by the hero, bounces on stage and frightens Bato, a gracioso (comic) character like Siro.

7 Persée: Tragédie-ballet qui sera représentée au Collège de Clermont de la Compagnie de Jésus le cinquième jour d'aoust 1677 à une heure de l'après-midi (Paris: S. Benard, 1677), 3.

8 “Méduse paraît à l’entrée de sa caverne et fait voir par ses mouvements extraordinaires les cruelles agitations de son esprit.” Persée … Clermont, 6.

9 Voltaire, “Remarques sur Andromède” (1764), in Œuvres complètes, nouvelle éd. (Paris: Garnier, 1877–85), 32:74.

10“Personne n’a croisé les vers et arrondi la période poétique avec tant d’intelligence et de goût; et celui qui sera insensible à ce mérite, ou n’aura point d’oreille, ou n’aura pas la première idée de la difficulté de l’art de bien écrire en vers.” Jean-François Marmontel, Éléments de littérature (1787), s.v. “Opéra,” in Œuvres complètes (Paris: Verdière, 1818–9), 14:439.

11“As people fable it, the Earth, her mother, / Furious against the gods, bore a late sister / To the giants Coeus and Enceladus, / Giving her speed on foot and on the wing: / Monstrous, deformed, titanic. Pinioned, with / An eye beneath for every body feather, / And, strange to say, as many tongues and buzzing / Mouths as eyes, as many pricked-up ears, / By night she flies between the earth and heaven / Shrieking through darkness, and she never turns / Her eye-lids down to sleep. By day she broods, / On the alert, on rooftops or on towers, / Bringing great cities fear, harping on lies / And slander evenhandedly with truth.” Virgil Aeneid 4.178–91. The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Random House, 1983), 102, describing rumor personified.

12Philippe Quinault, Persée, III, 1, in Livrets d’opéra, ed. Buford Norman (Toulouse: Société de Littérature Classique, 1999), 83.

13Quinault, 83. The Gorgons’ delight in fright is not far from the delight in destruction that the sorceresses sing of in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Act III: “Destruction’s our delight, delight our greatest sorrow!”

14Persée … Clermont, 6.

15 Most of the stage adaptations of the story of Perseus and Andromeda merely make reference to the episode of Medusa’s decapitation. For a list of French and Italian adaptations, see my Andromède au rocher.

16Only Urgande in Amadis and, to a certain extent, Charon in Alceste act like Méduse.

17“Tout est mensonge, mais tout est d’accord; et cet accord en fait la vérité. La musique y fait le charme du merveilleux, le merveilleux y fait la vraisemblance de la musique: on est dans un monde nouveau; c’est la nature dans l’enchantement et visiblement animée par une foule d’intelligences, dont les volontés sont ses lois.” Marmontel, “Opéra,” 409.

18 Theater semioticians have since reformulated this distinction. Ann Ubersfeld speaks, for example, of “concrete stage condition of enunciation” (énonciation scénique concrête) and of “imaginary conditions of enunciation” (énonciation imaginaire). Anne Ubersfeld, Reading Theatre, trans. Frank Collins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 160–1; originally published as Lire le théâtre (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1982). It is interesting to note that the very notion of truth has been reversed, the “truth” of the theatre being now on the side of the performance.

19“Il faut qu’un Personnage vienne parler sur le Theatre, parce qu’il faut que le Spectateur connoisse ses desseins & ses passions.… C’est travailler sur l’Action entant que représentée, & cela est du devoir du Poëte, mêmes est-ce sa principale intention. Mais il la doit cacher sous quelque couleur qui dépende de l’Action comme véritable. Si bien que le Personnage qui doit parler viendra sur le Theatre; parce qu’il cherche quelqu’un, ou pour se trouver à quelque assignation.” François Hédelin, abbé d’Aubignac, La Pratique du théâtre (1657) (Amsterdam: Frederic Bernard, 1715; reprint, Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1971), 33. On the use of the term “couleur” by d’Aubignac, and its link to Corneille’s “admiration” and Genette’s “motivation,” see John D. Lyons, Kingdom of Disorder: The Theory of Tragedy in Classical France (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1999), 112–22.

20 In Méduse the public might have recognized the Cornelian heroines who, in choosing vengeance, came fully into being: see the entrance of Médée that Corneille borrowed from Seneca (Médée, I, 4) and the entrance of Cléopatre in the second act of Rodogune.

21 Pierre Cottignon, Ballet des métamorphoses (Paris, 1632), in Paul Lacroix, ed., Ballets et mascarades de cour de Henri III à Louis XIV (Geneva, 1868–70; reprint, Geneva: Slatkine, 1968), 4:182.

22 The author of the tragédie-ballet Persée recalls the allegorical meaning that each of these object receives: “La fable de Persée renferme tous les symboles de ces quatre qualités, dans les armes que les dieux du Ciel donnèrent à ce Héros pour aller combattre Méduse. Ces armes étaient, un bouclier en forme de miroir, des ailes, une épée, un casque qui le rendait invisible aux yeux mortels. Le miroir est le symbole de la Prudence; les ailes sont les instruments de la Promptitude; l'épée est celui de la Valeur; et le casque enchanté est la figure du Bonheur.” (“The story of Perseus contains all the symbols of these four qualities in the weapons that the gods of heaven gave this hero to fight Medusa. These weapons were a reflecting shield, wings, a sword, a helmet that rendered him invisible to mortals’ eyes. The mirror [shield] is the symbol of Prudence; the wings are the instrument of Promptitude; the sword is the instrument of Valor; and the enchanted helmet is the figure of Good Fortune.” Persée … Clermont, 6. In his dedication of the score of the opera to Louis XIV, Lully gives similar allegorical meanings to Perseus’ weapons, seeing in the hero qualities that reflect the virtues of the king: “Si tost que j’ay jetté les yeux [sur le sujet de Persée], j’y ay découvert l’Image de Vostre MAJESTÉ. En effet, SIRE, la Fable ingenieuse propose Persée comme une idée d’un Heros accomply: Les faveurs dont les Dieux le comblent, sont des misteres qu’il est facile de developper: Sa naissance divine & miraculeuse, marque le soin extraordinaire que le Ciel a pris de le faire naistre avec des avantages qui l’eslevent au dessus des autres Hommes: L’Espée qui luy est donnée par le Dieu qui forge la foudre, represente la force redoutable de son Courage: Les Talonnieres ailées dont il se sert pour voler où la Victoire l’appelle, monstre sa diligence dans l’execution de ses desseins: Le Bouclier de Pallas dont il se couvre, est le symbole de la Prudence qu’il unit avec la Valeur; & le Casque de Pluton qui le rend invisible, est la figure de l’impenetrabilité de son secret.” (“As soon as I cast my eyes [on the subject of Perseus], I discovered in it the image of Your Majesty. Indeed, Sire, the ingenious story shows Perseus as the idea of a perfect hero: the favors that he receives from the gods are mysteries that may easily be explained: his divine and miraculous birth shows the extraordinary care taken by Heaven in giving him advantages that raise him above other men; the sword that is given to him by the god who forges thunderbolts represents the fearsome force of his courage; the winged sandals that he uses to fly where Victory calls him shows his haste in the execution of his plans; Pallas’s shield with which he protects himself is the symbol of Prudence that he combines with Valour, and Pluto’s helmet that renders him invisible is the figure of the impenetrability of his secret.”) Jean-Baptiste Lully, Persée, tragédie mise en musique (Paris: Ballard, 1682), n.p., “Au Roy.” The exemplar used for the facsimile edition (reprint, New York: Broude International Editions, 1998) lacks the leaf containing the dedication.

23 Legrand, 11. The tonality of F major reappears in Act IV for the sea-monster scene and in Act V for Mérope’s air “Ô mort, venez finir mon destin déplorable.” Legrand also recalls that Charpentier associated this tonality with things “furieux et emporté,” as Rameau did with “tempêtes et furies.”

24 See Jean Gourret, Nouveau dictionnaire des chanteurs de l'Opéra de Paris (Paris: Albatros, 1989), s.v. “Cuvillier.” Louis Antoine Cuvillier created the role of Ragonde in Jean-Joseph Mouret’s Les Amours de Ragonde (1714), which was performed at the Académie Royale de Musique for the first time January 31, 1742.

25 “Il y a une nouveauté charmante dans la représentation que nous annonçons au public. Dans les précédentes le rôle de Meduse ainsi que ceux des ses deux sœurs étoit rempli par un homme, au lieu qu’aujourd’hui il est exécuté par mademoiselle Metz.” Mercure de France (November, 1746; reprint, Geneva: Slatkine, 1970), 127–8.

26 “Sa jeunesse & ses agréments avec l’habillements terrible & la coeffure composéé de serpens qui conviennent à Meduse, font un effet admirable. Le contraste qui se trouve entre les paroles qu’elle chante & la réalité enchante tout le monde.… On voit que ce rôle est difficile a remplir par d’autres que par une actrice aussi aimable que Mademoiselle Metz, & que l’on pourroit dire à quelques unes que par malheur pour elles, elles disent vrai quand elles se vantent d’être un peu horribles.” Mercure, November, 1746, 127–8.

27 Jean Berain (1637–1711), Dessinateur de la Chambre et du Cabinet du Roi starting in 1674.

28 To give the relatively modest corps de ballet (twelve dancers) a chance to rest, the production left out the ballet of the monsters born from the blood of Méduse.

29 Fabio Cleto, “Introduction: Queering the Camp,” in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 1–48.

30 The use of mirrors for theatrical transformations and other illusionist effects was central to the staging of Alain Carré’s 1997 production of Persée with Les Menus Plaisirs du Roy at the Ambronay Festival. There tenor Howard Crook played both Persée and Méduse.

31 Marie-Françoise Christout, Le Merveilleux et le théâtre du silence (The Hague: Éditions Mouton, 1965), 13.

Musical Examples

Example 1: Lully, Persée, Act III, scene 1, prelude

Example 2: Lully, Persée, Act III, scene 1, air for Méduse (excerpt)

Audio Examples

Audio 1: Lully, Persée, Act III, scene 1, prelude

Audio 2: Lully, Persée, Act III, scene 1, air for Méduse (excerpt)


Figure 1: Lully, Persée (Paris: Ballard, 1682), 131–2. Act III, scene 1, prelude

Figure 2 : Lully, Perseé (Paris: Ballard, 1682), 136–8. Act III, scene 1, air for Méduse

Figure 3 : Baritone Michael Chioldi as Méduse

Figure 4 : Méduse looking at her reflection in a mirror (III, 1)

Figure 5 : Mercure leading Persée to the sleeping Gorgons (III, 3)

Figure 6 : Méduse, “… N’ont rien de si terrible …” (III, 1)

Figure 7 : Andromède, Persée “Ah ! vôtre péril est extrême! …” (II, 6)

Figure 8 : Vénus’s machine transports Persée and Andromède (V, 8)

Figure 9 : Persée petrifies Phinée (V, 7)

Appendix: Aurelio Aureli, Perseo (Venice: Francesco Nicolini, 1665), pp. 10–1

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