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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 10 (2004) No. 1


By Lois Rosow

Tour à tour la terre et les flots Sont le théâtre de sa gloire.
          —Philippe Quinault, Persée (IV, 7)

In winter of 1682 Louis XIV was at war, aggressively attempting to expand his domain. Jean-Baptiste Lully withheld his new opera, the tragédie en musique Persée, in the hope that the king would soon be available to enjoy a court premiere. Eventually he capitulated to “the public’s impatience.” The opera had its premiere at Lully’s public theater at the Palais-Royal in Paris on April 18, in the presence of the Dauphin. The long-postponed court performance finally occurred at Versailles on a rainy July 21, not in the intended outdoor setting but in a hastily constructed theater in the stables (the action occurring in front of a backdrop of leafy branches from the forest, and between borders of potted orange trees). The king is said to have told Lully that “he had never seen an opera whose music was more uniformly beautiful throughout” (Mercure galant, April and July, 1682).

The young hero of the opera, victorious in battle and in love, was meant to reflect the king of France. “In Perseus,” wrote Lully in the dedication of the printed score, “I discovered the image of Your Majesty.” Like Louis, Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault had reached the height of their powers by 1682. Persée reflects their fully mature operatic style and is well worth our attention.

The seeds for this issue of JSCM, devoted to Persée, were sown in Toronto, Canada, in the autumn of 2000. In October–November of that year, Toronto’s resident Baroque opera company, Opera Atelier, mounted a lavish, fully staged production of Persée. (A year later, the musical materials for that production served for a complete recording of Persée by Les Talens lyriques, directed by Christophe Rousset, Naïve Auvidis E 8874.) At the beginning of November, the University of Toronto hosted a major conference, “Musical Intersections: Toronto 2000,” a gathering of fourteen North American professional societies concerned with various aspects of music scholarship. It was of course no coincidence that the final two performances of Persée took place while the conference was underway, and visiting music scholars from around the world took advantage of the opportunity to attend a rarely performed opera. To the great delight of Opera Atelier’s directors, these performances were sold out and scalpers worked the crowds outside the doors.

This collection of essays grew out of those simultaneous events. Earlier versions of four of the papers were read at the “Musical Intersections” conference. Buford Norman and Gregory Proctor presented their papers at a session on Persée sponsored by the Lyrica Society for Word-Music Relationships (where an additional speaker was Marshall Pynkoski, Co-Artistic Director of Opera Atelier). I presented mine at a session on Persée sponsored by the American Musicological Society. At the same session Ken Pierce and Jennifer Thorp not only read their paper but illustrated it by dancing. Having prepared our papers before the conference, we developed our ideas without any knowledge of what we would see and hear on stage that week. Benoît Bolduc, on the contrary, received direct inspiration for his paper (which he eventually presented at conferences in Oxford and Tempe, Arizona) from a bit of ingenious yet controversial staging in the Opera Atelier production. An extended review of that production by Antonia Banducci sets the stage here for the other five essays.

In keeping with the spirit of the Toronto conference, these various contributions reflect an “intersection” of scholarly disciplines: the seven of us include literary critics, historical dancers, musicologists, and a music theorist. Antonia Banducci’s review considers the theatrical effect of Opera Atelier’s production principally by exploring the delicate interplay of directorial innovation (whether for artistic or practical reasons) and “historically informed” performance practices. Unlike the brief reviews that appeared immediately in the Canadian popular press, hers is always concerned with the content of the original score and libretto. Buford Norman examines Mérope, an important character who was not present in the original myth but was added to the story by Quinault. He analyzes her role in Act I, scene 4, concentrating on issues of poetic structure and on Lully’s musical responses to that structure. Gregory Proctor also deals with Act I, scene 4, considering Lully’s (and Quinault’s) manner of shaping the scene from a Schenkerian point of view, and ultimately asking broader questions about how Schenker’s theory and Lully’s nested formal units do and do not illuminate each other. I expand the question of linked and layered segments to the level of an entire act (Act IV), with an eye to understanding both the autonomy of the act as a structural unit and the complex relationship between apparently static formal symmetries and forward-moving drama. Ken Pierce and Jennifer Thorp apply historical evidence of several kinds, as well as their sensibilities as experienced historical dancers, to a comprehensive consideration of dance and movement by dancers throughout Persée. Accepting the fragmentary nature of the evidence as a challenge, they offer well-grounded hypotheses for the choreography of particular dances and scenes. Finally, Benoît Bolduc brings us back to the Toronto production, and specifically to the provocative interpretation of the grotesque Méduse as camp drag queen. Examining the peculiarities of the role and its position within the conventions of the genre, he ultimately finds seventeenth-century justification for Opera Atelier’s late-twentieth-century conception.

We are of course grateful to the publishers (cited in context) who have permitted us to use copyright audio and visual materials to illustrate our articles. In addition, we wish to thank Marshall Pynkoski, Co-Artistic Director of Opera Atelier, and Neil Crory, Senior Music Producer at CBC/Radio-Canada, for making it possible for us to reproduce extracts from the unpublished audio recording of the Toronto, 2000, production. Opera Atelier also provided us with unpublished pictures from that production, taken by photographers Michael Hudson and Bruce Zinger. We also thank Gregory Proctor for engraving all the musical examples found in the issue.

As underscored by Rebecca Harris-Warrick’s remarks, this issue of JSCM is dedicated to the memory of James R. Anthony (1922–2001), friend and mentor to so many of us who specialize in French Baroque music. He would certainly have something to say about Persée and our work, if only we could have that conversation.

Subsequent Communication

Lois Rosow: A Video of Lully’s Persée

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ISSN: 1089-747X

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