OPERA AFTER POETRY: ENLIGHTENMENT DRAMMA PER MUSICA AMID THE ARTS
With its bold combination of epic style and vernacular prose, François Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699) created a stir that preoccupied the literary, theatrical, musical, and art world throughout the eighteenth century. My dissertation places the novel at the centre of a crucial exchange between the French revisionist movement – with its mandate to redefine neoclassical theatre – and Italian dramma per musica in the second half of the eighteenth century. While littérateurs like Antoine Houdar de la Motte and Voltaire argued publicly over the theoretical viability of prose tragedy on the back of Télémaque, the operatic stage was actively absorbing and experimenting with principles of de la Motte’s new brand of theatre: a less compounded application of the Aristotelian unities, a bolder approach to character portrayal, a painterly approach to scenography, and an integration of tropes from the epic.
I rely on two case studies to argue that dramma per musica began to adopt specific principles of de la Motte’s contentious “prose tragedy” genre: Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi’s Mitridate libretto (set by Quirino Gasparini in 1767 and Mozart in 1770), which was based on the same Racine play that incited de la Motte and Voltaire’s animosity; and Giambattista Varesco’s Idomeneo, based on Danchet’s adaptation of Fénelon.
Literary scholarship, familiar with the heated paper war incited by Fénelon’s novel thanks to Fabienne Moore and Romira Worville’s research, has so far paid little heed to the eighteenth-century operatic stage as the most prominent and sustained reworking of the neoclassical tragic tradition. In answer to Reinhard Strohm’s appeal to synthesize literary and musicological approaches towards a cross-disciplinary poetics of Enlightenment opera, I show that dramma per musica actively reconfigures a neoclassical tradition in flux alongside the century’s noisiest literary revisionist movement, reimagining theatrical praxis as part of a broader poetics of arts and letters.
Includes musical scores, images