Olivia Bloechl, Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France
University of Chicago Press,
272pp, £41.50ISBN 9780226522753Published 10 April 2018
Bloechl turns to writers such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Agamben, who have all theorised the ways in which power operates not only through the exercise of violence – actual or threatened – and reward, but also in the micro-regimes of a culture that becomes naturalised and internalised in the subject.
Obligatory displays of ritualised grief at the passing of public figures are re-enacted in the scenes of choral lament in tragédie lyrique. The passivity of the subject in the face of power is replicated in the lack of agency of the chorus.
Foucault’s self-disciplinary regime of the “confessing society” is conveyed through the ubiquity of self-punishing confessions in French opera, in which there is a transition from an externally imposed sense of moral obligation in the 17th century to an internalised mode that is represented by the advent of the “tormenting orchestra” in 18th-century operas. Bloechl also demonstrates that in the near century of tragédie lyrique’s ascendancy, power in the ancien régime shifted from the personal absolutism of Louis XIV to the more remote rulership of his great-grandson Louis XV. This is conveyed in dramatic narratives in which it is not the god or ruler who exercises authority or justice, but a mediating representative. And Pluto’s underworld? It resembles “nothing so much as an absolutist monarchical state”, founded on the principle of the precarity of the subject under the permanent threat of death.