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, ancien**régime absolutism. Through this lens, French opera of the period emerges as a deeply conservative, yet also more politically nuanced, genre than previously thought.