_Operatic Satires of Louis_XIV as Pluto

It has escaped scholarly notice that a number of works produced at the_Paris Opéra, especially after the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1687, exhibit a covert, yet often unmistakable, critique of Louis XIV and his absolutionist, militarist policies. This critique may be seen as a strand in the larger web of satire and subversion in all the arts, which intensified as public opinion turned against the king in his late years. In this paper I will trace the satire of Louis XIV as Pluto as it develops in the ballet de cour, the tragédie en musique, and the opéra-ballet. The connection of Louis XIV and Pluto begins in the Ballet de Psyché of 1657, in which Louis XIV danced the role of this dark god of the underworld. According to the verses provided for the occasion, by Isaac Benserade, the role was an appropriate one, highlighting the Machiavellian power needed by the king to control the rebellious nobles of his court. In 1690, Lully’s son Louis composed an opera entitled Orphée which directly reversed the plot of the Ballet de Psyché in order to satirise Louis XIV as a villainous monster, and to oppose to this tyrannical villain, the character of Orpheus, the life-giving, pacifist, artist. In 1699, an opera-ballet composed by André Campra to a libretto by Jean-François Regnard presents a scene directly quoting and then transforming the confrontation of Orpheus and Pluto from Louis Lully’s Orphée. In this work, Pluto becomes a ridiculous buffoon, whose monstrous powers are comically subverted by the powers of music, art, and dance. The self-referential nature of the work, enhanced by a stage audience representing the audience of the Paris Opéra contributes to an interpretation in which the arts and artists of a new public sphere may be seen as a new breed of hero, championing freedom, equality, and art as the antidote to monstrous absolutism. 

Georgia Cowart
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
School of Music, University of South Carolina, USA