Among gods and monsters : poetry, music and the marvellous in French tragédie lyrique

In the earlier works of Lully and Quinault, servants like Arbas in Cadmus and Phérès in Alceste provided comical relief during the play but compromised the unity of the tone. In later works, however, I would like to suggest that these ‘low’ human characters were replaced by supernatural figures, somehow monstrous in nature, in order to better serve the classical in French opera. Following Catherine Kintzler’s analysis of the poetics of the tragédie lyrique and the role of the marvellous in its aesthetics, this paper will discuss the poetical and musical treatments of three characters: Charon in Alceste, Méduse in Persée and Urgande in Amadis. Linked to the tradition of the comic in Venetian and Roman opera and the grotesque in the ballets de cour, these characters have a distinctive way of presenting themselves directly to the public and they receive a distinctive musical treatment that sets them outside the narrative. The main function of their presence in the intrigue is linked to the necessity of the divertissement, an important poetical feature of the tragédie lyrique. Finally, a discussion of recent productions of Alceste and Persée will put into question our own understanding of the functions of the ‘monstrous’ and the ‘marvellous’ in baroque opera.

Benoît Bolduc
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Department of French, University of Toronto