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Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle

By Marian Smith

Book review by S.E. Arnold

December 2002

In "Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle," Marian Smith focuses on the bonds that held "the longtime marriage between opera and ballet at the [Paris] Opera" together.

Written in clear prose, supported by illustrations, musical examples, and comparative tables, Smith recreates a vivid picture of the Paris Opera in the early 19th century. Chapter One: Music and the Story declares the "stringent requirements ... imposed on ballet-pantomime music in the 1830s and 1840s." Smith writes, "It cannot be overstated that, unlike ballet music today, it was expected to help the audience follow the action; to provide something the silent performers could not." It was the "critical consensus in Paris at least until the mid-nineteenth century, much of the burden for making ballet-pantomime performances understandable to the spectator lay on the shoulders of the composer."

In Chapter Two: Family Resemblances, Smith details the genetic links between opera and ballet. For example, in addition to performance tradition, the twin art forms shared composers, writers, costumes, complicated, well-made plots and plot settings, plus highly pictorial and spectacular productions. More importantly, however, audiences expected opera and ballet to tell stories, and both did so through a shared language of mime -- a language intimately bound to the music.

Chapter Three: The Lighter Tone describes how the shared aspects of mime and music both blurred yet marked the boundary between opera and ballet-pantomime. For instance, while the habit of reviving or re-casting works of comic opera as ballet parodies (in 1829, for example, the 1825 opera "La Belle au Bois dormant" became a ballet-pantomime) emphasizes their mime/music link, it also declared their separation. The reasoning at the time went generally like this: the serious world of public affairs was the proper province of opera while the private and less serious world dominated by the "affairs of the heart" were the appropriate realm of ballet-pantomime. Additionally, only those characters likely to dance in 'life' were to dance on the stage. Significantly, that list of danceable characters included supernatural beings. Combined, these particular imperatives typically placed the action of ballet-pantomimes in bucolic settings and/or featured story lines about love, dancing or dancers.

Chapter Four: Ballet-Pantomime and Silent Language reports how composers negotiated the task of providing music that explained and/or translated the scene and how the explanatory power of words entered the mute word of ballet-pantomime. Generally, words entered directly into the stage action via signs held in the décor and indirectly, yet more forcefully, through the librettos held by the audience. Specially, composers wrote music that intoned, that is, it mimicked the rhythms and inflections of the words in a fashion parallel to opera's recitative, the 'spoken' sections of ballet-pantomime. More subtly, however, composers told the story through the long and common practice of borrowed music. Called 'air parlant,' the borrowed tunes were readily familiar to the public and featured lyrics or other associations important to the story.

For example, waltzes signaled German settings or persons, minuets for things French, and music, for example, from Paganini's "Le Streghe" supported the witch scene in "La Sylphide." Nevertheless, and in spite of the efforts of words and music to render the scene intelligible, critical complaints decrying mime's indecipherability grew in volume during the period. At the same time, the music composed or arranged for ballet-pantomime took critical fire for its lack of originality. Not surprisingly, however, works that offered original music, ironically "La Sylphide" among them, suffered as critics proclaimed the music's failure to explain or translate the scene. Smith suggests that the quest for greater verisimilitude lay behind the critical disenchantment with mime, and the moral distaste for plagiarism fired the demand for original music. This critical schism signaled, Smith feels, the beginning of ballet-pantomime's metamorphosis from the hyphenated to the singular being of today.

Chapter Five: Hybrid Works at the Opera discusses three commercially successful examples of works that combined mute, singing, and danced roles. "La Muette De Portici" (1828), "Le Dieu Et La Bayadère" (1830), and "La Tentation" (1832) conformed to the rules of casting and the compositional practices relating mime to music outlined in previous chapters. Moreover, these works illustrated that the marriage between opera and ballet-pantomime had yet to break-up. Smith writes, "They show that opera and ballet characters could communicate face to face, and could still partake in the same plot and understand the same language. The world they occupied was the same world, and the common heritage that bound them together as stage characters had not yet been forgotten."

Chapter Six: Giselle takes a Then and Now look at this ballet mainstay. "In this chapter," Smith writes, "I focus on the old "Giselle" (as revealed in archival material),  - [which included the original rehearsal score] - comparing it to some of today's versions, and showing in particular how much care was taken in the old production to convey subtleties of the story to the audience with the use of music." Smith's examination reveals that the changes made by contemporary productions on the mime, the characters, and the music -- including its deletions and reordering -- are so drastic as to nearly gut "Giselle" of all of its "narrative potency" and hence its ability to deliver on its rhetorical intent. "Thus," Smith observes, "as Hilarion is given far fewer chances to recollect, to reflect, to reason, to anticipate, so too is the audience." And, if all were restored to "Giselle"? Smith muses, "If such a production were successfully mounted, it could allow us to become reacquainted, at a deeper level, with the varied cast of characters in "Giselle," and reflect in new ways upon this ballet's narrative depth and gestural beauty."

One took singular pleasure in Smith's directness of style, scholarship, and subject matter. Additionally, one found her criticism of the contemporary impoverishment of "Giselle" well aimed and thoughtful.

Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle. By Marian Smith.  Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-691-04994-7.  $55.

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