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 Post subject: Book Review: Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, by
PostPosted: Fri Dec 20, 2002 1:41 pm 
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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 re-creates 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," that "the music has a mission to explain and translate [the scenes]." 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" was 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, the critical complaint 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 illustrate 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 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.

<small>[ 20 December 2002, 04:36 PM: Message edited by: S. E. Arnold ]</small>


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 Post subject: Re: Book Review: Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, by
PostPosted: Fri Dec 20, 2002 2:09 pm 
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Wow. Thanks for this, S.E. I will have to come back and reread it this weekend. But at first skim, I was struck by this statemen:

Quote:
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
I will have to do some video homework.


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 Post subject: Re: Book Review: Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, by
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2002 8:08 am 
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Location: London, England; Tallinn, Estonia
My thanks too SE. One point I'm interested to hear more about is tha comment:

Quote:
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
The major change as far as i recall is that wrought by Petipa. As far as I understand, he made use of the further development of the toe shoe to "convert" much of the choreography to pointe work and removed a lot of the mime sequences. A mime script from a production around 1850 (pre-Petipa) has been discovered in the past decade and indicates that the ballet would have lasted around 3 hours rather than the 2 hours or so that we see today, supporting the argument presented in the book.

I am keen to hear if Smith has anything to say about the links with the Petipa version and what we see today.

<small>[ 21 December 2002, 09:12 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>


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 Post subject: Re: Book Review: Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, by
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2002 10:05 am 
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Location: Southwick, MA, USA
Hi Stuart,

I hope that this rather long quote from the Preface of Ballet and Opera (not to mention my response) addresses some portion of your questions and observations. From the Preface Smith writes:

"One largely untapped resource, however, is the musical score. Though very few have been published, a good many have been carefully preserved in archives: full scores, orchestral parts, autograph composing scores, and repetiteurs (rehearsal scores), some even annotated with prose descriptions of stage action and occasional diagrams. (As I write, David A. Day, Knud Arne Jurgensen and others are uncovering such annotated scores in various European archives; I am confident that these scores will have a major impact on dance historiography.) Even those lacking annotations offer a gold mine of valuable information because they were composed to follow the actions and moods of the ballet characters very closely. Indeed, the composers? close adherence to the choreography makes the music in some ways the best and most faithful witness to the first productions of these works. It also allows us to enter into the sonic world of the ballets, opening up new possibilities for reexperiencing a genre that was, after all, not strictly visual."

The musical examples Smith quotes in Chapter Six, for example, come from the annotated rehearsals score for Giselle found in the archives of the Paris Opera and in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Additionally, Smith notes that the evolutionary transformation of Giselle from story ballet to the ballet blanc it has mostly become was a long one. Certainly, Petipa is part of that transformation. Moreover, Smith also opines that this transformation is perhaps the cost of survival. As to the length of performance, Smith talked about the recording made by R. Bonynge, and the only quibble was that he did not take a certain repeat. That shortened the length from just over two hours to just a tad short of two hours.

In the end, however, I would say that anyone interested in this period of ballet history must read this book. Not because I think or that Smith claims that it is a definitive study, but because her clear and careful focus illuminates rather than obscures the subject.

<small>[ 22 December 2002, 11:01 AM: Message edited by: S. E. Arnold ]</small>


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