Jean-Jacques Rousseau's opera Le Devin du Village, (1753) at the Petit Théâtre de la Reine at Versailles last July, now available on Culturebox. Listening to opera audio-only is sterile and unnatural. For Rousseau and his contemporaries the idea that any one aspect of opera could be cut out of context was anathema. Opera was meant to be enjoyed as part of social life, which at Versailles meant the aesthetic of the surroundings. The film begins as the camera pans in on the palace and its vast formal gardens. Versailles was more than a royal residence; it was and is the symbol of audacious vision. The performance takes place in the theatre at le Petit Trianon, built for Marie Antoinette in 1780 where the opera was performed, capturing its intimate, elegant scale which is absolutely part of meaning. Like Versailles iitself, the opera encompasses in miniature the essence of the world beyond, Nature contained, distilled and civilized. Yet paradoxically it's also a reminder that Nature cannot be tamed. The palace is ringed by ancient forests in which the King would hunt. He hardly needed to catch his own dinner : hunting was a ritual monarchs enacted for fun and fresh air, but also to display their dominance. Though Marie Antoinette wasn't to know what was coming, we do, and that knowledge does affect our appreciation.
It is also significant that Rousseau was a philosopher. Le Devin du Village is more than mindless entertainment in the modern sense. For audiences of the Age of Reason, art was inextricably part of wider human experience. Without ideas, no art ! While baroque operas can be enjoyed on a very basic level, they are almost always allegorical, with concealed sub texts. At le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette had a farm but no way was she going to muck in with the peasants. Imagined Nature served a purpose, presenting an ideal that was probably impossible to attain. The noble savages in Rameau's Les Indes galantes weren't carefree. Theatre is not naturalistic : it is artifice, not reality. We need to understand the real traditions of opera to detoxify modern notions of "tradition" based on movies and TV. The photo above shows a cloud descending from the heavens bearing a crown which Colette accepts, as if such things happened every day : a device that would enrage "traditional" audiences today.
Please read Reconsidering Rousseau's Le devin du Village : an opera of surprising and valuable paradox by Edward Green (Ars lyrica, 2007) for a more detailed analysis of the score and ideas behind it. Note his final paragraph : "Without exception, every aria in this opera is cast in a dance rhythm. In and of itself, this is evidence of a profound attempt on Rousseau’s part to reconcile individual and collective feeling. An aria is an opportunity for the assertion of individual feeling, and yet community is always implied, since a steady dance beat always implies the need to coordinate community. Thus, with a lovely equipoise of individual and communal singing – Colette alternating with the community as a whole – and in an infectious, swinging 6/8 meter, Le devin du village ends with the call : Allons danser!"