The Janson de Sailly and Michelet Secondary Schools – (Khâgne class – Subject: History of Art)
Course teacher: Jean-Pierre Levert
Course teacher: Lucie Kajas
A conference for students of the above institutions who this year studied the theme: The model of antiquity in opera
Opera came into existence at the end of the Renaissance and Nietzsche, who was highly critical, saw therein a false resurgence of tragedy and a false return to antiquity. It was later, for him, and with the musical drama of Wagner, that we would witness the equivalent of what was to be the birth of tragedy in the world of antiquity.
Curiously, Jean-Philippe Rameau and his librettist conceived the prologue to Platée as a form of “Birth of Comedy”. Everything begins with a satyr, and under the prevailing mood of Dionysos (Bacchus) and wine, which has made Thespis slumber, the return to antiquity recalls satiric Greek plays whilst integrating motives from Aristophanes comedy, (the frogs) and more closely aiming at comedy akin to Moliere’s castigat ridendo mores. The absence of Apollo is very noticeable, while Folly has replaced the muses themselves, of whom only a few have been summoned, (Talia and Terpsichore).
As for Idomeneo, it undoubtedly does not deserve the severe criticism that Nietzshe demonstrated towards 18th century opera. The subject, borrowed from the epic tradition of the Nostoi, lies within the Homeric tradition. The humans are subjected to the will of the gods, who are fortunately divided, (Minerva against Neptune). A complex drama takes shape: the drama of exile, (for Electra as much as for Ilea), of rivalry in love, of a rash oaths(Idomeneo’s), the issue being, as in Phèdre, (or in Rameau’s Hippolytus and Aricie), the sacrifice of a son, (Idamante). This time Apollo is present without being named directly.
It is to be noted that, as in Platée for that matter, Dionysian overabundance does not prevail. Using different means than Rameau, Mozart also carefully handles the balance between opposing forces and paves the path to serenity in an opera seria bearing the mark of French opera.