After 1687, the Royal Academy of Music lost its composer, librettist and choreographer when Lully, and then Quinault, died, followed by Beauchamps’ departure. And so began a period of experimentation which culminated in the birth of a new genre: the opéra-ballet, where each act formed a short scene with its own plot, the whole woven together by a loose poetic thread.
Without ousting the tragédie en musique, the opéra-ballet explored lighter subjects, replacing magic with exoticism, setting greater store by dance and introducing a whole host of fanciful, sometimes comical and often contemporary, characters who revived the serious roles of mythology and chivalric romance. In a similar way, the columned palaces and wooded countryside of Arcadia had to share the stage with town squares and hamlets sporting modern architecture.
Amidst the Spaniards, Turks and Chinese, the comical characters dismissed by Lully returned through the dancing figures of Harlequin or Pulcinella from Commedia dell’arte. Fairly virtuoso Italian arias began to creep into the music while ultramontane-themed operas were thriving, among them Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise (1699) – which contained an Italian opera in miniature. But this Italomania remained a superficial phenomenon, driven more by a taste for exoticism than any real meshing of styles. As such, the inspiration behind Harlequin’s costume was not Italian theatre so much as masked balls, and the only Italian thing about the furlana dances performed by Venetian women was their name.
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