The word ‘ideology’ (idéologie), born of the French Revolution, was first used by Antoine Destutt de Tracy in the late 1790s. Napoleon, influentially, made it a slur, condemning the idéologues as intellectual dreamers, detached from reality. Few words have been more fought over in the period since, but nowadays ‘ideology’ is often understood primarily as the way cultural practices and products encode political power and belief—sometimes very obviously, sometimes very subtly. In this sense, French opera had always been strongly and explicitly ideological, and its Napoleonic mutation after 1799 was a difference of kind, but not of degree. By contrast, Neapolitan opera buffa, a genre consolidated in the 1720s, can easily seem remarkably unideological, even though there were many explicit and implicit rules concerning what it could and couldn’t do. Yet the power of what might loosely be called ‘soft ideology’ is arguably the greater precisely because the political dimension is so easily missed. Napoleon’s stated preference for Le cantatrici villane suggests that, by the turn of the century at least, he relished this sort of soft ideology disguised with humour, and the combination of that with affecting, Paisiello-esque music represented his idea of a perfect opera. Yet he accepted that the French public mostly wanted something different, and it is revealing that the one opera Paisiello composed in France, Proserpine (1803), was a tragédie lyrique actually adapting a libretto set by Lully in 1680. ‘Opera—Official’ and ‘Opera— Personal’ thus stayed firmly separate in Napoleon’s opera drawer, though it is reasonable to speculate that, had his Promethean energies been less focused on military and political business, he would have tried harder to impress his personal taste on the French musical culture he secretly despised.
Opera, May 2021