In canonical French Orientalist discourse of the 19th century, the Orient is cast as effeminate, weak, and in need of rehabilitation by Western civilization. However, the dramatic arts of late 16th- and early 17th-century France constructed a different picture, one in which the Orient as temptress was a deadly threat to the West.
During the late Valois and early Bourbon monarchies, the queen regents Catherine de Médicis (1519–89), Marie de Médicis (1575–1642), and Anne d’Autriche (1601–66) were associated with political turmoil and civil war that threatened to destroy the kingdom. Within this troubled political context, fatal women of the Orient sought to entice their prey on the French stage. Most deadly among them was Cleopatra, embodiment of Egypt, incarnation of women’s malignant sexual seduction, exposed in her subjugation of Marcus Antonius, the fallen, conquered, and emasculated Roman.
With the rise of Louis XIV (1638–1715) and his imposition of a purportedly indomitable and masculine monarchy, women were to be vanquished outright. Reigning women, including those in the tragedies of Philippe Quinault (1635–88), were the victims of self-destructive passions ending in defeat, death, or abandonment by the heroes whom they sought to enslave. An emblematic example of such a crushed woman is the sorceress Armide in the tragédie en musique by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87), the libretto of which is by Quinault.
This according to “Regnorum ruina: Cleopatra and the Oriental menace in early French tragedy” by Desmond Hosford, an essay included in French Orientalism: Culture, politics, and the imagined Other (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010, 23–47; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-6408).
Throughout his career in Paris (1658–73), Molière regularly incorporated music and dance into his plays. Account books, bills and receipts, contracts of association, musical scores, and other documents attest to Molière’s employment of professional instrumentalists, singers, dancers, choreographers, and musical directors at the Grande Salle du Petit Bourbon and the Théâtre du Palais Royal.
In 1671, in response to the success of Pierre Perrin’s Académie Royale des Opéras, the Troupe du Roy embarked on a new direction in music theater. The troupe’s renovation of the Palais Royal and their installation of a state-of-the-art transformation stage indicate an increased commitment to large-scale performances involving music, dance, and spectacle. This gives credence to the hypothesis that, before their split, Molière and Lully planned to acquire Perrin’s privilège and move into opera.
This according to “Musical practices in the theater of Molière” by John S. Powell (Revue de musicology LXXXII/1  5–37).
In 1664 Louis XIV gave his first great fête at Versailles, a small hunting box built by his father and which the Roi Soleil was transforming into the astonishing château that would materially represent the political, economic, and artistic supremacy of France. Officially honoring Queen Marie-Thérèse and Queen Mother Anne d’Autriche, the entertainments were in fact dedicated to Louise de La Vallière, the king’s first maîtresse en titre.
Foremost among those who took part in the spectacle was the young warrior king himself, clad in jewel-encrusted gold and silver armor as the chevalier Roger, who, at the bidding of the sorceress Alcine, arrives with his retinue to entertain the queens over the course of several days in Les Plaisirs de l’Île Enchantée.
Les plaisirs de l’Île enchantée (La Princesse d’Élide); George Dandin ou Le mari confondu (Le grand divertissemant royal de Versailles) (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 2004) is a new edition of the keyboard score for the comédies-ballets La princesse d’Élide (1664) and George Dandin (1668); it is part of Olms’s Œuvres complètes of Lully.
Above, the official commemorative engraving of Festin du roi et des reines from 1664; below, excerpts from Lully’s score for La princesse d’Élide.
As one of the most powerful nonpolitical figures at Louis XIV’s court, Lully was far from immune to its culture of intrigue.
Henri Guichard, a perpetrator of various frauds and a rival at the court, hatched a plot to poison Lully in 1674, and approached a corrupt police officer, Sébastien Aubry, who had access to the Opéra and often saw Lully there. The unfolding of the plot, which involved a poisoned snuff box, had a strong element of farce as Aubry ineptly attempted to play both ends against the middle, jockeying for his own best interests while appearing to assist Guichard.
Eventually a mutual associate tipped off the composer, who formally accused Aubry of conspiracy to commit murder. Guichard exercised what influence he could, but Lully, as a close associate of the king himself, had the upper hand. In the end, the composer was able to delay the case until the only two dissenting judges finished their terms of duty.
This according to Jean-Baptiste Lully by Ralph Henry Forster Scott (London: Owen, 1973, pp. 76–83).
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