Reform Reconsidered: Du Tillot’s “French Project” and Traetta’s Operas for Parma
Around the middle of the eighteenth century, critics of Italian opera seria called for the “reform” of “abuses” inflicted upon the genre primarily by singers, whose desire for soloistic display was seen as undermining dramatic unity. French opera’s emphasis on chorus, ballet, and flexible scene structures represented a path toward reform. The Teatro Ducale at the duchy of Parma, with Bourbon rule newly installed at mid century, enthusiastically responded to the call and followed the path, with groundbreaking attempts to wed French and Italian operatic styles during the 1760s in a series of operas by Tommaso Traetta now considered emblematic of operatic reform.
Scholars of eighteenth-century opera have long acknowledged that reform opera required large outlays of capital as well as a visionary individual able to control production and spearhead change. In Parma the latter was Guillaume du Tillot, Philip of Bourbon’s general intendant of the royal household and head of theatrical entertainments, who put the tiny duchy on the international operatic map. While Traetta’s operas for Parma have traditionally been examined either in the context of Italian opera or in that of reform opera elsewhere, this study places them in a different one, that of du Tillot’s “French project,” whose broad dimensions signify the Parmesan court’s full immersion in French music and drama. In 1755 du Tillot engaged a French troupe that gave daily performances of plays, ballets, and operas for the court, with luxurious stage settings, sumptuous costumes, and other lavish spectacular elements. Using newly examined material from the Parma State Archives, this study reveals that du Tillot’s involvement in theatrical affairs began earlier than previously assumed, explores the administrative and financial structure he installed at the Teatro Ducale, and demonstrates the emphasis placed on the French troupe, its productions, and their political implications. Traetta’s reform operas represented a small part of a broad array of luxurious entertainments. Considering Traetta’s Parma operas as a public attempt at the institution of French culture at Parma—a complement to the private one represented by the French troupe at court—leads to a reassessment of them as vehicles for reform.
Dr. Margaret Butler is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Florida. She holds the MA and PhD from The Ohio State University and received research grants from the Fulbright foundation and the University of Alabama, where she was a member of the faculty from 2003 to 2007. She held a post-doctoral research and teaching appointment at the University of Virginia (2000-2001).
Butler’s publications include the chapter on Italian Opera in the Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Music and articles in Cambridge Opera Journal, Eighteenth-Century Music, Music in Art: International Journal for Musical Iconography, and conference proceedings from Würzburg, Naples, and Valencia. Her Operatic Reform in Turin: Aspects of Production and Stylistic Change in the 1760s, published by Libreria Musicale Italiana, was based on research she conducted as a Fulbright Fellow. Having continued her research on eighteenth-century operatic production practices in Parma, Bologna, Milan and Turin, she is at work on a book on the northern Italian performance circuit as revealed through those practices.
Butler serves as member-at-large of the AMS National Council, secretary/treasurer of the AMS Southern Chapter, and was a founding member of the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music. She is currently editing the proceedings from SECM’s 2010 conference (forthcoming with Steglein Press).