Wagner's Cancan, Fenella's Leap

Mary Ann Smart

in Mimomania

Published by University of California Press

Published in print March 2004 | ISBN: 9780520239951
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520939875 | DOI:
Wagner's Cancan, Fenella's Leap

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This chapter begins with an encounter between two principal characters, one fictional, the other real. The human is Richard Wagner, and his fictional interlocutor is Fenella, the title character of Daniel Auber's 1828 opera, La Muette de Portici. In part I of Opera and Drama, Wagner casts Fenella as protagonist of a tiny allegory designed to advance his accusatory history of nineteenth-century opera and, more specifically, to illustrate the dramatic bankruptcy of grand opera. As a character who communicates entirely in wordless pantomime, Fenella seems hilariously miscast in this role, ill matched with the orientation of most opera, even Wagner's own. In welcome contrast to the allegory of Fenella as the muse of drama, the cancan and quadrille metaphors cohere around the mobile and the visual. The shift from “drama” to dance suggests an expansion of the limits of operatic drama grounded in words to one that admits dance, gesture, and the body. Wagner's prose writings can serve as an invitation to consider the question of whether grand opera might thematize bodily movement, and how it does so.

Keywords: Richard Wagner; opera; Fenella; allegory; metaphors; Daniel Auber; Muette de Portici; pantomime; gesture; bodily movement

Chapter.  8885 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: American Music

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