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Donizetti And Bellini
French Opera From Lulli To The Death Of Rameau
General View Of The Opera In Europe In The Eighteenth Century Until The Appearance Of Gluck
Gluck And Piccinni In Paris
Introduction And Progress Of The Ballet
Introduction Of Italian Opera Into England
Introduction Of The Opera Into France And England
Manners And Customs At The London Opera Half A Century Since
On The Nature Of The Opera And Its Merits As Compared With Other Forms Of The Drama
Opera In France After The Departure Of Gluck
Opera In France Under The Consulate Empire And Restoration
Opera In Italy Germany And Russia During And In Connection With The Republican And Napoleonic Wars
Rossini And His Period
Rossini Spohr Beethoven Weber And Hoffmann
Rousseau As A Critic And As A Composer Of Music
The French Opera Before And After The Revolution
The Italian Opera Under Handel
The Opera In England At The End Of The Eighteenth And Beginning Of The Nineteenth Century
The Origin Of The Opera In Italy And Its Introduction Into Germany


History Of The Opera From Its Origin In Italy To The Present Tim




On The Nature Of The Opera And Its Merits As Compared With Other Forms Of The Drama








Opera admired for its unintelligibility.--The use of words in
opera.--An inquisitive amateur.--New version of a chorus in Robert
le Diable.--Strange readings of the Credo by two chapel
masters.--Dramatic situations and effects peculiar to the
Opera.--Pleasantries directed against the Opera; their antiquity
and harmlessness.--Les Opéras by St. Evrémond.--Beaumarchais's
mot.--Addison on the Italian Opera in England.--Swift's
epigram.--Béranger on the decline of the drama.--What may be seen
at the Opera.


[Sidenote: UNINTELLIGIBILITY OF OPERA.]

When Sir William Davenant obtained permission from Cromwell to open his
theatre for the performance of operas, Antony à Wood wrote that, "Though
Oliver Cromwell had now prohibited all other theatrical representations,
he allowed of this because being in an unknown language it could not
corrupt the morals of the people." Thereupon it has been imagined that
Antony à Wood must have supposed Sir William Davenant's performances to
have been in the Italian tongue, as if he could not have regarded music
as an unknown language, and have concluded that a drama conducted in
music would for that reason be unintelligible. Nevertheless, in the
present day we have a censor who refuses to permit the representation
of La Dame aux Camélias in English, or even in French,[8] but who
tolerates the performance of La Traviata, (which, I need hardly say,
is the Dame aux Camélias set to music) in Italian, and, I believe,
even in English; thinking, no doubt, like Antony à Wood, that in an
operatic form it cannot be understood, and therefore cannot corrupt the
morals of the people. Since Antony à Wood's time a good deal of stupid,
unmeaning verse has been written in operas, and sometimes when the words
have not been of themselves unintelligible, they have been rendered
nearly so by the manner in which they have been set to music, to say
nothing of the final obscurity given to them by the imperfect
enunciation of the singers. The mere fact, however, of a dramatic piece
being performed in music does not make it unintelligible, but, on the
contrary, increases the sphere of its intelligibility, giving it a more
universal interest and rendering it an entertainment appreciable by
persons of all countries. This in itself is not much to boast of, for
the entertainment of the ballet is independent of language to a still
greater extent; and La Gitana or Esmeralda can be as well understood
by an Englishman at the Opera House of Berlin or of Moscow as at Her
Majesty's Theatre in London; while perhaps the most universally
intelligible drama ever performed is that of Punch, even when the brief
dialogue which adorns its pantomime is inaudible.

Opera is music in a dramatic form; and people go to the theatre and
listen to it as if it were so much prose. They have even been known to
complain during or after the performance that they could not hear the
words, as if it were through the mere logical meaning of the words that
the composer proposed to excite the emotion of the audience. The only
pity is that it is necessary in an opera to have words at all, but it is
evident that a singer could not enter into the spirit of a dramatic
situation if he had a mere string of meaningless syllables or any sort
of inappropriate nonsense to utter. He must first produce an illusion on
himself, or he will produce none on the audience, and he must,
therefore, fully inspire himself with the sentiment, logical as well as
musical, of what he has to sing. Otherwise, all we want to know about
the words of Casta diva (to take examples from the most popular, as
also one of the very finest of Italian operas) is that it is a prayer to
a goddess; of the Druids' chorus, that it is chorus of Druids; of the
trio, that "Norma" having confronted "Pollio" with "Adalgisa," is
reproaching him indignantly and passionately with his perfidy; of the
duet that "Norma" is confiding her children to "Adalgisa's" care; of the
scene with "Pollio," that "Norma" is again reproaching him, but in a
different spirit, with sadness and bitterness, and with the compressed
sorrow of a woman who is wounded to the heart and must soon die. I may
be in error, however, for though I have seen Norma fifty times, I have
never examined the libretto, and of the whole piece know scarcely more
than the two words which I have already paraded before the
public--"Casta Diva."

[Sidenote: WONDERFUL INSTANCE OF CURIOSITY.]

One night, at the Royal Italian Opera, when Mario was playing the part
of the "Duke of Mantua" in Rigoletto, and was singing the commencement
of the duet with "Gilda," a man dressed in black and white like every
one else, said to me gravely, "I do not understand Italian. Can you tell
me what he is saying to her?"

"He is telling her that he loves her," I answered briefly.

"What is he saying now?" asked this inquisitive amateur two minutes
afterwards.

"He is telling her that he loves her," I repeated.

"Why, he said that before!" objected this person who had apparently come
to the opera with the view of gaining some kind of valuable information
from the performers. Poor Bosio was the "Gilda," but my horny-eared
neighbour wondered none the less that the Duke could not say "I love
you," in three words.

"He will say it again," I answered, "and then she will say it, and then
they will say it together; indeed, they will say nothing else for the
next five minutes, and when you hear them exclaim 'addio' with one
voice, and go on repeating it, it will still mean the same thing."

What benighted amateur was this who wanted to know the words of a
beautiful duet; and is there much difference between such a one and the
man who would look at the texture of a canvas to see what the painting
on it was worth?

Let it be admitted that as a rule no opera is intelligible without a
libretto; but is a drama always intelligible without a play-bill? A
libretto, for general use, need really be no larger than an ordinary
programme; and it would be a positive advantage if it contained merely a
sketch of the plot with the subject, and perhaps the first line of all
the principal songs.

[Sidenote: IMITATIVE MUSIC.]

Then the foolish amateur would not run the risk of having his attention
diverted from the music by the words, and would be more likely to give
himself up to the enjoyment of the opera in a rational and legitimate
manner. Another advantage of keeping the words from the public would be,
that composers, full of the grossest prose, but priding themselves on
their fancy, would at last see the inutility as well as the pettiness of
picking out one particular word in a line, and "illustrating" it: thus
imitating a sound when their aim should be to depict a sentiment. Even
the illustrious Purcell has sinned in this respect, and Meyerbeer,
innumerable times, though always displaying remarkable ingenuity, and as
much good taste as is compatible with an error against both taste and
reason. It is a pity that great musicians should descend to such
anti-poetical, and, indeed, nonsensical trivialities; but when inferior
ones are unable to let a singer wish she were a bird, without imitating
a bird's chirruping on the piccolo, or allude in the most distant manner
to the trumpet's sound, without taking it as a hint to introduce a short
flourish on that instrument, I cannot help thinking of those
literal-minded pictorial illustrators who follow a precisely analogous
process, and who, for example, in picturing the scene in which "Macbeth"
exclaims--"Throw physic to the dogs," would represent a man throwing
bottles of medicine to a pack of hounds. What a treat, by the way, it
would be to hear a setting of Othello's farewell to war by a determined
composer of imitative picturesque music! How "ear-piercing" would be his
fifes! How "spirit-stirring" his drums.

The words of an opera ought to be good, and yet need not of necessity be
heard. They should be poetical that they may inspire first the composer
and afterwards the singer; and they should be ryhthmical and sonorous in
order that the latter may be able to sing them with due effect. Above
all they ought not to be ridiculous, lest the public should hear them
and laugh at the music, just where it was intended that it should affect
them to tears. Everything ought to be good at the opera down to the
rosin of the fiddlers, and including the words of the libretto. Even the
chorus should have tolerable verses to sing, though no one would be
likely ever to hear them. Indeed, it is said that at the Grand Opera of
Paris, by a tradition now thirty years old, the opening chorus in
Robert le Diable is always sung to those touching lines--which I
confess I never heard on the other side of the orchestra:--

La sou- pe aux choux se fait dans la mar -mite
Dans la marmi--te on fait la soupe aux choux.

I have said nothing about the duty of the composer in selecting his
libretto and setting it to music, but of course if he be a man of taste
he will not willingly accept a collection of nonsense verses. English
composers, however, have not much choice in this respect, and all we can
ask of them is that they will do their best with what they have been
able to obtain; not indulging in too many repetitions, and not tiring
the singer and provoking such of the audience as may wish to "catch" the
words by setting more than half a dozen notes to the same monosyllable
especially if the monosyllable occurs in the middle of a line, and the
vowel e, or worse still, i, in the middle of the monosyllable. One of
our most eminent composers, Mr. Vincent Wallace, has given us a striking
example of the fault I am speaking of in his well-known trio--"Turn on
old Time thy hour-glass" (Maritana) in which, according to the music,
the scanning of the first half line is as follows:--

T[)u]rn [=o]n [)o]ld T[=i] [)i]-[=i] [)i]-[)i]-[)i]--ime &c.

[Sidenote: WORDS FOR MUSIC.]

To be sure Time is infinite, but seven sounds do not convey the notion
of infinity; and even if they did, it would not be any the more pleasant
for a singer to have to take a five note leap, and then execute five
other notes on a vowel which cannot be uttered without closing the
throat. If I had been in Mr. Vincent Wallace's place, I should, at all
events, have insisted on Mr. Fitzball making one change. Instead of "Old
Time," he should have inserted "Old Parr."

T[)u]rn [=o]n [)o]ld P[=a]- [)a]-[=a] [)a]-[)a]-[)a]-arr &c.,

would not have been more intelligible to the audience than--"Turn on old
Ti-i-i-i-i-i-ime, &c., and it would have been a thousand times easier to
sing. Nor in spite of the little importance I attach to the phraseology
of the libretto when listening to "music in a dramatic form," would I,
if I were a composer, accept such a line as--

"When the proud land of Poland was ploughed by the hoof,"

with a suspension of sense after the word hoof. No; the librettist might
take his hoof elsewhere. It should not appear in my Opera; at least,
not in lieu of a plough. Mr. Balfe should tell such poets to keep such
ploughs for themselves.

Sic vos pro vobis fertis aratra boves,

he might say to them.

The singer ought certainly to understand what he is singing, and still
more certainly should the composer understand what he is composing; but
the sight of Latin reminds me that both have sometimes failed to do so,
and from no one's fault but their own. Jomelli used to tell a story of
an Italian chapel-master, who gave to one of his solo singers the phrase
Genitum non factum, to which the chorus had to reply Factum non
genitum. This transposition seemed ingenious and picturesque to the
composer, and suited a contrast of rhythm which he had taken great pains
to produce. It was probably due only to the bad enunciation of the
choristers that he was not burned alive.

Porpora, too, narrowly escaped the terrors of the inquisition; and but
for his avowed and clearly-proved ignorance of Latin would have made a
bad end of it, for a similar, though not quite so ludicrous a blunder as
the one perpetrated by Jomelli's friend. He had been accustomed to add
non and si to the verses of his libretto when the music required it,
and in setting the creed found it convenient to introduce a non. This
novel version of the Belief commenced--Credo, non credo, non credo in
Deum, and it was well for Porpora that he was able to convince the
inquisitors of his inability to understand it.

[Sidenote: UNNATURALNESS OF OPERA.]

Another chapel-master of more recent times is said, in composing a mass,
to have given a delightfully pastoral character to his "Agnus Dei." To
him "a little learning" had indeed proved "a dangerous thing." He had,
somehow, ascertained that "agnus" meant "lamb," and had forthwith gone
to work with pipe and cornemuse to give appropriate "picturesqueness" to
his accompaniments.

Besides accusations of unintelligibility and of contra-sense (as for
instance when a girl sentenced to death sings in a lively strain), the
Opera has been attacked as essentially absurd, and it is satisfactory to
know that these attacks date from its first introduction into England
and France. To some it appears monstrous that men and women should be
represented on the stage singing, when it is notorious that in actual
life they communicate in the speaking voice. Opera was declared to be
unnatural as compared with drama. In other words, it was thought natural
that Desdemona should express her grief in melodious verse, but
unnatural that she should do so in pure melody. (For the sake of the
comparison I must suppose Rossini's Otello to have been written long
before its time). Persons, with any pretence to reason, have long ceased
to urge such futile objections against a delightful entertainment which,
as I shall endeavour to show, is in some respects the finest form the
drama has assumed. Gresset answered these music-haters well in his
Discours sur l'harmonie.--"After all," he says, "if we study nature do
we not find more fidelity to appropriateness at the Opera than on the
tragic stage where the hero speaks the language of declamatory poetry?
Has not harmony always been much better able than simple declamation to
imitate the true tones of the passions, deep sighs, sobs, bursts of
grief, languishing tenderness, interjections of despair, the inflexions
of pathos, and all the energy of the heart?"

For the sake of enjoying the pleasures of music and of the drama in
combination, we must adopt certain conventions, and must assume that
song is the natural language of the men and women that we propose to
show in our operas; as we assume in tragedy that they all talk in verse,
in comedy that they are all witty and yet are perpetually giving one
another opportunities for repartee; in the ballet that they all dance
and are unable to speak at all. The form is nothing. Give us the true
expression of natural emotion and all the rest will seem natural enough.
Only it would be as well to introduce as many dancing characters and
dancing situations as possible in the ballet--and to remember in
particular that Roman soldiers could not with propriety figure in one;
for a ballet on the subject of "Les Horaces" was once actually produced
in France, in which the Horatii and the Curiatii danced a double pas de
trois; and so in the tragedy the chief passages ought not to be London
coal-heavers or Parisian water-carriers; and similarly in the Opera,
scenes and situations should be avoided which in no way suggest singing.

[Sidenote: THE OPERATIC CHORUS.]

And let me now inform the ignorant opponents of the Opera, that there
are certain grand dramatic effects attainable on the lyric stage, which,
without the aid of music, could not possibly be produced. Music has
often been defined; here is a new definition of it. It is the language
of masses--the only language that masses can speak and be understood.
On the old stage a crowd could not cry "Down with the tyrant!" or "We
will!" or even "Yes," and "No," with any intelligibility. There is some
distance between this state of things and the "Blessing of the daggers"
in the Huguenots, or the prayer of the Israelites in Moses. On the
old stage we could neither have had the prayer (unless it were recited
by a single voice, which would be worse than nothing) before the
passage, nor the thanksgiving, which, in the Opera, is sung immediately
after the Red Sea has been crossed; but above all we could not obtain
the sublime effect produced by the contrast between the two songs; the
same song, and yet how different! the difference between minor and
major, between a psalm of humble supplication and a hymn of jubilant
gratitude. This is the change of key at which, according to Stendhal,
the women of Rome fainted in such numbers. It cannot be heard without
emotion, even in England, and we do not think any one, even a professed
enemy of Opera, would ask himself during the performance of the prayer
in Mosé, whether it was natural or not that the Israelites should sing
either before or after crossing the Red Sea.

Again, how could the animation of the market scene in Masaniello be
rendered so well as by means of music? In concerted pieces, moreover,
the Opera possesses a means of dramatic effect quite as powerful and as
peculiar to itself as its choruses. The finest situation in Rigoletto
(to take an example from one of the best known operas of the day) is
that in which the quartet occurs. Here, three persons express
simultaneously the different feelings which are excited in the breast of
each by the presence of a fourth in the house of an assassin, while the
cause of all this emotion is gracefully making love to one of the three,
who is the assassin's sister. The amorous fervour of the "Duke," the
careless gaiety of "Maddalena," the despair of "Gilda," the vengeful
rage of "Rigoletto," are all told most dramatically in the combined
songs of the four personages named, while the spectator derives an
additional pleasure from the art by which these four different songs are
blended into harmony. A magnificent quartet, of which, however, the
model existed long before in Don Giovanni.

All this is, of course, very unnatural. It would be so much more natural
that the "Duke of Mantua" should first make a long speech to
"Maddalena;" that "Maddalena" should then answer him; that afterwards
both should remain silent while "Gilda," of whose presence outside the
tavern they are unaware, sobs forth her lamentations at the perfidy of
her betrayer; and that finally the "Duke," "Maddalena," and "Gilda," by
some inexplicable agreement, should not say a word while "Rigoletto" is
congratulating himself on the prospect of being speedily revenged on the
libertine who has robbed him of his daughter. In the old drama, perfect
sympathy between two lovers can scarcely be expressed (or rather
symbolized) so vividly as through the "ensemble" of the duet, where
the two voices are joined so as to form but one harmony. We are
sometimes inclined to think that even the balcony duet between "Romeo"
and "Juliet" ought to be in music; and certainly no living dramatist
could render the duet in music between "Valentine and Raoul" adequately
into either prose or verse. Talk of music destroying the drama,--why it
is from love of the drama that so many persons go to the opera every
night.

[Sidenote: EXPLODED PLEASANTRIES.]

But is it not absurd to hear a man say, "Good morning," "How do you do?"
in music? Most decidedly; and therefore ordinary, common-place, and
trivial remarks should be excluded from operas, as from poetical dramas
and from poetry of all kinds except comic and burlesque verse. It was
not reserved for the unmusical critics of the present day to discover
that it would be grotesque to utter such a phrase as "Give me my boots,"
in recitative, and that such a line as "Waiter, a cutlet nicely
browned," could not be advantageously set to music. All this sort of
humour was exhausted long ago by Hauteroche, in his Crispin Musicien,
which was brought out in Paris three years after the establishment of
the Académie Royale de Musique, and revived in the time of Rameau (1735)
by Palaprat, in his Concert Ridicule and Ballet Extravagant
(1689-90), of which the author afterwards said that they were "the
source of all the badinage that had since been applauded in more than
twenty comedies; that is to say, the interminable pleasantries on the
subject of the Opera;" and by St. Evrémond, in his comedy entitled Les
Opéras, which he wrote during his residence in London.

In St. Evrémond's piece, which was published but not played,
"Chrisotine" is, so to speak, opera-struck. She thinks of nothing but
Lulli, or "Baptiste," as she affectionately calls him, after the manner
of Louis XVI. and his Court; sings all day long, and in fact has
altogether abandoned speech for song. "Perrette," the servant, tells
"Chrisotine" that her father wishes to see her. "Why disturb me at my
songs," replies the young lady, singing all the time. The attendant
complains to the father, that "Chrisotine" will not answer her in
ordinary spoken language, and that she sings about the house all day
long. "Chrisotine" corroborates "Perrette's" statement, by addressing a
little cavatina to her parent, in which she protests against the
harshness of those who would hinder her from singing the tender loves of
"Hermione" and "Cadmus."

"Speak like other people, Chrisotine," exclaims old "Chrisard," or I
will issue such an edict against operas that they shall never be spoken
of again where I have any authority."

"My father, Baptiste; opera, my duty to my parents; how am I to decide
between you?" exclaims the young girl, with a tragic indecision as
painful as that of Arnold, the son of Tell, hesitating between his
Matilda and his native land.

[Sidenote: ST. EVREMOND'S BURLESQUE.]

"You hesitate between Baptiste and your father," cries the old
gentleman. "O tempora! O mores!" (only in French).

"Tender mother! Cruel father! and you, O Cadmus! Unhappy Cadmus! I shall
see you no more," sings "Chrisotine;" and soon afterwards she adds,
still singing, that she "would rather die than speak like the vulgar. It
is a new fashion at the court (she continues), and since the last opera
no one speaks otherwise than in song. When one gentleman meets another
in the morning, it would be grossly impolite not to sing to
him:--'Monsieur comment vous portez vous?' to which the other would
reply--'Je me porte à votre service.'

"FIRST GENTLEMAN.--'Après diner, que ferons nous?'

"SECOND GENTLEMAN.--'Allons voir la belle Clarisse.'

"The most ordinary things are sung in this manner, and in polite society
people don't know what it means to speak otherwise than in music."

Chrisard.--"Do people of quality sing when they are with ladies?"

Chrisotine.--"Sing! sing! I should like to see a man of the world
endeavour to entertain company with mere talk in the old style. He would
be looked upon as one of a by-gone period. The servants would laugh at
him."

Chrisard.--"And in the town?"

Chrisotine.--"All persons of any importance imitate the court. It is
only in the Rue St. Denis and St. Honoré and on the Bridge of Notre
Dame that the old custom is still kept up. There people buy and sell
without singing. But at Gauthier's, at the Orangery; at all the shops
where the ladies of the court buy dresses, ornaments and jewels, all
business is carried on in music, and if the dealers did not sing their
goods would be confiscated. People say that a severe edict has been
issued to that effect. They appoint no Provost of Trade now unless he is
a musician, and until M. Lulli has examined him to see whether he is
capable of understanding and enforcing the rules of harmony."

* * * * *

The above scene, be it observed, is not the work of an ignorant
detractor of opera, of a brute insensible to the charms of music, but is
the production of St. Evrémond, one of the very first men, on our side
of the Alps, who called attention to the beauties of the new musical
drama, just established in Italy, and which, when he first wrote on the
subject, had not yet been introduced into France. St. Evrémond had too
much sense to decry the Opera on account of such improbabilities as must
inevitably belong to every form of the drama--which is the expression of
life, but which need not for that reason be restricted exclusively to
the language of speech, any more than tragedy need be confined to the
diction of prose, or comedy to the inane platitudes of ordinary
conversation. At all events, there is no novelty, and above all no wit,
in repeating seriously the pleasantries of St. Evrémond, which, we
repeat, were those of a man who really loved the object of his
good-natured and agreeable raillery.

[Sidenote: ADDISON ON THE OPERA.]

Indeed, most of the men who have written things against the Opera that
are still remembered have liked the Opera, and have even been the
authors of operas themselves. "Aujourd'hui ce qui ne vaut pas la peine
d'être dit on le chante," is said by the Figaro of Beaumarchais--of
Beaumarchais, who gave lessons in singing and on the harpsichord to
Louis XV.'s daughters, who was an enthusiastic admirer of Gluck's
operas, and who wrote specially for that composer the libretto of
Tarare, which, however, was not set to music by him, but by Salieri,
Gluck's favourite pupil. Beaumarchais knew well enough--and Tarare in
a negative manner proves it--that not only "what is not worth the
trouble of saying" cannot be sung, but that very often such trivialities
as can with propriety be spoken in a drama would, set to music, produce
a ludicrous effect. Witness the lines in St. Evrémond's Les Opéras--

"Monsieur comment vous portez vous?"
"Je me porte à votre service"--

which might form part of a comedy, but which in an opera would be
absurd, and would therefore not be introduced into one, except by a
foolish librettist, (who would for a certainty get hissed), or by a wit
like St. Evrémond, wishing to amuse himself by exaggerating to a
ridiculous point the latest fashionable mania of the day.

Addison's admirably humorous articles on Italian Opera in the
Spectator are often spoken of by musicians as ill-natured and unjust,
and are ascribed--unjustly and even meanly, as it seems to me--to the
author's annoyance at the failure of his Rosamond, which had been set
to music by an incapable person named Clayton. Addison could afford to
laugh at the ill-success of his Rosamond, as La Fontaine laughed at
that of Astrée; and to assert that his excellent pleasantries on the
subject of Italian Opera, then newly established in London, had for
their origin the base motives usually imputed to him by musicians, is to
give any one the right to say of them that this one abuses modern
Italian music, which the public applaud, because his own English music
has never been tolerated or that that one expresses the highest opinion
of English composers because he himself composes and is an Englishman.
To impute such motives would be to assume, as is assumed in the case of
Addison, that no one blames except in revenge for some personal loss, or
praises except in the hope of some personal gain. And after all, what
has Addison said against the Opera, an entertainment which he
certainly enjoyed, or he would not have attended it so often or have
devoted so many excellent papers to it? Let us turn to the Spectator
and see.

[Sidenote: ADDISON ON THE OPERA.]

Italian Opera was introduced into England at the beginning of the 18th
century, the first work performed entirely in the Italian language being
Almahide, of which the music is attributed to Buononcini, and which
was produced in 1710, with Valentini, Nicolini, Margarita de l'Epine,
Cassani and "Signora Isabella," in the principal parts. Previously, for
about three years, it had been the custom for Italian and English
vocalists to sing each in their own language. "The king,[9] or hero of
the play," says Addison, "generally spoke in Italian, and his slaves
answered him in English; the lover frequently made his court, and gained
the heart of his princess in a language which she did not understand.
One would have thought it very difficult to have carried on dialogues in
this manner without an interpreter between the persons that conversed
together; but this was the state of the English stage for about three
years.

"At length, the audience got tired of understanding half the opera, and,
therefore, to ease themselves entirely of the fatigue of thinking, have
so ordered it at present, that the whole opera is performed in an
unknown tongue. We no longer understand the language of our own stage,
insomuch, that I have often been afraid, when I have seen our Italian
performers chattering in the vehemence of action, that they have been
calling us names and abusing us among themselves; but I hope, since we
do put such entire confidence in them, they will not talk against us
before our faces, though they may do it with the same safety as if it
were behind our backs. In the meantime, I cannot forbear thinking how
naturally an historian who writes two or three hundred years hence, and
does not know the taste of his wise forefathers, will make the following
reflection:--In the beginning of the 18th century, the Italian tongue
was so well understood in England, that operas were acted on the public
stage in that language.

"One scarce knows how to be serious in the confutation of an absurdity
that shows itself at the first sight. It does not want any great measure
of sense to see the ridicule of this monstrous practice; but what makes
it the more astonishing, it is not the taste of the rabble, but of
persons of the greatest politeness, which has established it.

"If the Italians have a genius for music above the English, the English
have a genius for other performances of a much higher nature, and
capable of giving the mind a much nobler entertainment. Would one think
it was possible (at a time when an author lived that was able to write
the Phedra and Hippolitus) for a people to be so stupidly fond of the
Italian opera as scarce to give a third day's hearing to that admirable
tragedy? Music is, certainly, a very agreeable entertainment; but if it
would take entire possession of our ears, if it would make us incapable
of hearing sense, if it would exclude arts that have much greater
tendency to the refinement of human nature, I must confess I would allow
it no better quarter than Plato has done, who banishes it out of his
commonwealth.

[Sidenote: ADDISON ON THE OPERA.]

"At present, our notions of music are so very uncertain, that we do not
know what it is we like; only, in general, we are transported with
anything that is not English; so it be of foreign growth, let it be
Italian, French, or High Dutch, it is the same thing. In short, our
English music is quite rooted out, and nothing yet planted in its
stead."

The Spectator was written from day to day, and was certainly not
intended for our entertainment; yet, who can fail to be amused at the
description of the stage king "who spoke in Italian and his slaves
answered him in English;" and of the lover who "frequently made his
court and gained the heart of his princess in a language which she did
not understand?" What, too, in this style of humour, can be better than
the notion of the audience getting tired of understanding half the
opera, and, to ease themselves of the trouble of thinking, so ordering
it that the whole opera is performed in an unknown tongue; or of the
performers who, for all the audience knew to the contrary, might be
calling them names and abusing them among themselves; or of the probable
reflection of the future historian, that "in the beginning of the 18th
century the Italian tongue was so well understood in England that operas
were acted on the public stage in that language?" On the other hand, we
have not, it is true, heard yet of any historian publishing the remark
suggested by Addison; probably, because those historians who go to the
opera--and who does not?--are quite aware that to understand an Italian
opera, it is not at all necessary to have a knowledge of the Italian
language. The Italian singers might abuse us at their ease, especially
in concerted pieces, and in grand finales; but they might in the same
way, and equally, without fear of detection, abuse their own countrymen.
Our English vocalists, too, might indulge in the same gratification in
England, and have I not mentioned that at the Grand Opera of Paris--

'La soupe aux choux se fait dans la marmite.'

has been sung in place of Scribe's words in the opening chorus of
Robert le Diable; and if La soupe, &c., why not anything else? But
it is a great mistake to inquire too closely into the foundation on
which a joke stands, when the joke itself is good; and I am almost
ashamed, as it is, of having said so much on the subject of Addison's
pleasantries, when the pleasantries spoke so well for themselves. One
might almost as well write an essay to prove seriously that language was
not given to man "to conceal his thoughts."

[Sidenote: MUSIC AS AN ART.]

The only portion of the paper from which I have extracted the above
observations that can be treated in perfect seriousness, is that which
begins--"If the Italians have a genius for music, &c.," and ends--"I
would allow it no better quarter than Plato has done," &c. Now the
recent political condition of Italy sufficiently proves that music could
not save a country from national degradation; but neither could painting
nor an admirable poetic literature. It is also better, no doubt, that a
man should learn his duty to God and to his neighbour, than that he
should cultivate a taste for harmony, but why not do both; and above
all, why compare like with unlike? The "performances of a much higher
nature" than music undeniably exist, but they do not answer the same
end. The more general science on which that of astronomy rests may be a
nobler study than music, but there is nothing consoling or per se
elevating in mathematics. Poetry, again, would by most persons be
classed higher than music, though the effect of half poetry, and of
imaginative literature generally, is to place the reader in a state of
reverie such as music induces more immediately and more perfectly. The
enjoyment of art--by which we do not mean its production, or its
critical examination, but the pure enjoyment of the artistic result--has
nothing strictly intellectual in it; no man could grow wise by looking
at Raphael or listening to Mozart. Nor does he derive any important
intellectual ideas from many of our most beautiful poems, but simply
emotion, of an elevated kind, such as is given by fine music. Music is
evidently not didactic, and painting can only teach, in the ordinary
sense of the word, what every one already knows; though, of course, a
painter may depict certain aspects of nature and of the human face,
previously unobserved and unimagined, just as the composer, in giving a
musical expression to certain sentiments and passions, can rouse in us
emotions previously dormant, or never experienced before with so much
intensity. But the fine arts cannot communicate abstract truths--from
which it chiefly follows that no right-minded artist ever uses them with
such an aim; though there is no saying what some wild enthusiasts will
not endeavour to express, and other enthusiasts equally wild pretend to
see, in symphonies and in big symbolical pictures. If Addison meant to
insinuate that Phædra and Hippolytus was a much higher performance
than any possible opera, he was decidedly in error. But he had not heard
Don Juan, William Tell, and Der Freischütz; to which no one in the
present day, unless musically deaf, could prefer an English translation
of Phèdre. It would be unfair to lay too much stress on the fact that
the music of Handel still lives, and with no declining life, whereas the
tragedies of Racine, resuscitated by Mademoiselle Rachel, have not been
heard of since the death of that admirable actress; Addison was only
acquainted with the earliest of Handel's operas, and these are
forgotten, as indeed are most of his others, with the exception, here
and there, of a few detached airs.

[Sidenote: OPERA AND DRAMA.]

In the sentence commencing "Music is certainly a very agreeable
entertainment, but," &c., Addison says what every one, who would care to
see one of Shakespeare's plays properly acted (not much cared for,
however, in Addison's time), must feel now. Let us have perfect
representations of Opera by all means; but it is a sad and a disgraceful
thing, that in his own native country the works of the greatest
dramatist who ever lived should be utterly neglected as far as their
stage representation is concerned. It is absurd to pretend that the
Opera is the sole cause of this. Operas, magnificently put upon the
stage, are played in England, at least at one theatre, with remarkable
completeness of excellence, and, at more than one, with admirable
singers in the principal and even in the minor parts. Shakespeare's
dramas, when they are played at all, are thrown on to the stage anyhow.
This would not matter so much, but our players, even in Hamlet, where
they are especially cautioned against it, have neither the sense nor the
good taste to avoid exaggeration and rant, to which, they maintain, the
public are now so accustomed, that a tragedian acting naturally would
make no impression. Their conventionality, moreover, makes them keep to
certain stage "traditions," which are frequently absurd, while their
vanity is so egregious that one who imagines himself a first-rate actor
(in a day when there are no first-rate actors) will not take what he is
pleased to consider a second-rate part. Our stage has no tragedian who
could embody the jealousy of "Otello," as Ronconi embodies that of
"Chevreuse" in Maria di Rohan, nor could half a dozen actors of equal
reputation be persuaded in any piece to appear in half a dozen parts of
various degrees of prominence, though this is what constantly takes
place at the Opera.

In Addison's time, Nicolini was a far greater actor than any who was in
the habit of appearing on the English stage; indeed, this alone can
account for the success of the ridiculous opera of Hydaspes, in which
Nicolini played the principal part, and of which I shall give some
account in the proper place. Doubtless also, it had much to do with the
success of Italian Opera generally, which, when Addison commenced
writing about it in the Spectator, was supported by no great composer,
and was constructed on such frameworks as one would imagine could only
have been imagined by a lunatic or by a pantomime writer struck serious.
If Addison had not been fond of music, and moreover a very just critic,
he would have dismissed the Italian Opera, such as it existed during the
first days of the Spectator, as a hopeless mass of absurdity.

[Sidenote: STAGE DECORATION.]

Every one must in particular admit the justness of Addison's views
respecting the incongruity of operatic scenery; indeed, his observations
on that subject might with advantage be republished now and then in the
present day. "What a field of raillery," he says, "would they [the wits
of King Charles's time] have been let into had they been entertained
with painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by
Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes! A little
skill in criticism would inform us, that shadows and realities ought not
to be mixed together in the same piece; and that the scenes which are
designed as the representations of nature should be filled with
resemblances, and not with the things themselves. If one would represent
a wide champaign country, filled with herds and flocks, it would be
ridiculous to draw the country only upon the scenes, and to crowd
several parts of the stage with sheep and oxen. This is joining together
inconsistencies, and making the decoration partly real and partly
imaginary. I would recommend what I have here said to the directors as
well as the admirers, of our modern opera."

In the matter of stage decoration we have "learned nothing and forgotten
nothing" since the beginning of the 18th century. Servandoni, at the
theatre of the Tuileries, which contained some seven thousand persons,
introduced as elaborate and successful mechanical devices as any that
have been known since his time; but then as now the real and artificial
were mixed together, by which the general picture is necessarily
rendered absurd, or rather no general picture is produced. Independently
of the fact that the reality of the natural objects makes the
artificiality of the manufactured ones unnecessarily evident as when the
branches of real trees are agitated by a gust of wind, while those of
pasteboard trees remain fixed--it is difficult in making use of natural
objects on the stage to observe with any accuracy the laws of proportion
and perspective, so that to the eye the realities of which the manager
is so proud, are, after all, strikingly unreal. The peculiar conditions
too, under which theatrical scenery is viewed, should always be taken
into account. Thus, "real water," which used at one time to be announced
as such a great attraction at some of our minor playhouses, does not
look like water on the stage, but has a dull, black, inky, appearance,
quite sufficient to render it improbable that any despondent heroine,
whatever her misfortune, would consent to drown herself in it.

The most contemptuous thing ever written against the Opera, or rather
against music in general, is Swift's celebrated epigram on the Handel
and Buononcini disputes:--

"Some say that Signor Buononcini
Compared to Handel is a ninny;
While others say that to him, Handel
Is hardly fit to hold a candle.
Strange that such difference should be,
'Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee."

Capital, telling lines, no doubt, though is it not equally strange that
there should be such a difference between one piece of painted canvas
and another, or between a statue by Michael Angelo and the figure of a
Scotchman outside a tobacconist's shop? These differences exist, and it
proves nothing against art that savages and certain exceptional natures
among civilized men are unable to perceive them. We wonder how the Dean
of St. Patrick's would have got on with the Abbé Arnauld, who was so
impressed with the sublimity of one of the pieces in Gluck's
Iphigénie, that he exclaimed, "With that air one might found a new
religion!"

[Sidenote: BERANGER ON THE DECLINE OF THE DRAMA.]

One of the wittiest poems written against our modern love of music
(cultivated, it must be admitted, to a painful extent by many incapable
amateurs) is the lament by Béranger, in which the poet, after
complaining that the convivial song is despised as not sufficiently
artistic, and that in the presence of the opera the drama itself is fast
disappearing, exclaims:

Si nous t'enterrons
Bel art dramatique,
Pour toi nous dirons
La messe en musique.

Without falling into the same error as those who have accused Addison of
a selfish and interested animosity towards the Opera, I may remark that
song-writers have often very little sympathy for any kind of music
except that which can be easily subjected to words, as in narrative
ballads, and to a certain extent ballads of all kinds. When a man says
"I don't care much for music, but I like a good song," we may generally
infer that he does not care for music at all. So play-wrights have a
liking for music when it can be introduced as an ornament into their
pieces, but not when it is made the most important element in the
drama--indeed, the drama itself.

Favart, the author of numerous opera-books, has left a good satirical
description in verse of French opera. It ends as follows:--

Quiconque voudra
Faire un opéra,
Emprunte à Pluton,
Son peuple démon;
Qu'il tire des cieux
Un couple de dieux,
Qu'il y joigne un héros
Tendre jusqu' aux os.
Lardez votre sujet,
D'un éternel ballet.
Amenez au milieu d'une fête
La tempête,
Une bête,
Que quelqu'un tûra
Dès qu'il la verra.
Quiconque voudra faire un opéra
Fuira de la raison
Le triste poison.
Il fera chanter
Concerter et sauter
Et puis le reste ira,
Tout comme il pourra.

[Sidenote: PANARD ON THE OPERA.]

This, from a man whose operas did not fail, but on the contrary, were
highly successful, is rather too bad. But the author of the ill-fated
"Rosamond" himself visited the French Opera, and has left an account of
it, which corresponds closely enough to Favart's poetical description.
"I have seen a couple of rivers," he says, (No. 29 of the Spectator)
"appear in red stockings, and Alpheus, instead of having his head
covered with sedge and bulrushes, making love in a fair, full-bottomed,
periwig, and a plume of feathers, but with a voice so full of shakes and
quavers that I should have thought the murmurs of a country brook the
much more agreeable music. I remember the last opera I saw in that merry
nation was the "Rape of Proserpine," where Pluto, to make the more
tempting figure, puts himself in a French equipage, and brings
Ascalaphus along with him as his valet de chambre." This is what we
call folly and impertinence, but what the French look upon as gay and
polite."

Addison's account agrees with Favart's song and also with one by Panard,
which contains this stanza:--

"J'ai vu le soleil et la lune
Qui faissient des discours en l'air
J'ai vu le terrible Neptune
Sortir tout frisé de la mer."

Panard's song, which occurs at the end of a vaudeville produced in 1733,
entitled Le départ de l'Opéra, refers to scenes behind as well as
before the curtain. It could not be translated with any effect, but I
may offer the reader the following modernized imitation of it, and so
conclude the present chapter.

WHAT MAY BE SEEN AT THE OPERA.

I've seen Semiramis, the queen;
I've seen the Mysteries of Isis;
A lady full of health I've seen
Die in her dressing-gown, of phthisis.

I've seen a wretched lover sigh,
"Fra poco" he a corpse would be,
Transfix himself, and then--not die,
But coolly sing an air in D.

I've seen a father lose his child,
Nor seek the robbers' flight to stay;
But, in a voice extremely mild,
Kneel down upon the stage and pray.

I've seen "Otello" stab his wife;
The "Count di Luna" fight his brother;
"Lucrezia" take her own son's life;
And "John of Leyden" cut his mother.

I've seen a churchyard yield its dead,
And lifeless nuns in life rejoice;
I've seen a statue bow its head,
And listened to its trombone voice.

I've seen a herald sound alarms,
Without evincing any fright:
Have seen an army cry "To arms"
For half an hour, and never fight.

I've seen a naiad drinking beer;
I've seen a goddess fined a crown;
And pirate bands, who knew no fear,
By the stage manager put down;

Seen angels in an awful rage,
And slaves receive more court than queens,
And huntresses upon the stage
Themselves pursued behind the scenes.

I've seen a maid despond in A,
Fly the perfidious one in B,
Come back to see her wedding day,
And perish in a minor key.

I've seen the realm of bliss eternal,
(The songs accompanied by harps);
I've seen the land of pains infernal,
With demons shouting in six sharps!

[Sidenote: PANARD AT THE OPERA.]





Next: Introduction And Progress Of The Ballet

Previous: Introduction Of The Opera Into France And England



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