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.]





Manners And Customs At The London Opera Half A Century Since Opera In France After The Departure Of Gluck facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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