Monday, 13 July 2020

The Invention of English Opera: the surprising history of opera in 17th century England, part one, from masques to dramatic-opera

Inigo Jones' design for Oberon's Palace from The Masque of Oberon (1611)
Inigo Jones' design for Oberon's Palace from The Masque of Oberon (1611)
Considering that the country went through two revolutions, including an interregnum when music was ostensibly banned, there was a surprising amount of music theatre in England in the 17th century, and like other countries artists, performers and aristocrats eagerly experimented music and drama, sometimes creating something which we would recognise as opera, and sometimes coming up with hybrid forms. The vigour and ubiquity of Italian opera in England in the 18th century should not blind us to the importance of the tradition of the 17th century English opera. In this first article we look at how the first operas, and the distinctive English genre of semi-opera, developed out of the masque tradition.

The Masque

The masque tradition developed from the elaborate pageants and courtly shows of ducal Burgundy in the late Middle Ages. Masques were typically a complimentary offering to the prince among his guests and might combine pastoral settings, mythological fable, and the dramatic elements of ethical debate. There would invariably be some political and social application of the allegory. Such pageants often celebrated a birth, marriage, change of ruler or a Royal Entry and invariably ended with a tableau of bliss and concord. Ultimately the masque would lead to the Intermedio in Italy, the dramatico-musical interludes placed between plays, which developed into opera.

Masque imagery tended to be drawn from Classical rather than Christian sources, and there was often a political subtext, which could sometimes be quite explicit. For instance, The Triumph of Peace was put on in London in 1634 using a large amount of parliament-raised money by King Charles I, however the subject caused great offence to the Puritans.
In England, Tudor court masques developed from earlier guisings, where a masked allegorical figure would appear and address the assembled company—providing a theme for the occasion—with musical accompaniment.  Masques at Queen Elizabeth I's court emphasized the concord and unity between Queen and Kingdom. The Masque of the Seven Deadly Sins in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene provides us with a description of an Elizabethan masque.
 
In the court of King James I, narrative elements of the masque became more significant, and plots were often on classical or allegorical themes, glorifying the royal or noble sponsor. At the end, the audience would join with the actors in a final dance. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) wrote a number of masques with stage design by Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and their works are usually thought of as the most significant in the form.
 
The Triumph of Peace was a Caroline era masque, "invented and written" by dramatist James Shirley (1596-1666), performed on 3 February 1634 and published the same year. The production was designed by Inigo Jones. The music for the masque was composed by William Lawes (1602-1645), Simon Ives (1600-1662), and Bulstrode Whitelocke (1605-1675). The costumes were rich and fantastic: "Fancy in a suit of several-colored feathers, hooded, a pair of bat's wings on his shoulders...Jollity in a flame-colored suit, but tricked like a morris dancer, with scarfs and napkins, his hat fashioned like a cone...."  The cost for the show was extraordinary, £1000 for the music and a hundred costumes at £100 each (at a time when a squire might earn £100 in a year).
 
Matthew Locke (1621-1677), with Christopher Gibbons (1615-1676), the son of composer Orlando Gibbons, composed the score for Cupid and Death, and this is the sole surviving score for a dramatic work from that era. Performed on 26 March 1653 before the Portuguese ambassador to Great Britain, the work and its performance provide a point of contradiction to the standard view that the England of Oliver Cromwell and the Interregnum was uniformly hostile to stage drama.
 

John Webb's set design for 'The Siege of Rhodes'
John Webb's set design for The Siege of Rhodes
The First English Opera

The Siege of Rhodes is an opera written to a text by the impresario William Davenant with a score by five composers, the vocal music by Henry Lawes (1596-1662), Matthew Locke, and Captain Henry Cooke, and the instrumental music by Charles Coleman and George Hudson. It is considered to be the first English opera.
 
Part 1 of The Siege of Rhodes was first performed in a small private theatre constructed at Davenant's home, Rutland House, in 1656. Special permission had to be obtained from the Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, as dramatic performances were outlawed, and all public theatres closed. Davenant managed to obtain this by calling the production "recitative music", music being still permissible within the law. Part 2 of The Siege of Rhodes followed in 1657–1659. The score of the opera is believed to be lost. However, the original sketches by Inigo Jones' assistant, John Webb (1611-1672) for the stage sets, themselves an innovation of the day, are extant.
 
Matthew Locke wrote music for subsequent Davenant operas, The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658) and The History of Sir Francis Drake (1659). Davenant brought into the public theatre the techniques of scenery and painted backdrops that had previously been employed only in the courtly masque.  No music from The Cruelty survives, and only one piece of music from the score of Drake has survived — a ‘Symeron’ dance composed by Matthew Locke.

Libretto for Thomas Shadwell and Matthew Locke's Psyche (1675)
Libretto for Thomas Shadwell and Matthew Locke's Psyche (1675)
Semi-Opera - round 1

Dramatick opera or semi-opera is a distinctly English form of theatrical entertainment in which the principal characters do not sing, except if they are supernatural, or pastoral, but the secondary characters sing to them, and singing can also be religious observance or song which is diegetic, ie part of the plot. The form arose for a mixture of reasons, partly economic; there was no patronage of opera by the English Royal Court, there was no English opera company. And the vigour of the theatrical tradition almost precluded the development of opera. In addition, there seems to have been an inherent mistrust of opera as a foreign entertainment.
 
Psyche is a semi-opera in five acts with music by Matthew Locke to a libretto by the Poet Laureate, Thomas Shadwell (1642-1602) with dances by Giovanni Battista Draghi (1640-1708). It was first performed at Dorset Garden Theatre, London on 27 February 1675 by the Duke's Company with choreography the French dancing-master Saint-André, stage machinery by Thomas Betterton and scenery by Stephenson. The work is loosely based on Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1671 tragédie-ballet Psyché.

Locke composed Psyche in response to the visit to Britain of a French opera company under the direction of Robert Cambert, in 1674 [see my article on the Invention of French Opera] and it is perhaps significant that the English did not compose an opera in emulation, but a hybrid form mixing spoken drama with singing. Locke published his music for Psyche and for the semi-opera The Tempest as The English Opera, just omitting the dances composed by Draghi.

Other semi-operas of the period include Macbeth (1673) with music by Locke, The Lancashire Witches and Tegue O'Divelly the Irish Priest (1681) libretto by Thomas Shadwell with music by John Eccles (1668-1735). However, it was an expensive form to mount, requiring an acting company, singers and instrumentalists along with elaborate designs and machinery.

Interior of the Dorset Gardens Theatre
A rare contemporary image of the interior of the Dorset Gardens Theatre
Dryden & Purcell: Semi Opera round 2

Albion and Albanius is an opera, closely resembling a French tragédie en musique, by the Catalan-born, French-trained, London-based composer Louis Grabu (fl. 1665-1690), the Master of the King's Music, with an English libretto by John Dryden (1631-1700). The words were written by Dryden in 1680. It was initially intended as a prologue to his opera King Arthur. Dryden probably wrote the original libretto for King Arthur in 1684 to mark the 25th anniversary of King Charles II's Restoration the following year. The original text of King Arthur no longer exists but it was to be in three acts with an allegorical prologue. For unknown reasons Dryden abandoned his intention to have the whole work set to music and developed the prologue into another opera Albion and Albanius, and the music was written in 1685.

However King Charles II died in 1685, and after the period of court mourning for the late King and many other delays, the sumptuous production (costing the company over £4000 to mount) had its premiere on Sunday, 3 June that same year at Dorset Garden Theatre, London. This was "a very unlucky day", observes John Downes in his historical review of the English stage, Roscius Anglicanus, "being the day the Duke of Monmouth landed in the west: the nation being in a great consternation, it was performed but six times, which not answering half the charge they were at, involved the company very much in debt."

This fiasco helps explain the rarity of operas in the 1680s, until Londoners had settled down after the Glorious Revolution of 1689. In addition, events of the five years of King James II's reign quickly rendered the adulatory allegory of Dryden's machinery no longer current.

Albion and Albanius is the first all-sung and full-length English opera that still survives, with John Blow's Venus and Adonis being its shorter predecessor by about two years. Venus and Adonis was written as a tribute to King Charles II, and after his death was intended to apply to his successor James II. Based in style on a pre-civil war court masque, "the allegory itself so very obvious that it will no sooner be read than understood"

In the mean-time, England entered a turbulent period in its history. After the Catholic King James II took the throne, Dryden too converted to Catholicism. When the Protestant King William III overthrew James in the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Dryden refused to renounce his faith and so lost his job as poet laureate to his rival Thomas Shadwell. The career of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) career had also suffered after the death of the music-loving King Charles II. With their sources of royal patronage gone, both playwright and composer were looking to make money as freelance professionals and the London stage offered attractive opportunities.

Lbretto of John Dryden and Henry Purcell's King Arthur (1691)
Libretto for Thomas Shadwell and Matthew Locke's Psyche (1675)
In 1690, the theatre manager Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) decided to risk putting on another operatic work, the first since the ill-fated Albion and Albanius. This was the semi-opera Dioclesian (1690), an adaptation of a play by Beaumont and Fletcher. The play was first produced in 1622. Choreography for the various dances was provided by Josias Priest (1645-1735), who worked with Purcell on several other semi-operas (and at whose school Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas were performed). Betterton reworked the play extensively, making room for a great deal of Purcell's music.

Purcell's music for Dioclesian and the lavish staging made it a triumph and Betterton was eager for another such success. He persuaded Dryden to dust off and revise the libretto for King Arthur so Purcell could set it. The two had already collaborated on stage works (Dryden had written the prologue for Dioclesian and Purcell wrote the incidental music for Dryden's comedy Amphitryon) and Dryden was effusive in his praise of Purcell's musical abilities.

The exact date of the premiere of King Arthur is unknown but the wordbook was advertised in The London Gazette from 4 to 8 June 1691, suggesting a recent staging. The production was not as spectacular as Dioclesian or the later Fairy Queen but it proved the most financially successful for the theatre. Betterton himself took the role of King Arthur, despite being in his fifties. The contemporary writer Roger North was most impressed by Charlotte Butler's singing of Cupid, describing it as "beyond anything I ever heard upon the stage", partly ascribing her success to "the liberty she had of concealing her face, which she could not endure should be so contorted as is necessary to sound well, before her gallants, or at least her envious sex."

King Arthur was revived at least twice during Purcell's lifetime and continued to be performed in the later 1690s. The first major revival in the eighteenth century was staged in 1736. This production left the work unaltered, but later revivals involved varying degrees of revision. They included a performance in Dublin in 1763; David Garrick and Thomas Arne's version in 1770; and John Kemble and Thomas Linley's transformation of King Arthur into a two-act after-piece entitled Arthur and Emmeline in 1784

Dorset Gardens Theatre where Purcell's The Fairy Queen was first performed
Dorset Gardens Theatre where Purcell's The Fairy Queen was first performed
Its follow-up, The Fairy-Queen (1692) is a semi-opera with music by Henry Purcell and a libretto which is an anonymous adaptation of William Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's DreamThe Fairy-Queen was first performed on 2 May 1692 at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden in London by the United Company. Based on an analysis of the stage directions, the author or at least co-author of the libretto was presumably Thomas Betterton, the manager of Dorset Garden Theatre, with whom Purcell worked regularly. Choreography for the various dances was provided by Josias Priest, who had also worked on Dioclesian and King Arthur.

A letter describing the original performance shows that the parts of Titania and Oberon were played by children of eight or nine, as presumably were the other fairies; this affects our perspective on the staging and explains why neither Oberon nor Tytania sing.

The history of opera in England is rather wound up in the complex history of London's theatrical companies. Up until 1682, there were two licensed theatre companies and their rivalry generated a great many new plays and theatrical events. From 1682 they joined as the United Company, using Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for plays and the Dorset Garden Theatre for semi-operas and more spectacular events.

In 1693 the management style of Christopher Rich (1657-1714) split the company and a group of leading actors including Thomas Betterton formed a second company which had a spectacular hit with William Congreve's play Love for love at the Lincoln's Inn Theatre in 1695. This new company would be led by Thomas Betterton, and supported by playwright and architect John Vanburgh (1664-1726), and managed by playwright William Congreve (1670-1726). Leading actresses included Anne Bracegirdle who had a professional relationship with the composer John Eccles (Master of the King's Music from 1700) who wrote a lot for the theatre, and Bracegirdle would only sing Eccles' songs.

Semi-opera continued, and included Rinaldo and Armida which was produced by Betterton's company at Lincoln's Inn Theatre in 1698. This had words by John Dennis with 'musical entertainments' by John Eccles, and Dennis' designs of the drama are innovative leading to a greater integration between music and drama.

In Part Two of the article we look at the brief flowering of English opera, with Venus and Adonis, Dido and Aeneas, The Judgement of Paris and Semele, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera. See part two.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Heroic Handel: I chat to Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum Baroque, about the group's plans including a large-scale on-line concert - interview
  • Incidental music to The Ruins of Athens: prime Beethoven linked to a forgetten play - CD review
  • Schubert's Four Seasons: an imaginative exploration of Schubert song from Sharon Carty and Jonathan Ware - CD review
  • They that in ships unto the sea go down - Music for the Mayflower from Passamezzo on Resonus Classics - CD review
  • French seasons and a Belgian violinist: I chat to Anna Ovsyanikova about her explorations of violin repertoire and her new disc - interview
  • Lyrical English pastoralism and more: the choral music of Owain Park showcased by The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian - CD review
  • Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice - baritone Holger Falk evokes the musical world of the 18th century gondolier in this imaginative disc - CD review
  • Seductively original, neither completely new nor completely old: The Red Book of Ossory from Anakronos on Heresy Records - CD review
  • The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem: Fretwork & the Magdalena Consort continue their exploration of these intimate works for voices and viols on Signum Classics - CD review
  • Politics, Poetry & Personal Interest: Lully, King Louis XIV and the invention of French opera - feature
  • Renowned as a pedagogue & the Royal Academy of Music's first cello professor, there is a lot more to Alfredo Piatti: I chat to cellist Adrian Bradbury about rediscovering Piatti's forgotten operatic fantasies - interview
  • 'Home

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