Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Attack of the Castrati

Why space opera? A question I'd never considered until I began reading this:
'Opera', to an audience in the 1720s, meant the Italian opera which had first appeared in London in 1705 and which had been much in vogue ever since. Songs, of course, had been common on the English stage since Tudor times, and by the latter part of the seventeenth century plays containing within them masque-scenes in which the dialogue was sung rather than spoken had become fashionable and were called operas. The Italian opera took this development further and eliminated spoken dialogue altogether, the passages between the various arias being carried on in recitative [...] no amount of ridicule could dent the popularity of the form - seventy-five years after its first appearance in England, Dr Johnson was to write resignedly of Italian opera as 'an exotick and irrational entertainment, which has always been combated and always has prevailed'.
Which is by way of introduction, though admittedly much space opera, especially on film, can be considered as trivial and absurd as contemporary issues of The Spectator thought the newly-arrived Italian opera. But here's the relevant part:
As well as being musically novel, the Italian operas [...] were remarkable for the sumptuousness of the costumes and the sophistication of the stage machinery. The libretto of Handel's very popular opera Rinaldo (1711), for example, requires the heroine to be carried through the air in Act I in a 'Chariot drawn by two huge Dragons, out of whose mouths issue Fire and Smoke', while Act II calls for waterfalls as well as 'Thunder, Lightning, and amazing Noises'. With so much spectacle to engage its attention, the audience at an opera was unlikely to concern itself greatly with the details of the plot, which was in nearly every case if not manifestly absurd at least considerably remote from the concerns of the everyday.
Was the newly-formed equivalent of ILM involved in creating the special effects? I'd guess so. Finally, as proof that the star system (forgive the pun) is nothing new:
It was not the plots but the spectacle and, above all, the singers that brought fashionable London to the Italian opera [...] In 1721 the great castrato Senesino was lured to London and in 1723 he was joined by the famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni; both were paid what was in those days the fabulous sum of £2,000 for the season.
Though presumably the London audience never had the egregious Jar-Jar Binks inflicted on it. The extracts are from Bryan Loughrey and T.O. Treadwell's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Beggar's Opera.


Lady Neferankh said...

Very interesting post! Though opera indeed has a very "high brow" reputation today, it is too true that much of its original appeal lay in the drawing power of the performers, and the larger than life onstage spectacle. (Wasn't Cuzzoni the one who got into a cat fight with Bordoni some years later?).

Only one question about your post--just what issues of The Spectator are you quoting in your post?

The Silver Eel said...

I think there was an on-stage and no doubt highly entertaining fight between the two of them. Yes, Wikipedia confirms it.

I'd like to say that I consulted one of the leather-bound collections in the 17th-century wing of my library, but the prosaic truth is that it's whatever issue of The Spectator that Loughrey and Treadwell were quoting from. I'll check the reference though.

Lady Neferankh said...

Ah yes, Wikipedia, the poor man's historical archive.

Thank you for the information though, do the above quotes come from any particular book then?

Don't you mean the 18th-century wing?

The Silver Eel said...

The particular book in question is referred to at the end of the post (and now hyperlinked).

Speaking very generally, I find 18th-century interiors a bit precious, while 16th-century interiors are too heavy and crude. 17th-century interiors carry the right blend of intimacy, style and solidity; so I relax there when poring over my bound copies of The Spectator and the Edinburgh Review. Latin and Greek classics can be found in the Bauhaus Annex, while out the glass sliding doors you'll find an abandoned runway, bleached white by Californian sun just like in Point Blank, with books by William Burroughs at one end and William Gibson at the other; overhead the wind wails endlessly through telegraph wires.

Hell, it's my imaginary library. Why not go to town?