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La Mesure et l'excès

Opera, Excess, and the discourse of Luxury in eighteenth-Century England

Michael Burden
p. 232-248

Résumés

Prendre pour objet d’étude le lien entre l’excès et l’opéra peut sembler vain. L’opinion commune associe l’opéra au « luxe » et le lien fut établi dès le xviiie siècle. Pour ne prendre que deux exemples, le Daily Post dénonce en 1738 « le luxe à l’opéra » et en 1742 un commentaire de The New Dunciad souligne « le luxe de ses sonorités propres à mettre en péril la virilité ». Les études récentes portant sur le luxe de l’opéra du xviiie siècle s’attachent à des termes comme « efféminé », « étrange(i)té » ou « exotisme » souvent sans reconnaître combien ce discours s’inscrit dans les débats du moment sur le luxe et sur ce que signifiait « l’excès » pour le commerce, la société et la Grande Bretagne en général. Il s’agit ici de rendre à l’opéra sa place dans ces débats et de voir que l’accusation eut peu d’impact sur le genre lui-même et joua même un rôle prépondérant dans sa promotion.

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Texte intégral

The frequent intercourses we now have with the Continent, facilitated as they are by rapid conveyance, by diffusion of the European languages, by the ease and allurements offered to the senses, by increasing wealth and consequent luxury, and lastly, by the manners of France and Italy, have a strong, may we not almost say, an irresistible, influence in drawing us away from our original dispositions and affections.
(Bacon 401-08)

1By the time this passage on Italian recitative was written in 1822 by the editor and music critic, Richard Mackenzie Bacon, it could be argued – as it was, say, by the historicist philosopher, Henry Home, Lord Kames – that opera as a source of sensual gratification had ceased to be a “luxury,” because it was now habitual (Kames 98). After all, all-sung imported opera had been on the London scene casually since the 1670s, and regularly since 1705, and it could be thought that English audiences would no longer have thought it a foreign novelty. And indeed, Bacon’s description is heading in the direction of the context in which we might expect to find the word used in describing opera today: a generalised assumption of grandeur, expense, and lavishness. Yet his text still contains themes which are familiar tropes to those consulting eighteenth-century descriptions of opera, which refer to the genre as “luxurious”: the “ease and allurements offered to the senses” by the sounds of the music; the notion that opera was not just an imported gewgaw, but a foreign product, one in which there were hidden moral dangers; that its importation was the result of increased wealth, and was therefore a measure of the success of the country’s economy, but also with an implication that such profits were being squandered; and that the country’s concentration on the foreign product was to the detriment of the local version, thereby failing to support not only the local economy, but also betraying an idea of national identity. Bacon’s words echoed across the century those more succinct binaries of the critic John Dennis, who questioned why its supporters preferred

Italian Sound to British Sense, Italian Nonsense to British Reason, the Blockheads of Italy to their own Country-men, who have Wit; and the Luxury, and Effeminacy of the most profligate Portion of the Globe to the British Virtue. (Dennis, Essay 23)

2In fact, the only familiar trope missing in Bacon’s encapsulation of the genre and its supposed promotion of vices is the figure of the castrato, the unmanned – and therefore unmanly and effeminate – figure around which much of the negative discourse on Italian opera swirled. The absence of this most potent image from Bacon’s narrative reflects the fall from favour of the castrato voice towards the end of the eighteenth century, and its replacement by the tenor as the heroic voice-type.

3Before going further, I want to locate my subject in the title of this article, which is a first glance at a subject that merits a longer and more detailed study. The focus of my use of the word “excess” is the perceived extravagance of foreign opera in London in the eighteenth century, an excess which is usually expressed through a language which reflects the contemporary debates on “luxury.” Counter to this will be the idea of “measure,” a term which will be used to describe the reality of that situation in England, the actual state of foreign opera, which offers a disjunct between it and the public discourse of “excess.” The home of foreign opera in London was the Opera House, one of three main theatres giving performances on the London theatre scene; the other two were the playhouses of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, which had, from the Restoration, each operated with a Royal patent. The Opera House – the Queen’s (or King’s) Theatre – staged its performances under an annual license issued by the office of the Lord Chamberlain. Despite these Royal connections, theatre in London was a commercial business; there was no consistent royal support, either artistically or financially, as there was in the other monarchical capitals of Europe.

4It is to the Opera House to which such discourse usually refers, in which the positioning, meaning, and descriptions of opera came to signify more in a broader social context than in an operatic one. Summed up: “Italian opera as a genre was reified by its early eighteenth-century English critics into an active historical-social agent, with supposed effects on listeners, their moral character, and the temporal fate of Britain” (McGeary 2). In other words, “excess” in the form of “luxury opera” was deemed a bad thing. Note also that McGeary refers to the “supposed effects,” emphasising that such “effects” were born of the critics’ imaginations, rather than of any empirical reality. Which leads to the question, where did this construct of luxury come from? What were its origins? There is much that might be said on the issue of “luxury,” but in setting some initial directions here, this article will argue that the failure by the Opera House administration to counter the false narrative of luxury developed by those commentators (most of whom were not “opera critics”) was not a failure at all, but a deliberate strategy.

5Perhaps as a marker in the discussion, the first question to pose is that although “opera” and “luxury” are, apparently, obvious natural bedfellows, at what point was the term first used to describe the genre? This connection appears to have been made by Dennis in his Essay on the opera’s after the Italian manner, which are about to be establish’d on the English stage, which contained the essentials of the commentary to come:

’Tis impossible to give any reason for so great a Difference between the Ancient Romans, and the Modern Italians, but only Luxury, and the reigning Luxury of Modern Italy, is that soft and effeminate Musick which abounds in the Italian Opera. (Preface)

He went on to express the hope that “while English Arms are every-where Victorious abroad, the English Arts may not be vanquish’d and oppress’d at home, by the invasion of Foreign luxury” (2). Note that his title is “which are about to be establish’d,” suggesting, correctly, that this was a response to a fear of a novelty becoming permanent.

6The essay was published in May 1706 in response to the perfor-mance of two operas, Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus, attributed to Thomas Clayton, and The Loves of Ergasto, with a score by Jakob Greber, both staged in 1705. Arsinoe, which claimed to be “after the Italian manner” but which was sung in English, was staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on 16 January. Some months later, over at the Queen’s Theatre on 9 April, The Loves of Ergasto, was (assuming the epilogue by William Congreve, quoted below, to be correct), sung wholly in Italian:

In sweet Italian Strains our Shepherds sing,
Of harmless Loves our painted Forests ring;
In Notes, perhaps less Foreign than the thing. (2.353)

Congreve’s lines – “Spoken by Mrs Bracegirdle” in the “Epilogue at the opening of the Queen’s Theatre in the Hay-Market, with an Italian pastoral” – are supported by the report by John Downes (d. c. 1712) of the event:

Captain Vantbrugg open’d his new Theatre in the Hay-Market, with Foreign Opera, Perform’d by a new set of Singers, Arriv’d from Italy; (the worst that e’re came from thence) for it lasted but 5 Days, and they being lik’d but indifferently by the Gentry; they in a little time marcht back to their own Country. (99)

And lastly, there is the layout of the libretto, which was the first to have an English and Italian parallel text, an unnecessary proceeding if the work was in English. However, though Arsinoe, in English, was successful, Ergasto, in Italian, “struggled through five performances” (Hume 5). The operas that followed – Giovanni Bononcini’s Camilla (1706), Clayton’s Rosamond (1707), and Camilla again (1707) – were all in English, a fact which might have been deplored by the cognoscenti, but out of which some virtue was made. Owen Swiney, writing in the address to Lady Wharton which appeared in the 1706 Camilla libretto in English, commented that the opera was designed to “give us a Taste of the Italian Musick, and in Time prove a foil to the English” music (Dedication).

7This situation persisted until the arrival of the castrato Valentini (Valentino Urbani, fl. 1690-1722), who was unable (or perhaps refused) to sing in English. Whether the rest of the cast were unable to sing in Italian, or whether the theatre simply took the easy way out, is unclear, and the next four operas – J. C. Pepusch’s pasticcio, Thomyris, Queen of Scythia (1707), and again with the new title of The Royal Amazon (1708); the pasticcio Love’s Triumph (1708); Nicola Haym’s adaptation of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Pyrrhus and Demetrius (1708 and 1709, libretto extant only for 1709); Camilla (1709), a pasticcio version of Francesco Conti’s Clotilda (1709); and Thomyris (1709) – had librettos that were all performed as bilingual works. At first, it was just the text for Valentini:

The part of Orontes being Sung by Signior Valentino, at the Desire of most of the Nobility who subscrib’d for the first Performances of this Opera, you have here the same in Italian, as it is translated out of English, and adjusted to the same Musick. (Royal Amazon 4)

Clearly, by the time of the 1709 revival of Thomyris, not just Valentini, but two other singers were performing in Italian, and it was only a matter of time before this bizarre practice was given up. When the pasticcio Almahide opened on the 10th of January 1710, the whole opera was sung in Italian.

8But as is suggested by other sentiments expressed in both pamphlets, Dennis was not a disinterested bystander. Amongst his output was the text of the English dramatick opera Rinaldo and Armida, with musical passages written mainly by John Eccles. These passages were the realisation of the manifesto contained in the work’s introduction, a manifesto which argued for Dennis’s type of English opera with its greater integration of music into the spoken drama:

Though the Tragedy of Rinaldo and Armida [...] has gone into the world under the name of an Opera; yet is neither the Dramatical Part of it, like the Drama of our usual Opera’s, nor the Musical part of it like that which is Sung and Play’d in those Entertainments: For all the Musick in this Play, even the Musick between the Acts, is part of the Tragedy, and for that Reason the Music is always Pathetick. (Dennis, Musical Entertainments Preface) 

For a variety of reasons both practical and political, Dennis’s views did not prevail, and although the music and some scenes from Purcellian dramatick operas remained popular, the genre not only failed to develop along the lines desired by Dennis, but fell out of favour as a mode of delivering new operatic works in English to the stage.

9In his defeat, Dennis’s reaching for the term “luxury” in a pejorative sense might seem predictable, but in fact, it was not. Both Christopher Berry and Werner Sombart have pointed to a fundamental change (or at least, division) in the luxury debate which took place in the seventeenth century, when the term became “de-moralised”: that is, “luxury” was perceived as a good thing, rather than a corrupting influence. Until this point, a “luxury” was a negative: Thomas Mun posited that although the best way to increase a nation’s wealth was by foreign trade, “we should always observe this rule: that we must always sell more to strangers yearly than we consume of theirs in value” (Berry 102).And the problem with luxuries, according to Charles Davenant, is that, by definition, they stimulate the desire for vanity and possession of what are in, fact, superfluous goods (Davenant 1.346-47). Mapping this narrative onto Italian opera, we can see that opera, a foreign import, will always have a negative balance in trading, and clearly falls into the category of superfluous goods.

10However, Nicholas Barbon, in a pamphlet written in 1690, argues that there is no trade for any necessity, since “nature may be satisfied with very little” (72-73). It follows that what is traded are only things of the “imagination,” and that such trading is governed by fashion. The deduction from this construct is that all imports are luxuries, and have no effect on the home market for necessities. There is no point in banning a particular import in an attempt to control trade, because that product is not replaceable by one that is home-grown. Having reached this point, Barbon is then able to suggest that such “imagination” for luxuries promotes trade, which is a good thing, as it “provides employment, improves the natural stock of the country, raises rent and improves yields, occasions peace, increases revenue, enlarges defensive capabilities and can help in the ‘Inlarging of Empire’” (Berry 125). This being the case, luxuries were not inherently bad, because they then have a positive effect on social well-being, for the nation was made happier through the luxuries it had acquired. “Excess” is therefore a good thing; luxuries make the nation happy.

11As Berry observes, Barbon’s view is polemical, aimed at a particular promotion of the benefits of trade (Berry 108-09). Barbon was, though, not alone: although his stance would be later disputed by others, Bernard Mandeville, the Dutch-born philosopher resident in England, ultimately adopted a similar position: he acknowledges that luxury belongs with the vices of mankind, but then declares “if you wish power and plenty, then you must also have luxury.” If, through the “dextrous Management” by the government, the import-export flow of goods is kept balanced, “no Nation can ever be impoverish’d by Foreign Luxury” (Mandeville 115-16). So, when Dennis came to use the term a decade after Barbon, it can be seen that, in order to use it in the pejorative sense, Dennis had to “re-moralise” it in the context of Italian opera. And let us be clear: Dennis does not use the term in the sense of a classical narrative, but specifically references “modern” luxury of “modern Italy.” So for Dennis, “luxury” – now linked with “foreign opera” – puts “excess” back into English public discourse with a negative slant.

12This manifested itself in a series of claims for “excess” in the genre of opera: it was wildly popular, the sets looked expensive, the costumes dramatic, the singers’ salaries colossal, and the performers’ sexual conduct startling. These claims have been taken into today’s scholarly discourse on the study of opera, Suzanne Aspden rightly pointing to those “modern discussions of the significance of luxury in opera, the vast amounts of money spent on opulent sets, and on fees and gifts for the singers, along with the sexual perversions that were imagined to spread from the singers to the audience […]” (13). And there are plenty of those discussions, but are the original claims on which they are based true?

13Firstly, was it popular? Those who had a vested interest in the playhouses certainly claimed that it was, at least in public; in private, David Garrick, the manager of Drury Lane Theatre, when advising William Young on a private production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, commented that the Opera house might supply the costumes required because it exhibits “so Seldom,” a remark that hardly suggests concern at the competition (Garrick 1.285). But in what sense, beyond its repeated citation in contemporary texts, might it be seen as popular? The market for Italian opera was “fixed,” in the sense of being manipulated, a fix that went beyond import-export control. It was not simply market led.

14As mentioned at the opening of this article, the London theatres and their repertory were under the control of the Lord Chamberlain, who restricted the performance of popular English opera, and allowed the theatres to promote either plays or foreign opera. When what became London’s Italian Opera house, the Queen’s Theatre, was first conceived in 1703, English opera was to have been an occasional treat between the performance of plays, as they were at the rival house, Drury Lane. This scheme had clearly been abandoned in 1707, for John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), the builder of the Queen’s, persuaded the Lord Chamberlain to restrict Italian operas to his theatre, and confine plays to Drury Lane. Then in 1709, with a joint company at the Queen’s Theatre, the Lord Chamberlain restricted both plays (on four nights a week) and Italian operas (on two nights a week). Then in 1710-11, he allowed plays to return to Drury Lane, leaving Italian operas at the Queen’s (Price, “Decade”; Music 117-33).

15Further, the financial basis of the Opera became the subscription, a system used at the Opera House only among the London theatres. The season needed a number of subscribers – assessed as 200 subscribers at 20 guineas each in 1738 (Daily Post) – to put money upfront to purchase their places at the opera, sight and sound unseen. And from 1719 until the early 1740s, those putting on the opera were in receipt of an Opera Bounty of £ 1,000 per annum from the king, and for much of the 1730s, were also supported by other irregular subsidies from the Prince of Wales. When these disappeared, there were clearly other sorts of support: it is reported, for example, that the Duke of Marlborough (O’Reilly 7), the Duke of Cumberland (Walpole to Horace Mann, 27 May 1756, 557), and the singers themselves underwrote different opera seasons (Baretti 149), although these claims cannot be substantiated. Thus, the market for the foreign “luxury” import was a protected one. Without such protection, Italian opera could not survive. Even with it, Vanbrugh went bankrupt at the end of the 1707-08 season, and the opera limped on through to the end of the century’s second decade until the Opera bounty was instituted. Far from being overwhelmingly popular, it could not stand on its own two feet.

16This is not to suggest that music was itself unpopular; indeed, there were claims which suggested that the desire for the Italian variety had altered the taste of the town. Daniel Purcell commented in the Preface to the publications of his six cantatas:

THE Introducing Italian Opera’s upon the English Stage, has so altered the Taste of this Nation, as to MUSICK, that scarce any thing, but what bears some Resemblance of the Italian Style and Manner, is received with Favour or heard with Patience. (Preface)

And like Dennis, Purcell was not without his own agenda: his entry in the 1701 competition piece for a new all-sung opera, The Judgment of Paris, had led nowhere – neither had those entries by Eccles, Gottfried Finger and John Weldon – and both his Orlando Furioso from 1704 and Masque of Orpheus and Euridice from 1707 with a text by Dennis were probably not completed; there is certainly no record of them being performed (Humphreys 2.134-36). Purcell’s thoughts above come from the preface to his Six cantatas for a voice (after the Italian manner), a publication which shows that composers working in England were prepared, indeed, seemed eager, to adopt aspects of Italian music.

17Secondly, were the sets and costumes expensive? Joseph Addison (among many others) certainly claimed in The Spectator that “an Opera may be allowed to be extravagantly lavish in its decorations, as its only design is to gratify the sense, and keep up an indolent attention in the audience” (6 March 1711). Addison’s later reference in the piece to “the Directors, as well as to the Admirers, of our Modern Opera” makes it clear that it was Italian opera, the newly imported genre, that was under discussion. Yet Addison was only following a well-worn groove, for the notion of “extravagance of opera,” the “excess” of opera as a piece of staging, is not something that appeared in England with the foreign import, but something indelibly associated with the genre ever since the building by Thomas Betterton of the machine house at Dorset Garden Theatre in 1674. A similar response to those operas then performed – Macbeth, The Tempest, Psyche, all with music by Matthew Locke – by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, damns the taste of the dramatists, composers, and the public:

As Charms are Nonsence, Nonsence seems a Charm.
Which hearers of all Judgement does disarm;
[…]
Players turn Puppets now at your desire,
In their Mouth’s Nonsense, in their Tails a Wire.
They fly through Clouds of Clouts, and showers of fire. (Wilmot 118)

As these lines from the epilogue to Francis Fane’s 1675 play Love in the Dark suggest, English seventeenth-century opera with spoken dialogue was thought both aesthetically dubious and extravagant; the productions involved huge numbers of singers and dancers and instrumentalists, together with costumes, sets and effects. And Wilmot’s lines find a resonance in Addison’s description of the castrato Nicolini, who could be seen at the Opera House “sailing in an open Boat upon a Sea of Paste-Board” (6 March 1711).

18But the sets for the Italian Opera House nearly always consisted of stock scenery; one palace looked just like another, one closet did for all six of the operas in a season, and the ships in the harbour scenes were simply re-organised to show the ports of Corinth, or Carthage, or Naples. The expenditure was often focussed on the provision of one or two particular scenes in a season, usually designed and painted by a name that could be added to the publicity (Burden 128-29), names such as Marco Ricci in the 1710 Idaspe Fedele set by Francesco Mancini, Giuseppe Goupy in the 1727 Riccardo I, re d’Inghilterra by Handel, or William Kent, in the 1736 La festa d’Imeneo also by Handel. The practise is well attested to in theatres both on the Continent and in London; the Covent Garden scene inventory for 1743, for example, shows not only the generic nature of many of the scenes, but also those painted for specific shows (Nagler 352-56). Similarly, the opera costumes were used and re-used from season to season, with some of these belonging to the performers themselves. The costumes were generic: the “opera dress” with panniered skirt for the female characters, the opera house version of Roman dress for the male characters, and the props – which were carried by performers of both sexes – symbolising their roles. Like the sets, expenditure seems to have been concentrated on particular objects, such as feathers, or the provision of breastplates for an army, and, also like the sets, was often the subject of advertisement.

19In fact, the early Italian operas in London were described in 1711 by Aaron Hill as so “wanting the Machines and Decorations, which bestow so great a Beauty on their Appearance” that “they have been heard and seen to very considerable Disadvantage” (Rossi, Preface). And in 1727, Lewis Theobald, the author of the introduction to The Rape of Proserpine, commented “that the vast Expense of procuring Foreign Voices, does necessarily exclude those various Embellishments of Machinery, Painting, Dances, as well as Poetry itself, which have been always esteemed (except till very lately in England)” (Dedication). Both authors had agendas: Hill wanted to puff the staging of the new Rinaldo, while Theobald was promoting the new – and spectacular – genre of English pantomime, but it appears that both men could legitimately make such claims.

20It should also be noted that expenditure by the playhouses on sets and costumes far outstripped anything the Opera House could muster, in terms of numbers of sets and costumes required, and in the specificity of what was needed. For example, the Opera House was able, on 18 March 1755, to present Baldassare Galuppi’s Ricimero re de’ Goti, a fairly conventional opera seria with six characters, and, we assume, assorted supernumeraries. On the same night, Drury Lane presented James Thomson’s Tancredi and Sigismunda, with six characters, officers, etc., and Garrick’s Lethe, with twelve characters as an afterpiece, while Covent Garden staged Hill’s Alzira with seven characters, and Samuel Foote’s Taste as an afterpiece, with nine more. Overall, in the 1754-55 season, the Opera House presented five opera serie, while the play-houses performed a total of some one hundred and seven different mainpieces, sixty-six afterpieces, and numerous other small acts, with costume and staging requirements ranging from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to the new masque Britannia, to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to Congreve’s The Mourning Bride, and his The Way of the world, Addison’s The Drummer, to the new Barbarossa by John Brown.

21Thirdly, were the singers’ reported salaries colossal? The grandest singers were paid upwards of £ 1,000 a season, although the actual figures were often exaggerated and were much disputed (Milhous & Hume, “Salaries”; “Farinelli”); it was, after all, a matter of prestige for the performer, and the salary became part of the image of that singer which was circulated in print. In the balance of the trade in the luxury debate, such sums were being paid to foreigners, and it could be assumed by the public that the money would be removed from the local economy. It was further problematical that the highest sums were paid to the castrati, the unmanly singers with the ethereal voices. This complaint had some truth in it; the lead singers were highly paid. Furthermore, they also received (or were reputed to receive) extra gifts; for “an Italian Singer, or French Dancer, is sure to be caress’d, and loaded with Riches” (Dorman 144). However, it is also true to say that only a few singers were paid these sums, and that singers in the London playhouses were frequently paid more than the actors. And importantly, as with the calculations above on costume provision, there were only six or seven singers required by the Opera House, not all of whom would have been paid such sums; the total salary bill included the minor singers whose salaries were much smaller.

22And lastly, was the performers’ sexual “excess” startling? As reported, yes: although mostly couched in veiled terms, the reports implied bizarre perversions, born of foreign sexual license. The women were Catholic whores, while the castrati inhabited a grotesque world of sexual ambiguity. And not just the Italians; those who sang Italian opera were equally in the firing line, as the English singer Catherine Tofts discovered when she was the subject of the 1713 Full and true account of a dreadful fire that lately broke out in the Pope’s breeches:

Even She and Signior Nicolini,
That brother Cod to Valentini,
Have lately ta’n a trip beyond the Seas;
Only, some say, to please their fancies.
Howe’er, she’s gone unto Rome’s City,
And there She chants out many a Ditty.
And with her Voice, her Mien and Air,
She charm’d all Folks beyond compare,
But above all, St. Peter’s Chair. (Burden, London Opera observed 1.13)

The “fire” of the title was, of course, the sexual arousal and then gratification of the Pope. Castrati, on the other hand, offered different sort of perversions:

They know, that safe with thee they may remain;
Enjoy Love’s Pleasures, yet avoid the Pain:
Each, blest in thee, continue still a Maid;
Nor of a tell-tale Bantling be afraid:
This, by Experience, know the Prudes full well,
Who’re always virtuous, if they never swell. (The Happy Courtezan 5)

Unbridled enjoyment of “love’s pleasures” was possible because the “unmanned” castrato would ensure that no pregnancy resulted. Further, because this was the case, the woman could indulge in such carnal delights, but continue to appear virtuous, thereby adding deceit to a growing list of crimes that could be laid at the castrato’s door. However, all of this was distraction and distortion, even when – as with the impossibility of a woman becoming pregnant by a castrato – the essence of the statement was true. Such claims of sexual misconduct were entirely born of critics’ moral panic – or at least, the desire of those commentators to create moral panic – and was a narrative that did not rise from the Opera House, but was one which employed the Opera House in other contexts.

23As this discussion suggests, foreign opera’s popularity in London continues to be grossly exaggerated. Typical of the comments that made their way into the public domain were those by Joseph Dorman in 1736:

I could insert divers others Letters from Persons of Distinction to this Italian Renagado, wherein some declare themselves ravish’d with his Singing; others with his Person; but all so prodigiously fond of heaping Favours on him, that they seem striving to out-vie one another in their Folly; while the English Stage is shamefully neglected, the noble Race of ancient Writers not in the least regarded, and the modern Poets almost starving! (Dorman 149)

In fact, I would not hesitate to say that, whatever the quoted fears of the playhouse managers, the so-called threat to “manly” English spoken drama from an “effete” Italian luxury item, from the excess of the foreign import, was miniscule, when not wholly fictitious (Goldsmith 248).

24Let us again turn to the figures and statistics. In the first season Italian opera appeared in London, there were, for example, some 290 programmes recorded at the theatres. Of these, sixteen evenings were evenings on which Arsinoe was performed, and five evenings on which The Loves of Ergasto was performed. This leaves 269 programmes for works other than Italian operas, and of these, eight nights included works such as The Empress of Morocco, Oedipus, and Purcell’s huge opera, Dioclesian, illustrating yet again that the public’s love for dramatick opera was alive and well, before the Lord Chamberlain’s plots to re-allocate the repertory were enacted. This is a balance between the genres that changed little during the eighteenth century. In the 1754-55 season, for example, there were 373 programmes offered at London’s theatres (excluding Bartholomew and Southwark fairs), of which fifty-four were nights of Italian opera, leaving, then, 319 nights for performances at the playhouses and at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, for works other than Italian operas. In this season, though, we need to discount the dozen performances at the Haymarket Theatre of Italian burlettas, including Giovanni Pergolesi’s La serva padrona.

25Such accusations of “excess” remain part of a discourse that has nothing to do with the realities of opera, as shown by the 1737 author, who, writing on the introduction of foreign customs into England, noted: “When the Opera was given over, and the Nation saw the Baseness and Foolishness of that Article of Luxury, I was in hopes we should be no more pestered with any Foreign Vermin” (Daily Post). These words indeed have nothing to do with genre; the word “luxury” is hardly, if ever, used in any serious, extended, eighteenth-century discussions about opera. Conversely, while opera is an obvious candidate for inclusion in the luxury debate, the genre is not, in fact, the subject of extended discussion by any philosopher or serious writer on the subject. And in some authors’ work, it is mentioned only in passing. References tend to be either in polemics, or in the press, where the notion is drawn into discussion as a comparatively meaningless insult, usually with the assumption that the mud can be flung in passing, and that it will stick.

26It seems that the question is not “what did opera do for the luxury debate?” or even, perhaps more narrowly, the “theatrical debate,” but should be “what did the luxury debate do for opera?” What did an understanding of “excess” do for the genre? It does seem clear that, whatever the negative contexts of “excess” in which the concept of opera was employed, the Opera House as an institution had no interest in attempting to develop an alternative narrative. One reason for this may have been that, as an institution, it promoted not just foreign opera, but foreign dance as well. As a genre, dance at the Opera House simply does not rate a mention in the luxury debates. In fact, the only serious context in which dance in general is so described was by John Weaver in 1712, and then, only as his Classical opening gambit in setting himself an historical agenda:

AFTER the Romans, by the Introduction of the Asiatick Luxury, with their Conquest of that Country, had sunk into Effeminacy, and lost all the manly Taste of the great Arts as well as Arms; the Stage, (which too often in its Ruin, has forerun that of that the Country) sunk into ridiculous Representations, so that the Poets Part grew the least considerable of it: The pompous Passage of a Triumph, Rope-dancing, and twenty other foolish Amusements, carry’d away the Peoples Affections. (Weaver 118)

While a rhetorical flourish of some style, it takes the discussion little beyond the accepted seventeenth-century academic understanding that Rome was destroyed by the introduction of foreign – in this case, “Asiatick” – luxury. Weaver does not return to the issue again, and yet theatrical dance as performed at the Opera House does have all the hallmarks of a luxury item: the troupes were always made up of foreigners; the leading dancers were highly paid; the sets for the later ballets and dances were as expensive (or not) as those for the opera; the movements of dance were considered sensual and seductive; and the dancers’ off-stage antics the subject of much comment.

  • 1 This article is dedicated to Helen Clifford, who did me the honour of asking me to read the manuscr (...)

27Further, all professional male dancers were considered effeminate, with the notion of an effeminate dancing master being a well-established theatrical topos some years before Dennis’s 1706 diatribe on Italian opera. One of the best known of these is Brisk, the dancing master in Thomas Shadwell’s The Humorists, who is described in the dramatis personae as “A Brisk ayery, fantastick, singing, dancing Coxcomb, that sets up for a well-bred Man and a Man of honour, but mistakes every thing, and values himself only upon the vanity and foppery of Gentlemen” (Shadwell, dramatis personae). The date of the play – 1671 – indicates that the topos had been around for some time. However, ridicule on stage was one thing; to have it in more widespread commentaries was quite another, and indeed, it is absent from popular discourse. The reason for such an absence may be because the skill of dancing, like that of swordsmanship, was something all but the lowliest of males had to acquire. But to draw attention to these aspects might remind the populace that young men were not only placed in the care of the very same effeminate foreigners, but that they might have been gaining the ridiculed “effeminacy” (with a consequent loss of manliness) in the process of acquiring the very skills they desired. And hidden in this non-response perhaps lies the truth of the matter, which is that despite the fact that much commentary on opera was not only critical, but negative in tone, the Opera House both wanted and needed to be seen as a purveyor of luxury. If it was not, it lost one of its attractions for its audience. Whatever the true facts of the situation, then, in London, false “excess” was in, and true “measure” was out.1

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Note de fin

1 This article is dedicated to Helen Clifford, who did me the honour of asking me to read the manuscript of her book on the silver trade in London, and in doing so, made me think again about the trade for “luxury” in England. With thanks to Joseph Lockwood, Roger Savage, Jennifer Thorp, David Francis Taylor, and Jed Wentz.

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Michael Burden, « Opera, Excess, and the discourse of Luxury in eighteenth-Century England », XVII-XVIII, 71 | 2014, 232-248.

Référence électronique

Michael Burden, « Opera, Excess, and the discourse of Luxury in eighteenth-Century England », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 71 | 2014, mis en ligne le 31 mai 2016, consulté le 15 août 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/1718/409 ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.409

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Auteur

Michael Burden

New College, University of Oxford

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