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Dramatic Text, Music Text: Competing Nationalist Styles in Restoration Opera

From: Interdisciplinary Literary Studies
Volume 14, Number 1, 2012
pp. 21-37 | 10.1353/ids.2012.0002

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Even in the midst of their dubious claim that “philosophers did not go to the opera very often,” Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar cannot escape acknowledging the combination of “the splendor of court spectacles, the pomp of national myths, and the sentimental melodramas” that have traditionally driven opera in its social contexts (1).1 Discussions of the Restoration dramatic stage follow the same tripartite preoccupations—they also typically focus on the return of theater to London after the Interregnum, the appearance of women on stage in drama, and the increasing importance of music to theater life before the full arrival of opera seria in the eighteenth century with Georg Friedrich Handel’s appearance in London. However, the specifically interactive relationship between English nationalism, literature, theater, and music is often overlooked. In particular, the role of musical form in these displays of nationalism, especially in conjunction with patriotic libretti, is largely ignored, despite its ability to bridge the divisions between each disciplinary field. Textual studies of libretti rapidly recognize the pro-Imperial feeling that followed the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II in 1660, the Exclusion Crisis’s attempts to prevent the Catholic James II from ascending to the throne in 1685, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when James (the last Catholic monarch of England) was displaced by the Hanoverian Protestant William III and Mary II (formalized in 1689). This is readily seen in the histories of John Dryden, Nahum Tate, John Crowne, and many others. Moreover, anti-Papist sentiments frequently appear in an only vaguely coded form as resistance to tensions based on the French and Italian influences via Catholicism on James II and Charles II.

Within this complex interaction between stage practices, politics, literary production, and musical composition, this article traces the relationship between Restoration libretti and musical scores by emphasizing their nationalist interests, leading to the proposition that musical form can reflect or resist the allegorical political interests of libretti, even to the point of subverting the dramatic text. By moving across these materials, I argue for a necessarily interdisciplinary approach to musical theater of this period, one that emphasizes the combination of the musical and dramatic texts to form the operatic work as a whole.

John Blow’s Venus and Adonis is the first piece of English musical theater that is sung throughout with the intention of creating a combined literary, dramatic, and musical work, which qualifies it as the first English opera, although its subtitle, A Mask for the Entertainment of the King, places it more firmly in the masque tradition.2 This is for many scholars a convenient marker for the instantiation of the English operatic tradition in approximately 1683 and also of the interaction between text and music in pursuit of nationalist aims. Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, from no more than six years later, is the first such work to be overtly conceived as an opera per se and apparently intended for performance outside the court; all this is debatable, but Dido and Aeneas is in any case the first English opera to become standard in the repertoire.3 However, the subtitle of Blow’s work draws attention to the mingling of its erotic titular reference to a political context: a mask for the entertainment of the King. This was also the beginning of a trend. As Grzegorzewska notes, “The sophisticated audience of the Restoration . . . must have appreciated the licentious agenda of the libretto,” but just as important, “the King’s illegitimate daughter sang the role of Cupid during the first performance . . . [and] Mary Moll Davies, . . . once a royal mistress . . . [,] took the part of Venus” (320), a woman who brings about the downfall of her lover. With Charles II on the throne of England for the first performance of the work (composed by an Anglican and not long before the succession of James II), likely in 1683, its allegorical content is richly intermingled with this erotic material. Furthermore, it has been suggested that Blow was both the composer and librettist, so a collaborative interaction between text and music is to be expected (whether this conjecture is accurate or not).4 The crucial point is that early in the...



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