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ELH 73.3 (2006) 601-629
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Joseph Addison's Opera Rosamond:
Britishness in the Early Eighteenth Century
What most people know about Joseph Addison nowadays is that he was an enemy to the opera. From an English, roast-beefy perspective, he poked fun, in the Spectator, at the conventions of Italian opera—those conventions that most obviously offended common sense and could not possibly be included under the umbrella of realism. Spectator 5 (6 March 1711) ran a hostile review of Handel's debut opera Rinaldo, mocking its "real cascades in artificial landscapes."1 Taking the baton from John Dennis's Essay on the Opera's After the Italian Manner (1706), where the issue is put squarely in nationalistic terms, Addison supplied a potted history of the Italian opera down to his own time in Spectator 18 (21 March 1711), which reflects on the absurdity of art being conducted in a language unintelligible to most of its audience and asserts that if "the Italians have a Genius for Musick above the English, the English have a Genius for other Performances of a much higher Nature."2 His subsequent Spectator essays develop the issue in terms of national characteristics: the effeminate Italians versus the manly English. Dennis and Addison led the charge. In the years that followed, opera would be accused of being unintelligible, effeminate, addicting its audiences to luxury and thus emasculating them, and of destroying rational, legitimate theater. Some kind of climax is reached in book 4 of The Dunciad (1743), where Alexander Pope has a twenty-line attack on opera (lines 45–64), seeing it as another weapon in the armory of the new barbarians, part of the government's cultural bread-and-circuses policy of distracting an unwary nation from corruption. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to recall that during his European tour, Addison saw no fewer than eight opera performances in Italy alone and that he actually wrote an opera libretto. The latter fact is the more surprising in that a reader of his history of opera in the Spectator would not have any reason to suspect it. Nowhere does Addison refer to his own Rosamond as part of the early history of opera. The present paper investigates this prima facie paradox. It uncovers a surprising chain of connections that, taken in [End Page 601] sum, provide a vantage-point on early eighteenth-century constructions of Britishness, perhaps as revealing as the view from the Great Bridge in Blenheim Palace. This article will offer three strands of argument: Rosamond was Addison's attempt to explore the possibility of a native English opera—the ambition to write an English opera being in itself an aspect of early-century Whig cultural politics; it was composed in line with an "English heritage" agenda developed by Sir John Vanbrugh for his "save the ruins" campaign at Blenheim; and, thirdly, alterations made by Addison to the very familiar story of its heroine's fate were demanded by the contested proto-British agenda of 1706–1707.
Addison and Vanbrugh in Europe
Addison's most extended remarks on Italian opera prior to those in the Spectator are to be found in his Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, Etc., in the Years 1701, 1702, 1703. His Grand Tour was the crucible of such views on opera as are expressed in the later Spectator. Opera in Europe, he finds, is a tissue of unrealistic absurdity. In Venice, he is affronted by the observation that castrati are used to voice heroic roles, when plots could be chosen that actually require eunuchs. Adding to the bathos of the performance is the anachronism of Cato's having Plutarch and Tasso amongst his books—presumably, these are legible titles displayed on painted scenery:
Operas are another great entertainment of this season. The poetry of them is generally as exquisitely ill, as the music is good. The arguments are often taken from some celebrated action of the ancient Greeks or Romans, which sometimes looks ridiculous enough; for who can endure...