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  • Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Italian Opera
  • Irene Morra

In 1710 Joseph Addison acknowledged that 'music is certainly a very agreeable entertainment'.Worried by the popularity of Italian opera in England, however, he objected that if it took 'entire possession of our ears' it might exclude 'arts that have a much greater tendency to the refinement of human nature', and then he could allow it 'no better quarter than Plato has done, who banishes it out of his commonwealth'.1 John Ebers, manager of the King's Theatre, London, from 1821 to 1827, argued that musical expression rather than narrative concerns was 'all in all': 'the story of an Italian opera is, and ever must be, matter of secondary import'.2 When Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe (1891), the first through-composed Waverley opera with English words, met with a lukewarm reception, W. Johnson Galloway attributed its failure to 'an overloaded book' with too many characters and intrigues: 'the music kept trying to soar, but was all the time chained by the leg' by words that insisted upon an undue prominence.3 All these comments recognise in Italian opera a necessary incompatibility between text and music; by overwhelming text, music encourages the appreciation of performance and melody rather than plot or poetry.

In The Woman in White (1860), Wilkie Collins's Italian Count Fosco attends a performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia in London. He is disgusted by the audience's failure to look for or appreciate the music's dramatic continuity: 'he looked round at [them] with an expression of compassionate [End Page 217] remonstrance' (p. 574).4 Fosco alone appreciates 'the more refined passages of the singing . . . the more delicate phases of the music, which [passed] unapplauded' by what he terms 'these barbarous English people' (p. 574). He recognises an inability or unwillingness on the part of the English either to immerse themselves in opera's musical expressivity and drama or to acknowledge the opera's emotional and artistic demands. This recognition involves an assertion of the superiority of his own cultural heritage for its musical sensitivity, and of the values that define his national temperament.

Fosco himself identifies the cause of the different national responses to Italian opera. The English are 'perpetually talking of [their] Oratorios', forgetting 'his immortal friend and countryman, Rossini . . . What was Moses in Egypt but a sublime oratorio, which was acted on the stage, instead of being coldly sung in a concert-room?' (p. 317). The most respectable musical form in nineteenth century England was the oratorio, epitomised by the works of Handel, a foreigner who had been dead for more than a century. Because of the static nature of its performance, the oratorio actively distanced itself from dramaturgical concerns. Its religious and historical subjects were often allegorical, and reinforced the ties between religion and nation characteristic of Victorian England. This performance tradition invited a communal celebration ( from parishes to concert halls) of assumed 'national values', and meant that the subject of the oratorio was more important than musical virtuosity.

Italian opera, however, demanded the acceptance of melodrama, stage artifice, and musical beauty. In the context of an aesthetic dominated by the oratorio, the style of Italian opera was seen as foreign and therefore suspicious. In 1862 the prominent music critic Henry Chorley, decrying music '[bawled] into a premature destruction . . . by the Verdis of infuriate Italy', could find continuing comfort in the increasing circulation of the 'magnificent vocal music of Handel'.5 When Collins's hero Walter Hartright attends the same operatic performance as Fosco, he shows an ability to appreciate the 'more delicate phases of the music' by esteeming Fosco's appreciation. He does not allow this enjoyment to make him lose sight of his main purpose, [End Page 218] however, which is to detect the full identity of Fosco. Like the rest of the audience, Hartright experiences the music only as an artistic diversion from reality that cannot be indulged in to the point of distraction from public responsibility.

In such a social and cultural setting, Fosco's attempt to align the significance of Handel's oratorios with that of Rossini's Moses in Egypt is futile. Fosco recognises in the opera...


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pp. 217-236
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Archived 2007
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