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  • Flora's Descent; or Hob's Re-Re-Re-Resurrection
  • Michael Evenden
Neely Bruce, Flora; or, Hob in the Well. Revival of the ballad opera, Spoleto Festival, Charleston, South Carolina, June 2010.

Sent on a clandestine errand, a tenant farm boy encounters the lord of the estate, who beats him and has him thrown into the earth—into a nearby well. When his mother, distressed at her son's disappearance, comes, the boy cries out, is mistaken for a ghost, and then is drawn up out of his resting-place to confront and beat his lord during a country fair.

The farm boy is Hob, and resurrection is his essence. First created by the Restoration comedian Thomas Doggett for a crucial subplot in his five-act comedy The Country Wake (London, 1696), Hob originally escaped death by surviving the blows of his squire in a comic scene of medical recovery; the more vivid metaphor of rising directly from the earth came when Hob was reborn into a condensed adaptation of Doggett's original: Hob; or, the country-wake (London, 1720), a farcical afterpiece. A second rebirth came in 1729, when John Hippisley, who the previous year had originated the role of Peachum in Gay's Beggar's Opera, reworked the afterpiece as a ballad opera, now titled after the heroine of the simplified principal plot: Flora; an opera, or, Hob in the well (London, 1729). From here, Hob would be further resurrected in A Sequel to the Opera of Flora (London, 1731) and in theatrical engravings and oil paintings—a significant cultural afterlife. Hob, whose name suggests a folk-goblin, is a difficult force to extinguish.

Hob would be reborn yet again, in a performance of Flora in Charlestown, South Carolina in 1735 (frequently called the first American performance of an "opera"), revived in turn the next year in the New Theatre there—the third dedicated theater building in North America, and the model for the Dock Street Theatre that stands today in Charleston, built near the original site in 1937. In [End Page 565] the summer of 2010, with the Dock Street newly remodeled, Flora; an opera was revived as a highlight of Charleston's Spoleto festival, in a graceful production directed and designed by John Pascoe, with a score based on the original tunes by American scholar-composer Neely Bruce.

The production took Flora seriously. Large walls covered with dead vines moved into various configurations on a lush, flourishing ground; the combination of artful lighting (by Ruth Hutson) and Pascoe's delicately colored costumes made the stage into living Fragonard paintings. The cast was physically apt and vocally pleasing: Andriana Churchman's Flora was ideally slim and elegant and displayed a bright-voiced, plangent lyric soprano; opera and musical-comedy baritone Timothy Noble, a luxury casting as the villainous Sir Thomas Testy, was elegance and rectitude itself. The eight-instrument band led by the composer at the harpsichord offered a modestly inventive score on traditional materials—adding an overture, transition and entrance music, and a finale ultimo, assigning signature keys to specific characters, devising additional lyrics here and there, and adding an original song of a contrasting mood for Flora, but generally illuminating the original musical material with period-sensitive appreciation. Hob (operatic tenor Robert McPherson) and his family faithfully conned a Somersetshire accent. To honor the reopened theater, Sir Thomas silently led elegant friends about his "estate," including the lower boxes adjacent to the stage—momentarily violating the invisible "fourth wall" of modern performance practice with admiring glances at the theater architecture. The production was a coherent and elegant gesture toward authenticity, sweetly sympathetic to a long-ago colonial grab for art and respectability.

What seemed underrealized, however, was the edgy, playful aspect. To call Flora an opera is imprecise: it is a ballad opera, an irreverent form of rough, thrown-together theater developed in London as a riposte to the pretentious Handelian opera. Hippisley's incorporation of popular tunes, tending more toward unironic borrowings, may not have the wit of Gay's, but the basic pleasure of hearing a familiar song tune or dance melody pop up was blocked by Bruce's dedicated authenticity; except for...


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