Notes 60.2 (2003) 541-543
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John Eccles. Semele: An Opera. Edited by Richard Platt. (Musica Britannica, 76.) London: Stainer and Bell, 2000. [Dramatis personae, contents, p. xiv- xviii; pref. in Eng., Fr., Ger., p. xix-xxi; introd., p. xxiii-xxv; sources, p. xxvi- xxix; editorial method, p. xxx-xxxi; notes on performance, p. xxxii-xxxiv; acknowledgments, p. xxxv; facsim. reprods., p. xxxvi-xli; synopsis, p. xliii; score, p. 1-139; textual commentary, p. 141-45. Cloth. ISMN M-2202-1986-3; ISBN 0-85249-859-4. £75.]
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, two theater companies in London competed with repertories of plays and what were then termed "operas" but are now generally called "semi-operas." These stage works, following in the footsteps of Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen, consisted of spoken dialogue and incidental music, which could range from isolated songs to extensive masques. The principal dramatic [End Page 541] characters did not sing; instead, the vocal music was performed by a combination of actors and actresses who also sang, and men, women, and boys who were primarily singers but could also act a little. Pressure for completely sung opera was growing in certain social circles, however, primarily among the young noblemen who had traveled in increasing numbers to Italy as part of their grand tours and had experienced the Italian opera at its source.
In 1695, the actor Thomas Betterton had seceded from the United Company managed by Christopher Rich, taking a good portion of the company with him, and set up a rival theater in a converted tennis court in Lincoln's Inn Fields. His principal singing actress was the soprano Anne Bracegirdle and his house composer was John Eccles (ca. 1668-1735), who was also Master of the Royal Music and responsible for setting the annual birthday and New Year's odes. Sometime around 1704 the poet and dramatist William Congreve joined in partnership with the amateur architect Sir John Vanbrugh to build a theater in the Haymarket to serve as a new home for Betterton's company, and, not incidentally, to provide the most up-to-date stage machinery.
Playwrights and composers rushed to provide works for the new theater, while Rich prepared to counter with similar new productions. By the end of 1705, two operas for the new Queen's Theatre were rumored to be near completion, but in the event, the one by Daniel Purcell was apparently never completed and the other, Thomas Clayton's Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus—an all-sung pasticcio containing some original music and a number of selections from Italian operas adapted to English words—was premiered in January 1705 by Rich at Drury Lane. The first opera actually premiered at the Queen's Theatre was Jakob Greber's Gli amori di Ergasto (The Loves of Ergasto) in April 1705.
At some point early in the game, Congreve and Eccles, with whom the poet had collaborated as early as 1701 on the masque The Judgment of Paris (published in 1702 and now available in facsimile with an introduction by Richard Platt as volume 1 in Music for London Entertainment, 1660- 1800, ser. C [Tunbridge Wells: Richard Macnutt, 1984]), began work on the fully sung opera Semele, with the title role apparently intended for Mrs. Bracegirdle. Although he clearly designed the work to take advantage of the staging possibilities provided by the Queen's Theatre (three separate flying machines are called for in act 3, for example), Eccles seems to have been unable to finish the music until January 1707, by which time the lord chamberlain had ordered that all operas be performed at Drury Lane. Although Rich had made a verbal commitment to perform Semele at Drury Lane, it was never staged there; nor was it picked up by Vanbrugh when operas returned to the Queen's Theatre in January 1708. The exact reasons for the failure of this performance are unknown, as is the extent of its connection to the decisions by Congreve to give up his interest in the Queen's Theatre and Mrs. Bracegirdle to retire from the stage...