<< -- 3 -- Robert Hugill VENUS AND ADONIS
Parallel to the development of public theatre, the tradition of the private Masque continued. In 1682 Blow wrote Venus and Adonis which is entitled 'A Masque for the Entertainment of the King'. Venus and Cupid were played by Charles II's mistress, Moll Davies, and their daughter, Lady Mary Tudor. The all sung nature of the work probably indicates Charles's interest in opera. He had attempted to establish an Italian opera company in London in the 1660s. But Venus and Adonis is important in that it seems to have formed a stimulus for Purcell to write Dido and Aeneas.
All Restoration plays included significant amounts of music, Scenes of ritual often led to pieces of concerted music, as did self contained masques or plays with plays. Singers were employed mainly as small roles, though sometimes leading characters sang. But in 1671 one of the Theatre companies moved to a bigger theatre in Dorset Gardens and this allowed them to expand their horizons. Actor/Manager Thomas Betterton had probably seen Lully's Comedies-Ballets and early tragédies lyriques. But this was commercial theatre, and economics meant that employing enough singers (in addition to the actors) to do a completely through sung work was not practical. Added to which, Betterton recognised the taste of his clientele was still for the spoken drama, though he did increase the amount of music and dance in his productions.
Though the theatre company did put on lavish musical spectacle, over ninety percent of the repertoire was spoken plays. Plays incorporating large quantities of music were a special effort, an occasional treat. In 1674 an updated version of Shakespeare's The Tempest had sung Masques inserted into the text.
This genre of play with extensive musical scenes developed into a particular genre at the Dorset Gardens theatre. Commonly referred to just as opera, it was more accurately dubbed 'semi-opera' by Roger North. February 1675 saw Shadwell's Psyche being produced with an extensive score by Locke. This was the first semi-opera written from scratch, with more than a dozen musical episodes and using a huge orchestra. In this work, the character of Venus both speaks and sings, thus dissolving the separation of music and drama. But this interesting possibility would not be built upon as the 1680s saw a decline in the performances of semi-opera.
Copyright © 2 May 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK