<< -- 4 -- Robert Hugill VENUS AND ADONIS
During that decade, an attempt at a through-composed opera, Albion and Albanius with music by Grabu and text by Dryden failed partly because of Charles II's death and Monmouth's invasion. But also in-fighting in the theatre companies and the deaths of the main theatre composers, Locke (in 1677) and Banister (1679), meant that it became a lean time for music in the theatre.
In 1680, Purcell contributed music to Nathaniel Lee's Theodosius but he then wrote little for the theatre for a decade. During the 1680s, Purcell's career was linked to the fortunes of the Chapel Royal. But with the onset of the Glorious Revolution, Royal music at court was scaled down. Purcell started working for the commercial theatre again in 1690, producing music for Prophetess; or the History of Dioclesian. This was the first new semi-opera since the 1670s and we must rather ask ourselves why? Dido and Aeneas showed that he could write through-sung opera and was familiar enough with its continental forms. But something in the spectacular hybrid form must have appealed to him. He went on to write to substantial works in the genre, King Arthur to a text by Dryden and The Fairy Queen with a text that owes only a little to Shakespeare. This latter has perhaps his best music in the genre, but King Arthur works brilliantly as a stage piece because Dryden understood the function of music in the theatre and provided Purcell with a series of fascinating and varied situations requiring music. Purcell preferred writing for professional singers, so in his semi-operas the music is mainly in discrete masques; once again music and drama are completely separate.
The Fairy Queen was the last grand semi-opera, probably due to the significant cost. Purcell continued providing songs for plays and Don Quixote contains so many that, with its simple scenic requirements, it could be seen as cut-price semi-opera; an attempt to satisfy demand without breaking the budget.
Copyright © 2 May 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK