<<< << -- 2 -- George Balcombe ILLUSION AND INTRIGUE -- >> >>>
Amateur music-making at home by the wealthy for the wealthy in 1730s London, led to the
publication of such songbooks as Calliope. Incidental music from plays and arias
adapted from operas would be performed by the families' young ladies to entertain guests.
When Calliope appeared in 1739, censorship had already forced the closure of London's
theatres. Simply by banning the use of spoken English on stage, prime minister Robert
Walpole's government silenced its critics. The ban also caused widespread destitution within
the theatre community and discontent amongst the usually contented aristocracy who missed
their theatres dreadfully.
Italian opera, sung in that language, escaped censorship because English people, then
as now, tended towards xenophobia, and so did not bother to learn Italian.
Also, opera-goers in the 1730s had tired of Italianate music, so it dwindled away, along
with the celebrity castrati imported at great expense from south of the Alps to Covent
The castrati's asexual existence attracted women's attention and men's wit, but before
Calliope's publication in 1739, almost four years passed with no Italian opera in London
at all. A revival of sorts did occur later when J C Bach, the youngest of J S Bach's
twenty-three offspring, arrived in London and got involved in composing things Italianate, no doubt
as a result of his youthful studies in Bologna.
In her CD book, Emma Curtis gives a vivid impression of the atmosphere surrounding
London's music theatres, clustered around Drury Lane, Covent Garden and The Haymarket.
Her depiction is startling. It completely dispels the idea that the absurdities of
mid-eighteenth century plays and opera libretti were fantasies unique to the stage,
whereas, in fact, similar extravaganzas characterised the everyday life of Londoners
who had borrowed enough money to join in what Emma Curtis calls 'the art of artifice'.
She writes 'Londoners at the beginning of the 1700s loved fantasy, illusion and
artifice. To some this love bordered on desperation and obsession, leading to pain,
to drink, to debt and too often to death in a debtors' prison. Wealth brought great
comfort -- and poverty brought despair. The crash from comfort to the hell of debtors'
prison took only the blink of an eye.'
Far from being the odd-man-out, Handel
[listen -- CD1 track 5, 0:00-0:57]
was the odd-man-in, odd because his operas
depended on the perversions and distortions of his transsexual characters who
were not unlike those thronging the streets around the theatres. Sadism in periwigs
prevailed as much off the stage as on it.
Copyright © 6 May 2007
George Balcombe, London UK