The history of opera written to an English libretto or book (either sung throughout or with spoken dialogue interspersed between the musical numbers) is one of long, deep valleys separated by but a few noteworthy crests. Following the invention of opera as a recognizable form by the Florentine camerata (a Humanistic discussion group that met in the late 1570’s and early 1580’s in the Florentine palace of Giovanni Bardi, Count of Vernio) just before the start of the seventeenth century, first France and then Germany joined Italy in developing a distinctly national form both in content and sound. This was not to be the case in Great Britain and, collaterally, the United States until the early twentieth century. Pure chance and ill fortune, combined with less definable causes such as public taste, account for the absence of an ongoing tradition. Equally curious, however, is the development of a sturdy form of English opera since the 1930’s and its dominance in international theater, so that without benefit of indigenous prototypes, a powerful force in the lyric theater has been produced out of the thinnest of rarefied air.
The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, after the accession of James I to the English throne, the masque , a court pastime combining an allegorical story, dialogue, and vocal and dance music with scenic and costume spectacle, became dominant as royal entertainment. Although none of the great Elizabethan composers contributed music, masques incorporated lyrics, accompanied recitative, and involved scenic and costume design that later would appear in the first acknowledged English operas. The mighty forces behind the masque were the scenarios and words of British playwright Ben Jonson and the scenery and costumes of designer-architect Inigo Jones, whose knowledge of Italian practices introduced the British to the stage picture and craft of Italian scene painters and machinists.
In 1617, Nicholas Lanier composed for Jonson’s masque, Lovers Made Men (pr. 1617), what was most likely the first English recitative, a type of vocal composition patterned on the natural rhythms of speech, in the Italian style of Claudio Monteverdi. Although the music is lost, it is doubtful that it would have exerted much influence on an English public that had come to prefer the traditional structure of the masque, with its fast-moving dialogue separating the songs known as “ayres.”
Even before the execution of Charles I, the Commonwealth government suppressed theater, but the ruling Puritans did not as vigorously oppose secular music. This situation led to the curious attempt by practitioners of theater to circumvent the harsh laws by presenting stage spectacles under the guise of musical concerts. It was in this context that, at Rutland House in 1656, William Davenant ’s The Siege of Rhodes (pr. 1656-1659) was given a private performance. Davenant’s work was subtitled A Representation by the Art of Prospective in Scenes and the Story Sung in Recitative Musick in Five Acts; the music (now lost) was contributed by a number of composers, including Matthew Locke and Henry Lawes. The changeable scenery in the Italian style was designed by John Webb, a student of then recently deceased Inigo Jones.
The first irony in the development of English opera came with the restoration of Charles II four years later, when the ban on spoken drama was lifted. The English, including Davenant, who was given one of the two monopolies to present plays in London, returned to their love of words and virtually abandoned their earlier attempts at opera. Incidental music for the theater and interpolated songs persisted, as did remnants of masques, now heavily influenced by the court of Louis XIV of France, where the new English king and much of his court had found refuge during the interregnum of the Puritan Parliament. Chief among these influences was Jean-Baptiste Lully, the Italian-born composer who had become the titan of French music.
Indeed, that a...
(The entire section is 5,531 words.)