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ago the Italian opera was the only fashionable amusement among our nobility. The managers of the playhouses dreaded it as a mortal enemy, and our very poets listed themselves in the opposition: at present the house seems deserted, the castrati sing to empty benches, even Prince Vologese himself, a youth of great expectations, sings himself out of breath, and rattles his chain to no purpose.
To say the truth, the opera, as it is conducted among us, is but a very humdrum amusement: in other countries, the decorations are entirely magnificent, the singers all excellent, and the burlettas or interludes quite entertaining; the best poets compose the words, and the best masters the music, but with us it is otherwise; the decorations are but trifling and cheap; the singers, Matei only excepted, but indifferent. Instead of interlude, we have those sorts of skipping dances, which are calculated for the galleries of the theatre. Every performer sings his favourite song, and the music is only a medley of old Italian airs, or some meagre modern Capriccio.
When such is the case, it is not much to be wondered if the opera is pretty much neglected: the lower orders of people have neither taste nor fortune to relish such an entertainment; they would find more satisfaction in the Roast Beef of Old England than in the finest closes of a eunuch; they sleep amidst all the agony of recitative: on the other hand, people of fortune or taste can hardly be pleased, where there is a visible poverty in the decorations, and an entire want of taste in the composition.
Would it not surprise one, that when Metastasio is so well known in England, and so universally admired, the manager or the composer should have recourse to any other operas than those written by him? I might venture to say, that written by Metastasio, put up in the bills of the
day, would alone be sufficient to fill a house, since thus the admirers of sense as well as sound might find entertainment.
The performers also should be entreated to sing only their parts, without clapping in any of their own favourite airs. I must own, that such songs are generally to me the most disagreeable in the world. Every singer generally chooses a favourite air, not from the excellency of the music, but from difficulty; such songs are generally chosen as surprise rather than please, where the performer may show his compass, his breath, and his volubility.
Hence proceed those unnatural startings, those unmusical closings, and shakes lengthened out to a painful continuance; such indeed may show a voice, but it must give a truly delicate ear the utmost uneasiness. Such tricks are not music; neither Corelli nor Pergolesi ever permitted them, and they begin even to be discontinued in Italy, where they first had their rise.
And now I am upon the subject: our composers also should affect greater simplicity; let their bass cliff have all the variety they can give it; let the body of the music (if I · may so express it) be as various as they please; but let them avoid ornamenting a barren ground-work; let them not attempt by flourishing to cheat us of solid harmony.
The works of Mr Rameau are never heard without a surprising effect. I can attribute it only to the simplicity he every where observes, insomuch that some of his finest harmonies are often only octave and unison. This simple manner has greater powers than is generally imagined; and were not such a demonstration misplaced, I think, from the principles of music, it might be proved to be most agreeable.
But to leave general reflection.
With the present set of
performers, the operas, if the conductor thinks proper, may be carried on with some success, since they have all some merit, if not as actors, at least as singers. Signora Matei is at once both a perfect actress and a very fine singer. She is possessed of a fine sensibility in her manner, and seldom indulges those extravagant and unmusical flights of voice complained of before. Cornacini, on the other hand, is a very indifferent actor, has a most unmeaning face, seems not to feel his part, is infected with a passion of showing his compass; but to recompense all these defects, his voice is melodious, he has vast compass and great volubility, his swell and shake are perfectly fine, unless that he continues the latter too long. In short, whatever the defects of his action may be, they are amply recompensed by his excellency as a singer; nor can I avoid fancying that he might make a much greater figure in an oratorio than upon the stage.
However, upon the whole, I know not whether ever operas can be kept up in England; they seem to be entirely exotic, and require the nicest management and care. Instead of this, the care of them is assigned to men unacquainted with the genius and disposition of the people they would amuse, and whose only motives are immediate gain. Whether a discontinuance of such entertainments would be more to the loss or the advantage of the nation, I will not take upon me to determine, since it is as much our interest to induce foreigners of taste among us on the one hand, as it is to discourage those trifling members of society who generally compose the operatical dramatis persone on the other.