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ENGLISH OPERA AND FARCE.
An Opera, in the strict and proper sense, is a Drama written in verse, and adapted to music, as well in the general dialogue as in the more lyrical passages. It was invented in Italy towards the end of the sixteenth century; and, perhaps, was originally no more than an improvement upon the Masque, which, though with less form and splendour, ivas employed upon similar subjects. No attempt was made to introduce this entertainment into England until after the great civil war, when its form was resorted to by Sir William D'Avenant, to elude the fanatic rigour of that period. " It being forbidden him,” says Dryden, “ in the rebellious times, to act tragedies and comedies, because they contained some matter of scandal to those good people, who could more easily dispossess their lawful sovereign than endure a wanton jest, he was forced to turn his thoughts another way, and to introduce the examples of moral virtue, writ in verse and performed in recitative music.” These pieces were termed by their author, “ Entertainments by declamation and music, after the manner of the ancients.” When the Restoration had restored freedom to the Stage, these performances, which necessity had substituted in place of the old English. Drama, were not long relished by a popular audience. The Siege of Rhodes, one of D'Avenant's best operas, was severely ridiculed in the Rehearsal; and though Dryden himself attempted to revive the opera, in the reign of James II., even his powers of poetic harmony could not give it popularity. This unpopularity was chiefly owing to the recitative, which is but ill adapted to our language and to the impatient temper of our audience. The English has neither the
syllables, and encumbered with consonants, and cannot, with the utmost labour, be refined into perfect harmony. Neither have the English (generally speaking) a refined taste for music. The predominance of a tolerable, though uncultivated, ear for simple melody, usually secures the attention of an audience to a few short airs, whether lively or pathetic; but they have always shown themselves incapable of enjoying, or even of supporting, the monotony of prolonged scenes in recitative. Persons of rank, therefore, whose taste for the art was more refined, could only provide for enjoying it by importing the Italian Opera and foreign performers. This revolution took place, according to Cibber, early in the eighteenth century.
In ridicule of the then prevailing taste for the Italian stage, Gay composed his celebrated Beggars' Opera; but the author, while it was only bis intention to satirize what he deemed stiff and unnatural in the Opera, presepted the public with a new and popular species of Drama, happily adapted to the taste of the nation. This was the more remarkable, as the same thing had happened to the Shepherd's Wake of the same author, which, although intended as a parody upon Philips' Pastorals, owed its popularity to its being read as a serious production. The amazing success of the Beggars'. Opera is well known. Much was no doubt to be ascribed to the strokes of personal and political satiré which it contained, and much to the humour of the dialogue. But still its popularity chiefly rested upon the combination of action and music in a manner to which the English audience had been hitherto strangers; and which, while a lively comic dialogue supplied the protracted languors of the recitative, gave them a succession of songs adapted to character, and set to the inost popular national airs. Accordingly, since that period, the English Opera has been a favourite variety of our Drama. No critic has ever deigned to lay down rules for its government; and, perhaps, like a disregarded colony, it has not thriven the worse for its exemption from authority and restriction. The form, indeed, of this amusement, must be given up as unnatural and artificial; for who in real life express their feelings in music? In the Italian Opera this absurdity is shaded by our being transferred, as it were, into a country of music, where all the action and dialogue is adapted to that art; and where the recitative, in which the calmer scenes are performed, serves gradually to introduce and apologize for the airs, wbich in the English Opera are bluntly inserted into a plain prose dialogué. Yet this anomalous species of dramatic composition is not - without its general principles of regulation. The tone of the English Opera is either comic, or, at least, turns upon the embarrassments of love, which claim a prescriptive title to vent themselves in song. The heroic character of the Italian Opera would appear absurd upon an English stage, although our ear is reconciled to it in the Haymarket, partly by habit, and partly by the disguise of a foreign language. The Opera Buffa we have copied with some success in the after-pieces of The Golden Pippin and Midas; but these are rather parodies of the Italian, than a distinct species of composition. To succeed in the English Opera, or at least to attain excellence, the author ought to possess musical knowledge, as well as power of dramatic writing; and so seldom has this union occurred, that most of our stock-operas are written by one author, Isaac Bickerstaff. Love in a Village, and the Padlock, are monuments of his genius in this species of composition. The Duenna is an instance of the versatility of Mr. Sheridan's wit and genius, which can either flash through a comedy, or sparkle in a song, at the pleasure of their owner. Rosina is a pleasing instance of the Pastoral Opera, but owes its chief popularity to the beauty of the melodies. The English Opera seems now in its wane before a still more unregulated anomaly, the modern Melo-Drama, in which all that can mingle, may.
A Farce, properly so called, is a short dramatic piece of broad humour and bustle, in which an author is not restricted by the rules and decorum of