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ON THE ITALIAN OPERA.
“As for operas, they are essentially too absurd and extravagant to mention. Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half-guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and ears."-Chesterfield.
When the Italian Opera was first introduced into England, about the latter end of the seventeenth century, its dramatic absurdities were perpetually ridiculed by men of taste. Addison devoted several numbers of the Spectator to the subject, and remarked, that the success of the opera had caused it to be laid down as a general rule, “ that nothing that is not nonsense is capable of being well set to music.” Lord Chesterfield subsequently observed that Metastasio attempted a very dangerous innovation. “He tried,” said the noble critic,
gently to throw some sense into his operas ; but it did not take.” If Italian operas are more popular at this day in London than the plays of Shakespeare, it is not on account of their dramatic merits, but their exquisite music, the accompanying glittering dresses and gorgeous decorations, and the wanton ballet with which the entertainments are concluded. These attractions, combined with the charm which John Bull invariably discovers in every thing foreign and expensive in the arts, has secured them a degree of success which works of far higher pretension, and addressed more to the mind than to the senses, have often failed to obtain.
One of the admirers of the Italian Opera, in the course of his defence of this species of amusement, makes the following observation :
People, it is said, do not murder each other in duett, nor do they swoon in cadenza; it is therefore absurd to make so preposterous an
the distinction betweeen physical and artificial imitation is lost sight of. The same objection might with equal justice be offered to the poetry of Homer, the landscapes of Claude, or the Venus de Medicis, none of which are to be found in nature.”
I consider this objection, as far as the Opera alone is concerned, to be extremely well founded. When a man, supposed to be worked up, like Shakespeare's Moor, for example, into a terrible tempest of jealousy and rage, turns towards the audience, and modulates the whirlwind of his passion into a series of melodious quavers, he presents such an abrupt contrast between the sublime and the ridiculous, that a severer shock to reason and common sense cannot easily be conceived. The dramatic illusion is at once destroyed. It is impossible for the imagination to support it. The ear may continue to be gratified, but not the mind. In Shakespeare's dramas, on the other hand, an actor may represent nature to the life. If he is told of some hideous calamity, he is either struck mute with horror, or he gives vent to his agony
in some brief and passionate exclamation. But in the Italian Opera he would be as musical as a dying swan. Regarding the Opera only as a species of drama, its absurdities are so monstrous that it seems idle to explain them. What should we think of poor old Lear lifting his dim, discrowned head against the pitiless storm, less unkind than his daughters, and singing an elaborate composition of Rossini's, accompanied by a crowded orchestra ? We are to recollect also how rarely the sense, when there happens to be any, is scrupulously attended to by the musical composer. The pleasantry of Addison on this subject may be applied, to most of the operas of the present day. “I have known," says he, "the word 'and' pursued through the whole gamut, have been entertained with any a melodious' the,' and have heard the most beautiful graces, quavers, and divisions bestowed upon then,' «for,' and 'from,' to the eternal honour of our English particles.”
The remark that the objection to the Opera, of a want of nature, may be offered with equal justice to “ the poetry of Homer, the landscapes of Claude, or the Venus de Medicis,” is not correct. They are specimens of perfect art; and the perfection of art is nature. The supposition that objects of high art are not in nature, is a great mistake. It is absurd to suppose that the characters of a drama or an heroic poem are out of nature, merely because we have no historical evidence of their existence, or because we may happen to have met with no persons in real life who are in all respects their perfect counterparts. The great artist, whether in poetry, or painting, or sculpture, copies general and not individual nature. The portrait of Othello is not that of an individual ; it is the representation of human nature under the influence of a powerful passion. We do not ask whether Claude's pictures literally represent some particular landscapes, but whether they illustrate or correspond with that general idea which external nature leaves upon the mind. So it is with the Medicean Venus. It would be ridiculous to conclude that it is impossible such a work could be true to nature, because it was not copied from an individual model. As the whole civilized world is enchanted with that matchless statue, it may be taken as a proof that its consistency with our notions of perfect female beauty is the cause of such universal admiration; and that these notions are in some way or other derived from nature, will hardly be disputed.
We arrive at truth through the medium of the imagination. If a painter were to represent things as they really are, he would represent them falsely. This is no paradox ; though it may sound like one.
He would throw aside, for instance, the illusions of perspective, and bring out distant objects as largely and distinctly as the nearest. All objects are represented by the imitative arts, not by rule and measurement—not as they really are—not even as they appear to the ignorant and the dull, but as
they are seen by the intellectual and the imaginative, who have finer perceptions and are more observant.
Mr. Galt, in the preface to his story of “ The Stolen Child,” anticipates the objections of the critics to certain improbabilities, and exults in the reply that the story is founded on fact. If I understand him rightly, he also takes credit to himself for having studied individual and local, instead of general nature. But great artists are not such servile copyists. A study of individual models is the A. B. C. of their profession. It prepares them for the study of general nature and for original combinations. A painter is no more required to stop at these models than to confine himself to separate limbs or features. The word invention, as applied to the imitative arts, is by no means in opposition to truth. Mr. Galt, painfully conscious of the improbabilities of his own story, takes occasion to tell us “ that when we hear a critic loquacious about the improbabilities of a tale, we may rely upon it that the said critic is a green-horn!” This remark is every way unworthy of an author like Mr. Galt, and he is quite mistaken if he thinks it will save him from criticism. He who is on his oath as a witness, is at liberty to startle us with strange and particular truths opposed to our general opinions and experience, but the painter and the poet are bound to preserve an air of probability, or a certain degree of consistency even in their most imaginative productions. A surveyor who has to report upon the height, length and breadth of hills and vallies, may surprise us with his literal truths ; but the painter is to represent things not as they are, but as they appear. His aim is verisimilitude only. He is to preserve a truth of illusion. He is not to shock or perplex us with the odd freaks and accidents of nature. If he should take a fancy to a cloud precisely in the shape of an officer with a cockedhat and sword, bowing to an old woman with a kettle in her hand, and insert it in his landscape, we should laugh at his justification on the ground of truth, though he were to bring a
hundred witnesses to prove that he had only represented an actual
Such a copy from nature would be unnatural. The painter in words is bound by the same rules as the painter in colours.
A writer in one of the public Journals appears to think that Pasta's influence on the passions of an audience, which equals, in his estimation, the simpler sway of Siddons, is a proof that the Italian Opera is quite as natural as the regular drama. I shall not stop to inquire whether his opinion, that the effect produced by the former in the operas of Metastasio has equalled the force of the latter in her representation of the characters of Shakespeare, be really well-founded, (though I may observe, in passing, that I greatly doubt it,) but even allowing, for the sake of the argument, that such may be the case, I still think that it by no means settles the point at issue. I am far from maintaining that the Italian Opera, with all its various adjuncts, cannot be turned into a means of stirring deep emotions, when supported by the magnificent acting and enchanting voice of the great Queen of the Lyric Drama. Though the truth of action on the stage is outraged by a lyrical accompaniment, the alliance is not injurious to the music; and the sway of music over the passions is universally admitted. We are therefore to consider whether the power and popularity of the Opera should be attributed to its musical or to its dramatic merits ; for it is by no means to be taken for granted that its results are invariably derived from the combination of both. The power of music is often independent of its accidental accompaniments. Every one must have met with many instances in which, though feeble and inflated expressions have been set to natural and pathetic music, the latter has still had its legitimate effect in spite of the connection. So the truth and nature of the music of an Opera may in particular passages triumph over the incongruity of its accompaniments, but I think it hardly possible that this enchantment or illusion should be