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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

V. The Restoration Drama

§ 18. Influence of French Opera

The influence of French opera on the like productions in England is a matter of less certainty. The attribution of D’Avenant’s experiments in musical drama to direct influences, either from Italy or from France, seems dubious, if not fanciful, if his previous experience as a writer of masques for the court of king Charles I is taken into account. Although Italian opera had been introduced into France so far back as 1645 and “the first French opera,” “a pastoral,” had been performed some fourteen years later, this by-product of the drama was not thrust into general acceptance and popularity until the days of the celebrated partnership between Lulli, the king’s musician, and the librettist Quinault, the first opera of whose joint effort, Cadmus and Hermione, was acted in 1673. Meanwhile, however, Cambert, composer of “the first French opera,” had written his Pomone, the earliest opera heard by the Parisian public; and, when his rivalry with Lulli for the control and management of the opera in Paris ended in the latter’s triumph, Cambert came over to London and, as leader of one of king Charles’s companies of musicians, took his part in the introduction of French opera into England. Cambert’s associate in his operatic labours was the abbé Pierre Perrin, who had supplied the words for “the pastoral” as well as for Pomone. Another product of this partnership was Ariane, ou Le Mariage de Bacchus; and an opera of that title was sung in French at the Theatre Royal in Drury lane in January, 1674. An English version of this opera, published simultaneously with the French version at the period of production, reads Ariadne, or The Marriage of Bacchus, “an Opera or a Vocal Representation, first composed by Monsieur P[ierre] P[errin]. Now put into Musick by Monsieur Grabut, Master of his Majesty’s Musick.” And it is further said that Cambert superintended the production. Whatever the solution of this tangle, English musicians now took up the writing of opera, Matthew Locke staging his Psyche in 1675 and Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, his first opera, in 1680. Dryden’s imitations of French opera, of which Albion and Albanius, 1685, is a typical example, came later; and so did the tasteless adaptations of earlier plays to operatic treatment, Shakespeare’s Tempest and Fletcher’s Prophetesse, for example, done to music, often of much beauty and effectiveness, by the famous musician of his day, Henry Purcell. The opera, according to Dryden, is “a poetical tale, or fiction, represented by vocal and instrumental music, adorned with scenes, machines, and dances”; and he adds, somewhat to our surprise, “the supposed persons of this musical drama are generally supernatural.” Unquestionably, the opera lent itself, like the heroic play, to sumptuous costume and ingenious devices in setting and stage scenery; and it is not to be denied that, then as now, its devotees set their greatest store on the music and on the fame of individual singers.

  • “I am no great admirer,” says Saint-Évremond, “of comedies in music such as nowadays are in request. I confess I am not displeased with their magnificence; the machines have something that is surprising, the music in some places is charming; the whole together seems wonderful. But it … is very tedious, for where the mind has so little to do, there the senses must of necessity languish.”
  • A discussion of the history of Italian opera in England would be out of place here, since it came first into England with the new century. That men of the taste and judgment of Dryden and Purcell in their respective arts should have lent their talents to the composition of these “odd medleys of poetry and music” only proves the strength of contemporary fashions in art.