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No. 5. The Opera; Handel's Rinaldo and Armida; ridiculous
language of the libretto.
Spectatum admissi risum teneatis ?-HOR. Ars Poet. 5. An opera may be allowed to be extravagantly lavish in its decorations, as its only design is to gratify the senses, and keep up an indolent attention in the audience. Common sense however requires, that there should be nothing in the scenes and machines which may appear childish and absurd. How would the wits of King Charles's time have laughed to have seen Nicolini exposed to a tempest in robes of ermine, and sailing in an open boat upon a sea of paste-board? What a field of
raillery would they have been let into, had they been entertained 10 with painted dragons spitting wild fire, enchanted chariots drawn
by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landskips? A little skill in criticism would inform us, that shadows and realities ought not to be mixed together in the same piece; and that the scenes which are designed as the representations of nature, should be filled with resemblances, and not with the things themselves. If one would represent a wide champaign country filled with herds and flocks, it would be ridiculous to draw the country only upon the scenes, and to crowd several
parts of the stage with sheep and oxen. This is joining together 20 inconsistencies, and making the decoration partly real, and partly
imaginary. I would recommend what I have said here to the directors, as well as to the admirers of our modern opera.
As I was walking in the streets about a fortnight ago, I saw an ordinary fellow carrying a cage full of little birds upon his shoulder; and, as I was wondering with myself what use he would put them to, he was met very luckily by an acquaintance, who had the same curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his shoulder, he told him that he had been buying sparrows
for the opera. “Sparrows for the opera,' says his friend, licking 39 his lips, what, are they to be roasted ?' 'No, no,' says the
other, they are to enter towards the end of the first act, and to fly about the stage.'
This strange dialogue awakened my curiosity so far, that I immediately bought the opera, by which means I perceived that the sparrows were to act the part of singing birds in a delightful grove; though, upon a nearer inquiry, I found the sparrows put the same trick upon the audience that Sir Martin Mar-all n practised upon his mistress; for though they flew in sight, the music proceeded from a concert of flageolets and bird-calls which were planted behind the scenes. At the same time I made this discovery, I found by the discourse of the actors that there were
great designs on foot for the improvement of the opera; that 10 it had been proposed to break down a part of the wall, and to
surprise the audience with a party of an hundred horse, and that there was actually a project of bringing the New-river into the house, to be employed in jetteaus and water-works. This project, as I have since heard, is postponed till the summer season, when it is thought the coolness that proceeds from fountains and cascades will be more acceptable and refreshing to people of quality. In the mean time, to find out a more agreeable entertainment for the winter season, the opera of
Rinaldo is filled with thunder and lightning, illuminations and 20 fire-works, which the audience may look upon without catching
cold, and indeed without much danger of being burnt ; for there are several engines filled with water, and ready to play at a minute's warning, in case any such accident should happen. However, as I have a very great friendship for the owner of this theatre, I hope that he has been wise enough to insure his house before he would let this opera be acted in it.
It is no wonder that those scenes should be very surprising, which were contrived by two poets of different nations, and
raised by two magicians of different sexes. Armida, as we are 30 told in the argument, was an Amazonian enchantress, and poor
Signior Cassani, as we learn from the persons represented, a Christian conjuror (Mago Christiano). I must confess I am very inuch puzzled to find how an Amazon should be versed in the black art, or how a good Christian, for such is the part of the magician, should deal with the devil.
To consider the poets after the conjurers, I shall give you a taste of the Italian from the first lines of his preface. Eccoti, benigno lettore, un parto di poche sere, che se ben nato di notte, non
è però aborto di tenebre, ma si farà conoscere figlio ď Apollo con 40 qualche raggio di Parnasso.—Behold, gentle reader, the birth of a few
RINALDO AND ARMIDA,
evenings, which, though it be the offspring of the night, is not the abortive of darkness, but will make itself known to be the son of Apollo, with a certain ray of Parnassus. He afterwards proceeds to call Mynheer Handel n the Orpheus of our age, and to acquaint us, in the same sublimity of style, that he composed this opera in a fortnight. Such are the wits, to whose tastes we so ambitiously conform ourselves. The truth of it is, the finest writers among the modern Italians express themselves in such
a florid form of words, and such tedious circumlocutions, as are 10 used by none but pedants in our own country: and at the same
time fill their writings with such poor imaginations and conceits, as our youths are ashamed of before they have been two years at the university. Some may be apt to think, that it is the difference of genius which produces this difference in the works of the two nations; but, to shew there is nothing in this, if we look into the writings of the old Italians, such as Cicero and Virgil, we shall find that the English writers, in their way of thinking and expressing themselves, resemble those authors much
more than the modern Italians pretend to do. And as for 20 the poet himself, from whom the dreams of this opera are taken,
I must entirely agree with Monsieur Boileau, that one verse in Virgil is worth all the clinquant or tinsel of Tasso.
But to return to the sparrows; there have been so many flights of them let loose in this opera, that it is feared the house will never get rid of them; and that in other plays they may make their entrance in very wrong and improper scenes, so as to be seen flying in a lady's bed-chamber, or perching upon a king's throne; besides the inconveniences which the heads of the
audience may sometimes suffer from them. I am credibly in30 formed, that there was once a design of casting into an opera
the story of Whittington and his cat, and that in order to it, there had been got together a great quantity of mice; but Mr. Rich, the proprietor of the play-house, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the cat to kill them all, and that consequently the princes of the stage might be as much infested with mice, as the prince of the island was before the cat's arrival upon it; for which reason he would not permit it to be acted in his house. And, indeed, I cannot blame him;
for, as he said very well upon that occasion, I do not hear that 40 any of the performers in our opera pretend to equal the famous
Pied piper, who made all the mice of a great town in Germany follow his music, and by that means cleared the place of those little noxious animals.
Before I dismiss this paper, I must inform my reader, that I hear there is a treaty on foot with London and Wise, who will be appointed gardeners of the play-house, to furnish the opera of Rinaldo and Armida with an orange-grove; and that the next time it is acted, the singing birds will be personated by tomtits:
the undertakers being resolved to spare neither pains nor money 10 for the gratification of the audience.-C.
No. 13. Signor Nicolini's combat with a lion; history of several stage lions ; Nicolini a great master of action.
Dic mihi, si fueris tu leo, qualis eris ?-MART.
Were you a lion, how would you behave ? There is nothing that of late years has afforded matter of greater amusement to the town than Signior Nicolini's » combat with a lion in the Haymarket, which has been very often exhibited to the general satisfaction of most of the nobility and gentry in the kingdom of Great Britain. Upon the first rumour of this intended combat it was confidently affirmed and is still believed by many in both galleries, that there would be a tame lion sent from the Tower every opera night, in order to be killed
by Hydaspes; this report, though altogether groundless, so uni20 versally prevailed in the upper regions of the play-house, that
some of the most refined politicians in those parts of the audience gave it out in a whisper, that the lion was a cousin-german of the tiger who made his appearance in king William's days, and that the stage would be supplied with lions at the public expence, during the whole session. Many likewise were the conjectures of the treatment which this lion was to meet with from the hands of Signior Nicolini; some supposed that he was to subdue him in recitativo, as Orpheus used to serve the wild beasts in
his time, and afterwards to knock him on the head; some fancied 30 that the lion would not pretend to lay his paws upon the hero,
by reason of the received opinion, that a lion will not hurt a virgin : several, who pretended to have seen the opera in Italy, had informed their friends, that the lion was to act a part in NICOLINI AND THE LION.
High-Dutch, and roar twice or thrice to a thorough-base, before he fell at the feet of Hydaspes 1. To clear up a matter that was so variously reported, I have made it my business to examine whether this pretended lion is really the savage he appears to be, or only a counterfeit.
But before I communicate my discoveries I must acquaint the reader, that upon my walking behind the scenes last winter, as I was thinking on something else, I accidentally justled against
a monstrous animal that extremely startled me, and upon my 10 nearer survey of it, appeared to be a lion rampant. The lion,
seeing me very much surprised, told me, in a gentle voice, that I might come by him if I pleased : 'for,' says he, 'I do not intend to hurt anybody.' I thanked him very kindly and passed by him: and, in a little time after, saw him leap upon the stage, and act his part with very great applause. It has been observed by several, that the lion has changed his manner of acting twice or thrice since his first appearance; which will not seem strange, when I acquaint my reader that the lion has been changed upon
the audience three several times. The first lion was a candle20 snuffer, who being a fellow of a testy, choleric temper, overdid
his part, and would not suffer himself to be killed so easily as he ought to have done; besides, it was observed of him, that he grew more surly every time he came out of the lion; and having dropt some words in ordinary conversation, as if he had not fought his best, and that he suffered himself to be thrown upon
his back in the scuffle, and that he would wrestle with Mr. Nicolini for what he pleased, out of his lion's skin, it was thought proper to discard him: and it is verily believed to
this day, that had he been brought upon the stage another time, 30 he would certainly have done mischief
. Besides, it was objected against the first lion, that he reared himself so high upon his hinder paws, and walked in so erect a posture, that he looked more like an old man than a lion.
The second lion was a tailor by trade, who belonged to the play-house, and had the character of a mild and peaceable man in his profession. If the former was too furious, this was too sheepish, for his part; insomuch that after a short modest walk upon the stage, he would fall at the first touch of Hydaspes,
without grappling with him, and giving him an opportunity 40 of shewing his variety of Italian trips: it is said indeed, that