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‘An infinity of factions’: Opera in eighteenth-century Britain and the undoing of society

  • Suzanne Aspden


It seems fair to say that we are enmeshed in an Age of Reconstruction. Whatever groans the shibboleth of ‘authenticity’ may elicit from musicians and musicologists, the film industry's leap for the bandwagon is proof of the principle that Period Pieces Pay. Of the recent spate of feature films set in the eighteenth century, one in particular has marketed itself through its reconstructive credentials. The technologies that allow us to remodel our bodies, and revive old recordings on compact disc, also allowed the makers of Farinelli, Il Castrato to reach back and breathe new life into the voice of the long-dead castrati.



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1 Bergeron, Katherine, ‘The Castrato as History’, this journal, 8/2 (1996), 167–84, here 183.

2 Ibid., 183.

3 Ibid., 184.

4 Brown, John, A Dissertation on the Rise, Union, and Power, the Progressions, Separations, and Corruption, of Poetry and Music (London, 1763), 206.On the interchangeability of roles, see Larue, C. Stephen, Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas, 1720–1728 (Oxford, 1995), particularly Chapter Four, ‘Margherita Durastanti as Leading Man and Leading Woman’, 80–104.

5 Bergeron, , 167, 184.

6 Baker, David Erskine, A Companion to the Play-House, 2 vols. (London, 1764).

7 Hurlothrumbo had an initial run of seventeen nights and a total of thirty-six performances in the 1729–30 season at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. Avery, Emmet L. notes the unprecedented success of this work; The London Stage, 1660–1800 Part 2: 1720–1729 (Carbondale, Ill., 1960), 987, 1023–35.

8 A comment made in a letter to his wife, written around 15 May 1729, shortly after the premiere of the work. Byrom, John, Private Journal and Uterary Remains, ed. Parkinson, Richard, 2 vols. (Manchester, 1854), I.2, 355.

9 Byrom, , Private Journal, I.2 (2 06 1729), 349.

10 Jones, Stephen, ed., Biographia Dramatica, 3rd edn (London, 1812), 406.

11 For ‘Hurlothrumbo’: Advertisement for Henley's oratory, The Daily Post, 29 April 1729;Pope Alexander's Supremacy and Infallibility examin'd (London, 1729);Harmony in an uproar: a letter to F-d-k H-d-l, Esq … from Hurlothrumbo Johnson (London, 1733);The fortune-teller (London, 1785);A curious letter from a mountebank doctor to a Methodist preacher (London, 1797).For ‘Lord Flame’: ‘C.L.’, Letter to the Editor, The Monthly Magazine (1798), 416.

12 Johnson, 's other extant published works are: The Blaming Comet (London, 1732);Court and Country (London, [1737?]);A Vision of Heaven (London, 1738). Johnson reiterated his own high regard for his works at the end of his career, according to a posthumous memoir; ‘C.L.’, Letter to the Editor, 415–18.

13 Byrom, , Private Journal, 1.2, 355.

14 Byrom, , Private Journal, 1.2 (2 04 1729), 349.

15 Byrom, , Private Journal, 1.2 (22 04 1729), 351.

16 Fog's Weekly Journal, 5 07 1729; see also the issues of 31 May 1729, 7 June 1729 and 5 July 1729; The Craftsman, 22 August 1730; The Daily Post, 29 April 1729.

17 Fiske, Roger, English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1973), 146;Kern, Jean B., Dramatic Satire in the Age of Walpole, 1720–1750 (Ames, Iowa, 1976), 117;Wierzbicki, James Eugene, ‘Burlesque Opera in London: 1729–1737’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Cincinnati, 1979), 167.

18 Jones, Stephen, ed., Biographia Dramatica, 406.

19 Recent studies of the problems of London's opera seria include Campbell, Jill, ‘ “When Men Women Turn”: Gender Reversals in Fielding's Plays’, The New Eighteenth Century, ed. Nussbaum, Felicity and Brown, Laura (New York, 1987), 6283;Cervantes, Xavier, ‘ ’Tuneful Monsters”: Les Castrats et le Publique Lyrique Londonien au début du XVIIIe Siècle’, Bulletin de la société d'études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, 39 (11, 1994), 227–54;Kowaleski-Wallace, Beth, ‘Shunning the Bearded Kiss: Castrati and the Definition of Female Sexuality’, Prose Studies, 15/2 (08, 1992), 153–70;McGeary, Thomas, ‘Gendering Opera: Italian Opera as the Feminine Other in Britain, 1700–1742’, Journal of Musicologkal Research, 14 (1994), 1734;and McGeary, , ‘ “Warbling Eunuchs”: Opera, Gender, and Sexuality on the London Stage, 1705–1742’, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theater Research, 2nd ser. 7/1 (Summer, 1992), 122.McGeary, has also written persuasively on opera and politics; see his ‘Shaftesbury on Opera, Spectacle and Liberty’, Music & letters, 74 (1993), 530–41.

20 McGeary, , ‘ “Warbling Eunuchs” ’, 1.

21 Campbell, , ‘ “When Men Women Turn” ’, 63.

22 The Contre Temps; or the Rival Queans (London, 1727);An Epistle from S—r S—o to S—a F—a [London, 1727];An Epistle from Signora F-a to a Lady [London, 1727];F-NAs Answer to S-NO [London, 1727].

23 An Epistle from Signora F-a to a Lady, 7.

24 F-NAs Answer to S-NO, 7.

25 Ibid., 6.

26 Onania: or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, 16th edn (London, 1737), 7.

27 See Porter, Roy, Mind-Forg'd Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency (London, 1987), for an excellent discussion of the way in which evolving medical and scientific thought accommodated itself to older concepts, like the ‘humours’.

28 The most extended and explicit figuring of a bestial humanity in the works discussed here can be found in The Connoisseur. A Satire on the Modem Men of Taste (London, [1735]).Guilhamet, Leon, Satire and the Transformation of Genre (Philadelphia, 1987),presents a sophisticated study of the ‘monstrosity’ of satire, as do Stallybrass, Peter and White, Allon in ‘The Grotesque Body and the Smithfield Muse: Authorship in the Eighteenth Century’, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London, 1986), 80124.

29 The Contre Temps, 11.

30 The Connoisseur, 18, 11.

31 The Happy Courtesan: Or, the Prude Demolish'd. An Epistle from the Celebrated Mrs C— P— to the Angelick Signior Far-n—li (London, 1735), 8, 13.

32 F-NAs Answer to S-NO, 8.

33 The Happy Courtesan, 13.

34 For general background see Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (London, 1977).On the political implications, see Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N.J., 1975), Chapters 13 and 14;Kramnick, Isaac, Bolingbroke and his Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole (Cambridge, Mass., 1968);Dickinson, H. T., Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London, 1977);Gunn, J. A. W., Beyond Liberty and Property: The Process of Self-Recognition in Eighteenth-Century Political Thought (Kingston, 1983);Goldsmith, M. M., Private Vices, Public Benefits: Bernard Mandeville's Social and Political Uought (Cambridge, 1985).

35 Kramnick, , Bolingbroke and his Circle, provides the best discussion of early eighteenth-century opposition to individualism.

36 Dennis, John, ‘An Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner’, in Select Works, 2 vols. (London, 1718), I, 457–62.

37 Brown, John, An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Time (London, 1757), 67, 158.

38 Hume, David, ‘Of Luxury’, Political Discourses (London, 1752),cited in Sambrook, James, The Eighteenth Century: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1700–1789 (London, 1986), 106. Hume here follows a version of Bernard Mandeville's famous and highly provocative argument that any vice which kept the economy growing was good; see The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714–29). For a summary of Mandeville, see Sambrook, 103–6.

39 Kramnick, , Bolingbroke and his Circle, passim.

40 Brown, , Estimate, 111–12.

41 Sambrook, , The Eighteenth Century, 106.

42 Barish, Jonas, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, 1981).Raven, James has a particularly good discussion on commerce, luxury and fashionable behaviour; Judging New Wealth: Popular Publishing and Responses to Commerce in England 1750–1800 (Oxford, 1992), 157–82.

43 The Happy Courtesan, 13.

44 The Prompter, 14 November 1735; Brown, Dissertation on … Music, 205; On Operas. ‘These lines were written, during the Dispute whether such Entertainments ought to be exhibited, in a time of actual Rebellion.’ [n.p., n.d. 1715?]; The Prompter, 4 December 1734.

45 Woof, Lawrence, ‘Italian Opera and English Oratorio as Cultural Discourses within Eighteenth-Century English Literature, with particular reference to the Novels of Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney’ (D.Phil, diss., Oxford University, 1994), 88.

46 North, Roger, Roger North on Music, ed. Wilson, John (London, 1959), 222, 162.

47 [Jones, William], A Treatise on the Art of Music (Colchester, 1784), 42 – 3.

48 Treitler, Leo reminds us of the link; see his Music and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), 12.

49 The Woman of Taste (London, 1733), 7.

50 Bardies, Roland, S/Z, trans. Miller, Richard(New York, 1974), 109–10.

51 The Plain Dealer, xxvi (19 06 1724); cited in Woof, ‘Italian Opera’, 60.

52 Johnson, Samuel, A Vision of Heaven (London, 1738), 32.

53 Harmony in an Uproar. A LETTER to T-d-k H-d-l, Esq … FROM Hurlothrumbo Johnson (London, 1733).

54 Hill, Aaron, The Tears of the Muses (1737), 24–5.

55 ‘C.L.’, Letter to the Editor, 417–18.

‘An infinity of factions’: Opera in eighteenth-century Britain and the undoing of society

  • Suzanne Aspden


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