Friday, 3 January 2014

John Gay’s Indebtedness to Italian Opera

The following entry is an as-yet unpublished article on John Gay’s ballad operas and the influence of Handel and other Italian opera composers of the period.

John Gay’s Indebtedness to Italian Opera

In its own time, as well as ours, The Beggar’s Opera was given too much credit for bringing down Italian opera in London. Alexander Pope, for instance, was prematurely certain that Gay’s play had not only reversed the author’s personal fortunes but also ended the operatic enterprise. In the first edition of The Dunciad, completed before The Beggar’s Opera took to the stage, ‘Opera prepares the way’ for the triumph of Dulness[1], and the ‘dunces’ usurp the seats of learning, whilst Pope’s friend John Gay is imagined dying ‘un-pension’d with a hundred Friends’.[2]

The line relates to a painful recent acknowledgement of Gay’s inability to secure a suitable ‘place’, in a letter he wrote to Pope in October 1727:

Dear Mr. Pope, / My Melancholy increases, and every Hour threatens me with some Return of my Distemper […] There is now what Milton says in Hell, Darkness visible. —O that I had never known what a Court was! Dear Pope, what a barren Soil (to me so) have I been striving to produce something out of! […] I begin to look upon myself as one already dead; and desire, my dear Mr. Pope, (whom I love as my own Soul) if you survive me, (as you certainly will) that you will, if a Stone should mark the Place of my Grave, see these Words put on it:

Life is a Jest, and all Things show it;
I thought so once, but now I know it.[3]

Four months later everything had changed. Here is Gay writing to his other close Scriblerian friend, Jonathan Swift, in February of the following year:

Dear Sir/ I have deferr’d writing to you from time to time till I could give you an account of the Beggar’s Opera. It is Acted at the Playhouse in Lincoln’s Inn fields, with such success that the Playhouse hath been crouded every night […] I think I shall make an addition to my fortune of between six and seven hundred pounds..[4]

This literally ‘dramatic’ change in circumstances required a footnote in Pope’s variorum edition of The Dunciad in 1729. Here the line on Gay’s death is extensively annotated:

This gentleman was early in the friendship of our author, which has continued many years. He wrote several works of humour with great success […] lastly, the celebrated Beggar’s Opera; a piece of Satire which hit all tastes and degrees of men, from those of the highest Quality to the very Rabble […] The vast success of it was unprecedented, and almost incredible: What is related of the wonderful effects of the ancient Music or Tragedy hardly came up to it: Sophocles and Euripides were less follow’d and famous […] The fame of it was not confin’d to the author only; the Ladies carry’d about with ‘em the favourite songs of it in Fans […] The person who acted Polly, till then obscure, became all at once the favourite of the town; her Pictures were ingraved and sold in great numbers […]
Furthermore, it drove out of England the Italian Opera, which had carry’d all before it for ten years: That Idol of the Nobility and the people, which the great Critick Mr. Dennis by the labours and outcries of a whole life could not overthrow, was demolish’d in one winter by a single stroke of this gentleman’s pen.[5]

Of course, Pope was wrong about the end of Italian opera in London. By 1735 he had had to change the note to read ‘it drove out of England for that season the Italian Opera’.[6]

But the idea of The Beggar’s Opera’s crucial role in ending Italian opera in London has persisted. Yvonne Noble, for instance, in her influential collection of essays, claimed that ‘It changed the course of music, by helping turn Handel away from operas to oratorios’[7]

The facts do not support such an assumption. Before the first production of The Beggar’s Opera, in January 1728, Handel had composed nineteen Italian operas (excluding pasticcios). But he was only half done. After that date, he went on to compose another nineteen Italian operas and produce these and many revivals of his earlier works at the King’s Theatre and Covent Garden. Amongst Handel’s output in these years are some of his greatest masterpieces, including Orlando, Ariodante, Alcina and Serse. Ironically, his last two operas, Imeneo and Deidamia, were first performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the very theatre where The Beggar’s Opera had supposedly ended his opera career thirteen years earlier.

Pope would have to wait until 1742 and The New Dunciad before he could finally see off the ‘Harlot form’ Italian opera.[8] In this later Dunciad he praises Handel (more responsible than anyone for the genre), but only after Handel has abandoned Italian opera for English oratorio. Pat Rogers has convincingly shown that in The Dunciad: ‘The general fiction of “Dulness” turns out to possess vibrant operatic overtones; the linkage of “Noise and Nonsense” is not casual, but an echo of the fiercest Kulturkampf of the time — the debate over Italian opera’.[9]

One of the aims of this article is to examine the role of Gay’s three ballad ‘operas’ in that debate, but Pope’s position deserves further comment. Firstly, his praise of his friend’s success is not without a satiric edge. John Gay’s own contribution to the debate before The Beggar’s Opera was in a letter to Swift in 1723 (written at the height of Handel’s Italian success):

As for the reigning Amusement of the town, tis entirely Musick. […] Theres nobody allow’d to say I sing but an Eunuch or an Italian Woman. Every body is grown now as great a judge of Musick as they were in your time of Poetry and folks that could not distinguish one tune from another now daily dispute about the different Styles of Hendel, Bononcini, and Attillio. People have now forgot Homer, and Virgil & Caesar, or at least they have lost their ranks, for in London and Westminster in all polite conversation’s Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man that ever liv’d.[10]

It is typical for one Scriblerian writing to another to resent the neglect of the Ancients in favour of something Modern and modish. But Pope’s own footnote in the 1729 Dunciad has something of this flavour too: The Beggar’s Opera has eclipsed Sophocles and Euripides; and a completely unknown singer (incomparable with Gay’s famous castrato Senesino) is the talk of the town. Polly and her actor Lavinia Fenton have acquired a celebrity status not dissimilar to the great Italian singers of the day. Pope admires the satire and is delighted with his friend’s success, but he is also wary of the fashionable craze the play seems to have produced. Indeed, John Gay’s sequel to The Beggar’s Opera – Polly: An Opera – aimed to take advantage of the cult status of his heroine. Pope suggests that The Beggar’s Opera aimed to ‘drive out’ Italian opera, and it is a natural assumption to think that John Gay would adopt exactly the stance of his two friends. Swift certainly took this for granted, writing in the immediate wake of Gay’s success that the play ‘exposeth with Great Justice that unnatural Taste for Italian Musick among us, which is wholly unsuitable to our Northern Climate, and the Genius of the People, whereby we are overrun with Italian-Effeminacy, and Italian Nonsense’.[11]

It would also be misleading to think that the Kulturkampf described by Rogers followed typical patterns of literary allegiance. Pope’s footnote hints as much, uncomfortably so: Gay has ‘demolish’d […] by a single stroke’ Italian Opera ‘which the great Critick Mr. Dennis by the labours and outcries of a whole life could not overthrow’.[12]

Few were as detested in Pope’s catalogue of dunces as John Dennis, whose attacks against Italian opera, here, are treated as laborious and ineffectual rants. But the footnote is also a begrudging acknowledgement that it was indeed John Dennis who first established the literary critique against Italian opera in his 1705 Essay on the Opera's After the Italian Manner. Dennis’s position was close to Swift’s: 'the Reigning Luxury of Modern Italy, is that soft and effeminate Musick which abounds in the Italian Opera'.[13] Pope had more considered criticism of the musical and theatrical devices of Italian opera, but shared the national prejudice. In Italian opera we have perhaps the only cultural phenomenon to unite the Scriblerians and their dunces.

But William McIntosh has convincingly argued that Gay’s position was very different: ‘That Gay hated the foreignness of Italian opera is a misconception at best; at worst it is the result of putting Swift’s words into Gay’s mouth’.[14]

McIntosh points out that his critique in the letter to Swift is not actually attacking the music of Italian opera at all: ‘Gay is talking about people, not music’.[15] McIntosh argues that far from being ‘a brutal satire designed to destroy Italian opera’, The Beggar’s Opera was ‘never intended to do more than offer […] a few parodies for the amusement of the friends of opera seria.[16] Though this rather understates the satire, the reminder that the basis for good parody is a shared cultural knowledge of the subject parodied is helpful.

The Beggar’s Opera, its sequel, Polly: An Opera and Achilles show a more detailed familiarity with Italian opera than is often assumed. Both Polly and Achilles certainly help refute any idea that Gay was interested in a sustained campaign against Italian opera – Achilles has no critical reference to Italian opera at all. Polly does open with a swipe at the prima donna (and primo uomo) behaviour of the singers of Italian opera (creating an opening link with the theme of The Beggar’s Opera), but shows no interest in the anti-opera theme in the whole of the play that follows. We could revise Peter Lewis’s claim that ‘in Gay’s two subsequent ballad operas […] there is little trace of the systematic ironic displacement of Italian opera characteristic of The Beggar’s Opera’.[17] There is not only no ‘systematic ironic displacement’, but there is evidence of a genuine indebtedness to Italian opera. These two operas help us answer Nigel Wood’s question about The Beggar’s Opera: ‘Its originality […] still leaves us ambivalent about Gay’s own reading and interest in ‘straight’ opera. Was he antagonistic, or paying amused homage to its novelty and high-flown bravura?’[18] Far from being antagonistic, even in The Beggar’s Opera, but also in the later plays, John Gay depended on Italian opera for his success, and many of his devices.

(Literary critics have tended to have a rather narrow view of Italian opera seria. It’s not quite clear what Nigel Wood means by ‘straight’ opera, here (Italian opera takes us through all the moods, including comedy). And ‘high-flown bravura’ might be apt for the heroic episodes, but won’t serve for the many domestic and private scenes.)

The music in Polly, shows a detailed and up-to-date familiarity with particular Italian operas. Handel’s Scipione (or Publio Cornelio Scipione) was first performed only a couple of seasons before Gay started work on his sequel, but it provided the music for Air XVII (headed ‘March in Scipio’[19]). The music for Air XLVII, headed ‘T’amo tanto’, derives from an aria in Artaserse by Attilio Ariosti (referred to as ‘Attillio’ in Gay’s earlier letter to Swift), first performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in 1724. This borrowing even shows evidence of allusion to the full text of the aria, in Italian and as translated into English in the first edition of the libretto:

T’amo tanto o mio tesoro
Che più amarti il cor non sa.
Volgi un guardo al mio Martoro
Ed avrai di me pietà.

So dear I love thee, O my Treasure,
No Heart can e’er more warmly burn;
O I could pass thro’ Death with Pleasure,
If one pitying Eye you turn.[20]

Gay’s text applies the ‘treasure’, the ‘pleasure’ and the defiance of death to his own aria:

Virtue’s treasure
Is a pleasure,
Cheerful even amid distress;
Nor pain, nor crosses,
Nor grief, nor losses,
Nor death itself, can make it less:
Here relying,
Suff’ring, dying,
Honest Souls find all redress.[21]

More interesting are several allusions to Ariosti’s opera Caius Marcius Coriolanus, first performed at the Haymarket in 1723. There is not only use of the ‘Dead March in Coriolanus’ for Air XXIII[22], but the work even provides music for a recitative passage in Polly. Gay’s text has ‘RECITATIVE. Sia suggetta la plebe in Coriolan’ for Morano’s words ‘Hence, let him feel his sentence, / Pain brings repentence’, all of which is repeated a few lines later.[23] The exact source, in the libretto for Ariosti’s opera has ‘Sia soggetta la Plebe; e l’empio mora’ (‘The Plebeans must be humbled and the Traytor dye’).[24] So much for the satiric remark in The Beggar’s Opera: ‘I hope I may be forgiven, that I have not made my opera throughout unnatural, like those in vogue; for I have no recitative’.[25] There is no apparent satire against recitative for the borrowing in Polly; indeed the moment is a serious one without humour, as Morano (actually Macheath in disguise) is threatening the noble savage Cawwawkee with death (it is a genuinely heroic passage). The contextualisation of music from Italian operas for arias in both The Beggar’s Opera and Polly shows the range of Gay’s knowledge, but the use of an obscure passage of recitative, with its proper attribution to an opera of 1723 suggests detailed familiarity. And this allusion may run deeper.

It has been noted that in The Beggar’s Opera: ‘The romantic figure of Macheath in Newgate was seen by some contemporaries as a parody of similar scenes in Attilio Ariosti’s Cajo Marzio Coriolano’.[26] It is not surprising that the Newgate scene in The Beggar’s Opera should generally suggest Italian operas. In the Introduction to the play, the Beggar boasts ‘a prison-scene, which the ladies always reckon charmingly pathetic’[27], in acknowledgement of this staple of the opera. But any idea of typical prison scenes depends on the specific examples that helped create the type, so it is not surprising that Gay’s scene suggested particular analogues to contemporary audiences. In fact, The Beggar’s Opera depends on an understanding of the conventions as represented in individual operas. Macheath’s prison scene (III, xiii), with its rapid sequence of airs of a different mood has caused problems for modern editors, composers and directors. The latest editors of the play (2010) note: ‘The sequence of songs poses a number of questions about the manner of its performance, since the music does not link together straightforwardly’. But they rightly give precedence to Jeremy Barlow’s view that the songs were ‘sung just as they stand … the abruptness of the changes is intended to underline Macheath’s rapid swings of mood’. In fact Barlow retracted his own practice to reflect his research into the period. At first he had created balancing links between tunes and text: ‘However, examination since then of further 18th-century editions suggests that I was wrong’.[28] Unsurprisingly, Gay understood the conventions of the representation of prison mood in the operas of the period. One of the best (and a scene already proposed by others as an analogue)[29] is Handel’s dramatization of Elmira’s attempt to rescue her beloved from prison in Floridante (1721). According to Dean and Knapp: ‘This scene […] stands out even among the Royal Academy operas for its vivid descriptive power and psychological penetration: the music expresses hope, fear, anxiety, disappointment, and resignation’.[30] Though Gay’s version of such a scene is at least partly bathetic, there is also a serious psychological note, as Macheath’s sequence moves from self-pity, to bravado, to melancholy, to resilience, to regret and despair. The alternation of moods, reflected in the music, would not have posed the problems to 1728 audiences discovered by later commentators.

Preceding this sequence, and equally suggestive of the operas of the period, is the hero torn between lovers, again a general theme, but one enlivened by the presence, on the London stage together for the first time in 1726, of the three greatest Italian singers of the age, the castrato (alto) Senesino, the soprano Cuzzoni, and the mezzo-soprano Faustina. And Macheath’s role, finally torn between Polly and Lucy, again suggests specific analogues:

Which way shall I turn me? How can I decide?
Wives, the day of our death, are as fond as a bride.
One wife is too much for most husbands to hear,
But two at a time there’s no mortal can bear.
This way, and that way, and which way I will,
What would comfort the one, t’other wife would take ill.[31]

Though a comic version of the dilemma, this situation exactly parallels the position of Handel’s Admeto (first performed in 1727), where the hero is torn between Antigona and Alceste:

Antigona, Alceste: Oh Cielo! Oh stelle!
Che di voi seguirò?
Qual di voi lascierò?

Antigona—Alceste—O my divided Stars!
Which of you two,
Which must I leave, and which pursue?[32]

The rivalry between Polly and Lucy and the ‘nice impartiality’[33] of their roles also has a specifically Handelian precedent (as has often been noted, but rarely examined). For the first Academy production including the two leading ladies, Cuzzoni and Faustina, Handel had to be particularly careful to give equal parts to both. The result included the following exchange from Alessandro (1726), where the two prima donnas compete for the love of Alexander the Great:

Lis. [Lisaura, played by Cuzzoni] What have I seen!
Rox. [Rossana, played by Faustina] Oh, what have I
Lis. Precipitate State of Glory!
Rox. O perverse ambition!
For 2. If Alexander fell Lisaura/ Roxana is undone.
Lis. Roxana seems afflicted,
Rox. And my fair Rival too appears to mourn.
For 2. Thus Souls discording, if in Love they be, /
              Dread like Misfortunes, and in fears agree.[34]

Gay adopts the same kind of competitive exchange for his own ‘Rival Queens’ in Air 52:

POLLY Hither, dear husband, turn your eyes.
LUCY Bestow one glance to cheer me.
POLLY Think with that look, thy Polly dies.
LUCY  O shun me not, but hear me.
POLLY ‘Tis Polly sues.
LUCY ‘Tis Lucy speaks.
POLLY Is thus true love requited?
LUCY My heart is bursting.
POLLY Mine too breaks.
LUCY Must I,
POLLY Must I be slighted?[35]

This parallel, of course, takes us to the most important allusion to the Italian opera context in The Beggar’s Opera, the infamous and celebrated scuffle between Cuzzoni and Faustina (and their rival supporters) at a 1727 performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte:

On Tuesday-night last […] a great Disturbance happened at the Opera, occasioned by the Partisans of the Two Celebrated Rival Ladies, Cuzzoni and Faustina. The Contention at first was only carried on by Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other; but proceeded at length to Catcalls, and other great Indecencies.[36]

It was widely reported that the two singers had come to blows, though that is likely to be apocryphal. The two women were already notorious. Cuzzoni, when she arrived in London in 1723 had reportedly refused to sing the beautiful aria ‘Falsa imagine’ from Ottone that Handel had intended as her curtain raiser. Handel had deliberately created a spare setting to emphasise the beauty of her voice, but she considered it vulgar and unbefitting her status (Handel famously threatened to defenestrate her if she didn’t sing it; she did, and it was a famous success). Gay may well have had this anecdote in mind in the Introduction to Polly, when he has the thinly disguised Signora Crotchetta refusing her part, as her character is ‘so low, that she had rather die than sing it’.[37]

Gay’s allusion to the competition between the two singers in The Beggar’s Opera reaches its climax in the duet ‘LUCY: Why how now, Madam Flirt? / POLLY: Why how now saucy jade?’[38] But he was only drawing on a wave of satiric remarks in the press and pamphlets. Of these the most important was The Contre Temps; or, Rival Queans: A Small Farce, attributed to Colley Cibber (probably wrongly, but it is interesting to see another ‘dunce’ cited in the anti-opera lobby). This pamphlet is quite explicit in its reference, with Senesino (S—s—no) in the same position as both Admeto and Macheath (‘How difficult’s my task betwixt these two; / Each hopes my aid, and nothing I can do’[39]), torn between the furies of Faustina (F—s—na) and Cuzzoni (C—z—ni). One of the other characters in this farce is S—d—ni who, despite his best efforts, despairs of reconciliation: ‘Fury so obstinate who can perswade? / A dozen of the guards bring to our aid’.[40] Sandoni was Cuzzoni’s husband, so the inclusion of one of his compositions for Air 34 in The Beggar’s Opera would have extended the allusion, creating an insider’s joke, appreciated only by those with a detailed knowledge of the Italian opera context. Though they are ballad operas, and though must of the airs are traditional, the inclusion, in The Beggar’s Opera and Polly of King’s Theatre composers provides more than parody.

As well as announcing a prison scene, the beggar boasts a range of simile arias: ‘I have introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas’.[41] His list includes ‘the ship’ aria. But Gay understands the conventional (ubiquitous) simile theme more precisely than this and provides a ship in storm yearning for harbour. Here is Polly Peachum, whose parents seem to have accepted and forgiven her betrothal to the dashing highwayman Macheath:

I, like a ship in storms, was tossed,
Yet afraid to put in to land;
For seized in the port the vessel's lost,
Whose treasure is contraband.
The waves are laid,
My duty's paid.
O joy beyond expression!
Thus, safe ashore,
I ask no more,
My all is in my possession.[42]

This seems an apt parody of the typical, clichéd, material of the simile aria. Indeed its subject coincides with the first such aria to be heard by London opera-goers, in 1705:

Thus sinking Mariners,
In sight of Land are lost;
Dash'd on the Rocks
And cannot reach the Coast.[43]

Peter Lewis has argued that ‘What Gay implies […] is that such similes have been rendered inexpressive in Italian opera by having been worked to death […] Gay tries to revitalize them’.[44] But the same can sometimes be said for Handel’s librettists.

Closer to Gay's text than the simple first example of 1705 are many later, more complex, similes on this theme. Here are two such arias from Nicola Haym’s libretto for Handel’s Ottone: the first is from the wicked Gismonda, the second, later in the opera, from the hero Ottone:

La speranza è giunta in Porto,
Ne sa più di che temere,
Se tranquillo vede il mar;
Sol mancava al mio conforto
Questa sorte di piacere
Ora più non so bramar.

All my Hope is safely landed,
And will now no longer fear,
The treacherous Seas tempestuous Wave.
This was the only Pleasure
Wanting to compleat my Bliss:
All I wanted, now I have.[45]

Dell' onda a i fieri moti
Sottratto in Porto il legno,
Scioglie il Nocchiero i voti
A qualche Deità.
Cosi tornato il Regno
In sen di bella calma
All' amor suo quest' alma
I voti scioglierà.

After a dreadful Storm,
When the Sailor safely Anchors
In his long-wish'd for Harbour,
Then he pays his Vows to some Deity.
Just so, my Kingdom being now in Peace,
I will pay mine to my Love.[46]

In Handel's opera neither aria is merely metaphor; both have an associative relationship with the plot. Ottone has been engaged in a sea-battle which has delayed his return to Rome, allowing Gismonda to disguise her son, Adelberto, as Ottone and promote him to power; her calm seas are Ottone's stormy ones and her hopes ironically depend on Ottone's failure to reach port. But Ottone soon wins his battle, and turns his attention to Adelberto. By the end of Act 1 he has defeated his usurper and, having 'turned the tide', sings his 'ship' aria reversing the direction of the simile.

Gay’s aria, too, gives a literal twist to the clichéd simile of ‘safe harbour’, as Polly’s fear directly relates to the taking of criminals (her father’s specialism), whose booty (minus the bounty) is immediately forfeit once taken by officers of the law. Neither Nicola Haym, one of Handel’s greatest librettists, nor John Gay merely adopt the convention, but both adapt it to their purposes.

The use, in The Beggar’s Opera, of a ‘March in Rinaldo with Drums and Trumpets’ (Air 20)[47] would suggest an obvious opportunity for anti-opera satire. None of Handel’s operas produced such direct criticism as Rinaldo, as Gay well knew, and no opera was as formative for the development of Italian opera in London as Handel’s first London production, in 1711. Joseph Addison was responsible for the Spectator's pillory of Italian opera in general and this opera in particular. Five numbers (5; 13; 14; 18; and 29) gave over their space to the ridicule of the increasingly popular new form, over a period of less than one month from March 6th to April 3rd, 1711. A particular focus was the spectacle of the new operas. Rinaldo calls for two chariots, one drawn by white horses and blackamoors, the other drawn by two dragons issuing fire and smoke; furies and dreadful monsters; a delightful grove with singing birds in the trees; singing and dancing mermaids; a dreadful mountain prospect; an enchanted palace; a magician's cave; ugly enchanted spirits; and plentiful supplies of thunder, lightning and ‘amazing noises’. Addison ridiculed the whole enterprise in the issue of March 6th. Especially ludicrous to him seemed the provision of real birds for the delightful grove:

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 my self 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 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.[48]

This famous context offered Gay the perfect opportunity for a variety of slights against the Italian opera. But he offered none. He rather uses Handel’s march to add to the mock-heroic bathos of highwayman readying themselves for a night’s work (as compared with heroes preparing for battle).

The idea that The Beggar’s Opera is an ‘anti-opera’ needs revising. It is rather a ‘mock-opera’ in the same sense that we call The Rape of the Lock a ‘mock-epic’ – it doesn’t mock opera, but uses it for a variety of burlesque, bathetic, purposes.

Gay’s interest in and knowledge of Italian opera shaped the themes and structures of his ballad operas. Take, for instance, Act II, Scene I of Polly, an episode surely inspired by Italian opera conventions.

The scene is set in the open, with a ‘View of an Indian Country’. Lost, forlorn and wandering in a foreign place, Polly has come in search of Macheath. She is disguised as a young man. After an air complaining of her lost love, she has a monologue, punctuated with bars of the next air:

How sultry is the Day! The cool of this Shade will refresh me. I am jaded too with Reflection. How restless is Love! (Musick, two or three Bars of the dead March.) My Imagination follows him every where; would my Feet were as swift. The World then could not hide him from me. (two or three Bars more.) Yet even Thought is now bewilder’d in pursuing him. (two or three Bars more.) I’m tir’d, I’m faint. (The Symphony.) [49]

At this point Polly sings her air ‘Sleep, O Sleep’.

The whole sequence is genuinely operatic, as two Handel equivalents will show. In Act II, Scene viii of Ottone (1723), Teofane is alone at night in a garden with fountains and grottos. She believes herself scorned by Ottone, whom she loves. After a mournful orchestral introduction, she has an accompanied monologue welcoming the solitary groves: ‘My thoughts have led me here to find some Rest’[50]. Like Polly she is far from her native home, abandoned and alone (‘Lungi dal Patrio tetto / Abbandonata e sola’[51]), and the scene ends with her aria ‘S’or mi dai pene’, introduced by the returning bars of the opening.

In Act I, Scene vi of Rodelinda (1725), the exiled Bertarido, reported dead, returns in Hungarian disguise. He has lost everything – his kingdom and his beloved wife. The scene is set in a ‘Cypress Grove’ and Bertarido enters to a symphony before complaining, in his accompanied monologue, of the vanitas of death (‘Pompe vane di morte’). He reads his own funeral inscription (in secco recitative), before singing the sublime aria ‘Dove sei?’ yearning for the comfort of his wife to ease his wearied soul. Handel’s writing, here, brilliantly links recitative and aria: ‘the aria slips in before we are aware that the recitative has finished and the ritornello seems to begin in the middle’.[52]

There are so many points of obvious thematic comparison between Handel’s two opera scenes and Gay’s: the open setting; the solace of nature; the monologue complaint; the lost love; the loneliness; and the sense of exile. But most striking is Gay’s use of the music to integrate speech and song, as in Handel’s episodes. Polly’s second aria is anticipated three times as she speaks, the repeated bars serving as both accompagnato and ritornello, before the symphonic introduction to the aria itself. It is fitting, then, that the borrowing for her song is the ‘Dead March in Coriolanus’ already referred to. At this most operatic of points Polly uses music from an Italian opera performed at the Haymarket in 1723 (in the same year and at the same venue as Handel’s first production of Ottone).

John Gay’s choice of subject for his last ballad opera, Achilles, published posthumously in 1733, shows a more obvious affinity with the normal subject matter of Italian opera than either The Beggar’s Opera or Polly. As Dean notes:

The post-Homeric story of Achilles in Scyros was popular with librettists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Settings by Legrenzi and Draghi appeared in 1663, in Ferrara and Vienna respectively, and Metastasio’s version, written for Caldara in 1736, was subsequently set by other composers. The opportunities for transvestist disguise and sexual innuendo had a natural attraction for practitioners of opera seria with its dependence on soprano and alto heroes.[53]

Dean is writing, here, about Handel’s last Italian opera, Deidamia (1741), set to a libretto by Paolo Rolli. It is of coincidental interest that Handel’s and Gay’s last operas should be on the same mythological subject, but it is important that Gay should turn to material so often the subject of Italian opera adaptations. Rolli was not apparently influenced by earlier versions of the story, including Gay’s, but there are nevertheless striking correspondences between the works. Though Gay’s treatment of the transvestite theme is raucous and bawdy, Rolli’s comedy depends on the same circumstances. In Gay’s version Achilles, in the female guise of Pyrrha, is constantly hounded for ‘her’ favours by otherwise heroic men, including, hilariously, the great warrior Ajax. In Rolli’s version, though their aim is to prove Pyrrha no woman, both Ulisse and Fenice act as ‘her’ suitors. And the final method of discovery is the same in both works. In Deidamia, Ulisse offers the ‘women’ of the court fine gifts of silk, ribbons and trinkets, but the only gift Achille wants is armour and weapons. In Gay’s version, Ulysses is disguised as a merchant, but the stratagem is the same, as Achilles scorns pearls and dresses:

[As the Ladies are employ’d in examining the Stuffs, Achilles is handling and poising the Armour, Ulysses observing him. Achil. The Workmanship is curious; and so justly mounted! This very Sword seems fitted to my Hand. – The Shield too is so little cumbersome; so very easy! – Was Hector here, the Fate of Troy shou’d this Instant be decided.[54]

Both operas – Gay’s and Handel’s – are essentially mock-heroic. The coincidence is a reminder that Gay was often closer to Italian opera traditions than is sometimes assumed (Rolli completed Deidamia long after Gay’s death, but was one of the most important Handel librettists in the 1720s). It also reminds us that opera seria could have fun with the heroic conventions. Parody, irony and transgression are to be found not only in Gay’s operas, but also in the Italian tradition. And, as a coda, John Gay’s last ballad opera qualifies Peter Lewis’s claim that in the other two works ‘Italianate music is conspicuous by its absence’.[55] Gay ended his opera writing career with a gavotte, a minuet and a saraband by Arcangelo Corelli, and a final aria and chorus structure indebted to Italian opera conventions.

Considering all the evidence, it is possible to form a conclusion about Gay’s part in the Italian opera debate. The success of this art form and the celebrity and scandal surrounding its famous exponents offered the perfect basis for parody. The bathetic theme which linked the most powerful politicians in England with highway robbers was ideally complemented by a burlesque which transformed heroic arias sung by the musical elite into ballad arias sung by the ordinary and the vulgar. But the method depended on the audience’s familiarity with the themes and conventions of the genre parodied, and the humour must have been particularly appreciated by those who knew their opera well. The leading composers provided airs, and even a recitative for Gay’s dramas, and Gay used these borrowings for effects beyond parody. Gay knew his ‘Hendel, Bononcini, and Attillio’ much better than those he condemned. At the same time he could maintain his Scriblerian credentials and confirm the approval of his friends and correspondents, Pope and Swift, both for the attack against the politicians and for the assumed critique of Italian opera. He would not need to correct their misreadings of his aims. Neither would he risk the disapprobation of Handel, the most important of the serious composers he cited, someone who had been supported and admired even by Pope’s friends, and someone with whom Gay had collaborated in the composition of the libretto for Acis and Galatea. Apparently, when asked if he was offended, Handel replied ‘God forbid! I am a great admirer of the airs of The Beggar’s Opera, and every professional gentleman must do his best to live’.[56] The immediate success and fame of The Beggar’s Opera skewed the satire. In her public reception Polly became the model of beautiful innocence, victimised and betrayed. But far from correcting this new version of her character, Gay capitalized on it with Polly: An Opera, where the knowing, canny, daughter of a receiver of stolen goods and thief taker is transformed into the kind of trouser-wearing heroine that so often appears in Italian opera, and, moreover, in an heroic context. Though Polly was initially banned in a Walpolean backlash against The Beggar’s Opera, Gay made twelve-hundred pounds from the published version, more than he would have made from the production.[57] In his last ballad opera, Gay turned to a genuinely mock-heroic theme, using the kind of material that had always appealed to the writers of opera seria, and that would continue to appeal after Gay’s death. In the debate about Italian opera, John Gay was having his cake and eating it.

[1] Alexander Pope, The Dunciad, ed. James Sutherland, The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, Vol.5 (London and New Haven: Methuen and Yale UP, 1963), Bk III, l. 302, p.185.
[2] Dunciad,Bk III, l.326, p.189.
[3] The Letters of John Gay, ed. C. F. Burgess (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp.65-67.
[4] The Letters of John Gay, p.70.
[5] Dunciad, Bk III, p.190.
[6] Dunciad, Bk III, p.190.
[7] Yvonne Noble; ‘The Beggar’s Opera in Its Own Time’ in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Beggar’s Opera: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Yvonne Noble (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975) (pp.1-14), p.1.
[8] Dunciad, Bk IV, ll.45-48, pp.345-6.
[9] Pat Rogers, ‘The Critique of Opera in Pope’s Dunciad’, in The Musical Quarterly, Vol.59, No.1 (Jan, 1973), pp.15-30 (p.30).
[10] The Letters of John Gay, p.43.
[11] Jonathan Swift, in Jonathan Swift and Thomas Sheridan, The Intelligencer, ed. James Woolley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p.65.
[12] Dunciad, Bk III, p.190.
[13] Dennis, Preface, p.6.
[14] William A. McIntosh, ‘Handel, Walpole, and Gay: The Aims of The Beggar’s Opera’ in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol.7, No.4 (Summer, 1974), pp.415-33 (p.426).
[15] McIntosh, p.425.
[16] McIntosh, p.427.
[17] Peter Lewis, ‘The Beggar’s Rags to Rich’s and Other Dramatic Transformations’ in John Gay and the Scriblerians, ed. Peter Lewis and Nigel Wood (London: Vision Press, 1988), pp.122-46 (p.132)
[18] Nigel Wood, Introduction to John Gay and the Scriblerians, ed. Peter Lewis and Nigel Wood (London: Vision Press, 1988), p.19
[19] John Gay, Polly: An Opera, Being the Second Part of the Beggar’s Opera (London: T. Thomson, 1729), p.18.
[20] Apostolo Zeno, Artaserse: Drama (London: King’s Theatre, Haymarket, 1724), pp.54-55.
[21] Gay, Polly: An Opera, p.43.
[22] Gay, Polly: An Opera, p.24.
[23] Gay, Polly: An Opera, pp.39-40.
[24] Nicola Haym, Cajo Marzio Coriolano (London: Thomas Wood, 1723), pp.74-75.
[25] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, ed. Vivian Jones and David Lindley (London: Methuen, 2010), p.6.
[26] Mita Choudhury, Interculturalism and Resistance in the London Theater, 1660-1800 (London: Associated University Presses, 2000), p.55.
[27] Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, p.6.
[28] Jeremy Barlow, The Music of the Beggar’s Opera (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1990), p.xi.
[29] See Bertrand Harris Bronson, ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, in Facets of Enlightenment: Studies in English Literature and Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), pp.60-90
[30] Dean and Knapp, p.395
[31] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, p.103.
[32] Aurelio Aureli, Admeto, Re di Tessaglia: Drama (London: King’s Theatre, Haymarket, 1727), pp.74-75.
[33] Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, p.6.
[34] Paolo Rolli, Alessandro: Drama (London: King’s Theatre, Haymarket, 1726), pp.5-6.
[35] Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, pp.101-102.
[36] Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955), p.210.
[37] Gay, Polly: An Opera, p.viii.
[38] Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, p.75.
[39] The Contre Temps; or, Rival Queans: A Small Farce (London: A. Moore, 1727), p.8.
[40] The Contre Temps, p.14.
[41] Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, pp.5-6.
[42] Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, p.27.
[43] Tomaso Stanzani, Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus: An Opera (London: Jacob Tonson, 1705), p.21.
[44] Peter Lewis, ‘The Beggar’s Opera as Opera and Anti Opera’ in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera: Modern Critical Interpretations, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), pp.81-97 (p.86)
[45] Nicola Haym, Ottone, Re di Germania: Drama (London: Thomas Wood, 1723), pp.4-5.
[46] Nicola Haym, Ottone, pp.24-25.
[47] Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, p.45.
[48] The Spectator, I, 23-24.
[49] Gay, Polly: An Opera, p.24.
[50] Nicola Haym, Ottone, Re di Germania (London: Thomas Wood, 1723), p.38
[51] Nicoal Haym, Ottone, p.39
[52] Dean and Knapp, p.582
[53] Winton Dean, Handel’s Operas: 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006), p.473
[54] John Gay, Achilles. An Opera, second edition (London: J.Watts, 1733), p.60
[55] Peter Lewis, ‘The Beggar’s Rags to Rich’s and Other Dramatic Transformations’, p.143
[56] Quoted by McIntosh, p.423.
[57] The Letters of John Gay, pp.79-80.

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