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ON THE ITALIAN OPERA. No. 5. An opera may be allowed to be extravagantly lavislı 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 pasteboard ! What a field of raillery would they have been led into, had they been entertained with painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes ! A little skill in criticism would inform us, that shadows and rea-.. lities 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 resemblancs, 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 inconsistencies, and making the decoration partly real and partly imaginary. I would recommend what I have here said to the directors, as well as lo 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 10, he was met very luckily by an acquaintance, who had the same curiosity. Upon his asking 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.
This strange dialogue awakened my curiosity so far, that I immediately bought the opera, by wbich means I perceived the sparrows were to act the part of singingbirds 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 practised upon his mistress : for, though they flew in sight, the music proceeded from a concert of fageolets and bird-calls, which were planted behind the scenes. At the same time I made this discovery, I found by the discourse of ihe actors, that there were great designs on foot for the improvement of the opera ; that it had been proposed to break down a part of the wall, and to surprise the audience with a patty of a hundred horse; and that there was actually a project of bringing the New River into the house, to be employed in jetteaus and waterworks. 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 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.
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 à lady's bed-chamber, or perching upon a king's throne; besides the inconveniencies which the heads of the audience may sometimes suffer from them. I am credibly informed, 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 playhouse, 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 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 between London and Wise, (who will be appointed gardeners of the playhouse,) 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 for the gratification of the audience.
Going yesterday to dine with an old acquaintance, I had the misfortune to find his whole family very much dejected. Upon asking him the occasion of it, he told me that his wife had dreamt a strange dream the night before, which they were afraid portended some misfortune to themselves, or to their children. At her coming into the room, I observed a settled melancholy in her countenance, which I should have been
* London and Wise were the queen’s gardeners at this time, and jointly concerned in the publication of a book on gardening. The plan of this opera, 8vo. 1711, was laid by Aaron Hill, it was filled up with Italian words by sig. Giacomo Rossi, and the music was composed by Handel. The success of this opera, neither better nor worse than most compositions of the kind, was greater than can be imagined. Walsh got Ijool. by the printing of it.