Joshua Reynolds’s unfinished portrait of Samuel Johnson attempt to combat it by introducing song into drama. It is interesting to note in parenthesis that the same power of music to influence, first voiced pejoratively by Plato, remained a neoplatonic concern where opera was concerned; in 1693 the Sorbonne decreed that ‘opera is all the more dangerous since through music […] the soul is much more susceptible to passion’. While singing itself may be the key factor in the unconscious recognition that the new art form was intrinsically irrational and needed justification, it is not the only one. Examples of fantasy and magic, well established and familiar from such classical literature as Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, were eagerly seized on by librettists and composers. The appearance on stage of sorceresses such as Alcina and Armida allowed for magical scenes that encouraged audiences to engage with the fantastical and illusionary happenings that might induce a temporary suspension of disbelief. Not infrequently such magic scenes involved dance, but more importantly they offered opportunities for lavish sets and transformations that engaged and titillated audiences. Contemporary observers and commentators were well aware of the power of such scenes and how by having deities rather than humans singing they helped create greater veracity. After all, the argument might go, for all we know gods may well communicate through song. In his Essay on the Opera, first published in Italian in 1755, the Venetian polymath Francesco Algarotti articulated a clear preference for marvellous and exotic topics over those drawn from history. One of the problems with the latter was that ‘subjects chosen from history […] make use of such alien accoutrements as neither belong, nor are by any means suitable’, a reminder that until changes started to be made in the second half of the 18th century opera costumes for both French and Italian opera were largely standardized and based on Roman models for men and current fashion for women, character and status being differentiated only by decorative effects and headdress.
For Algarotti the way to obviate such problems was to choose as the subject an event ‘that has happened either in very remote times, or in countries very distant from us, and quite estranged from our usages, which may afford various incidents of the marvellous’. The poets, he adds, ‘had recourse […] to the heroic ages and heathen mythology. From that fountain, the bard […] introduced on the theatre all the deities of paganism; now
Opera, May 2021