John Cunningham

The Roots of English Restoration Opera in Masque

English Restoration opera emerged in the 1670s largely through Thomas Betterton’s efforts to produce entertainments on a par with Lully’s ‘comédies-ballets’ and early ‘tragédies lyriques’. In doing so he was pandering to the tastes of Charles II. However, Betterton also understood that the tastes of English audiences were rooted in spoken drama: all-sung entertainments would not be easily accepted. His solution was effectively to expand upon two related genres: the play with musical interludes, and the court masque. After 1660 music became increasingly important in the English theatre, and plays with masque-like musical interludes became increasingly common. At least some of the reason for this stems from the Interregnum music-drama experiments in which masque conventions were used to circumvent the interdiction on spoken drama. The court masque may have died with Charles I, but (in addition to Royalist nostalgia) it offered a formal model accommodating spoken dialogue with music, song and dance, in an elaborately staged context; the relationship between the drama and music was, however, essentially superficial. Restoration plays with masques were often similarly extravagant but dramatically neutral. In the more lavish semi-operas, masques continued to be largely detached from the plot but significantly they were at the heart of the entertainment and often highly ‘operatic’ in conception. Matthew Locke’s settings of Cupid and Death (1659) and the ‘Masque of Orpheus’ (The Empress of Morocco, 1673) represent vital stages in this transition.
Analysing the origins of English opera helps us to better understand the criteria by which its creators and contemporary audiences gauged the success of these entertainments. This paper will thus present select analytical case studies elucidating the relationship between Restoration opera and the theatre tradition whence it emerged; the primary focus will centre on analysis of the relationship between text and music, and between dramatic and musical forms.