No. 005 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 5
Tuesday, March 6, 1711. Addison.

‘Spectatum admissi risum teneatis?’


An Opera may be allowed to be extravagantly lavish 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 Ermin, and sailing in an open Boat upon a Sea of Paste-Board? What a Field of Raillery would they have been let into, had they been entertain’d with painted Dragons spitting Wild-fire, enchanted Chariots drawn by Flanders Mares, and real Cascades in artificial Land-skips? A little Skill in Criticism would inform us that Shadows and Realities ought not to be mix’d together in the same Piece; and that Scenes, which are designed as the Representations of Nature, should be filled with Resemblances, and not with the Things themselves. If one would represent a wide Champain 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 to 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 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.

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This strange Dialogue awakened my Curiosity so far that I immediately bought the Opera, by which means I perceived the Sparrows were to act the part of Singing Birds in a delightful Grove: though, upon a nearer Enquiry I found the Sparrows put the same Trick upon the Audience, that Sir Martin Mar-all [1] practised upon his Mistress; for, though they flew in Sight, the Musick proceeded from a Consort of Flagellets and Bird-calls which was planted behind the Scenes. At the same time I made this Discovery, I found by the Discourse of the 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 surprize the Audience with a Party of an hundred Horse, and that there was actually a Project of bringing the New River into the House, to be employed in Jetteaus and Water-works. This Project, as I have since heard, is post-poned ’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 [2] is filled with Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations, and Fireworks; 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 Theater, I hope that he has been wise enough to insure his House before he would let this Opera be acted in it.

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It is no wonder, that those Scenes should be very surprizing, which were contrived by two Poets of different Nations, and raised by two Magicians of different Sexes. Armida (as we are told in the Argument) was an Amazonian Enchantress, and poor Seignior Cassani (as we learn from the Persons represented) a Christian Conjuror (Mago Christiano). I must confess I am very much puzzled to find how an Amazon should be versed in the Black Art, or how a [good] Christian [for such is the part of the magician] should deal with the Devil.

To consider the Poets after the Conjurers, I shall give you a Taste of the Italian, from the first Lines of his Preface.

‘Eccoti, benigno Lettore, un Parto di poche Sere, che se ben nato di Notte, non e pero aborto di Tenebre, ma si fara conoscere Figlio d’Apollo con qualche Raggio di Parnasso.

Behold, gentle Reader, the Birth of a few Evenings, which, tho’ it be the Offspring of the Night, is not the Abortive of Darkness, but will make it self known to be the Son of Apollo, with a certain Ray of Parnassus.’

He afterwards proceeds to call Minheer Hendel, [3] the Orpheus of our Age, and to acquaint us, in the same Sublimity of Stile, that he Composed this Opera in a Fortnight. Such are the Wits, to whose Tastes we so ambitiously conform our selves. The Truth of it is, the finest Writers among the Modern Italians express themselves in such a florid form of Words, and such tedious Circumlocutions, as are used by none but Pedants in our own Country; and at the same time, fill their Writings with such poor Imaginations and Conceits, as our Youths are ashamed of, before they have been Two Years at the University. Some may be apt to think that it is the difference of Genius which produces this difference in the Works of the two Nations; but to show there is nothing in this, if we look into the Writings of the old Italians, such as Cicero and Virgil, we shall find that the English Writers, in their way of thinking and expressing themselves, resemble those Authors much more than the modern Italians pretend to do. And as for the Poet himself from whom the Dreams of this Opera are taken, I must entirely agree with Monsieur Boileau, that one Verse in Virgil is worth all the Clincant or Tinsel of Tasso.

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 a Lady’s Bed-Chamber, or perching upon a King’s Throne; besides the Inconveniences 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 Play-House, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the Cat to kill them all, and that consequently the Princes of his 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 [4] follow his Musick, and by that means cleared the Place of those little Noxious Animals.

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Before I dismiss this Paper, I must inform my Reader, that I hear there is a Treaty on Foot with London and Wise [5] (who will be appointed Gardeners of the Play-House,) 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 Tom-Tits: The undertakers being resolved to spare neither Pains nor Mony, for the Gratification of the Audience.


[Footnote 1: Dryden’s play of ‘Sir Martin Mar-all’ was produced in 1666. It was entered at Stationers’ Hall as by the duke of Newcastle, but Dryden finished it. In Act 5 the foolish Sir Martin appears at a window with a lute, as if playing and singing to Millicent, his mistress, while his man Warner plays and sings. Absorbed in looking at the lady, Sir Martin foolishly goes on opening and shutting his mouth and fumbling on the lute after the man’s song, a version of Voiture’s ‘L’Amour sous sa Loi’, is done. To which Millicent says,

‘A pretty-humoured song–but stay, methinks he plays and sings still, and yet we cannot hear him–Play louder, Sir Martin, that we may have the Fruits on’t.’]

[Footnote 2: Handel had been met in Hanover by English noblemen who invited him to England, and their invitation was accepted by permission of the elector, afterwards George I., to whom he was then Chapel-master. Immediately upon Handel’s arrival in England, in 1710, Aaron Hill, who was directing the Haymarket Theatre, bespoke of him an opera, the subject being of Hill’s own devising and sketching, on the story of Rinaldo and Armida in Tasso’s ‘Jerusalem Delivered’. G. Rossi wrote the Italian words. ‘Rinaldo’, brought out in 1711, on the 24th of February, had a run of fifteen nights, and is accounted one of the best of the 35 operas composed by Handel for the English stage. Two airs in it, ‘Cara sposa’ and ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (the latter still admired as one of the purest expressions of his genius), made a great impression. In the same season the Haymarket produced ‘Hamlet’ as an opera by Gasparini, called ‘Ambleto’, with an overture that had four movements ending in a jig. But as was Gasparini so was Handel in the ears of Addison and Steele. They recognized in music only the sensual pleasure that it gave, and the words set to music for the opera, whatever the composer, were then, as they have since been, almost without exception, insults to the intellect.]

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[Footnote 3: Addison’s spelling, which is as good as ours, represents what was the true and then usual pronunciation of the name of Haendel.]

[Footnote 4: The Pied Piper of Hamelin (i.e. Hameln).

‘Hamelin town’s in Brunswick,
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side.’

The old story has been annexed to English literature by the genius of Robert Browning.]

[Footnote 5: Evelyn, in the preface to his translation of Quintinye’s ‘Complete Gardener’ (1701), says that the nursery of Messrs. London and Wise far surpassed all the others in England put together. It exceeded 100 acres in extent. George London was chief gardener first to William and Mary, then to Queen Anne. London and Wise’s nursery belonged at this time to a gardener named Swinhoe, but kept the name in which it had become famous.]

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