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Chapter 6 - ‘Il maestro al cembalo’: Directing Opera and Theatre Music from the Harpsichord

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 September 2020

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Summary

❧ Italian Opera in London 1705–1717

THE process of establishing Italian opera in London began with the construction of a new theatre, John Vanbrugh's Queen's (later King’s) Theatre in the Haymarket. It opened on 9 April 1705 with the first Italian opera produced in England, Gli amori d’Ergasto by the German composer Jakob Greber. However, it proved to be a flash in the pan: the company that put it on soon went home or dispersed, and for the next few years there was a complex and rapid series of changes in London's theatrical scene. Opera lovers had to be content with Italianate English operas or pasticcios based on older Italian works, bilingual or entirely in English. They were mostly put on at Drury Lane; the Haymarket Theatre only became the permanent home of Italian opera in January 1708, a status it (and the building that succeeded it) was to retain with a few interruptions until 1847. London's first Italian opera company was never profitable, but it managed to stagger on until it collapsed in 1717. Much more is known about its activities than most Italian opera companies of the time because of the Coke papers. Thomas Coke, the Vice-Chamberlain, was the official in day-to-day charge of theatrical affairs in London from 1706 until his death in 1727. The two patent theatres had been under royal patronage from soon after the Restoration, so their employees were technically courtiers under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain, the head of the royal household.

The Coke papers tell us much about how the first Haymarket company was set up and directed. A list dated 1 December 1707 of 14 instrumentalists given leave ‘to perform in the Operas at the Queens Theatre in the Haymarkett’, shows that Vanbrugh's attempts to secure an operatic monopoly involved poaching them from Christopher Rich at Drury Lane. This is confirmed by a petition of 31 December 1707 from the French composer and harpsichordist Charles Dieupart to Coke, complaining of Rich's treatment of the Drury Lane performers.

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Before the Baton
Musical Direction and Conducting in Stuart and Georgian Britain
, pp. 215 - 252
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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