Article by Brian Sewell
It is widely assumed that the young British Milords of the 18th century suffered the many privations of the Grand Tour solely to see Italy’s wonders of classical antiquity and their successors, the great works of the Renaissance. For the hazards of the road – wretched horses overworked, recalcitrant ostlers and postillions, broken axles and the calamitous overturnings of their carriages – paintings in the Uffizi were the compensation; for the damp sheets, sour wine and unrecognisable food of wayside inns, great domes and altarpieces painted by Correggio were the reward; and as compensation for the universal stinks of bowels and bladders casually emptied, young men on their way to Rome could dream of Raphael and Michelangelo. This was quite certainly the case – but not the only case.
The grand tour was as fundamental to their sexual education as to their aesthetic awareness. In Turin an accomplished Countess might take a virgin Englishman half her age into her bed, and by the time, months or even years later, that he reached Venice via Rome and Naples, he’d have experienced the wiles of prostitutes, courtesans, and every kind of willing woman and transvestite boy. As one Canon of Westminster grimly put it, “Boys just escaped from the lash of a severe schoolmaster… to a foreign country… give full swing to their passions and lead such lives as would be attended by shame at home.” Many of them returned to Britain with what one diarist described as “the modish distemper of Italian ladies” and had to suffer the painful recourse of mercury cure that might drive them almost as mad as the tertiary syphilis for which it was supposed to be the remedy. Less menacing pleasures were, however, to be found in having their portraits painted in the Italian manner, in dancing and music lessons, in instruction from fencing-masters, in renewing their wardrobes with the velvets and flowered silks of Italy that were far more exotic than those available in London, in gambling, drinking and, above all, in the opera.
In the innumerable surviving letters, journals and diaries of Grand Tourists, opera is mentioned more often and far more specifically than painting, sculpture and architecture. From those we know where, when and by whom operas were performed, which opera houses deserved their reputations and how in decline and badly managed others were, and singers were tellingly compared. Three young lords travelling together, Middlesex, Raymond and Barrington, having heard Faustina Bordoni sing in Venice in 1737, were inspired by her performance to mount an opera of their own in Lucca two months later, in which Middlesex himself played the role of a Roman Consul returning in triumph to the city riding a white charger. Horses on stage were then almost a sine qua non of opera; Thomas Brand, who became a worldly Norfolk vicar, saw seventy horses ridden by soldiers of the Piedmontese Cavalry in the Turin opera house in 1783, and in 1750, on the same stage, Edward Thomas, a doctor, had seen elephants as well as a chorus of more than two hundred in “gorgeous apparel” and armies of actors and dancers in an opera that he dubbed “the finest in Europe, both on account of the music and the machinery.”
It may be that the observations of such travellers, hitherto almost exclusively of interest to English historians of art, have something to contribute to the history of opera in the 18th century. Brand commented on Cimarosa’s music as “very pleasing, tho I cannot think there is much originality in it”; of this composer we know something, but how many of us know anything of the Marcello da Capua of whose Il Conte di Bel Umore Brand thought “much inferior to Cimarosa,” or of Vincenzo Fabrizi or Angelo Tarchi? Of Vaneschi, the improvvisatore who assisted Middlesex in the (no doubt amateur) production of his opera in Lucca, there is no record in any ready work of reference. Evidence repeatedly suggests that of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of operas, not even fragments have survived, that operas were written and composed within a matter of days and that, as with Handel, composers often re-used the better parts of unsuccessful works; indeed, the overall picture of Italian opera in the 18th century is more of a production-line industry than an art, a form of entertainment so commonplace that, much to the annoyance of Grand Tourists, the music was often drowned by the gossip of the audience. Their chattering paused only for particular singers, of some of whom we know a great deal. The reputation of the Faustina Bordoni favoured by Lord Middlesex spread to the great courts of Europe and Handel brought her to London in 1726 – in a flight of fancy we should perhaps imagine Middlesex at the age of 15 developing an adolescent crush for her. Farinelli, to whom Englishmen continued to pay homage with visits long after he could no longer sing, was so famous as to be notorious – but then castration always gave a useful edge to fame. Richard Mountedgcumbe, the 13-year old boy on the left in Zoffany’s great painting of The Tribuna of the Uffizi (added to it in 1777), grew into an enthusiast for music rather than the visual arts; at 20, on his proper Grand Tour in 1784-5, he paid court to Gaetano Guadagni, a contralto castrato much admired by Gluck but by then a cracked soprano of 60; and Luigi Marchesi, a soprano castrato of 30, he thought incomparable when passion and energy were demanded by the music of the forgotten Bianchi, Sarti and the Myslivecek for whom Mozart expressed admiration.
What is clear from Mountedgcumbe’s Musical Reminiscences, published in 1824 is that he and many other Englishmen were happy to travel hither and yon in Italy to hear and judge the performance of great singers, and that this was at least as much the objective of their Grand Tours as seeing and collecting antiquities and art on the well-worn trail from Turin to Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, Paestum, Venice and all points between; many went to cities where nothing was visually worth the journey, solely to witness the performance of an unfamiliar opera or hear a singer renowned or new to them, with no guarantee that the journey would be worthwhile. “Upon the whole,” Mountedgcumbe declared, “I was surprised at hearing so little very good… and still more at the extreme badness of much which I have passed over unnoticed.” From the reminiscences of others it is evident that the quality of singing, production and orchestra varied wildly not only between one great opera house and another, but within them from performance to performance. Opera in Florence was one year described as “by far the best in Italy” and the next “by far the worst;” opera in Naples did not remain “abominable” nor in Bologna keep unsullied its reputation for being “extraordinarily delicate and fine” and, in one year, “the finest that was ever heard.” All this indicates that the English audience for opera in Italy was well informed, that based on the high levels of production and performance in London Grand Tourists had even higher expectations in the country of its origin and were not prepared to be bamboozled. They were generous with their praise when it was merited and not in the least afraid of expressing adverse criticism. And they were bitterly critical of native audiences that chattered throughout performances and even engaged in conversation with singers on the stage.
They took opera very seriously. It was, of course, the cosmopolitan art of the European courts, small as well as great, the art supported by kings and emperors, electors and prince-bishops, and in this it provided Grand Tourists not only with opera itself but with easy access to men and women of their own social level untrammelled by the protocol of formal court behaviour. At an opera the young Englishman might develop a relationship begun respectably at court, might respond to the fluttering glance of a local nobleman’s wife or daughter, might even, as did James Boswell (later Johnson’s biographer) “press his legs” against hers, lose command of himself, “become quite imprudent” and forget the opera; at the other extreme he might take a singer or ballet dancer back to his bed (it was ever thus). But beneath the frivolous dimension of sexual possibility that was a constant of all aspects of the Grand Tour, lay in this particular an earnest seriousness. For many Grand Tourists opera was not only the most formidable attraction of the tour, it represented the modern Italy of the day, just as for the past decade fashionable Young British Art has been perceived to represent this country.
From all this it emerges that for the English in the 18th century opera was an art of the elite, a preferred art of the aristocracy, and in this it was almost the political issue that it is today. It was condemned by the puritanical middle classes as a pernicious foreign import, a vehicle of effeminacy and, probably, vice, contrary in every respect to the wholesome manliness of native British culture – whatever that was. We see this opposition in the painted operas of Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode that followed his illustration of The Beggar’s Opera of 1728. This was John Gay’s satirical mockery of the contemporary conventions of Italian opera, then damned by some domestic English audiences as absurd in plot and florid ornament – indeed in the roles of Polly and Lucy, Gay contrived to poke fun at the very Faustina Bordoni later so much admired by Lord Middlesex, and her rival Francesca Cuzzoni; these great singers had, the year before, provided some very working-class entertainment by brawling on the stage during the first London performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte – a tussle as much enjoyed and recalled in its day as the brawl in Dynasty in ours.
Some Grand Tour milords – Middlesex again an example – remained infatuated with opera long after they had returned to England, poured great sums of money into it and were prepared to bring Italian singers to London at great cost (Cuzzoni’s first contract to sing in London, in 1722, was for £2,000 per annum). If to some onlookers it seems extraordinary that while in Italy opera slid inexorably down the social scale and became a ubiquitous enthusiasm, an opera house in every one-horse town, but in England remained the preserve of the elite, we have only to look at its foundations here; look at the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1718 by a group of noblemen principally to promote each new opera of Handel, and those of other composers too; look at the Opera of the Nobility, its main backer Frederick, Prince of Wales (a considerable amateur musician), established in London 1733-37 in opposition to Handel and the Royal Academy, Nicola Porpora its leading composer, Farinelli its most celebrated performer. Opera was evidently not for the poor, the lowly and the faint-hearted.
And so it endured throughout the century, and long after the Grand Tour had fallen into desuetude, replaced by the railways, Thomas Cook’s Tours and the comfortable middle classes of the 19th century, opera in England remained inviolably elite, Gilbert and Sullivan the only instruments of dissent (and even Sullivan unwillingly, for given the chance he would have been a man of grander opera). In Italy the aesthetic, political and social revolutions of the century changed the status of opera – a change perfectly encapsulated in Puccini’s La Boheme, an opera of the people, and opera of disease and poverty, of love and death, of experience common to the people. Such experience was common to the people of England too, particularly in the industrial north, but no matter how plebeian the plots became, here opera remained largely the preserve of the elite. In the 20th century there was some slackening of the reins of class with peripatetic companies and the broader cultural demands for entertainment during World War II; and after that war the restoration of Covent Garden was, for a few years, engagingly shaky in the hands of foreigners who cared far more for opera than for the incomprehensible social diversions to which the English cling. But eventually the old order prevailed and the Royal Opera House became once more a house from which many of us have long felt excluded, less by price than by the lofty behaviour of those who have thought themselves its proper patrons and for whom it became something of a private instrument. Even now, for all the money poured into its restoration by the Arts Council, it is, by and large, in temperament unchanged. It is to be hoped that the Coliseum, another Arts Council client, does not undergo a change of mood and mirror it.
These institutions must not be mistaken by politicians for the art of opera itself. This art has almost covertly become an art of the people and their hunger for it is evident in their applause for it in semi-staged performances at the annual Proms and, indeed, in staged performances in the Albert Hall by almost any old company from darkest Ruritania in creaking productions that take us back more than half a century. Raymond Gubbay’s ventures and Opera Holland Park are yet more evidence of opera’s popular appeal – evidence too that though opera must necessarily, with orchestra and chorus, be the most expensive of the performance arts, it need not cost us as much as winning a minor war. One thing is certain: that when politicians discuss opera and its greed for subsidies, they base their opinions, prejudices and judgments on their perception of Covent Garden, which they see still as the Opera of the Nobility – and for this the new grandees of wealth (for there ain’t much class to them) must take the blame. It is all very well for the panjandrums of the Royal Opera House to claim that we can see any opera we choose for not more than a fiver (hear, perhaps, for seeing is questionable), but the charge for its best seats at £170 or so is certainly exclusive and seems anomalous in that the prodigious subsidies given by the taxpayer benefit very few indigent lovers of opera and a great many who are very rich. The retiring Chairman of Covent Garden, the not much loved Sir Colin Southgate, has recently opined that “…the major issue facing the Royal Opera House over the next five years is ticket prices.” It is indeed. It was the problem long before the house was refurbished. It is the problem now. It will remain the problem until some new Chairman and his Board find a solution. And in the absence of that solution, politicians will always argue that opera is class-ridden and elitist. It is not: the Royal Opera House is, but opera itself is for us all.