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Jane Girdham, English Opera in Late-Eighteenth Century London: Stephen Storace at Drury Lane

Monday, March 13, 2000 - 03:03
Jane Girdham, English Opera in Late-Eighteenth Century London: Stephen Storace at Drury Lane. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.  xiv + 272pp. illus: 5 halftones, 8 tables, 29 score samples. $89.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-816254-5).

Reviewed by Alex J. Dick
University of Toronto

Scholars of Romantic-period theater have done much of late to demystify artistic creation by highlighting the material contingencies of stage production. Those processes of theatrical production are now seen, in turn, to havebeen instrumental in forming the ideals and ideologies that we associate with Romanticism. Theater does not represent culture; rather, it is a culture industry. Theatrical music, by contrast, has remained for the most part something of an enigma. Jane Girdham's study of the life, career, and works of Stephen Storace, the de facto composer-in-residence at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane from 1787 until his premature death in 1796, goes a long way toward clarifying the dynamics and the importance of music to early Romantic theater. The rigorous historical and archival orientation of this book does not achieve the critical potential apparent in many of its findings.  Nevertheless, it provides a clear and useful view of just how complex stage performance and theatrical management were in the late eighteenth century.

At the heart of the book is Storace himself, who was born in London on 4 April 1762. His father was an Italian émigré and a well-known musician in his own right who adapted a number of Italian operas for the burgeoning London opera scene. Though very much involved in the Italian musical community in London, the Storace family was also connected to the English theater, mainly through Storace's mother, the daughter of the proprietor of Marylebone Gardens, John Trussler (6). Stephen Storace and his younger sister Nancy were trained by their father and both were musical prodigies (8). In the late 1770s, Storace traveled to his father's native city of Naples to advance his musical training, and by the mid-1780s, he was performing both in England and on the continent, teaching singing, harpsichord, and organ, and publishing compositions (12). Nancy, already a successful performer when she played La Scala at age seventeen in 1782, joined "the Burgtheater in Vienna as prima buffa" (13), the lead voice in comic opera, with the English singer Michael Kelly, whom the Storaces met in 1780 and whose memoirs are a valuable source of information on the family. Storace was in Vienna for the premieres of his first two Italian operas, Gli Sposi Malcontenti and Gli Equivoci, in both of which Nancy and Kelly appeared. During this time, Nancy began to import songs and arias by her brother into her performances, a liberty that was apparently favored by the audiences and did much to advance her brother's reputation. Nancy was married briefly to a Dr. John Abraham Fisher, but the marriage was an unhappy one. Their one child disturbingly "died of neglect" in July of 1785, reflecting the difficulty not only of Nancy's marriage but also of an operatic career at that time (14). The Storaces' most notable association with Vienna is their friendship with Mozart. Stephen Storace was one of the first compilers of continental music to publish Mozart's compositions in English (in his 1787 Collection of Original Harpsichord Music); Nancy was the original Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro (15).

In 1787, Storace returned to London and settled there permanently, marrying Mary Hall, daughter of the court engraver, the following year (22). First composing and directing Italian opera at King's Theatre, Storace became the unofficial composer for Drury Lane in 1789; Thomas Linley, one of the proprietors of Drury Lane and the father-in-law of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, held the official title of Composer to the Theatre. Though unsalaried, Storace's living was quite comfortable, combining performance fees, benefits, teaching, and publication. He also composed two operas a year for which, it was reported, he was paid handsomely (25). Most of these were in the English style, meaning that the plot was developed by spoken dialogue and only punctuated by songs. Nancy debuted at Drury Lane with Kelly in her brother's The Haunted Tower (1789); the two singers soon became prominent members of the company. By the mid-1790s Storace had established himself as one of the most important players in the theatrical scene. Unfortunately, a bad chill was worsened during rehearsals of his last completed work, The Iron Chest. He died on 15 March 1796 at age thirty-four.

In the remainder of the first part, Girdham explores the contingencies of London theatrical life in the 1780s and '90s as a backdrop for her readings of Storace's operas. For scholars unacquainted with the ins-and-outs of late eighteenth-century theater management and production, this section is a must, and even those already familiar with the general conditions of theater culture will find in these chapters a significantly enhanced review. Using Storace's operas as examples, Girdham outlines the general dynamics of an evening's entertainment, including the kinds of interruptions and malfeasances to which such an evening was heir. She provides a detailed overview of theatrical production, from submission and rehearsal to opening night and review, and she rightly suggests that putting on a play, especially an opera, was a continual process of modification and revision. She very carefully documents the theaters' finances, covering admission prices and the pay scale of the employees, especially the musicians, of whose seldom considered importance Girdham presents a timely and precise account.

In Chapter 4, Girdham considers the publication of Storace's musical scores and theatrical songs. The decision to publish a musical score was based primarily on the popularity of the play or opera from which it came; it is, therefore, a testament to Storace's importance in the period that all but two of his operas were published in his lifetime, including four versions of his complete works (100). Most operatic music was published for amateur singers, though a number of instrumental arrangements, particularly for flute, were also produced. Normally the score was reduced to a keyboard arrangement with overtures omitted, though many of these published arrangements contain addenda for further musical accompaniment (104). Single songs were also published and, even more than scores, testify to the popularity of Storace's music long after the operas were forgotten. "Should e'er the fortune be my lot" from The Three and a Deuce entered the popular repertoire as "Little Tafflin"; the song was rehearsed as such by Mrs. Micawber in Dickens's David Copperfield (119). The impression one gets of musical publishing in the period is that it was a largely collective and collaborative effort, regulated by the practical contingencies of popularity and demand, even as the texts moved out of the theaters and into the hands of private consumers. Such a contention further troubles the tenuous distinction between stage and text which has plagued Romantic theater studies as the open-ended propriety of the performative experience is translated into and adapted for the published work. Indeed, the question of property is directly at issue here: Girdham explores not only Storace's own legal difficulties with unauthorized versions of his songs and scores, but also the problems posed for our own scholarly investigations of dating, collecting, authorizing, and reviewing the music of Storace still extant.

The second part of the book is devoted to a close analysis of Storace's music for the English stage. These analyses are directed primarily at musicologists. They include samples from the published and manuscript scores, summaries of the musical numbers and their relation to the plays' action, accounts of the performances, and, finally, discussions of Storace's influences on and borrowings from other English and continental composers. The purpose of this section is to establish Storace's facility with a number of operatic traditions and dramatic modes. For example, Girdham compares two of Storace's mainpieces, The Haunted Tower (1789), a conventional English opera, and The Pirates (1792), a more innovative work. The former work features a typically Gothic setting, a storm, false ghosts, a disguised heroine, wily servants, and two love plots. Storace adapted a number of melodies and even whole movements from his earlier Italian works for his first major English production (140–41), but for the most part the music in this play does little more than punctuate scenic effect. Girdham argues that Storace purposefully subordinated his often complex musical stylistics to the plot and setting as was frequently demanded by English audiences and critics. Following a number of failed attempts to bring "serious all-sung opera" to Drury Lane (154), Storace returned to a form approaching that of the traditional English opera for The Pirates. This opera maintains a more dynamic relationship between dramatic action and music, in contrast to the dialogue which is, for the most part, "trite" and expendable (155). Much of the music is used to establish character motivation, something not as apparent in The Haunted Tower, and the choruses are effectively broken up over the course of the performance to add tension and coherence. Girdham's detailed attention to the connections between the musical sophistication of this opera and its dramatic development is a fitting tribute to Storace's importance as a composer and innovator. Storace was quite able to anticipate the expectations of his demanding audience, but he was also able to balance those expectations with his musical interests.

Two final chapters on Storace's afterpieces and other musical endeavors and his borrowings from English and continental operatic and musical traditions further explain Storace's understanding of the necessary interplay between theatrical action and musical practice. Most of his afterpieces—short, usually comic works performed after the main entertainment of the evening—contain few musical numbers, seldom have an overture, and are written often only for one voice and with a specific singer in mind (171–72). A notable exception is No Song, No Supper, one of Storace's most enduring efforts and his "only English opera to survive in full score" (177). With an overture, ten solos, and five ensembles, it has the musical complexity of a mainpiece while still having the lightness of plot and action characteristic of the domestic farce common to afterpieces. Lodoiska, an unusually serious afterpiece with libretto by John Phillip Kemble, is almost musically dense enough to count as a mainpiece. Lodoiska was also almost entirely adapted from two contemporary French operas, though Storace added a good deal of songs and music (212). Girdham makes it quite clear that the use of borrowed musical material was standard practice in the late eighteenth century and accepted for the most part by composers, critics, and audiences. Storace adapted works from the Italian, Viennese, French and English repertoires, both staged drama and published music, and, Girdham claims, he "always have credit to the original composers of the music he borrowed" (200–201). Once again, Storace's methods can be seen to exemplify a process of composition geared toward the demands of theatre and public, rendering music itself as a definitively social mode of expression.

Behind the specific details of inspiration and designation, however, are more vexed questions of genre and reception. Girdham traces the problems involved in classifying opera based on national characteristics, quantity of music, and place in the evening's entertainment, either mainpiece or afterpiece. Her description of eighteenth-century and modern views on generic problems reveals the extent to which genre itself is a matter of context rather than of strict classification (124–31). Although an attention to the implications of these issues to the larger context and milieu of theatrical culture appears to be the aim of recent dramatic criticism, it is absent here in Girdham's description. Literary scholars may find it less interesting that Storace's last completed work, The Iron Chest, is a "play with music" rather than an "opera" because it has fewer musical numbers, than that it is based on William Godwin's crucial 1794 novel, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. The novel was, of course, altered to fit the demands of operatic production.  According to later critics such as William Hazlitt and John Genest, The Iron Chest failed initially because Colman and Storace tried to expand Godwin's novel into too many kinds of play—comedy, tragedy, farce, opera—at once.  The Morning Chronicle noted that the audiences had the novel "fixed too deeply in the heart to admit the faint traces of the copy" (190). The Iron Chest has a prominent comic subplot based on the relatively minor incident of Williams's capture by thieves, and, in fact, all of the musical portions of the play are to be found in the subplot. But, considering that Caleb Williams is regarded as one of the most problematic texts in the early Romantic canon, Storace and Colman's specific adaptations of it for the stage might alter our understanding of how the French Revolution and its political implications were perceived. As a reflection of British post-revolutionary anxiety, Godwin's novel is vitally unsure of its political sympathies and generic orientations. The Iron Chest highlights these generic and political difficulties. Girdham points out that its source in Godwin's novel did cause the Examiner of Plays, John Larpent, to recommend a number of changes (51). Given Storace's own nationalistic reactions to the French Revolution (23–24), The Iron Chest brings into focus that curious borderline between literary performance and ideological reception.

Not every work of Romantic scholarship can address ideological questions, nor should it. Anyone who has tried to work through theatrical business in this period knows that it is an unwieldy and frequently discouraging experience. As a historical resource Girdham's book will therefore be invaluable. I am not a musicologist, but even with my own rudimentary understanding of music theory and form and my admiration for Romantic opera, I was impressed by this account of one of its most significant innovators. I can confidently predict that anyone with an active interest in music or theater in this period will be enlightened by its perspicacious presentation. Hopefully, it will inspire further research into the dynamic interrelationship between theater and music, and between theater and culture, in the Romantic period.