Abstract

The article discusses the scenic reconstruction of late 17th-century English opera, and shows that the lack of attention paid to the non-musical aspects of the original performances can often result in serious misunderstandings of the relationship between the various components. The authors have reconstructed the stage of Dorset Garden theatre, where all the Purcell operas except Dido and Aeneas were first performed, including the scenery, the costumes and the movements, using materials from many disciplines including architecture, design, art, theatre, music and general history, biography, literature, and also common sense. Their example is the Act 5 masque in Purcell's The Fairy Queen (1692), adapted by an unknown librettist from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. They show that, far from being a generic song-and-dance scene unrelated to the plot, as is often stated by both theatre and music historians, this masque is a highly specific tribute to William and Mary on the occasion of their 15th wedding anniversary, and was performed a few months before the public celebrations of that event. The numerous illustrations are mainly taken from contemporary paintings and books many of which were owned by the manager of Dorset Garden, the actor Thomas Betterton, who was responsible for putting on the operas and wrote the libretto for at least one of them. The article is also accompanied by a 10-minute animation of the scene, see www.em.oupjournals.org.

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