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date: 14 May 2021

Semi-opera [dramatic opera; English opera; ambigue]locked

  • Curtis Price
  •  and Louise K. Stein


[dramatic opera; English opera; ambigue]

A play with four or more separate episodes or masques which include singing, dancing, instrumental music and spectacular scenic effects such as transformations and flying. The form, which flourished in England between 1673 and 1710, is further characterized by a clear demarcation between the main characters, who only speak, and minor characters – spirits, fairies, shepherds, gods and the like – who only sing or dance. Most semi-operas are tragicomedies adapted from earlier plays. The finest examples are those with music by Henry Purcell: Dioclesian, King Arthur and The Fairy-Queen.

Although its roots lie in the Jacobean masque and early Restoration play with music, semi-opera was invented by the actor-manager Thomas Betterton, who was determined to produce an English equivalent of Lully’s comédies-ballets and early tragédies lyriques, and his collaborators, the playwright Thomas Shadwell and the composer Matthew Locke. They recognized that all-sung opera of the Italian type would not suit ‘rational’ English taste, which was deeply rooted in the spoken play tradition, and their solution was to increase the already plentiful amount of music and dance in the early Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare and to exploit the scenic potential of the new Dorset Garden Theatre in London, which had been equipped as an opera house. Their first great success was a scenically enhanced version of ...

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Cambridge (MA), Harvard University, Harvard College Library