The Rescue of Gothic Operas and Providential Deism

Diane Long Hoeveler

Diane Long Hoeveler

“Gothic opera” is very much a contested concept or at least one that has not been understood or fully appreciated in the attempt to construct a critical history of the gothic imaginary. Just how can we begin to limit a canon of “gothic opera” when opera itself is inherently extravagant, emotionally hyperbolic, and engaged in staging a dream world where magic and fantasy are employed to convey supposedly plausible events and characters?

John Dennis’s ‘An Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner’ (1706) makes this question plain when he observes that “[i]f that is truly the most Gothic, which is the most opposed to Antique, nothing can be more Gothic than an Opera, since nothing can be more opposed to the ancient Tragedy than the modern Tragedy in Musick” (qtd. Williams 2006, 126). According to this definition, all operas would be to some extent “gothic” in their display of “barbarous” or “medieval” customs and emotions, so clearly some parameters for the genre have to be established initially.

This chapter will analyze those operas that imported onto the European stage the performative gothic and in doing so will demonstrate Taylor’s thesis that Providential Deism spread through cultural productions and advanced the belief that deism functioned as the necessary transition between Christian faith and anthropocentrism (262), a system of belief that paved the way for the rise of exclusive humanism.

The most prolific of these cultural products are the gothically inflected rescue operas that were so popular throughout Europe. Tangentially, I will also examine a few representative operatic adaptations of gothic novels, as well as works that exploit gothic tropes, such as Ossian, and the Germanic operas Der Freischutz and Robert Le Diable.

In 1962, the musicologist Aubrey Garlington claimed that “between 1764 and 1802, some sixty or seventy works for the stage exhibiting ‘Gothic’ characteristics were produced, [while] eighteen sources that formed the basis for operas by English composers have been found” (51). But, as he himself admits, this number is inflated by including works that simply employ a castle as a setting or have bandits as characters. In fact, English music during this period has consistently been criticised for being “weak” and for having no influence whatsoever on Continental composers (Garlington, 63; also see Chancellor). And even more alarming, the British were so aesthetically insular that as the Italian opera made its way into eighteenth-century London it was greeted by outright hostility and contempt by intellectuals such as John Dennis, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and numerous others.

As a wholly imported art form originating in southern Europe, and arriving fully developed with its own conventions already set largely in place, opera somehow had to find a way to adapt to British culture before it could be accepted by the public as a legitimate art and viable form of entertainment. That opera did survive — and thrive — in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, France, and Germany is due to the quality of the music as well as to the power of its librettos to translate and stage potent ideological materials in a revolutionary age.

As Anne Williams has observed, it would be ridiculously easy to imagine Walpole’s Castle of Otranto as an opera because gothic and opera share so many characteristics: both “have their origins in an intellectual project designed to initiate a cultural reform. Each is consciously designed as an act of restoration, spurred by their creators’ partly unconscious sense that their culture was in a process of profound transition.

Opera was an Early Modern phenomenon, Gothic a product of the waning years of the Enlightenment” (2000, 109). But more importantly, it was opera seria (serious opera) that Walpole attended in London, and it was the aesthetic principles of these operas that most influenced Walpole’s composition of The Castle of Otranto. As Williams notes (2000, 114–15), Walpole’s novel is, like opera seria, a pasticcio, a cutting and pasting of old forms into something new, “a hodge-podge of romance motifs,” “ornamentation for its own sake,” and a “structure always full of imitation, disguise, and travesty (operatic cross-dressing).”

Clearly, the gothic and the theatrical opera have been bound up with each other from the very beginning, and one of the ways to demonstrate the connection is to examine one of the most popular forms of opera during this period, little remembered today, the rescue opera. Very similar in plot to the earliest Gothic novels and, in fact, frequently borrowing their settings, characters, and themes, rescue operas can be understood as sung gothic, or an oral and performative transmission of the gothic imaginary. These operas frequently focused on two themes: the secular, domestic, ritual sacrifice of a woman or the unlawful political imprisonments of innocent victims of tyranny.

In both cases, the rescue operas staged elaborate releases of these victims only after their heroic efforts allowed them to prove their worth, hence the operas collaborate in promoting a secularising bourgeois agenda of earning one’s salvation through one’s own efforts and thereby vindicating “human flourishing” as an ideal. Whereas God is frequently invoked and sometimes appears to settle disputes from on high, most of the action centers on a wily protagonist’s efforts to free himself from a tyrannical oppressor.

Providential Deism, in fact, is questioned and slowly set aside as an impractical and abstract system of belief in these operas. Instead, bourgeois heroes and heroines earn their salvations through their own efforts, not through divine intervention. Extremely popular throughout Europe from roughly 1780–1840, rescue operas deserve to be recognised as important performative ideological markers of the gothic imaginary.

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