The Origins of Opera in London in the 1600’s
English National Opera where the boxes whisk one back to another age… an era when comfort, opulence, theatre, music and art converged in a whirl of everything that made a Londoner’s heart beat.
People forget there is nothing more English than opera for the Mother of Opera the dowager queen, Marie De Medici discovered the world’s composer of Opera, Jacopo Peri and catapulted him from the lonely darkness of obscurity and onto the glittering world stage of the Good and the Great of Europe. By paying him to compose an opera for her wedding to the King Henry XIV of France in 1600 at the Pitti Palace of Florence, she ensured opera as the great new art sensation.
That opera Eurydice still survives though the king died shortly after their wedding. In the 1630’s she came to London where her daughter Henrietta-Marie (de Medici) was married to King Charles I. She was given St James’s Palace as her residence.
Upon moving in she transformed the palace into a salon for all the arts from architecture to music.
The artist Peter Lely writes fulsomely of the dowager queen in his journal. The sparkling champagne flowed – for whilst the French eschewed sparkling champagne convinced that the bubbles ruined the integrity of the wine the English adored it. The Champagne region though sneering England’s appreciation of their sparkling wine were happy to find a market for it and at times of celebration the Stuart Monarchs pumped champagne from the fountains so all Londoners could revel in the occasion.
So the champagne flowed but whilst lovers of the Arts loved the generous elderly De Medici queen the Protestants of Parliament were outraged; all the arts like alcohol were considered papist pleasures. However during her time in London she persuaded her daughter and the King to hire Inigo Jones who frequented her salons to design a theatre and opera district so Londoners could delight in the palazzo lifestyle of Florence. The building of Covent Garden was another reason the dowager queen was popular amongst most Londoners.
The operas were composed in English and the art form was instantly popular. The champagne flowed and St James’s was the artists’s community of London and Marie de Medici’s popularity amongst art lovers was overwhelming. Her popularity was not only due to her unmatched generosity but her internist and understanding of their work. However her popularity was far from universal. The increasingly Puritan Parliament found was so outraged by her generosity and funding of papist buildings artworks and music they exiled the elderly Marie De Medici in 1642. She was 67 years old and very frail.
Her daughter and King Charles I were powerless to help due as to the Civil War was already underway. Parliament confiscated her money and refused her a carriage to the Thames. However so revered was she the footmen voluntarily carried her in a sedan chair through the streets. London art world lined the streets in thousands to pay their last respects to their benefactor falling to their knees, their feather plumed hats held across their heart as she passed. Sir Peter Lely describes the scene in moving detail of Londoners weeping in pity upon seeing the elderly queen brought so low by the heartless Parliament and cast out with nothing in the winter of her life. There was a consensus that it was a shameful stain upon England’s reputation to treat the once great queen and grandmother of their next king so heartlessly. She died penniless in Ruben’s attic within the year, but her legacy of opera and her contribution to the Origins of Opera in London, sung in our native tongue, continues at the Coliseum – and by chance A Winter’s Tale starts on Monday 27th February 2017.