'Flora' — An 18th-Century British Invasion

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The ballad opera 'Flora': from early 18th-century England to 21st-century Charleston. i i

The ballad opera 'Flora': from early 18th-century England to 21st-century Charleston. William Struhs/courtesy of Spoleto USA hide caption

itoggle caption William Struhs/courtesy of Spoleto USA
The ballad opera 'Flora': from early 18th-century England to 21st-century Charleston.

The ballad opera 'Flora': from early 18th-century England to 21st-century Charleston.

William Struhs/courtesy of Spoleto USA

In London during the 1720s, one of the hottest tickets in town was for an imported commodity — Italian operas by a popular German composer, George Frideric Handel. Yet while those works were marketed to a sophisticated, well-to-do audience, Handel's music could also be heard in productions aimed at an entirely different crowd.

In January 1728, a new work called The Beggar's Opera took London by storm. It was written by John Gay, but not in the way we normally think of operas being "written" — because Gay wasn't a composer.

The Beggar's Opera was a stage play that also featured songs and dances, and Gay did write the dialogue and lyrics for the show. But its music was borrowed from other sources ranging from pop tunes to Handel's operas. The Beggar's Opera was an immediate hit and can still be heard today, both in recordings and on stage.

What Gay basically invented with that show was something now called "ballad opera" — a genre combining spoken theater and song — and in some ways, it was more sophisticated than the Italian opera seria heard in London's more high-brow theaters.

In opera seria, the dramatic action is conveyed mainly in declamatory recitatives, with songs — arias — serving as a sort of pause in that action, giving the characters a chance to reflect on events and vent their emotions. Many arias were actually interchangeable from opera to opera.

Ballad opera took things a step further, with the songs playing a pivotal role in telling the story. The genre's London popularity only lasted a decade or so, yet English ballad opera went on to influence everything from the singspiel in Germany to comic opera in France to the Broadway musical. And one ballad opera in particular played a key role in the history of American theater.

The Hit Single

In 'Flora,' the title character's beloved, Mr. Friendly, tries to get her attention — without alerting her evil guardian — by disguising himself as a ballad singer and joining the crowd at the local fair, singing 'All's Fair at a Country Wake.'

In 1735 in Charleston, S.C., a ballad opera called Flora went down in recorded history as the first opera of any kind to be produced in North America. The next year, it was performed on a new stage in the same city called the Dock Street Theater.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents yet another Charleston production of Flora from the present-day incarnation of the Dock Street Theater, where it was part of the 2010 Spoleto Festival USA.

The version of Flora produced in Charleston was resurrected by American composer Neely Bruce, who took the original song tunes and music from two surviving scores, and wove it all together with music of his own — recreating a world of bawdy comedy, often riotous stage action and truly charming music. The production features Andriana Chuchman in the title role, with Tyler Duncan as Flora's lover Mr. Friendly and Timothy Nolen as her nemesis, Sir Thomas Testy.

This week's double bill from Charleston also includes another rarity from the Spoleto Festival USA, Haydn's one-act marionette opera Philemon and Baucis, with soprano Monica Yunus and tenor Hugo Vera.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Stories Of 'Flora' And 'Philemon And Baucis'

FLORA:

The title character is an orphaned teenager left in the care of her malevolent uncle, Sir Thomas Testy. She's also in love with a man called Mr. Friendly. But the two can't get together because Testy won't let Flora out of the house — he has his own lascivious eye on the young woman.

Flora and her maid Betty concoct a plan to have Friendly show up in the dead of night with a ladder and help Flora to escape over the garden wall. Friendly tries to confirm the plan by hiring the young man Hob to carry a letter to Flora. But Hob turns out to be a less than reliable messenger. Testy catches him in the act, takes the letter, and dumps Hob into a well. Testy hopes Hob will drown, but he's inadvertently rescued by his own parents, who are preparing to sell ale and wine at an upcoming local fair. Soaked and shivering, Hob makes plans to sue Testy for damages.

Who's Who

Flora:

Andriana Chuchman ........... Flora

Tyler Duncan ............ Mr. Friendly

Timothy Nolen .... Sir Thomas Testy

Robert McPherson ............... Hob

Leah Wool ........................ Betty

Stephen Bryant ...............Old Hob

Eve Gigliotti .......... Old Hob's Wife

Zachary Stains .................... Will

Philip Cokorinos ................ Coley

Eric Johnston .............. Jonathan

Neely Bruce, conductor

Philemon and Baucis:

Hugo Vera ................... Philemon

Monica Yunus .................. Baucis

Scott Scully ........................ Aret

Shannon Kessler Dooley ... Narcissa

Josh Wilhoit ........................ Jupiter

Curtis Worthington ............Mercury

Danilo Lorenzini, conductor

Friendly then tries to attract Flora's attention by appearing as a ballad singer at the fair — with Flora looking on from the garden mount, behind the walls of Testy's estate. Flora sees Friendly's performance, but she still can't escape Testy's clutches.

Thinking Flora is safe under lock and key, Testy decides to get back at Hob for his defiant role in Friendly's plot — and to head off Hob's threat to sue. But Hob turns out to be a formidable enemy. When he and his friends go on the attack, threatening to beat Testy half to death, Testy draws his sword, backs them off, and then chases them into the woods — leaving his garden gate open.

That gives Friendly a chance to liberate Flora. The two quickly run off to get married, and by the time Testy returns, he's too late to stop it. Testy slinks off in defeat, while everyone else celebrates the wedding.

PHILEMON AND BAUCIS:

In Haydn's one-act marionette opera, the title characters are an aging couple who have a close encounter with the gods Jupiter and Mercury. As the opera begins, Jupiter has been visiting the human world, and he hasn't liked what he's found: a world of selfishness and indulgence. In anger, he unleashes a lightning bolt — but instead of hitting its intended victims, it strikes a needy young couple who got in the way, and kills them both.

Following the overture and opening ensemble, Jupiter and Mercury reflect on what has happened. Jupiter decides they should spend the night with Philemon and Baucis — the parents of Aret, the young man struck by lightning. But they knock on the door in disguise, pretending to be hungry travelers.

To their surprise, the gods get a warm welcome. Philemon and Baucis are poor, and they're still grieving for their son, Aret, and his bride Narcissa. But they're generous despite their poverty, and offer Jupiter and Mercury every comfort they can muster.

When Philemon and Baucis tearfully explain why they're in mourning, Jupiter is deeply moved. In response, he magically brings Aret and Narcissa back to life — an event so shocking to Baucis that she nearly collapses, and Aret thinks his mother is near death.

Jupiter then rewards Philemon and Baucis by turning their shabby home into a great temple, where the couple will preside as priest and priestess. Seeing this, the people all rejoice, and the two gods ascend to the heavens as the opera ends.

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