Retrospect Opera

Great British Operas On Record

Dibdin’s Shakespeare - The Recording
Having started the process of restoring Charles Dibdin to his proper place in British musical and theatrical history with our Christmas Gambols album – a project now strongly supported by a new Oxford University Press volume – Retrospect Opera will record a second Dibdin disc with Simon Butteriss, this time bringing together two works linked by Shakespearean themes. The Jubilee, or Shakespear’s Garland (1769) will be recorded to mark its 250th anniversary as the most successful of all David Garrick’s productions. Datchet Mead, or The Fairy Court (1797) will accompany it, to commemorate the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018.

Professor Stephen Greenblatt, one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars, the author of such acclaimed studies as Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980), Hamlet in Purgatory (2002), and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2005), has generously endorsed our Charles Dibdin’s Shakespeare project:

To paraphrase Falstaff, Shakespeare is not only a creative genius in himself but the cause that creative genius is in others. The exploration of that genius in the sister arts – in painting, dance, and above all the music inspired by Shakespeare – has been one of the great enterprises of our times. Thanks to the initiative of Retrospect Opera, we now have a chance to recover a key part of the eighteenth-century response and thus enhance our own imaginative reception of Shakespeare’s enduring achievement. I do hope people will support them.


Sir Jonathan Bate, another leading Shakespearean, the author of Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (1986), Shakespearean Constitutions (1989), Shakespeare and Ovid (1993), and many other books, writes:

This is a fantastically worthwhile project – Dibdin was a hugely important figure in the history of British theatre and music, so it is a wonderful initiative to bring his work back to life. Anyone interested in Shakespeare will be especially fascinated by the works he created for David Garrick’s celebrated Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 – that was the moment when the cult of Shakespeare really took off, and for his part in this Charles Dibdin fully deserves to be revived.


We are also really proud that Flora Fraser, the author of Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III, and many other critically acclaimed books (www.florafraser.com)
has written us the following generous endorsement:

Following George III’s widely publicized bout of mental disturbance in the late 1780s, the King’s doctors impressed on his Ministers that two subjects must not be raised with the monarch, as likely to prove too agitating: measures to effect Catholic emancipation and proposals that any of his six daughters marry. Queen Charlotte pitied her daughters, but was more fearful of seeing her husband once more incoherent and confined to a straitjacket. But the Princess Royal, eldest of the Princesses, was a strongminded woman. When she reached her early thirties, she determined to suffer spinsterhood at Windsor no more. In 1797, she defied her father’s doctors, and took as her husband Frederick, Hereditary Prince of Württemberg. ‘Fritz’ had been married before, and his enormous girth caused much merriment when he arrived in London to marry ‘Royal’. His bride was undeterred. Though she parted with real anguish from her family, ‘Royal’ went on to have a fulfilled life as Hereditary Princess, then Duchess, and later as a Napoleonic Queen.
Charles Dibdin’s Shakespearean serenata, Datchet Mead, performed at the Sans Souci theatre in the Strand, celebrated the 1797 wedding, and was dedicated to Queen Charlotte. At a time when the Napoleonic Wars were a source of national anxiety and distress, the serenata’s patriotic sentiments were welcome: ‘Bright gleam’d the moon! Zephyr in am’rous gale / Breath’d perfume over Datchet’s charming vale, / Where Windsor’s turrets kiss the ample sky; / Shrouding from mortal sight that family / So dear to every British heart ...’. The allusions to myrtle and other nuptial emblems testify to the unflinching resolve of the new Hereditary Princess to make a life, as an adult woman, where she would not be subject to the authority of her Royal parents. Though others might pour scorn on her ‘Fritz’, ‘Royal’ never wavered in her commitment to him. I am thrilled that Datchet Mead is being revived and recorded, and do hope people will support this unique project.


The Jubilee
was one of the major triumphs of the first phase of Dibdin’s career, when he was working closely with the celebrated actor-manager, David Garrick (1717–79). Garrick organised a great Shakespeare festival, or “jubilee,” in Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1769: a landmark event in Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation and deification as Britain’s national Bard which has inspired several books. The three-day festival started auspiciously, but unfortunately heavy rain on the second and third days forced the cancellation of many of the events and caused several comic mishaps. Not too upset, Garrick quickly adapted part of his planned celebration, with Dibdin’s music, for performance back in London at his own Drury Lane theatre. The Jubilee, or Shakespear’s Garland premiered there on 14 October, and proved immensely successful – the greatest triumph of Garrick’s careers as writer and manager. William Hopkins, the Drury Lane prompter, recorded “There never was an Entertainment produc’d that gave so much pleasure to all Degrees, Boxes, Pit and Gallery.”

Blake Midsummer The Jubilee is a celebration of Shakespeare’s greatness, but that greatness is rooted firmly in his broad popular appeal. The Shakespeare Garrick and Dibdin celebrate is a folk hero as much as a great poet, as highlighted in such lyrics as “For the lad of all lads was a Warwickshire lad” and “The pride of all nature was sweet Willy O.” Such a subject brought out Dibdin’s happiest melodic vein, and his delightful songs are fitted into a number of loosely-connected comic scenes, examining the impact on Stratford of a host of Shakespearean pilgrims. We’ll record all the main songs, with enough of the linking dialogue to make a coherent dramatic work.

Nearly three decades later, Dibdin returned to Shakespeare to celebrate the 1797 marriage of Princess Charlotte, George III’s eldest daughter, with Frederick I of Württemberg. By this time, Dibdin, renowned for his one-man shows, had his own London theatre, and he used this to present the serenata, Datchet Mead, or The Fairy Court. Datchet is a village near Windsor, and Dibdin drew on Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merry Wives of Windsor as he imagined the fairies gathering outside Datchet to hymn the princess’s wedding. With its strong Windsor context and many references to royal nuptials combined with Dibdin’s natural lyricism and sense of fun, this seems to us the perfect way to commemorate the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and the CD will be dedicated to them.

Charles Dibdin
Blake MidsummerCharles Dibdin (1745-1814) is a gigantic figure in the history of English song, probably the most important composer of English comic operas in the late 1700s, and, in addition, he was the most versatile entertainer of his age.

Dibdin sprang to fame at the age of nineteen, playing the part of Ralph in Samuel Arnold’s opera, The Maid of the Mill (1765). Three years later he established his reputation as a composer with The Padlock (1768), an opera in which he stole the show himself, playing the black servant, Mungo. James Boaden recalled: ‘Dibdin, by his music, and still more by his acting in a comic opera, called the Padlock, produced that degree of sensation in the public which is called a rage.’ His fame secured, in the 1770s Dibdin began writing his own librettos, producing both words and music for the two most enduringly successful operas of the decade, The Waterman (1774) and The Quaker (1775), both of them still being revived a century later. Despite all his success in the London theatres, though, Dibdin was touchy and quarrelsome, finding it increasingly hard to work in co-operative environments. Recognising this, in 1787 he staged the first of his one-man musical shows, or ‘Table Entertainments’ as he called them, Readings and Music. Back in 1767, Dibdin had been the first musician in Britain to perform on a piano in public. His interest in the instrument had continued, and in his Table Entertainments he stood, or sat, at a piano, telling dramatized stories and playing and singing songs. This format allowed him to display all his talents and became Dibdin’s principal means of engaging with his public. He opened his own little London theatre, called Sans Souci, in 1791, and continued to perform until 1809. During these decades, Dibdin wrote hundreds of songs, most of them introduced in his Table Entertainments, including the most famous of all, ‘Tom Bowling,’ originally part of The Oddities (1789). Dozens of these songs were still regularly sung decades later: no other eighteenth-century composer contributed more to the nineteenth-century English song repertoire.

Text © 2016 David Chandler

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