Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter viii

Vienna. — Opera in the garden of the Favorita — playhouse and representation of the story of Amphitrion.

To Mr. P——.

Vienna, Sept.14. O. S.

PERHAPS you’ll laugh at me for thanking you very gravely for all the obliging concern you express for me. ’Tis certain that I may, if I please, take the fine things you say to me for wit and raillery; and, it may be, it would be taking them right. But I never, in my life, was half so well disposed to take you in earnest as I am at present; and that distance which makes the continuation of your friendship improbable, has very much increased my faith in it. I find that I have, (as well as the rest of my sex) whatever face I set on’t, a strong disposition to believe in miracles. Don’t fancy, however, that I am infected by the air of these popish countries; I have, indeed, so far wandered from the discipline of the church of England, as to have been last Sunday at the opera, which was performed in the garden of the Favorita; and I was so much pleased with it, I have not yet repented my seeing it. Nothing of that kind ever was more magnificent; and I can easily believe what I am told, that the decorations and habits cost the emperor thirty thousand pounds Sterling. The stage was built over a very large canal, and, at the beginning of the second act, divided into two parts, discovering the water, on which there immediately came, from different parts, two fleets of little gilded vessels, that gave the representation of a naval fight. It is not easy to imagine the beauty of this scene, which I took particular notice of. But all the rest were perfectly fine in their kind. The story of the opera is the enchantment of Alcina, which gives opportunities for great variety of machines, and changes of the scenes, which are performed with a surprising swiftness. The theatre is so large, that it is hard to carry the eye to the end of it, and the habits in the utmost magnificence, to the number of one hundred and eight. No house could hold such large decorations: but the ladies all sitting in the open air, exposes them to great inconveniences; for there is but one canopy for the imperial family; and the first night it was represented, a shower of rain happening, the opera was broke off, and the company crowded away in such confusion, that I was almost squeezed to death. — But if their operas are thus delightful, their comedies are in as high a degree ridiculous. They have but one play-house, where I had the curiosity to go to a German comedy, and was very glad it happened to be the story of Amphitrion. As that subject has been already handled by a Latin, French, and English poet, I was curious to see what an Austrian author would make of it. I understand enough of that language to comprehend the greatest part of it; and besides, I took with me a lady, that had the goodness to explain to me every word. The way is, to take a box, which holds four, for yourself and company. The fixed price is a gold ducat. I thought the house very low and dark; but I confess, the comedy admirably recompensed that defect. I never laughed so much in my life. It began with Jupiter’s falling in love out of a peep-hole in the clouds, and ended with the birth of Hercules. But what was most pleasant, was the use Jupiter made of his metamorphosis; for you no sooner saw him under the figure of Amphitrion, but, instead of flying to Alcmena, with the raptures Mr Dryden puts into his mouth, he sends for Amphitrion’s taylor, and cheats him of a laced coat, and his banker of a bag of money, a Jew of a diamond ring, and bespeaks a great supper in his name; and the greatest part of the comedy turns upon poor Amphitrion’s being tormented by these people for their debts. Mercury uses Sofia in the same manner. But I could not easily pardon the liberty the poet has taken of larding his play with, not only indecent expressions, but such gross words, as I don’t think Our mob would suffer from a mountebank. Besides, the two Sofias very fairly let down their breeches in the direct view of the boxes, which were full of people of the first rank, that seemed very well pleased with their entertainment, and assured me, this was a celebrated piece. I shall conclude my letter with this remarkable relation, very well worthy the serious consideration of Mr Collier. I won’t trouble you with farewel compliments, which I think generally as impertinent, as courtesies at leaving the room, when the visit had been too long already.

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