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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-06-14 04:09:51
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dua ngua online

A Venetian playhouse has a dismal appearance in the eyes of people accustomed to the brilliancy of those of London. Many of the boxes are so dark, that the faces of the company in them can hardly[218] be distinguished at a little distance, even when they do not wear masks. The stage, however, is well illuminated, so that the people in the boxes can see, perfectly well, every thing that is transacted there; and when they choose to be seen themselves, they order lights into their boxes. Between the acts you sometimes see ladies walking about, with their Cavalieri Serventés, in the back part of the pit, when it is not crowded. As they are masked, they do not scruple to reconnoitre the company, with their spying-glasses, from this place: when the play begins, they return to their boxes. This continual moving about from box to box, and between the boxes and the pit, must create some confusion, and, no doubt, is disagreeable to those who attend merely on account of the piece. There must, however, be found some douceur in the midst of all this obscurity and confusion, which, in the opinion of the majority of the audience, overbalances these obvious inconveniences. [219] The music of the opera here is reckoned as fine as in any town in Italy; and, at any rate, is far superior to the praise of so very poor a judge as I am. The dramatic and poetical parts of those pieces are little regarded: the poet is allowed to indulge himself in as many anachronisms, and other inconsistencies, as he pleases. Provided the music receives the approbation of the critic’s ear, his judgment is not offended with any absurdities in the other parts of the composition. The celebrated Metastasio has disdained to avail himself of this indulgence in his operas, which are fine dramatic compositions. He has preserved the alliance which ought always to subsist between sense and music. But as for the music of the serious operas, it is, in general, infinitely too fine for my ear; to my shame I must confess, that it requires a considerable effort for me to sit till the end. [220] It is surely happy for a man to have a real sensibility for fine music; because he has, by that means, one source of enjoyment more, than those whose auditory nerves are less delicately strung. It is, however, equally absurd and silly to affect an excessive delight in things which nature has not framed us to enjoy; yet how many of our acquaintance, accused of this folly, have we seen doing painful penance at the Hay-market; and, in the midst of unsuppressable yawnings, calling out, Charming! exquisite! bravissimo, &c. It is amazing what pains some people take to render themselves ridiculous; and it is a matter of real curiosity to observe, in what various shapes the little despicable spirit of affectation shews itself among mankind. I remember a very honest gentleman, who understood little or nothing of French; but having picked up a few[221] phrases, he brought them forward on every occasion, and affected, among his neighbours in the country, the most perfect knowledge, and highest admiration, of that language. When any body, in compliance with his taste, uttered a sentence in that tongue, though my good friend did not understand a syllable of it, yet he never failed to nod and smile to the speaker with the most knowing air imaginable. The parson of the parish, at a country dinner, once addressed him in these emphatic words: Monsieur, je trouve ce plum-pudding extrémement bon! which happening not to be in my friend’s collection of phrases, he did not comprehend. He nodded and smiled to the clergyman, however, in his usual intelligent manner; but a person who sat near him, being struck with the sagacious and important tone in which the observation had been delivered, begged of my friend to explain it in English:—on which, after some hesitation, he declared, that the turn of the expression was so genteel,[222] and so exquisitely adapted to the French idiom, that it could not be rendered into English, without losing a great deal of the original beauty of the sentiment. At the comic opera I have sometimes seen action alone excite the highest applause, independent of either the poetry or the music. I saw a Duo performed by an old man and a young woman, supposed to be his daughter, in such an humorous manner, as drew an universal encora from the spectators. The merit of the musical part of the composition, I was told, was but very moderate, and as for the sentiment you shall judge. The father informs his daughter, in a song, that he has found an excellent match for her; who, besides being rich, and very prudent, and not too young, was over and above a particular friend of his own, and in person and disposition, much such a man as himself; he concludes, by telling her, that the ceremony will be performed[223] next day. She thanks him, in the gayest air possible, for his obliging intentions, adding, that she should have been glad to have shewn her implicit obedience to his commands, provided there had been any chance of the man’s being to her taste; but as, from the account he had given, there could be none, she declares she will not marry him next day, and adds, with a very long quaver, that if she were to live to eternity she should continue of the same opinion. The father, in a violent rage, tells her, that instead of to-morrow, the marriage should take place that very day; to which she replies, Non: he rejoins Si; she, Non, non; he, Si, si; the daughter, Non, non, non; the Father, Si, si, si; and so the singing continues for five or six minutes. You perceive there is nothing marvellously witty in this; and for a daughter to be of a different opinion from her father, in the choice of a husband, is not a very new dramatic incident. Well, I told you the Duo was encored—they[224] immediately performed it a second time, and with more humour than the first. The whole house vociferated for it again; and it was sung a third time in a manner equally pleasant, and yet perfectly different from any of the former two. I thought the house would have been brought down about our ears, so extravagant were the testimonies of approbation. The two actors were obliged to appear again, and sing this Duo a fourth time; which they executed in a style so new, so natural, and so exquisitely droll, that the audience now thought there had been something deficient in all their former performances, and that they had hit on the true comic only this last time. Some people began to call for it again; but the old man, now quite exhausted, begged for mercy; on which the point was given up. I never before had any idea that such strong comic powers could[225] have been displayed in the singing of a song. The dancing is an essential part of the entertainment at the opera here, as well as at London. There is certainly a much greater proportion of mankind deaf to the delights of music, than blind to the beauties of fine dancing. During the singing, and recitativo part of the performance, the singers are often allowed to warble for a considerable time, without any body’s minding them; but the moment the ballet begins, private conversation, though pretty universal before, is immediately at an end, and the eyes of all the spectators are fixed on the stage. This, to be sure, has been always the case in London, and, in spite of the pains some people take to conceal it, we all know the reason; but I own I did not expert to find the same preference of dancing to music in Italy. After seeing the dancing at the French opera, and coming so lately from Vienna,[226] where we had seen some of Novere’s charming ballets very well executed, we could have no high admiration of those performed here, though there are at present some dancers highly esteemed, who perform every night. The Italians, I am informed, have a greater relish for agility and high jumping in their dancers, than for graceful movements. It is extraordinary that they do not vary the ballets oftener. They give the same every night during the run of the opera. There is a propriety in continuing the same opera for a considerable time; because music is often better relished after it becomes a little familiar to the ear, than at first; but a ballet might be changed, without much difficulty, every night. LETTER XIX. Venice. Many people are surprised, that, in a Government so very jealous of its power as that of Venice, there is no military establishment within the city to support the executive power, and repress any popular commotion. For my own part, I am strongly of opinion, that it proceeds from this very jealousy in government, that there is no military garrison here. An arbitrary Prince is fond of a standing army, and loves to be always surrounded by guards; because he, being the permanent fountain of honours and promotion, the army will naturally be much attached to him, and become, on all occasions, the blind instruments of his pleasure; but at Venice, there is no visible permanent object,[228] to which the army can attach itself. The Doge would not be allowed the command of the garrison, if there was one. The three State Inquisitors are continually changing; and before one set could gain the affections of the soldiers, another would be chosen; so that Government could not be supported, but much more probably would be overturned, by a numerous garrison being established in Venice; for it might perhaps not be difficult for a few of the rich and powerful nobles to corrupt the garrison, and gain over the commander to any ambitious plan of their own, for the destruction of the constitution. But although there is no formal garrison in a military uniform, yet there is a real effective force sufficient to suppress any popular commotion, at the command of the Senate, and Council of Ten. This force, besides the Sbirri, consists of a great number of stout fellows, who, without any distinguishing dress, are kept in the pay of[229] Government, and are at the command of that Council. There is also the whole body of the gondoleers, the most hardy and daring of the common Venetians. This body of men are greatly attached to the nobility, from whom they have most of their employment, and with whom they acquire a certain degree of familiarity, by passing great part of their time, shut up in boats, in their company, and by being privy to many of their love intrigues. Great numbers of these gondoleers are in the service of particular nobles; and there is no doubt, that, in case of any popular insurrection, the whole would take the side of the nobility and Senate, against the people. In short, they may be considered as a kind of standing militia, ready to rise as soon as the Government requires their services. Lastly, there is the Grand Council itself, which, in case of any violent commotion of the citizens and populace, could be[230] armed directly, from the small arsenal within the Ducal palace, and would prove a very formidable force against an unarmed multitude; for the laws of Venice forbid, under pain of death, any citizen to carry fire-arms; a law which is very exactly executed by the State Inquisitors. By those means the executive power of Government is as irresistible at Venice, as at Petersburgh or Constantinople, while there is a far less chance of the Government itself being overthrown here by the instruments of its own power; for, although a regular army, or garrison, might be corrupted by the address of an ambitious Doge, or by a combination of a few rich and popular nobles, in which case a revolution would take place at once; it is almost impossible to conceive, that all the different powers above mentioned could be engaged to act in favour of one man, or a small combination of men, without being detected by the vigilance of the[231] Inquisitors, or the jealousy of those who were not in the conspiracy. And if we suppose a majority of the nobles inclinable to any change in the form of the Government, they have no occasion to carry on a secret plot; they may come to the Council Chamber, and dictate whatever alterations they think proper. LETTER XX. Venice. There is unquestionably much reflection, and great depth of thought, displayed in the formation of the political constitution of Venice; but I should admire it much more, if the Council of Ten, and State Inquisitors, had never formed any part of it. Their institution, in my opinion, destroys the effect of all the rest. Like those misers who actually starve themselves, by endeavouring to avoid the inconveniencies of poverty, the Venetians, in whatever manner it is brought about, actually support a despotic tribunal, under the pretext of keeping out despotism. In some respects this system is worse than the fixed and permanent tyranny of one person; for that person’s character and maxims would be known, and, by endeavouring to conform themselves to his way[233] of thinking, people might have some chance of living unmolested; but according to this plan, they have a free-thinker for their tyrant to-day, and a bigot to-morrow. One year a set of Inquisitors, who consider certain parts of conduct as innocent, which, in the sight of their successors, may appear State crimes; men do not know what they have to depend upon. An universal jealousy must prevail, and precautions will be used to avoid the suspicions of Government, unknown in any other country. Accordingly we find, that the noble Venetians are afraid of having any intercourse with foreign ambassadors, or with foreigners of any kind; they are even cautious of visiting at each other’s houses, and hardly ever have meetings together, except at the courts, or on the Broglio. The boasted secrecy of their public councils proceeds, in all probability, from the same principle of fear. If all conversation on public affairs were forbid, under pain of death, and if the members of the British Parliament[234] were liable to be seized in the night-time by general warrants, and hanged at Tyburn, or drowned in the Thames, at the pleasure of the Secretaries of State, I dare swear the world would know as little of what passes in either House of Parliament, as they do of what is transacted in the Senate of Venice. It is not safe for a noble Venetian to acquire, in a high degree, the love and confidence of the common people. This excites the jealousy of the Inquisitors, and proves a pretty certain means of excluding him from any of the high offices. A Government which displays so much distrust and suspicion where there is little or no ground, will not fail to shew marks of the same disposition where, in the general opinion, there is some reason to be circumspect. Ecclesiastics, of every denomination, are excluded, by the constitution of Venice, from a place in the Senate, or holding any civil office whatever; nor is it permitted[235] them, directly or indirectly, to intermeddle in State affairs. In many instances, they are deprived of that kind of influence which, even in Protestant countries, is allowed to the clergy. The Patriarch of Venice has not the disposal of the offices belonging to St. Mark’s church: all the Deans are named by the Doge and Senate. Though it is forbid to the nobility, and to the clergy, to hold any conversation with strangers upon politics, or affairs of State; yet it is remarked, the gondoleers are exceeding ready to talk upon these, or any other subjects, with all who give them the smallest encouragement. Those who are not in the immediate service of any particular nobleman, are often retained by Government, like the Valets de place at Paris, as spies upon strangers. It is said, that while those fellows row their gondolas, in seeming inattention to the conversation, they are taking notice of every thing which is said, that they may report[236] it to their employers, when they imagine it any way concerns the Government. If this is true, those are to be pitied who are obliged to listen to all the stuff that such politicians may be supposed to relate. As soon as a stranger arrives, the gondoleers who brought him to Venice immediately repair to a certain office, and give information where they took him up, to what house they conducted him, and of any other particulars they may have picked up. All those precautions recalled to my memory the garrison of Darmstadt, of which I gave you an account in a letter from that place, where the strictest duty is kept up by day and night, in winter as well as summer, and every precaution used, as if an enemy were at the gates; though no mortal has the smallest design against the place, and though it is perfectly understood by all the inhabitants, that if an army was in reality to come with hostile intentions, the town could not hold out a week. In the same manner, I cannot help[237] thinking, that all this jealousy and distrust, those numerous engines set a going, and all this complicated system for the discovery of plots, and the defence of the constitution of this republic, serves only to harass their own subjects. Their constitution is certainly in no such danger as to require such an apparatus of machines to defend it, unless, indeed, the Emperor were to form a plot against it; and, in that case, it is much to be feared, that the spies, gondoleers, lions mouths, and State Inquisitors, would hardly prevent its success.


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