Cupid and Death

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Cupid and Death is a Commonwealth masque in five entries, and one of the most intriguing musical dramas of 17th-century England. It is the only pre-Restoration masque that has come down to us with a complete wordbook and score. Its authors lived and worked in turbulent times, witnessing the Civil War, the Commonwealth and eventually the Restoration. The wordbook was written by James Shirley (1596-1666), one of the most renowned 17th-century playwrights, whose dramatic output ranges from comedies and tragedies to masque. The music is credited to Christopher Gibbons (1615-1676) and Matthew Locke (1621/3-1677), two composers whose colourful works left an indelible mark on Henry Purcell and other Restoration composers.

Shirley’s libretto, based on Aesop’s fables, relates how the gods Cupid and Death lodge at the same inn, where the Chamberlain exchanges their arrows. The result is complete chaos. Nature looks on in horror as the world is turned upside down in a series of grotesque events: young lovers start dying, while the old and decrepit fall madly in love and war enemies embrace. Eventually, the god Mercury descends from heaven to restore natural order. He punishes Cupid and Death and guides Nature to paradise, where the slain lovers now reside in blissful harmony.

The plot unfolds in spoken dialogue, dance, and music. While rooted in the masque tradition, Cupid and Death is more coherent than pre-Commonwealth court masques from a dramatic point of view. At the same time, it covers a wide expressive spectrum, ranging from comical dialogue and grotesque dances over tragic and narrative recitative to abstract songs, reflective choruses and a solemn apotheosis. All of this explains why Cupid and Death is considered to foreshadow that hybrid, quintessentially English form of ‘dramatick opera’. In this masque, words and music, visual arts and dance join forces to tell a universal story of love-as-death in a topsy-turvy world.

Copyright 2017 Ensemble Correspondances - Tous droits réservés

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