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This illustration, printed with the libretto of Louis Grabu’s opera Ariadne, is usually presented as showing the opening scene of the opera which was staged at Drury Lane in its inaugural year, 1674. Its critical stock has risen recently, but some earlier commentators dismissed it, Allardyce Nicoll, for example, called it “highly fantastic”. When compared with Wren’s sectional drawing, taken by many scholars to represent Drury Lane, attention has been drawn to the artist’s shortening of the forestage, the omission of forestage doors, and a discrepancy between the solid-looking pilasters and the two-dimensional flatness of the border between them. However, these features also suggest the use of a false frontispiece erected downstage of the usual curtain line. Such a frontispiece is known to have been used for at least two other operas in the period: Thomas Shadwell’s operatic version of Dryden and Davenant’s The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Island (1674), and Dryden’s Albion and Albanius (1685), both produced at Dorset Garden. Hence, later scholars have been inclined to accept this illustration as a representation of the original Drury Lane stage – in opera mode, as it were. What I do not think has been noted elsewhere is that the illustration seems to conflate stage action from the start and end of the opera. While the three women (river nymphs representing Thames, Tiber, and Seine) open the opera, the flying cupids do not feature until the final scene, at which point a description of the stage action tells us “a glittering palace comes down from heaven” accompanied by “four little Cupids flying” (there are actually five in the print). The cupids are listed on a prefatory page of the libretto under “Persons Appearing”, so the likelihood is that they were real actors. Unless they were also painted on the scenery in the opening scene – in which case they are out of scale and not in the same plane – this illustration appears to be a composite design that fills out the composition, rather than an accurate representation of an individual scene. Like Dolle’s illustrations in the published text of Elkanah Settle’s The Empress of Morocco (DG 1673), it was possibly intended to advertise a new theatre.
The prologue in the 1663 folio.