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Verdi in Victorian London

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Massimo Zicari

4. I due Foscari and I masnadieri (1847)

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1In 1846, a series of difficulties between the manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre and his star artists resulted in a split or secession, as they called it. The conductor Michael Costa and the three leading singers, Mario, Giulia Grisi and Antonio Tamburini, abandoned Lumley and set out to establish a competing operatic company at Covent Garden.

  • 1 “The Rival Italian Opera,” The Spectator, September 19, 1846, p. 19. See also Lumley, Reminiscences(...)

The Opera house squabbles of the past season, arising out of Mr Lumley’s breach with his musical director, Signor Costa, have grown at length into a great schism, which is beginning to throw the votaries of harmony into a state of the direst discord [...] The rumours which have been current of the establishment of a rival Italian Opera next season, have now assumed an authentic shape; though the formal announcement as to the details of the enterprise, which has for some time been expected, has not yet been issued. In the meantime, however, a sort of demi-official article has appeared in the Morning Chronicle, a paper which has distinguished itself by its strong spirit of partisanship in the affair. From this source we learn, that Covent Garden Theatre is to be opened as an Italian Opera house early in 1847; that Signor Costa is engaged as musical director and conductor; that a host of eminent vocalists have been secured; and that almost all the performers of the instrumental orchestra are to follow their late conductor.1

2Costa, Mario, Grisi and Tamburini, followed by many members of the orchestra, established a rival company led by Giuseppe Persiani in the capacity of manager; on 6 April 1847, they inaugurated a second Italian opera season at Covent Garden with Rossini’s Semiramide.

  • 2 Charles Osborne (ed.), Letter of Giuseppe Verdi (New York: Holt, 1971), pp. 33–39. See also Verdi, (...)
  • 3 Henry Scott Holland, William Smith Rockstro, Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt: Her Early Art (...)
  • 4 Budden, Verdi, I: 339–42.

3In the meantime Lumley had not remained idle and was in fact doubling his efforts to appeal to the London audience, since he was now unable to count on the “old guard.” Verdi’s international success had convinced Lumley to commission a new opera from the young Italian composer and in the early spring of 1846 he was already advancing this idea. But on 9 April 1846, Verdi informed Lumley that owing to his poor health he would not travel to London, let alone compose a new opera. On 13 May, Lumley again tried to arouse Verdi’s interest by informing him that I Lombardi had scored a success. This second attempt was also fruitless, for on 22 May Verdi made clear that his mind was unchanged. Things improved in November, when Verdi wrote to Lumley announcing his intention to compose a new opera for London, Il corsaro, based on George Byron’s poem of the same name. Eventually Verdi decided to set to music a libretto Andrea Maffei had derived from Schiller’s Die Räuber: I masnadieri. Verdi informed Lumley of his new resolution in a letter written on 4 December, where he also stated that, provided that Lumley agreed on having Jenny Lind and Gaetano Fraschini in the cast, he considered the deal sealed.2 However, another difficulty had to be overcome before I masnadieri could be staged. Two years earlier Jenny Lind had signed a contract with Alfred Bunn, manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, which obliged her to make her appearance at his establishment in Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (A Camp in Silesia), a Singspiel in three acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer. The manager, who had already incurred heavy costs by having the libretto translated into English, threatened Lind with legal action should she not honour the contract.3 Finally, notwithstanding Bunn’s repeated threats, the Swedish Nightingale decided to sing in London as Amalia in Verdi’s new opera.4

  • 5 Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer (Fairleigh: Dickinson University Press, (...)
  • 6 Peter Mercer-Taylor (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University (...)

4Lumley was doing everything that was in his power to secure the benevolence of the audience, to reward them and to prove that he was able to fulfil his promises, at least to some extent. Among the operas he had pledged to put on were The Tempest by Mendelssohn and Ein Feldlager von Schlesien by Meyerbeer, which was premiered in Berlin in 1844.5 Yet neither work, although both were announced at the outset of the season, could be performed. The first was never brought to completion by the composer,6 while the second had to be cancelled because the composer could not come to London to supervise the rehearsals. At this point Lumley decided to focus on the last novelty announced for the season, I masnadieri, for which he had secured both the composer and the star singer.

5As a consequence of the intricate events outlined above, Verdi’s I due Foscari would be produced twice in London in 1847, once by each lyrical establishment. The first performance was on 10 April at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the second on 19 June at Covent Garden. On 22 July 1847 Verdi himself was in London to conduct the premiere of I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre, featuring Jenny Lind as Amalia.

  • 7 The Times, April 12, 1847, p. 8.

6As chronicled by The Times, The Musical World and The Athenaeum, the premiere of I due Foscari at Her Majesty’s Theatre had been originally scheduled not for 10 April, but for the subsequent week; an epidemic caused by an unexpected change of weather forced the theatre management to anticipate the production of the new opera and postpone the performance of the already announced L’elisir d’amore. The circumstances leading to that hasty alteration were described in detail by The Times; Lablache, who was expected to appear as Dulcamara, was affected by a severe cold and unable to sing. But rather than mounting a stock opera, the theatre manager decided to take both the public and his rivals by surprise and present Verdi’s new opera.7 On 10 April, Her Majesty’s Theatre opened with I due Foscari conducted by Michael Balfe. The cast featured Gaetano Fraschini as Jacopo, Antonietta Montenegro as Lucrezia, Filippo Coletti as the Doge and Lucien Bouché as Loredano.

Fig. 5. Scene from I due Foscari at the Royal Italian Opera.

Fig. 5. Scene from I due Foscari at the Royal Italian Opera.

The Illustrated London News, 26 June 1847.

  • 8 Some of the articles that appeared in the columns of The Musical World that year bear the initials (...)
  • 9 The Athenaeum, April 17, 1847, p. 417.
  • 10 Ibid.

7Despite the sudden change, and notwithstanding the risk of compromising the quality of the performance owing to insufficient rehearsals, the critics of The Musical World, The Times and The Athenaeum— possibly Ryan, Davison and Chorleyacknowledged the production as a complete success, at least in popular terms.8 Chorley complained about the performance, judging it “so little better than a dress rehearsal.” Although he felt obliged to admit that the opera had scored a success with the audience, its shortcomings were countless: “I due Foscari shared the fate of everything produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre, being rapturously received. Yet the performance was most unequal.”9 Chorley objected not only to the quality of the principals, but to that of the chorus and the orchestra also; the first was rough, incorrect and inaudible when called upon to sing behind the scene, while the second was completely detached from the singers. Antonietta Montenegro was judged “feeble, husky, and uncertain; not disagreeable in timbre, but not sufficient for the theatre.” Gaetano Fraschini had no expression, and Filippo Coletti was the only attraction; he produced “such forcible and impassioned effects by his voice and his manner, that it is only when measuring him against other contemporaneous that we recollect how little he acts.”10 Chorley insisted on the primacy and superiority of the old classics and expressed his strong dislike for young Verdi.

  • 11 Ibid.

In short we can find nothing in the opera to reconcile us to Signor Verdi as the Italian composer of the day. There is more fancy in the second act of Marino Faliero than in the entire work; and more in any single scene of Rossini’s Otello than in Donizetti’s Venetian tragedy complete. Comparisons are note agreeable; but it is only by comparison that fashionable works can sometimes be distinguished from true treasures of Art.11

8The Times was of a completely different opinion. Its critic was strongly appreciative of both the music and its rendition. Fraschini never sang so well as in the character of Jacopo; Montenegro, despite some difficulty in the higher compass of her voice, was excellent as an actress and remarkable in the expression of the music; the grand hit of the night was Coletti. His success as the old Doge could without hesitation be called a triumph and the applause of the public was boundless. Despite some mannerisms and the continuous use of the unison in the choir, Verdi’s music for I due Foscari was deemed an improvement, with such features as melodiousness and tunefulness now playing a greater part.

  • 12 The Times, April 12, 1847, p. 8.

We believe we shall express the opinion of the crowded audience of Saturday in saying that this is the most pleasing of Verdi’s operas. It has less massiveness in its structure than Nino, and less prominence is given to the choruses, which, according to Verdi’s manner—we may say, mannerism—are marked by the almost ceaseless employment of the unison [...] Of a flow of melody—of soft airs, followed by agreeable cabalettas—in a word, of what are called ‘tunes,’ there is no lack, and these are generally introduced with a great regard to dramatic effect. For originality they certainly are not remarkable, but they are pleasing throughout, and the manner in which the chorus is frequently brought in, taking up the melody of the principals, is worthy of a composer whose chief object, it is said, is dramatic illustration. On the continent, we believe, I due Foscari is esteemed the weakest of all Verdi’s operas. This may be the case, and it may have fewer features that would prominently stand out than either Nino or Ernani, but we must question whether it will not be more popular than the former of those works, and have no doubt whatever that it will be more popular than the latter.12

9Much more lenient to Verdi and more open to his novelties was the critic of The Illustrated London News, whose review of the opera appeared on 17 April.

  • 13 The Illustrated London News, April 17, 1847, p. 244.

The treatment of I due Foscari is, in many respects, different from that of the other of his operas (especially Nino and Ernani) which have been brought our here. The bringing into prominence of the solos and duets, and the consequent diminution of importance of the choruses and concerted pieces, are more in accordance with the general practice of Italian composers, and likely to be more generally popular. For ourselves, though we greatly admire the fine morceaux interspersed throughout this opera, we cannot concede that they should take precedence of those masterpieces of composition, the finales and choruses of Nino and Ernani, in which the genius of the composer has taken its loftiest flight. He has, however, shown in I due Foscari, that he possesses genius for the lighter and more popular style of composition, as well as for that generally thought to be his forte; and that he can write tunes to compete with any of the Donizettian school. As a dramatic work, I due Foscari appears to us far more complete and more impressive than any of the other operas of Verdi’s given here.13

10When compared to Verdi’s earlier operas, I due Foscari represented a backward step towards a manner of composition that conformed to the Italian bel canto tradition, in which nice arias and duets outstripped the concerted pieces in number and relevance. The critic acknowledged Verdi as a composer capable of dealing with either style, and of composing a nice tune as well as a dramatic concertato.

11Halfway between the two groups, the hostile and the benevolent, stood the critic of The Musical World, whose verdict was extremely favourable towards the interpreters but not towards the composer. Coletti enchanted the audience and was rapturously applauded. Encores and re-calls were countless and the same honours were lavishly bestowed on the other principals, Fraschini, Bouché and Montenegro. But, the critic held, the performance had been successful despite the music.

  • 14 The Musical World, April 17, 1847, p. 254.

The success of I due Foscari must be attributed entirely to the principal singers, and to the complete efficiency of Balfe, his band, and his chorus, which came out with unwonted power. The music of Signor Verdi is trash of the flimsiest description—beneath criticism—it offers no one point of musicianship, no one gleam of fancy. To talk of genius in reference to such worthless rubbish would be downright impiety. It is utterly destitute of claims to any kind of notice.14

12Davison continued to express himself in hostile terms despite the success Verdi was enjoying among the common people. This, Davison insisted, was due to the efforts of the talented interpreters, not the merits of the composer.

13In his Reminiscences, Lumley acknowledges that I due Foscari was a partial success at Her Majesty’s Theatre, but admits that the production was chosen as a stratagem to keep the audience busy with some novelty while the real attraction of the season, the much awaited Jenny Lind, was not yet in sight.

  • 15 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 180.

In her [Jenny Lind’s] continued absence every available resource was put forward. The theatre reopened, as has been stated, on Saturday, the 10th of April. A new opera and a new soprano singer were both forthcoming on the occasion. The opera, given for the first time in this country, the due Foscari, of Verdi, and the singer, Madame Montenegro, a Spanish lady of good family, with a clear soprano voice of some compass, and an attractive person, pleased, without exciting any marked sensation.15

14Despite the tepid terms adopted by the manager, the critics were not in total disagreement, at least as far as the reception of I due Foscari among the general public was concerned. The Athenaeum judged both the music and the performance in quite negative terms; The Musical World maintained that the opera was a success thanks to the quality of the performance and notwithstanding its contemptible music; the critic of The Times expressed himself in positive terms about the performance, and judged the music not totally devoid of merits; The Illustrated London News said the opera “more in accordance with the general practice of Italian composers” and not lacking in the dramatic power typically associated with the young composer. These last two journals agreed that in I due Foscari Verdi had toned down his dramatic verve and that traditional arias and duets had been restored to their original primacy. All of them found that Giuseppe Verdi’s success among operagoers was unquestionable, and his last opera had not failed to appeal to their taste. Two months later, on 19 June, I due Foscari was produced at Covent Garden, featuring three representatives of the old guard: Giorgio Ronconi was the old Doge, Mario was his son Jacopo Foscari and Giulia Grisi was Lucrezia. This time the critic of The Times commented on the opera in a manner that strongly suggests a single person now occupied the same position at both The Times and The Musical World.

  • 16 The Times, June 21, 1847, p. 5.

Royal Italian Opera, Covent-Garden. On Saturday Verdi’s I due Foscari was represented, for the first time at this establishment, with Grisi as Lucrezia, Mario as Jacopo, and Ronconi as the Doge. Our opinion of the music of this opera has already been given, and the present cast, powerful as it is, has not induced us to alter it. The success of I due Foscari on Saturday night must, then, be entirely laid to the merits of the three great artists whose names we have mentioned above, whose genius supplied the grace and feeling that was wanting in the music, and out of a veritable chaos made a world of harmony and truth.16

15In hinting at the opinion he had previously expressed, Davison seems to confound the content of his contribution to The Times with what he had instead published in the columns of The Musical World. It was in the second journal that he had pronounced the exact judgment he was now referring to, while in The Times, as we have seen, his verdict had been much milder, if not positive. In reviewing this new production of the same opera, he decided not to elaborate further on the poor quality of the music, a few appreciative remarks regarding the principals being more than enough to account for the event.

  • 17 His identity is revealed by his initials, D. R. appearing at the end of the review.
  • 18 “Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, June 26, 1847, p. 411.
  • 19 Ibid.

16The article Desmond Ryan contributed to The Musical World was much lengthier.17 It declared Verdi’s I due Foscari, produced at Covent Garden, to be the most complete success, “a success which, as far as outward demonstrations went, nothing could go beyond, and which must have gratified in no small degree the management as well as the composer, who, we understood, was present in the front of the house.”18 Verdi attended the opera in person; he had joined Emanuele Muzio at the beginning of the month in order to supervise the preparation of his I masnadieri and to instruct Jenny Lind in the part. The public showed great excitement at Verdi’s presence and bestowed signs of sincere appreciation on the interpreters; not only did Ronconi prove himself great, “but his whole assumption was complete and masterly, and evidenced the subtlest skill combined with real genius.”19 Grisi’s Lucrezia was a masterpiece of acting and singing and created as great a furore as her Norma, while Mario exhibited to perfection the intense beauty of his voice and method. As the critic put it, the success of the artists, though not of the opera, was immense: every act a re-call, every aria an encore. But Desmond Ryan did not show any sign of appreciation towards Verdi or his composition; a first nasty remark detailed the reasons why the composer wrote operas featuring no more than three main personages.

  • 20 Ibid.

To a composer of limited genius like Verdi, this custom is of the greatest utility, as it taxes his ingenuity in a small degree, and extenuates him from providing any diversity of effects in his music. Verdi’s operas have, evidently, all one grand aim, viz: the development of the higher passions. The means by which this object has been attempted is a source of grievous disputation between the supporters and the opponents of the composer.20

17It must have been a relief, for so untalented a composer, to have just three characters to work on and one single expressive aim to pursue. In Ryan’s opinion, the portrayal of the strongest human conflicts made Verdi “the very antipodes of Mozart and Rossini.” Even to have his name mentioned, though in opposition to Mozart and Rossini, the representatives of classicism in the opera, was a great compliment to a composer lacking in melodic inventiveness as well as other essential compositional abilities.

  • 21 Ibid.

The composer of I due Foscari is certainly the most over-rated man in existence. How, without melody, musical knowledge, variety, or even tune, he could have gained his present fame is, to our thinking, a far greater miracle than any of Prince Hoenlowe’s—especially as we never believed in them; and the means by which his operas continue to receive the approbation of the critics, and the applause of listeners, we can only attribute to some disease in the mind of the age, an epidemic, a monamania [sic], or a visitation akin to that of the potatoes caries, that eats up the vitality and growth of thought. One cause of Verdi’s celebrity—and, perhaps, its main cause—is the novelty of his music. It is, indeed, like nothing we ever heard—or, it is, indeed, like nothing [...] This is the principal secret of Verdi’s popularity; his music has nothing in common with other music; it possesses not the ingredients of other music; it is not grounded on the same principles as other music—in brief, critically speaking, it is not music at all; or it is merely declamatory phraseology.21

  • 22 Ibid.

18The final verdict was unequivocal: “The Due Foscari is certainly one of the dullest and most unmeaning works we ever heard; there is hardly one tuneable phrase from beginning to end, and the interest is confined exclusively to the artists employed in developing the plot and exhibiting their vocal efforts.”22 Its performance, nevertheless, was a complete and undeniable success, thanks to the value of the artists involved; the insipidity of the music was nullified by the splendour and magnificence of the performance.

19As for Chorley, the review published in The Athenaeum on 26 June shares his colleagues’ opinion with regard to the high merits of the performers as opposed to the inferiority of the music; his judgment on Verdi’s compositional skills remained unchanged.

  • 23 The Athenaeum, June 26, 1847, p. 682.

20The puerility of Signor Verdi’s instrumentation […]—the platitude of his melodies—the almost ungrammatical crudity of his modulations, and the total disregard of tone in colouring are too poorly compensated for by the accomplishment of certain effects, to permit us to unsay one word of our former strictures. On the contrary, we were never so aware of the musical worthlessness of Signor Verdi’s opera as on the occasion of its performance in the presence of its composer; who, it is more than probable, had never before the opportunity of hearing one of his works given with so signal a perfection.23

21Chorley took great pains to separate matters that could otherwise be easily confused; he drew a clear line between the music, which was trash as a whole, and the way in which the audience went into raptures over its performance. Although he had to admit that the public had received the opera enthusiastically, still he felt it necessary to urge his readers not to mistake the composition for its rendition. Despite all the shortcomings in the music and notwithstanding the composer’s unsuccessful attempts to accomplish certain dramatic effects, the beautiful singing and the impressive acting of the three main interpreters made the opera popular.

22The critic of The Illustrated London News addressed the importance of the interpreters, especially Mario and Grisi, indulging in a series of unconditionally positive judgments. Such expressions as “transcendent talent,” “enormous power of voice,” “inexhaustible resources,” “divine singing” and “superb acting” were used with some generosity. Verdi could not but benefit from such a powerful cast and, should he consider adopting a milder compositional style, a style more respectful of the singers’ voices, he would achieve much better results.

  • 24 The Illustrated London News, June 26, 1847, p. 413.

Verdi’s work, therefore, with first rate executants, vocally and instrumentally, and with such a Conductor as Costa, who can develop the nuances with such delicacy and precision, will strike the ear of the amateur, more than they will satisfy the judgment of the professor. Verdi has been prodigiously puffed and immensely depreciated; but he is, unquestionably, a man of infinite talent, who may achieve much greater things if he will modify his style—not tax his singers so unmercifully in the declamatory school, and resort to more legitimate means for his effects.24

23In general, each critic confirmed his previous opinion with regard to the opera while all expressing words of praise and commendation to describe the quality and talent of the members of the “old guard.”

24The month which elapsed between the production of I due Foscari at Covent Garden and the premiere of I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre was not uneventful. Lumley was doing his best to raise public expectations and benefit from the presence of his special guest stars. On the one hand, he decided to put Verdi in the limelight by reviving Ernani and I Lombardi, while on the other he gave Lind the opportunity to shine in all her splendour by appearing in her favourite roles before the debut in I masnadieri: Robert le diable, La fille du régiment, La sonnambula and Norma.

  • 25 The Musical World, July 3, 1847, p. 430.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 432.
  • 27 The Athenaeum, July 10, 1847, p. 737.

25Ernani was performed again at Her Majesty’s Theatre at the end of June—it had been already revived on 3 April. Jeanne Anaïs Castellan, Gaetano Fraschini, Antonio Superchi and Lucien Bouché took the main roles. As The Musical World put it, “the opera went off exceedingly well [...] Encores and recalls were as plentiful as blackberries, and bouquets were in extraordinary request.”25 In the same journal Desmond Ryan reviewed a later performance of I due Foscari at Covent Garden, an opera which, he suggested, failed to reconcile him to its composer. Instead Ryan decided to record the success of Grisi, Ronconi and Mario: “From scene the first to scene the last the entire performance was a succession of triumphs for the three artists.”26 On 10 July The Athenaeum reviewed a revival of I Lombardi at Her Majesty’s Theatre; the work was so flimsy and so full of pretence that the critic refused to alter his low opinion.27 The music was bad and its performance even worse; the orchestra was at variance with the choir, and the principal singers struggled to cope with the parts allotted to them.

  • 28 Hermann Klein, The Golden Age of Opera (London: Routledge, 1933, reprinted by Boston: Da Capo Press (...)
  • 29 Nathaniel Parker Willis, Memoranda of the Life of Jenny Lind (Philadelphia: Peterson, 1851), pp. 34 (...)
  • 30 Ibid., p. 42.

26In the meantime, Jenny Lind was already creating a furore, a fever destined to continue for about three years.28 Soon after her arrival in London she had made her first public appearance on 17 April when she attended a performance of I due Foscari at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Her presence had not failed to mesmerise the attention of the entire audience; countless lorgnettes were turned to her small, elegant figure, instead of focusing on the stage.29 On 4 May, her debut as Alice in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable at Her Majesty’s Theatre (given in Italian as Roberto il diavolo) was rapturously applauded and at the end of the performance the opera-house was in a state such as had rarely been witnessed in any London theatre. “The crowded mass, waving hats and handkerchiefs, stamping, knocking, shouting and endeavouring in every possible manner to show their delight, called the vocalist three times before the curtains, with an enthusiasm we have never seen surpassed, and yet which was no more than deserved.”30 Countless encores were demanded at the end of each aria, enriched with all the possible coloraturas she was so famous for, and the stage was literally covered with bouquets. As reported by Lumley, Jenny Lind’s debut was a complete, unquestionable triumph from the first moment she opened her mouth to the very end.

  • 31 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 185.

The cadenza at the end of her opening air—the whole of which was listened to with a stillness quite singular—called down a hurricane of applause. From that moment her success was certain. The evening went on, and before it ended Jenny Lind was established as the favourite of the English opera public. Voice, style, execution, manner, acting—all delighted. The triumph was achieved.31

  • 32 Cox, Musical recollections, 2: 195.
  • 33 The Musical World, July 3, 1847, p. 430. A similar comment on the madness accompanying Jenny Lind’s (...)

27After her first appearance as Alice, Jenny Lind was to surpass all previous expectations while singing in La sonnambula, as Amina; then in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment (in Italian as La figlia del reggimento), as Maria; and in Norma, given by royal command on 15 June. Her exceptionally rapturous reception among the London public was such that 1847 came to be referred to as the year of “the Lind fever.”32 This circumstance impinged not only on the reception of the operas in which she performed, but also of those in which she did not appear. It became usual among some of the critics to distinguish between the Lind nights and the off-Lind nights. For the first a tumult of people literally storming the doors of the theatre was easily predictable, while for the second a sadder, drearier atmosphere was rather to be expected in the opera-house: “The Lind-mania is a new phobia, and the rage is fiercer in consequence, like all fevers and plagues that appear for the first time.”33 At the beginning of July, while Jenny Lind was performing in La sonnambula in front of the Royal Couple, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert—the customary ovations being showered on her by the usual crowd—and I masnadieri was in preparation at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Ernani was produced at the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden, featuring Steffanoni in the part of Elvira and Lorenzo Salvi as Ernani. The critic of The Musical World, again, singled out a series of shortcomings and drew the readers’ attention to the discrepancy between the poor quality of the music and the furore created by the interpreters.

  • 34 The Musical World, July 10, 1847, p. 443.

The music of Ernani pleases us less than any opera we have heard from the pen of Verdi. None of the situations betray a glimpse of dramatic power. The finale to the first act requires but a little less musical depth, and a more thorough non-comprehension of orchestral effects, to render it quite contemptible. The unisons, are as lavishly made use of as usual in the composer’s score and Verdi’s poverty is as conspicuous in the music of Ernani, as in any opera of his we have heard. The same mawkishness, the same ultra-sentimentality, the same inanity of melody, or tune prevails throughout. We might, perhaps, allow some melodic merit to Elvira’s scena, “Ernani involami,” which has a Paciniish flavour in it, but further concession we could not conscientiously make. The performance of the opera from beginning to end was magnificent, and created an absolute furore.34

  • 35 The Musical World, July 24, 1847, p. 480.
  • 36 Illustrated London News, July 24, 1847, p. 58.

28On 20 July, Robert le diable was given again in Italian at Her Majesty’s Theatre in front of an overflowing audience which, according to The Musical World, “paid the Swedish Nightingale all the honours to which she has been accustomed since her visit to England.”35 Finally, two days later I masnadieri, the long promised and eagerly expected new opera by Verdi, was premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre, featuring Luigi Lablache as Massimiliano, Italo Gardoni as Carlo, Filippo Coletti as Francesco, Jenny Lind as Amalia, Leone Corelli as Arminio and Lucien Bouché as Moser. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert occupied the royal box and the opera-house was crammed to the ceiling. The work was pronounced a success at least in popular terms: “The opera was highly successful. The talented maestro, on appearing in the orchestra to conduct his clever work, was received with three rounds of applause. He was called before the curtain after the first and the third act, and at the conclusion of the opera amidst the most vehement applause.”36

Fig. 6. Jenny Lind (as Amalia) and Luigi Lablache (as Massimiliano) in scene VI from I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Fig. 6. Jenny Lind (as Amalia) and Luigi Lablache (as Massimiliano) in scene VI from I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

The Illustrated London News, 31 July 1847.

  • 37 The Times, July 23, 1847, p. 5.
  • 38 Ibid.

29The critic of The Times expressed himself in the usual terms, staking out a position that might be defined once again as “politically correct.” After a lengthy description of the plot and the musical parts of its four acts, a few short remarks were made as to the merits of the main vocalist, Jenny Lind, and the extent to which the opera was a success thanks to her. “The airs sung by Jenny Lind were the most successful in the work, and it is not too much to say that a great portion of their success was due to the fine vocalist.”37 This is despite the fact that Verdi, the critic held, had given no opportunities for individual display and had written more for the ensemble. However, strong signs of appreciation were bestowed by the audience on both the composer and the singer, who received many bouquets. Apart from a couple of observations concerning the extensive use of the choir and the way in which Verdi had illustrated the position of the robbers by a “rough style of music, generally in unison,”38 little or no attention was paid to his compositional achievements.

  • 39 Kitson, The Musical World, 1836–1865, I: xiv.

30On 24 July, the critic of The Musical World declined to express a judgment on the new opera and, while deferring his analysis, gave a detailed account of the ballet in its stead—Perrot’s Pas de Diesses featuring Fanny Cerrito, Marie Taglioni, Carolina Rosati and Carlotta Grisi. On 31 July, the same journal published a review of I masnadieri in which the critic joined the choir of those who, having praised the manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre for having secured so great a novelty for his establishment, pronounced the opera a failure in spite of the fact that the composer himself had superintended its preparation. The article at issue represents a interesting case in the history of The Musical World, for Davison, the editor of the journal, had failed to complete it. Desmond Ryan had to inform his readers that the fragment published had been left unfinished by the editor, who in the meantime had quit town without leaving direction for its completion. The fragment included a few critical remarks about the poor quality of the instrumental overture which, destitute as it was of musical form, was redeemed by the cellist Carlo Alfredo Piatti and his exquisite performance. A short narration of the plot followed, after which the article terminated abruptly. The analysis of the opera was to be deferred until the editor returned but even then, a proper criticism of I masnadieri was never published in the columns of The Musical World.39

31The critic of The Spectator, who reviewed I masnadieri on 24 July, assumed an overtly antagonistic position. Once one had in mind Verdi’s previous achievements, the quality of his new work (or lack thereof) could be easily anticipated, however successful it may have been among the public.

  • 40 The Spectator, July 24, 1847, p. 12.

It is Verdi all over; only, we are sorry to say, the tide of his genius has ebbed rather than flowed, and has not reached its high-water mark. His melodies are, to use the French phrase, even paler than usual—weaker in expression and dramatic colouring; while they are liable to the old reproach of triteness, sounding as things long since familiar. Like most of the airs of the modern Italian opera, they are cold, dry outlines; which depend; for richness, beauty, and warmth, entirely on the talents of the singer. The choruses, as in Verdi’s previous operas, are in unison. An occasional chorus so constructed may have a peculiar and a happy effect; but when we find every chorus so constructed, we must more than suspect a conscious incapacity to deal with great masses of choral harmony.40

  • 41 Ibid.

32Furthermore, the performers suffered from the infelicitous parts that the composer forced on their voices. Jenni Lind’s unrivalled ability to sing the language of feeling and passion was cramped by the music; Gardoni did his best, although his part was hopelessly cold. Lablache’s beautifully pathetic performance was wholly independent of the music; Coletti had to struggle with music which was “either entirely unmeaning or absolutely false in its expression.”41

33On 24 July, Chorley reviewed I masnadieri and provided his readers with the usual repertoire of complaints and grumbles. Lumley was to be praised for introducing to English audiences the most recent work of the most popular and fashionable Italian composer and, in doing so, exposing himself to the judgment of the English cognoscenti. Still, I masnadieri was Verdi’s worst opera: the libretto was gloomy and the music allotted to it could do nothing to improve it; the overture was reduced to a long passage for violoncello solo, while the vocal music exhibited the usual threadbare, hackneyed series of expressive solutions consisting of dotted figures, trills and syncopations. Against all that musical platitude and tameness, only Jenny Lind’s cadenzas were pronounced beautiful; that is to say, only those parts of the opera that had not been composed by Verdi were worth listening to. Even the choirs, generally considered Verdi’s forte, were strongly criticised for their frivolity and vulgarity. Moreover, the orchestra was almost always offensively noisy at the expense of the voices. Chorley concluded his review of I masnadieri by insisting that “the performance must be recorded as a failure of a work which richly deserved to fail—in spite of much noisy applause;” complete oblivion was what the opera deserved. A similar remark made its appearance in The Athenaeum on 28 August, when Chorley cast an eye on the past opera season at Her Majesty’s Theatre and drew a few conclusive remarks on its artistic merits. Chorley insisted on the failure of Verdi’s operas not only among the critics, but also among the general public. As we have seen, this was a dubious claim.

  • 42 The Athenaeum, August 28, 1847, p. 916.

One striking peculiarity in the season just over, common to both Operas, has been the absence of much novelty and the failure of the little attempted. Every effort has been made to force upon the public the music of Verdi, as the one composer sought for in Italy; where Pacini and Ricci, and even the more scientific Mercadante, now write without success. But the English will not have Verdi. Our tune-loving play-goers demand fresher and more flattering melodies than he has to bestow. Our severer dilettanti refuse to accept his noise for orchestral science—his unisons for choral writings—his outrageous modulations for discoveries.42

  • 43 The Athenaeum, August 14, 1847, p. 868.

34According to Chorley, the general public, always in search for what was tuneful and pleasantly melodious, had refused to accept the musical modernity forced upon them by the managers of both His Majesty’s Theatre and Covent Garden. No matter that this assertion stood in contradiction with what Chorley himself had repeatedly reported, together with his colleagues of The Times and The Musical World. Words such as success and ovation had been pronounced several times in the previous months when describing the reception of Verdi’s works among operagoers. A further note on the poor merits of Verdi, especially when compared with the old classics, made its appearance in The Athenaeum on 14 August, when Chorley reviewed a performance of Rossini’s La donna del lago at Covent Garden. Although the critic described it as a little more than a concert in costume, the second act being merely a pasticcio, still the interest of the work lay in “its being a series of lovely musical pieces—some fresh as Northern spring—some gorgeous as Italian autumn; almost entirely irrespective of any dramatic effect.”43 Contrary to Rossini, Verdi’s tunelessness and outrageous instrumentation, even although defended on the score of dramatic effect, were deemed intolerably ugly; in Chorley’s conservative opinion, beauty and melodiousness had to prevail over all those dramatic effects to which they were now continuously sacrificed. Even Rossini’s dramatic inconsistencies were to be preferred to Verdi’s sense of the drama, if the latter meant a complete lack of musical beauty.

35Benjamin Lumley recorded the premiere of I masnadieri as a failure, notwithstanding all his efforts.

  • 44 Lumley, Reminiscences, pp. 192–93.

The opera was given with every appearance of a triumphant success: the composer and all the singers receiving the highest honours [...] But yet the Masnadieri could not be considered a success [...] The interest which ought to have been centred in Mademoiselle Lind was centred in Gardoni; whilst Lablache, as the imprisoned father, had to do about the only thing he could not do to perfection—having to represent a man nearly starved to death.44

  • 45 Cesari and Luzio, I Copialettere, p. 461.

36Interestingly, according to Lumley the reason for the failure lay in the lack of vocal interest allotted to the singer who was supposed to shine most in the delivery of brilliant roulades, virtuoso passages and coloratura ornaments. Despite the enthusiastic expressions used by Emanuele Muzio in a letter written to Antonio Barezzi the day after the premiere, Verdi himself, when writing to Emilia Morosini on 30 July 1847, had to concede that “I masnadieri, senza aver fatto furore, hanno piaciuto.”45 The new opera, commissioned explicitly for Her Majesty’s Theatre, did not contribute to strengthen the composer’s position in front of the critics; Chorley’s verdict in this regard admits no doubt:

  • 46 The Athenaeum, July 24, 1847, also cited in Cox, Musical Recollections, 2: 195.

I Masnadieri turned out a miserable failure, as it deserved to do, since it could but, at all events, as was rightly said, increased Signor Verdi’s discredit with every one who had an ear, and was decidedly the worst opera that was ever given at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the music being in every respect inferior even to that of I due Foscari.46

37In sum, although it is not entirely true that the opera turned out to be a miserable failure (it was neither booed nor hissed), it is clear that it did not add to the fame of the composer. Nor did it add to the financial prosperity of Her Majesty’s Theatre. It ran a few nights and was soon shelved.

38By 1847, the severest critics still held that Verdi’s compositional skills were rudimentary and his melodies not even worth remembering. That said, his highly dramatic effects and concerted pieces were not entirely contemptible. The popular success he scored was undeniable but this resulted less from the quality of the music than from the talent of the interpreters. Only the critic of The Illustrated London News appeared to be entirely appreciative of Verdi, whose dramatic power he was ready to acknowledge.

Fig. 7. Jenny Lind (as Amalia), Italo Gardoni (as Carlo, to the left) and Luigi Lablache (as Massimilano, to the right) in the last scene of I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Fig. 7. Jenny Lind (as Amalia), Italo Gardoni (as Carlo, to the left) and Luigi Lablache (as Massimilano, to the right) in the last scene of I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

The Illustrated London News, 31 July 1847.

Notes

1 “The Rival Italian Opera,” The Spectator, September 19, 1846, p. 19. See also Lumley, Reminiscences, pp. 156–58.

2 Charles Osborne (ed.), Letter of Giuseppe Verdi (New York: Holt, 1971), pp. 33–39. See also Verdi, I copialettere, pp. 30–36.

3 Henry Scott Holland, William Smith Rockstro, Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt: Her Early Art-Life and Dramatic Career, 1820–1851 (London: J. Murray, 1891), I: 232–36, 290–99.

4 Budden, Verdi, I: 339–42.

5 Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer (Fairleigh: Dickinson University Press, 2006), p. 164.

6 Peter Mercer-Taylor (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 217.

7 The Times, April 12, 1847, p. 8.

8 Some of the articles that appeared in the columns of The Musical World that year bear the initials of Desmond Ryan, who had joined that journal in 1846. As mentioned before, in the meantime Davison had been appointed chief music critic of The Times.

9 The Athenaeum, April 17, 1847, p. 417.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 The Times, April 12, 1847, p. 8.

13 The Illustrated London News, April 17, 1847, p. 244.

14 The Musical World, April 17, 1847, p. 254.

15 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 180.

16 The Times, June 21, 1847, p. 5.

17 His identity is revealed by his initials, D. R. appearing at the end of the review.

18 “Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, June 26, 1847, p. 411.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 The Athenaeum, June 26, 1847, p. 682.

24 The Illustrated London News, June 26, 1847, p. 413.

25 The Musical World, July 3, 1847, p. 430.

26 Ibid., p. 432.

27 The Athenaeum, July 10, 1847, p. 737.

28 Hermann Klein, The Golden Age of Opera (London: Routledge, 1933, reprinted by Boston: Da Capo Press, 1979), xxi.

29 Nathaniel Parker Willis, Memoranda of the Life of Jenny Lind (Philadelphia: Peterson, 1851), pp. 34–54.

30 Ibid., p. 42.

31 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 185.

32 Cox, Musical recollections, 2: 195.

33 The Musical World, July 3, 1847, p. 430. A similar comment on the madness accompanying Jenny Lind’s debut can be found in John Desmond Cox’s Musical Recollections. Unlikely other contemporary commentators, Cox confessed to have been greatly disappointed by the Swedish prima donna, who “invariably sang somewhat sharp.” John Edmund Cox, Musical Recollections of the Last Half-Century (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1872), 1: 194.

34 The Musical World, July 10, 1847, p. 443.

35 The Musical World, July 24, 1847, p. 480.

36 Illustrated London News, July 24, 1847, p. 58.

37 The Times, July 23, 1847, p. 5.

38 Ibid.

39 Kitson, The Musical World, 1836–1865, I: xiv.

40 The Spectator, July 24, 1847, p. 12.

41 Ibid.

42 The Athenaeum, August 28, 1847, p. 916.

43 The Athenaeum, August 14, 1847, p. 868.

44 Lumley, Reminiscences, pp. 192–93.

45 Cesari and Luzio, I Copialettere, p. 461.

46 The Athenaeum, July 24, 1847, also cited in Cox, Musical Recollections, 2: 195.

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 5. Scene from I due Foscari at the Royal Italian Opera.
Credits The Illustrated London News, 26 June 1847.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/3116/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 216k
Title Fig. 6. Jenny Lind (as Amalia) and Luigi Lablache (as Massimiliano) in scene VI from I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Credits The Illustrated London News, 31 July 1847.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/3116/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 244k
Title Fig. 7. Jenny Lind (as Amalia), Italo Gardoni (as Carlo, to the left) and Luigi Lablache (as Massimilano, to the right) in the last scene of I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Credits The Illustrated London News, 31 July 1847.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/3116/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 248k

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