Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

5. Attila (1848)

Texte intégral

1In the early months of 1848, both London operatic establishments announced seasons full of attractions and presented lists of prominent artists—further evidence of the entrepreneurial attitude underpinning their managers’ choices. Benjamin Lumley continued to lead Her Majesty’s Theatre, while Edward Delafield and Frederick Gye took over the management of Covent Garden. On either side stars of international reputation were put forward—some already belonging to the London firmament, some completely new—in repeated attempts to whet the public’s appetite.

  • 1 The Athenaeum, January 29, 1848, p. 119.
  • 2 The Athenaeum, February 12, 1848, p. 169.
  • 3 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 206.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 204.
  • 5 The Athenaeum, February 12, 1848, p. 169.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 216.

2In January, the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden announced that the sopranos Angiolina Zoja, from La Scala, and Pauline Garcia Viardot had been secured, in addition to the already well known Giulia Grisi, Giorgio Ronconi, Fanny Persiani, Anaide Castellan etc.1 In February, the management of Her Majesty’s Theatre confirmed the presence of Jenny Lind and announced that the admired soprano Sophie Cruvelli had also been recruited.2 As Lumley put it, the presence of Jenny Lind “was a tower of strength to the management, since her triumph of the previous year seemed to afford a warrant to her success in the future.”3 But the need for novel attractions to raise expectations and sales was also compelling. Lumley had the chance to hear the young and admired soprano Sophie Cruvelli in Rovigo (Italy), during his usual late autumn scouting tour on the continent in 1847; Cruvelli, then featuring as Odabella in Verdi’s Attila, was comparatively unknown in London, but her reputation was already growing in Italy. As Lumley reports, “overtures were immediately made to her for an engagement for the ensuing season in London.”4 Together with Cruvelli, Lumley had secured a number of prominent artists such as Luisa Abbadia, described as “a Soprano of great reputation from La Scala and other great Theatres of Italy [...] Madlle. Schwartz the eminent Contralto, and established favourite of the Imperial Opera at Vienna [...] Madame Erminia Tadolini of La Scala, Milan; the Carinthia, Vienna; and other great Theatres [...] Signor Cuzzani from La Scala and other great Theatres of Italy [...] Signor Labocetta of the principal theatres of Italy and of the Italian Opera at Berlin [...] Signor Belletti, the admired Baritone, from the Opera la Pergola, at Florence.”5 The promise of a true parade of vocal champions was made to the public. As far as Jenny Lind was concerned, a brilliant success was easily predictable; as the manager reported, upon her arrival in England on 21 April “all London again took up its excitement at same point of ‘fever-heat’ where it had stood at her departure the previous year.”6 On her first appearance on 4 May she fascinated her “enraptured admirers” in the part of Amina in La sonnambula. Again enthusiastic crowds stormed the doors of the theatre, again dresses were torn and hats flung in the air, again the reception was tumultuous, boundless enthusiasm and rapturous acclamations prevailing among the overexcited public. Similar triumphs were chronicled for the subsequent operas in which the Swedish Nightingale made her appearance, her renditions of La fille du régiment (given in Italian as La figlia del reggimento), Lucia di Lammermoor, Elisir d’Amore, Robert le diable (again given in Italian) being recorded in the same terms. Despite the overwhelming presence of Jenny Lind, Erminia Tadolini, the other prima donna, also made a favourable debut in Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix and Don Pasquale, where her Norina was much applauded. Still, in the London operatic firmament there was limited room for stars and, despite her talent, Tadolini had to settle for a moderate success.

  • 7 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 211.
  • 8 Ibid., pp. 204–14. Lumley’s account is inconsistent: he refers first to Rovigo and then to Padua.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 214.

3In the battle against the competing operatic establishment at Covent Garden, Lumley was deploying those musical champions most likely to appeal to the largest public; if Jenny Lind was to lead a troop of singers of international prominence, Giuseppe Verdi was undoubtedly another asset, as the most discussed composer of the moment. Lumley pronounced himself “eager for the fray” and ready to take his position “before the forces of the rival establishment were mustered.”7 As we have seen, Lumley had the chance to attend Verdi’s Attila in Rovigo in the late autumn of 1847, the opera featuring the young German soprano Sophie Cruvelli, whose rising talent enchanted the manager.8 The reasons why Lumley took Attila into consideration are easily recounted: “None, perhaps, of Verdi’s works had kindled more enthusiasm in Italy, or crowned the fortunate composer with more abundant laurels than his Attila. Its fame was great in the native land of the composer.”9 In his catering for novelty Lumley had immediately focused on one of Verdi’s most popular operas in Italy at that time, and decided to produce it at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the hope that it would add to the lustre and splendour of his operatic establishment. Attila was meant to become the chief attraction of the ante-Easter opera season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and was premiered on 14 March 1848, with much attention paid to every detail so as to produce it with “great scenic splendour.” However, as Lumley reports, the opera was a fiasco.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 215.

But although Verdi had already commenced to make his way to English favour—and this by means of that vigour and dramatic fire which unquestionably belonged to him—the public displayed an unwonted unanimity of sulkiness upon the production of Attila. They would have “none of it.” Consequently Attila proved a failure. Music and libretto displeased alike.10

  • 11 Roger Parker, Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati (Parma: Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani, 1997), p. 2 (...)
  • 12 Giuseppe Verdi, Lettere, ed. Eduardo Rescigno (Turin: Einaudi, 2012), p. 195. Verdi refers to Domen (...)
  • 13 Verdi, Lettere, p. 199. See also Philip Gossett, “Becoming a Citizen: The Chorus in ‘Risorgimento’ (...)
  • 14 Massimo Mila, L’arte di Verdi (Turin: Einaudi, 1980), p. 305.
  • 15 Verdi, Lettere, p. 116.
  • 16 Ibid., 127.

4It is possible to argue that Lumley was not in a position to either sense or understand those non-musical reasons which lay behind the success of Attila in Italy and could not be reproduced in London. In fact, although it would be impossible to demonstrate a direct relationship between Verdi’s music and the political unrest that characterised the Italian Risorgimento, “it would be draconian to attempt to deny completely the existence of a relationship between Verdi’s music and the political tenor of the times.”11 The issue has been investigated at length and involves at least three aspects. The first relates to Verdi’s commitment to the cause of Italian unification and the extent to which this can be found reflected in his compositional work; the second refers to the potentially subversive content of the libretto; the third involves the manner in which operagoers may or may not have appropriated the political metaphor the lyrics conveyed. In 1848, Verdi expressed his patriotic enthusiasm on many an occasion, as the letters sent to Francesco Maria Piave, Giuseppina Appiani and Giuseppe Mazzini after the Milan revolution testify. Having written to Piave on 21 April to express his patriotic zeal, he wrote to him again from Paris on 22 July, where he had eventually returned, proposing a patriotic opera: “The subject should be Italian and free and, should you fail to find anything better, I would suggest Ferruccio, a grand character, one of the great martyrs of Italian liberty.”12 Later on he sent Mazzini, whom he had met in 1847, the music set to a patriotic hymn by Goffredo Mameli which, he suggested, would serve the Italian cause as well as the cannons deployed in the battle field: “may this hymn soon be sung, along with the music of the cannon, in the Lombard plains.”13 However, although Verdi’s republican orientation has been established beyond doubt,14 the extent to which his political commitment translates into his compositional work appears problematic, to say the least. As far as Attila is concerned, the information we can glean from the letters written to Francesco Maria Piave in 1845 suggest that Verdi was rather more concerned about the dramatic power of the characters than any political metaphor they might embody. On 12 April, he urged the librettist to study Zacharias Werner’s original text in order to get a sense of its dramatic quality; among other characters he mentioned the fierce and vindictive Ildegonda (Odabella in the final version), whose only purpose seems to consist in avenging her father, brothers and lover.15 Returning to the same subject on 17 November, the composer exhorted Piave to think of Odabella as a woman undecided between her patriotic feeling, her filial affection and her love for Foresto. Upon concluding the letter he referred to what would become the final quartet and urged the librettist to focus on “Passion, whatever passion, but passion!”16

  • 17 In this regard see also Douglas L. Ipson, “Attila takes Rome: The Reception of Verdi’s Opera on the (...)
  • 18 Peter Stamatov, “Interpretive Activism and the Political Uses of Verdi’s Operas in the 1840s,” Amer (...)
  • 19 John A. Davis, “Opera and Absolutism in Restoration Italy, 1815–1860,” The Journal of Interdiscipli (...)
  • 20 Orazio Mula, Giuseppe Verdi (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1999), pp. 86–90.
  • 21 Verdi, Tutti i libretti d’opera (Rome: Newton Compton, 2009), p. 193.
  • 22 See also Giuliano Procacci, “Verdi nella storia d’Italia,” in Verdi 2001, Atti del Convegno Interna (...)

5Granting that the evidence discussed so far should discourage any attempt to understand the subject of Attila as a political metaphor, the relationship between Verdi’s operas and the political tenor of the time is still an issue.17 In fact, despite the intervention of the censors, the libretto of Attila includes passages that any contemporary Italian opera goer would have easily understood as an allusion to his own struggle against the foreign invader, regardless of the composer’s true intentions. The conflictual dynamics between two antagonistic characters and the subsequent deployment of two rival forces on stage—the first struggling for freedom and independence, the second trying to deprive the first of both—could result in a symbolic, politically-oriented reinterpretation of those dynamics. A diffuse sense of patriotism prompted Italian operagoers to understand the fictional conflict represented in the scene as the symbolic illustration of their own struggle against the foreign oppressor.18 While Attila, the barbarian of the fifth century, could easily personify the conqueror of Italy in a moment when the country was still to a large extent under the military and political control of Austria and Spain, Odabella, the avenger, could equally be understood as the embodiment of that filial loyalty and family virtue deemed necessary for the fight against enslavement and captivity. This, in a context in which different manifestations of discontent with the Restoration regime would soon lead to a series of riots and revolutions destined to shake the regimes in all Italian states.19 In the late 1840s, Italian operagoers were more than happy to pick up—or even make up—any political allusion in the libretto, and seize every opportunity that was presented to them to burst into enthusiastic expressions of patriotism, independent of the true intention of either the librettist or the composer.20 A case in point is offered by the third scene of Attila’s Prologo, when Dorabella, questioned by the victorious conqueror, challenges him by expressing her strong patriotic feelings (“Santo di patria indefinito amor” [Holy boundless patriotic love]), and steps forward as the leader of a bunch of women warriors who prefer to engage in battle with the enemy than accept defeat (“Ma noi, noi donne italiche / cinte di ferro il seno / sul fumido terreno / sempre vedrai pugnar” [But you will always see us, Italian women, fight on the foggy ground wearing the iron armour]).21 Expressions of patriotic feelings such as this one, in combination with the discontent described above, made some of Verdi’s operas catalysts for strong patriotic as well as nationalistic reactions, whatever the composer’s intention and independent of the intrinsic quality of the music.22

  • 23 Pallade, January 29, 1849, [n.p.].

6The manner in which an opera could assume an overt political function is well suggested by La battaglia di Legnano, the only opera Verdi composed to serve the cause of Italian Risorgimento. Written as a commission from the Teatro Argentina in Rome, its successful premiere on 27 January 1849 was accompanied by explicit references to the patriotic feelings that it had ignited among the Roman public. Its enthusiastic reception can be regarded as the culmination of a series of ascending patriotic demonstrations, in a historical moment when the whole country was struggling for independence. On 29 January, the Roman daily journal Pallade suggested that Italy, until then indulging in the gentle melodies of the Lombard genius, had now an opportunity to draw from the severity and robustness of this last patriotic work the ardent spark that would rouse and spread national ardour.23 Similar remarks appeared in the same journal a day later, referring to the italianissimo valore of the composer, whose talent in combining patriotic feelings and a deep religious sense had been so much appreciated. Nonetheless, no sooner did the political situation turn against the Italians, than the enthusiasm raised by the opera waned and La battaglia di Legnano was soon put aside.

  • 24 The Times, March 15, 1848, p. 8.

7Lumley did not seem to be aware of these circumstances; nor did those London critics whose reviews of Attila made their appearance in 1848. The critic of The Times, having narrated the plot, called attention to countless shortcomings in the music; Attila appeared to be marked by the same faults as Verdi’s former works, without having any of the merits that had made his reputation. The subject, dealing with the violent career of the barbarian conqueror, offered a good number of strong dramatic situations that Verdi had failed to seize. The few effects in the music resulted from an incessant increase in volume, the composer constantly relying upon the unison and showing no skills in the use of counterpoint. His many choruses were less convincing than those in Nabucco or even in I masnadieri. As for the arias and the treatment of the voice, the usual complaints were put forth; the former were commonplace while the latter strained the singer to the utmost.24 In short, all applause went to the interpreters, while the music exhibited the usual number of weaknesses and shortcomings.

Fig. 8. Scene from Attila at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.

Fig. 8. Scene from Attila at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.

The Illustrated London News, 15 April 1848.

8The critic of The Musical World uttered words of the usual unfriendly, unpleasant, openly hostile quality, and concluded his lengthy account by highlighting the only cause of relief in the entire opera: its brevity.

  • 25 The Musical World, March 18, 1848, p. 179.

Attila has one merit, which we have found in no other of Verdi’s operas; it is short—not sweet, certainly, but short—and that is much when Verdi is at work upon our ears. [...] To sum up, however, which we shall do in a few words:—Attila is the worst of all the operas by Verdi that, up to this moment, have been inflicted upon the English public. It is unnecessary to add any thing to this. Reader! Imagine every possible fault in musical composition, and the absence of every possible merit—of beauty, grandeur, simplicity or eleaveness [sic]—and you have Attila.25

  • 26 Ibid.

9Sophie Cruvelli, Italo Gardoni, Giovanni Belletti and Luigi Cuzzani were applauded vehemently and recalled after the curtain fell; Michael Balfe, the conductor, did particularly well with the entire band; Marshall’s most admirably-executed scenic effects were of great impact; and, finally, a deep sign of appreciation was bestowed upon Lumley, the spirited director, for producing the opera with such rich a profusion of means. As for the music, the critic hinted at a now well-known repertoire of faults and shortcomings. The orchestration was noisy, the vocal passages were of an unvocal nature, the arias and cabalettas were commonplace, the duets had neither character nor charm, the Finale of Act I consisted of a quantity of “unconnected remplissage, wherein the orchestra commenced sundry figures which were never perfected into a phrase.”26

10Again, the merits of the performers, with their vocal and dramatic skills, greatly outweighed those of the composer. Verdi’s lack of melodiousness and vocal inventiveness, together with his overzealous care for any type of noisy orchestral effect, resulted in a detrimental impact on the listeners and the critics alike. A note of sorrow was also occasionally addressed to the performers, more and more frequently confronted with Verdi’s increasingly overwhelming vocal writing: extreme and awkward melodic contrivances sustained by an exceedingly thunderous orchestration.

11The Illustrated London News pointed out that Attila resulted from the mixture of positive and negative ingredients now considered most typical of Verdi.

  • 27 The Illustrated London News, March 18, 1848, p. 185.

The work itself possesses the beauties and defects peculiar to Verdi—a certain grandeur of conception and power of dramatic effect is even more striking here than in many other of the maestro’s compositions. There is a warmth, spirit, and energy in the music which carries away the listener, which excites and inspires; at the same time there is a want of softness and repose which is, in this opera, more than usually perceptible. The too frequent use of the drums and the brass instruments is the great fault we have to find in this work.27

12The critic returned to the topic in a later issue of the journal when, upon repeated hearings of the opera, he was in a better position to judge it. Furthermore, he addressed the situation of singers now being called upon to master two distinct vocal styles, the lyrical and the dramatic.

  • 28 The Illustrated London News, April 8, 1848, p. 238.

The grandeur of style of this composer is peculiarly suited to the wild, barbarous, highly dramatic character of the subject he has chosen; while its chief interpreters, above all Belletti and Cruvelli, so admirably adapted to their respective parts, give to its performance the utmost effect of which it is capable. Belletti’s Attila displays the powers of this great artist as a tragedian more fully than any other opera in which we have seen him; and his performance in this and in the Barbiere shows him to be possessed of great powers in the most opposite styles of lyrical and dramatic art.28

  • 29 The Athenaeum, March 18, 1848, p. 300.
  • 30 Ibid.
  • 31 The Athenaeum, February 26, 1848, p. 226.

13The Athenaeum introduced the newly produced work to its readers by claiming that “it would be difficult to fancy a worse opera even from Verdi.” “May we never hear its like again!”29 was the critic’s wish. While the plot was quickly summed up, the music was described as noisy to an outrageous degree; the only portion deserving praise was a symphony descriptive of storm and daybreak in the sixth scene of the Prologue. “In some of the concerted music, too, there is a certain grandeur of climax,” the critic maintained, “but the melodies are old and unlovely to a degree which is almost impertinent.”30 The performance was pronounced good rather than excellent, the interpreters being in general not devoid of merit, regardless of the manner in which their vocal skills were strained to the extreme. Chorley confirmed his hostility to Verdi and pronounced his most recent opera outrageous. To our surprise he had expressed himself in more lenient terms when, not long before, Ernani had been revived to open the ante-Easter opera season at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 19 February. “Ernani” he wrote on that occasion, “is the new master’s best opera—the one which we are most willing to receive in turn with the works of other composers.”31 Chorley was not changing his mind, nor was he now more inclined to acknowledge Verdi as a composer worthy of his attention. The critic was simply willing to include Ernani among the regular operatic repertoire than he had been before. But while Ernani could appear side by side with the palmy operas from the past, Attila was a confirmation of Verdi’s limited talent.

  • 32 The Spectator, March 18, 1848, p. 16.

14When called upon to review Attila, the critic of The Spectator joined the choir and expressed himself in terms of scorn and disappointment: “The music is in Verdi’s usual manner. His melodies, that is to say, are generally trite, though flowing and sometimes expressive; his choral effects are chiefly produced by masses of unisonous sound; and his instrumentation, on the whole noisy and inartificial, has occasional gleams of grace and delicacy.”32 The critic had words of unreserved appreciation only for the singers and the beautiful scenery.

  • 33 The Musical World, March 25, 1848, p. 198.

15Attila was withdrawn after a few performances but, notwithstanding the ill-favour with which it was received, Benjamin Lumley declared that he had to fall back on Verdi regardless. Therefore, I due Foscari was revived on 21 March and Nino on 25 March. This could do nothing to mitigate the critics’ hostility. According to The Musical World, closer familiarity with Attila could do nothing to improve its critic’s judgment, and a further performance of I due Foscari, even though admirable in many ways, “would fail to create any interest for such vapid music as that of Verdi.”33 If one week before the critic had thought Attila the feeblest opera he ever attended, now I due Foscari was said to usurp its place.

  • 34 The Athenaeum, March 25, 1848, p. 322.

16The Athenaeum reviewed I due Foscari in the usual manner, the much applauded singers valued for the dramatic acting and declamatory singing now so typical of the so-called new school. Sophie Cruvelli’s Lucrezia was said to be “triumphing throughout the opera with the violence of a virago rather than picturing the sorrow of an afflicted noble lady.”34 Chorley continued to long for that vocal delicacy and gentle expression in which he delighted when attending the operas of the past. Now lungs of brass were necessary to sustain the endless screaming required to interpret the modern repertoire, a circumstance that—he claimed—forced operagoers to use cotton pads to protect their ears.

  • 35 The Times, March 27, 1848, p. 5.
  • 36 The Musical World, April 1, 1848, p. 211.

17On 27 March, The Times reviewed Nino and pronounced Coletti’s declamatory singing admirable in his rendition of the Assyrian monarch. However, Luisa Abbadia, who made her debut as Abigail, was pronounced “by no means equal to the expectation that had been formed respecting her.”35 Her faults of intonation and other general defects in the execution of her principal aria had occasioned manifest expressions of disappointment among the public. A similar remark on the way in which Abbadia had failed to meet the public’s expectations made its appearance on 1 April in The Musical World. But, the critic continued, the poor condition of Abbadia’s voice, once so stunning, inspired in him “rather a feeling of compassion than of contempt.”36 It was Verdi who should be blamed for her condition. Abbadia, once bestowed with a splendid voice, had to endure the strains forced upon her by a composer whose preference for thunderous effects resulted in devastating consequences for the singers and inflicted endless pain upon the listeners. She had to immolate her voice on the altar of “the new school.” Sophie Cruvelli was pronounced the next victim.

  • 37 Ibid.

With all our detestation for the so-called music of Verdi, we never commended him and all his operas to the devil with more hearty good will. “This,” we inwardly ejaculated,” is thy work—thou frothy, impudent nonentity! How many more fresh and beautiful voices wilt thou break upon the wheel of bombast, and utterly annihilate by screaming. Thy next victim, perchance, will be the comely Cruvelli, whose youth is now a shield, and whose stamina will yet resist thy shocking onslaughts; but who cannot long endure if she persist in shouting thy hideous and abominable ravings! Heaven protect her! It would be a good thing were she to fall sick, and be confined to her couch for three years and a day, at the end of which thou wilt have been scouted from the opera boards, thou musty and monotonous mouther! Begone, and afflict us no more with thy plague of screaming. Thou shalt not kill the beautiful; Cruvelli; thou shalt not reduce her to a wreck, and annihilate her with a chronic hoarseness, thou son of a bombshell, as thou hast done with the unfortunate and forlorn Abbadia.37

  • 38 The Athenaeum, April 1, 1848, p. 344.

18Verdi was the real sinner, the poor singer being just a victim. Chorley was of the same opinion. Reviewing Nino from the columns of The Athenaeum on 1 April 1848, he referred to Abbadia as an interpreter once appreciated for vocal powers that were no longer to be heard. Of Verdi, Chorley reiterated the well-known refrain that “the faster his operas are produced the sooner will the noise thereof come to an end.”38

  • 39 It is difficult to determine the true identity of J. de Clerville. A Jules de Clerville appears as (...)

19But in 1848 an unprecedented episode occurred in the London press, strongly suggestive of the extent to which the general public disagreed with the critics. On 29 April, referring to the antagonism between Verdi’s supporters and detractors, a reader of The Musical World, J. De Clerville,39 defended the Italian composer and the school of which he was said to be the most acclaimed representative from the “repeated maledictions” that appeared in the journal’s columns. De Clerville could not subscribe to the expressions of severe censure repeatedly promulgated by the editor of that journal, and in future he would expect more lenient tones with respect to a composer who was also the founder of a new school. Had Verdi failed to satisfy the general expectation of both the public and the critics, he would have at least shown the path along which others might succeed after him. De Clerville also articulated a noteworthy analysis concerning the way in which Verdi’s preference for strong effects and dramatic power contrasted with the bias towards elegant vocalisation that was already perceived as old, surpassed and devoid of expressive strength.

  • 40 J. De Clerville, “Verdi and the Two Operas,” The Musical World, April 29, 1848, p. 276.

In my opinion, the tone of operatic music had already begun to show evident symptoms of decrepitude, and was degenerating from the florid to the mawkish and insipid: a more vigorous and healthy tone was desirable to give it due vitality; and if Verdi has done no better service, he has caused a reaction in this respect, and infused spirit and energy into serious dramatic music.40

  • 41 Ibid.

20De Clerville warned modern critics not to indulge in those technical sophisms that were so dear to those who had first reviewed the operas of Rossini. Rossini “was coldly welcomed at first, not by the public, but by the critics, as one who departed from received traditions,”41 and such terms as plagiarist, ignorant, innovator, quack, empiric, etc. which conservative critics had once applied to the Pesarese were now as profusely bestowed upon poor Verdi. De Clerville also pointed out that the mechanisms which lay behind the operatic system in Italy demanded continuous musical as well as dramatic novelty; in fact, theatres in Italy remained open almost throughout the year, and operagoers of diverse social status attended assiduously.

21Once he had demonstrated that ample justification for Verdi’s innovative orientations was provided by the difficult state in which operatic music lay, the writer then posited that London’s two operatic establishments—Her Majesty’s Theatre and Covent Garden—were now functioning in complementary fashion, providing their public with operas that reflected two different and opposite attitudes.

  • 42 Ibid.

The Covent Garden people are the Conservatives of Music—they almost eschew the productions of the modern Italian school, and have principally directed their attention to the getting-up of operas already known, on a scale of perfection hitherto unattempted. [...] Her Majesty’s Theatre, on the contrary, with a few rare exceptions, has turned its attention to the production of modern Italian operas, and in my opinion has thereby gained two objects most desirable in a lyrical establishment: viz. the production of novelty, and the consequent removal of one cause of complaint amongst the subscribers; and a saving of expenditure, in adopting a totally different line of conduct, by which all comparison with its rival is avoided or warded off—a comparison which it would have been impossible to sustain, considering the present state of the musical market.42

22Even more interestingly, De Clerville called attention to an issue of extreme significance concerning not only the degree of novelty attained by the composers belonging to the so-called new Italian school, but also the remarkable change in vocal technique that had accompanied it. According to De Clerville, the split between London opera houses in 1846 forced Lumley to recruit his principal singers from interpreters ill at ease with the traditional repertoire; as a consequence, he had to turn his attention towards composers whose music was more suitable to the qualities of the interpreters. Thus, it was the artists recruited by Lumley “with wonderful energy and spirit” who had brought with them their own repertoire—consisting of Verdi, Pacini and Mercadante—and not the other way around.

  • 43 Ibid.

Most of the new importations were entirely unknown in Paris and London; and Paisiello, Cimarosa, Mozart, Rossini, were to them a sealed book: they may have heard of such composers, but could not exactly swear as to the age in which they flourished [...] The school of singing was entirely changed; the elegant, serene simplicity of Mozart was to them a dead letter, the charming vocalisation of Rossini beyond their means, an appoggiatura, a cadenza, a mordente, were discarded as superfluous; delicacy and refinement were abandoned for vigour and energy.43

  • 44 Ibid.

23The picture drawn by De Clerville appears controversial, for Verdi’s Ernani was premièred in London in 1845, one year before the split, and early negotiations between the composer and the manager date back to the same year, when Lumley presumably paid a first visit to Verdi to offer him a commission for the summer of 1846. As we have seen, these negotiations were unsuccessful until Verdi decided to compose I masnadieri. Furthermore, some of the conditions regarding the interpreters were dictated by Verdi himself, a case in point being that of Jenny Lind and Gaetano Fraschini, the interpreters of I masnadieri. Nor could it be alleged that all the singers who had made appearances in Verdi’s new operas had no familiarity with the earlier repertoire. However, the writer suggested, and rightly so, that a change had taken place concerning the development of vocal technique in relation to the renewal of the repertoire. This change was not a degradation caused by a new generation of untalented composers, but the response to a need for novelty, resulting in a new style of singing and dramatic acting. The issue deserves further scrutiny: was it the repertoire that demanded a new vocal technique or the new, wider expressive potential presented by the singers that stimulated a new compositional orientation? De Clerville’s letter was followed by a note in which the Editor reiterated his arguments and insisted on his opinion that “Verdi was the greatest impostor that ever took pen in hand to write rubbish.”44

  • 45 Ibid., pp. 289-91.
  • 46 “Verdi and the Two Operas,” The Musical World, May 6, 1848, pp. 289–91.

24One week later, on 6 May 1848, an extensive reply to De Clerville’s letter appeared in the columns of The Musical World, signed by Desmond Ryan, whom the editor had allowed to answer in his stead. Ryan seems particularly interested in the reasons why Lumley turned his attention towards Verdi: “I conscientiously believe,” he wrote, “that Mr. Lumley prefers one aria of Rossini to all that Verdi ever fabricated: but having singers in his establishment who would shine more in Verdi than Rossini, he very wisely provided that music in which their talents would be displayed to the greatest advantage. The same feeling actuated the directors of the rival house.”45 It was not Lumley’s confidence in the composer’s musical value that had led him to produce Verdi’s works in his lyrical establishment, Ryan wants us to believe, but rather the attractiveness of the singers who had recently achieved fame thanks to his operas. In that, at least, Ryan’s and De Clerville’s positions seem to converge, for both misjudged the interest that Lumley had taken in Verdi. However, Ryan insisted, and rightly so, that it was not possible to agree with De Clerville that such high names as Gardoni, Jenny Lind, Cruvelli, etc., had no familiarity with the music of Paisiello, Cimarosa, Mozart or even Rossini. About Verdi, Ryan was categorical: “It is little less than musical blasphemy to bring the names of Rossini and Verdi into juxtaposition.”46 While fertility of imagination, fecundity of thought, novelty of conception, originality of treatment in his ideas and brilliancy in the instrumentation were the talents recognised in Rossini’s operas, nothing of that kind could be found in any of Verdi’s operatic achievements. Nothing, apparently, could change the critic’s mind. Neither the De Clerville nor Ryan seemed to be able to understand Lumley’s straightforward managerial strategy, which consisted in the continuous, strenuous effort to appeal to the public by means of any new vocal attraction as well as any compositional novelty from the continent. However, while De Clerville acknowledged the merits of both a new generation of singers and a young composer, the critic of The Musical World refused to admit that Verdi possessed any musical talent.

  • 47 The Times, August 7, 1848, p. 8.

25Finally, the opera season came to its end and some concluding remarks made their appearance in The Times and The Athenaeum. The critic of The Times pronounced the season prosperous, notwithstanding many artistic difficulties; the reappearance of Jenny Lind was marked by the same enthusiasm that had been recorded the previous year, the two new characters she had interpreted having “displayed her talents so favourably that they may be ranked with her best parts of last year.”47 Similarly positive remarks were made with respect to the other novelties brought forward by Lumley; Giovanni Belletti, Filippo Coletti and Sophie Cruvelli were considered to have added to the splendour of that operatic establishment. Attila, however, did not raise its composer in public esteem.

  • 48 Ibid.

His Nino and Ernani have gained a permanent place in the musical repertoire of this country, but Verdi does not advance as his compositions increase in number. He lacks melody to allure the ordinary hearer, and science to satisfy the technical judge. In the outline of his conceptions there is something grand and dramatic, but his works are all made after the same model, and what surprises at first loses in effect by repetition.48

26Despite the milder tones, the critic performed the usual fault-finding and hinted at two frequently abused lines of argument: lack of melodiousness and insufficient musical competence, i.e. in counterpoint.

  • 49 The Athenaeum, August 26, 1848, p. 861.
  • 50 Ibid.
  • 51 Chorley, Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections, 2: 27.

27For his part, in reviewing the past opera season, the critic of The Athenaeum showed no leniency. Neither Attila nor the interpreters who had made their appearance during the season at Her Majesty’s Theatre were addressed in positive terms. The opera was devoid of any merit, while the singers, with only the exception of Belletti, were pronounced a failure.49 To some surprise, Jenny Lind was also deemed a semi-failure. Chorley argued that the three new roles she had interpreted, Adina in L’Elisir, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor and Elvira in I puritani, neither added to her fame, nor improved the critic’s judgment. He described her as a “songstress of consummate talent, and an actress who knows how to charm within a limited range, equalled in vocal accomplishments and surpassed in dramatic skill by more than one of her contemporaries.”50 Chorley concluded his account of the 1848 opera season at Her Majesty’s Theatre in terms more apocalyptic than encouraging: “The year, in brief, in spite of every outward sign of honour and glory, was felt to be virtually one announcing decomposition and embarrassment.”51

28With the performance of Attila at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the positions established by different critics over the previous few years were generally confirmed. The journalist of The Illustrated London News was the only one who expressed himself in favourable terms.


1 The Athenaeum, January 29, 1848, p. 119.

2 The Athenaeum, February 12, 1848, p. 169.

3 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 206.

4 Ibid., p. 204.

5 The Athenaeum, February 12, 1848, p. 169.

6 Ibid., p. 216.

7 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 211.

8 Ibid., pp. 204–14. Lumley’s account is inconsistent: he refers first to Rovigo and then to Padua.

9 Ibid., p. 214.

10 Ibid., p. 215.

11 Roger Parker, Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati (Parma: Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani, 1997), p. 29.

12 Giuseppe Verdi, Lettere, ed. Eduardo Rescigno (Turin: Einaudi, 2012), p. 195. Verdi refers to Domenico Guerrazzi’s L’assedio di Firenze (1836), which had scored an immense popular success.

13 Verdi, Lettere, p. 199. See also Philip Gossett, “Becoming a Citizen: The Chorus in ‘Risorgimento’ Opera,” Cambridge Opera Journal 2/1 (1990): 41–64.

14 Massimo Mila, L’arte di Verdi (Turin: Einaudi, 1980), p. 305.

15 Verdi, Lettere, p. 116.

16 Ibid., 127.

17 In this regard see also Douglas L. Ipson, “Attila takes Rome: The Reception of Verdi’s Opera on the Eve of Revolution,” Cambridge Opera Journal 21/3 (2009): 249–56.

18 Peter Stamatov, “Interpretive Activism and the Political Uses of Verdi’s Operas in the 1840s,” American Sociological Review 67/3 (2002): 345–66.

19 John A. Davis, “Opera and Absolutism in Restoration Italy, 1815–1860,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36/4, Opera and Society: Part II (2006): 569–94.

20 Orazio Mula, Giuseppe Verdi (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1999), pp. 86–90.

21 Verdi, Tutti i libretti d’opera (Rome: Newton Compton, 2009), p. 193.

22 See also Giuliano Procacci, “Verdi nella storia d’Italia,” in Verdi 2001, Atti del Convegno Internazionale, ed. Fabrizio della Seta, Roberta Montemorra Marvin and Marco Marica (Florence: Olschki Editore, 2003), pp. 191–204.

23 Pallade, January 29, 1849, [n.p.].

24 The Times, March 15, 1848, p. 8.

25 The Musical World, March 18, 1848, p. 179.

26 Ibid.

27 The Illustrated London News, March 18, 1848, p. 185.

28 The Illustrated London News, April 8, 1848, p. 238.

29 The Athenaeum, March 18, 1848, p. 300.

30 Ibid.

31 The Athenaeum, February 26, 1848, p. 226.

32 The Spectator, March 18, 1848, p. 16.

33 The Musical World, March 25, 1848, p. 198.

34 The Athenaeum, March 25, 1848, p. 322.

35 The Times, March 27, 1848, p. 5.

36 The Musical World, April 1, 1848, p. 211.

37 Ibid.

38 The Athenaeum, April 1, 1848, p. 344.

39 It is difficult to determine the true identity of J. de Clerville. A Jules de Clerville appears as rédacteur en chef of the La Semaine Parisienne late in the 1870s.

40 J. De Clerville, “Verdi and the Two Operas,” The Musical World, April 29, 1848, p. 276.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., pp. 289-91.

46 “Verdi and the Two Operas,” The Musical World, May 6, 1848, pp. 289–91.

47 The Times, August 7, 1848, p. 8.

48 Ibid.

49 The Athenaeum, August 26, 1848, p. 861.

50 Ibid.

51 Chorley, Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections, 2: 27.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 8. Scene from Attila at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.
Crédits The Illustrated London News, 15 April 1848.
Fichier image/jpeg, 195k