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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

6. Uneventful Years: 1849–1852

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1If we look at Victorian London operatic life and focus squarely on the production and reception of Verdi’s works, the period spanning the years 1849–1852 appears to have been quite uneventful. This impression is reinforced when we consider that, in contrast to London’s comparative silence, four new operas bearing the name of Verdi were premiered in Italy during those years: La battaglia di Legnano (Rome, 27 January 1849), Luisa Miller (Naples, 8 December 1849), Stiffelio (Trieste, 16 November 1850), Rigoletto (Venice, 11 March 1851). None of them would be performed in London until 14 May 1853, when Rigoletto was produced at Covent Garden for the first time.

  • 1 The Times, March 26, 1849, p. 8.

2During these quiet years, however, Verdi strengthened his position in London and his most successful operas continued to make regular appearances at both Covent Garden and Her Majesty’s Theatre. On 26 March 1849, the critic of The Times reviewed the performance of Ernani and, having elaborated only on the interpreters’ merits, concluded that “the course of time seems to prove that Ernani is the most permanently popular of Verdi’s operas.”1 He put aside all pressing questions concerning the value of Verdi’s music and admitted that this opera, at least, was now part of the standard repertoire. When the same journal reviewed I due Foscari that same year, the critic could not avoid a dig, maintaing that its popular success was due less to the quality of the music than to the opportunity it offered for good baritones to show off.

  • 2 The Times, April 2, 1849, p. 8.

Although the music of I due Foscari has less to recommend it than that of Ernani, and has all the true Verdian want of original melody, it keeps a position on the stage on account of the good opportunities which the Doge affords to a baritone singer, and of certain effective morceaux, which rarely fail to produce an impression.2

  • 3 The Athenaeum, April 7, 1849, p. 364.
  • 4 The Musical World, April 7, 1849, p. 212.

3Reviewing the same performance, The Athenaeum also drew the reader’s attention to the way in which Van Gelder and Bordas, although liberally applauded, could do nothing to mitigate the pervasive unpleasantness of I due Foscari: “the grim, exaggerated, and incoherent music of that opera is beyond the power of any soprano or tenor to sweeten or to inform with true expression as distinguished from rant.”3 Chorley simply continued to dislike Verdi and to credit the success of his operas only to their interpreters. The Musical World reviewed both the productions of Ernani (31 March) and I due Foscari (7 April), but focussed uniquely on the performing artists.4 The rest of the season went smoothly, with no particular mention being made of Verdi’s most recent operatic achievements on the continent.

  • 5 The Athenaeum, January 12, 1850, p. 51.

4On 12 January 1850, The Athenaeum reported a piece of news concerning the production of Luisa Miller in Naples, where the success of the opera was said to be dubious and its subject not fitted to the composer.5 Between February and March, the managers of both Her Majesty’s Theatre and Covent Garden were able to issue their official programmes, revealing that four of Verdi’s works were to be produced in the course of the ensuing season: Nino, Ernani, I Lombardi and I due Foscari.

  • 6 The Times, March 20, 1850, p. 8.
  • 7 The Athenaeum, March 23, 1850, p. 320.

5On 19 March, Nino was revived at Her Majesty’s Theatre, “chiefly for the purpose of introducing to the public a new baritone, named Lorenzo de Montemerli, but simply styled in the bills Signor Lorenzo.”6 The critic of The Times bestowed words of praise on the main interpreters— Lorenzo de Montemerli, Teresa Parodi and Giovanni Belletti were called before the curtain several times during the performance—but failed to express any opinion whatsoever on the true merits of the opera. Two days later, on 21 March, Ernani was also revived, this time featuring Sims Reeves; the critic of The Athenaeum held that “both opera and singers were received with every token of favour and success.”7 However, the critic pointed out that Verdi’s music lent itself to a degree of interpretive freedom that he was not inclined to consider appropriate, although it was widely accepted among the public.

  • 8 Ibid.

Verdi’s music, in its solo passages and closes, gives him [Reeves] scope for that slackening of tempo and elongation of favourite notes which are considered by “Young Italy” as the style dramatic. But, for the interest of Art—rather than under any hope that our remonstrances will be heard amid so many plaudits—we must point out that Mr Reeves method of producing his tone and phrasing stands in need of refinement and reconsideration,—and that something of facility must be acquired by him ere his voice will either blend or tell in concerted music.8

  • 9 Ibid.
  • 10 The Musical World, March 23, 1850, pp. 173–74.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 174.

6Similar critical remarks were made with regard to Lorenzo de Montemerli’s Carlo Quinto, while more appreciative words were bestowed on Giovanni Belletti’s sounder style, noble voice and genuine, unobtrusive musical feeling when interpreting Silva. The critic concluded on a wishful note, declaring his hope that no more of Verdi’s music would be heard soon and stating that his popularity in England “was not on the increase.”9 The Musical World reviewed both operas on 23 March; the critic introduced the first by stating that “of Signor Verdi’s music we have only to say that we dislike it more than ever” and qualified the second as “an event of no ordinary interest.”10 Again, the great expectations for Ernani were ascribed less to the artistic value of the opera than to the rentrée of Sims Reeves.11 The critic also grumbled about Reeves, who had made his reappearance in an opera so poor in melodies and so unvocal.

  • 12 The Athenaeum, April 27, 1850, p. 458.
  • 13 Ibid.

7Later in April of that year, the critic of The Athenaeum had to admit that Carlo Beaucardè’s success in I Lombardi, which was produced on 20 April, was “no less than a triumph,”12 the tenor possessing the most beautiful voice possible. Again, however, this was despite the fact that the music he had chosen was “of the newest Italian destructives—which, we trust, and believe, will never take root in England.”13

  • 14 The Musical World, May 18, 1850, p. 303.
  • 15 Ibid.
  • 16 Ibid.

8On 30 May, Nino was again produced in London, this time at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, under the title of Anato. Upon his arrival in England, Giorgio Ronconi had made a public announcement expressing his intention to appear in Verdi’s Nabucco, a circumstance that prompted the critic of The Musical World to utter words of deep, profound disappointment: “highly as we esteem Signor Ronconi’s dramatic and lyric genius, we have no desire to witness their exposition through the medium of young Verdi’s music.”14 The critic could not comprehend why a vocalist with such large a repertoire should decide to select “the worst opera of the worst composer in Italy.”15 He also wondered why, now that the subscribers of Her Majesty’s Theatre were finally repudiating Verdi’s music (after having “gorged ad nauseam”), the subscribers of the rival theatre (who had instead been banqueting on Mozart and Rossini) should welcome “Sir Unison and Knight of Pom-Crash.”16

9On 31 May, the critic of The Times reviewed the event and took the opportunity to reiterate a series of grumbled variations on his deep longing for those palmy days when bel canto really meant beautiful melodies and nice vocalisation. His comments regarding the value of Ronconi, as opposed to the faults of Verdi, epitomise the kind of attitude that the most conservative critics continued to exhibit when referring to Verdi and the sad state of Italian opera.

  • 17 The Times, May 31, 1850, p. 8.

He [Ronconi] is, in short a striking example of the most finished school of Italian singing as it existed in those palmy days when Rossini, and not Verdi, was the idol of the Italians. It was to be regretted that Signor Ronconi should find it necessary to make his rentrée in one of Verdi’s operas, where screaming is so often the substitute for singing, vulgar tunes for graceful melody and mere noise for the rich combinations of choral and orchestral harmony; but his conception of the character of the Assyrian monarch (Anato-Nino-Nabucco) is so fine, and the realization of his conception so masterly, that criticism is disarmed while he is on the stage, and the meagreness of Signor Verdi’s invention is lost sight of in the genius of the dramatic artist.17

  • 18 Ibid.

10The critic clearly favoured a past characterised by “the most finished Italian School of florid singing” to the new manner in which Verdi spoiled the voice by dramatising the style. Further complaints about the noise of the orchestration, the inventionless accompaniments and the commonplace choruses followed in the same article, which also included some remarks on the way in which “even the choral tune ‘Va pansiero,’ which rarely if ever escapes an encore, on this occasion, although very well sung, passed off with scarcely a hand of recognition.”18 Perhaps, the critic concluded, the English public was finally beginning to realise that Verdi’s musical fame was groundless and that Italian music in its present state was degraded. The critic was trying to perform a problematic task, which involved drawing a line between the assumed poverty of the music and the quality of its performance. He insisted on ascribing the popular success of Verdi’s works uniquely to the talent of the performers and refused to consider the quality of the music. In his words, Anato should be considered a successful music degradation.

11On 1 June, the critic of The Musical World shot his merciless darts against Verdi’s Anato and reiterated arguments and objections that strongly suggested the hand of Davison (and demonstrated the role he played at two different journals).

  • 19 The Musical World, June 1, 1850, p. 338.

Thursday was a sad and a joyful night for the Royal Italian Opera. Sad, because it brought us the prince of musical mountebanks, Verdi, the Jew- Peter tonans, and joyful, inasmuch as it restored to our longing eyes and wishful ears one of the greatest masters of song that ever adorned the lyric stage.19

12Ronconi was the musical hero, while Anato the utterly ill-constructed opera which was forced upon the public at Covent Garden. The critic insisted on praising the singer for his musical and dramatic merits and on blaming the composer for his absolute lack thereof. Davison’s tone was more caustic than colourful:

  • 20 Ibid.

Never was a writer of operas so destitute of real invention, so deficient in power, or so wanting in the musician’s skill. His sole art consists in weaving ballad tunes—we never find any tune in his songs—into choruses, which sung in unison make an immense noise; or in working up a finale by means of a tremendous crash of the brass instruments, the drums, and cymbals, and voices screaming at the top of the register. Strip the finales of their noise and nothing remains—absolutely nothing. The instrumentation is thin, insipid and pointless; the colouring overcharged; the construction feeble; the development puerile. He has not a notion of real effect. But let us turn from unsophisticated brass to unadulterated gold—from Verdi to Ronconi.20

  • 21 Ibid.

13The usual repertoire of faults and shortcomings was rehearsed by the critic who gave all credit for the success of the performance to the interpreter: “the poverty of the music was completely lost sight of in this [Ronconi’s] stupendous exhibition of art.”21 Notwithstanding the poor quality of the music, Anato scored a full success with the public. A difficult issue was raised again, concerning the possibility for a critic to discern between the artwork “as such” on the one hand and its rendition on the other, and to acknowledge the quality of the latter despite the worthlessness of the former. The articles published in The Times on 31 May and in The Musical World one day later seem to have originated from the same pen. They share the same line of arguments and present parallel uses of language, including similar expressions and even wordings. In both, appreciation is bestowed on Ronconi, the finished Italian style (of which Ronconi, again, was the praiseworthy representative) is preferred to the modern style, the choice of Verdi’s music is one to be regretted, the usual mistakes and deficiencies are listed and are said to account for the pitiable effect of the music.

14One week later, The Musical World reproduced a short review from The Morning Post, the author of which, in reviewing Anato, demonstrated a remarkable degree of wittiness. According to the writer, persons quaintly attired, and not characters, had made their appearance in front of the public, crying and screaming—not singing—for reasons impossible to either understand or decipher.

  • 22 “Verdi at the Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, June 8, 1850, p. 350.

A great uproar took place at this establishment last night; several persons attired in quaint costumes appeared upon the stage, and for some reasons which we in vain endeavoured to make out from the business of the scene, or the requirements of the dramatic action, uttered strange cries and piercing screams. The strain upon their pulmonic resources appeared to be very great indeed, yet on the whole they did their duty manfully.22

15The author of this picturesque caricature announced that he had ruminated for some time before finally understanding the philosophy that lay behind these vocal ravings. Whereas a conventional musician would have gone for those musical attributes that characterise the classical simplicity of Mozart and Rossini, Verdi had decided to pursue a much loftier objective.

  • 23 23 Ibid., p. 351.

But his chief and noblest aim appears to be to show that the human voice, when strained to the utmost, can be made to produce more noise than any combination of instruments whatever, to assert the supremacy of the “voice to Nature,” to prove its superiority over mere mechanical inventions and contrivances, even though they be made of brass or sheepskin. Who can deny the elevation of this purpose? Nature versus Art! Why should man or woman be out-roared by an ugly trombone, or out-screamed by an impertinent octave flute? To the great object we have mentioned, Verdi has devoted his energies; in the pursuit of it, all smaller considerations to which unphilosophical composers have given their attention, such as melody, harmony, counterpoint, dramatic propriety, originality etc., have appeared to him insignificant and unworthy the attention of a genius.23

16This critic echoed a well-known repertoire of disapproving phrases, and used all his sarcasm to draw a grotesque picture. Verdi’s shortcomings no longer highlighted his lack of inventiveness and poor compositional abilities; instead they revealed a higher purpose, a nobler intention, an attempt to approach music in philosophical terms.

17In 1850, the opera season at Her Majesty’s Theatre also included I due Foscari, the only true novelty being Fromental Halévy’s La tempesta, which was produced on 8 June and performed six times in succession. Throughout the season it was often reported that the decision to revive such early operas as Nabucco, Ernani and I due Foscari arose from the leading interpreters (Lorenzo de Montemerli, Sims Reeves and Giorgio Ronconi), who had openly manifested their desire to appear in roles that would best fit their dramatic and vocal skills. It was held that neither Lumley nor Gye were particularly interested in Verdi’s latest compositional achievements, while increasing attention was paid to the novelties coming from the contemporary French composers. In particular, Lumley’s connection with the Théâtre-Italien in Paris seems to have played an important role in determining his more recent managerial decisions.

  • 24 Liza Picard, Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840–1870 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), (...)

18Cultural life in 1851 London was dominated by one large event, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, under the patronage of Prince Albert. For this exceptional occasion, a unique and innovative edifice was constructed, the Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener. It consisted of a gigantic, temporary structure of glass erected without foundations in Hyde Park.24

19The critic of The Musical World saluted the forthcoming event in quite tepid terms, and expressed moderate expectations only in so far as the invention and manufacturing of new instruments were concerned. While explicit reference was made to the manner in which the Theobald Boehm flute controversy or the innovation of Adolphe Sax instruments might find adequate space for presentation and discussion in the precinct of the Exhibition, limited hope was expressed with regard to pure art, by which the critic meant pure English art. What will the Great Exhibition do for music? What will it do for English music? What will English musicians do for the Great Exhibition? The critic suggested that its influence would turn out to be of immense advantage, for a million or more foreigners were expected to pour into London, eager to see and hear all that the city might offer. The Exhibition provided the English nation with the opportunity to show the true value of its musicians to the rest of the world. Would English musicians take full advantage of this opportunity?

  • 25 The Musical World, January 11, 1851, p. 18.

To the Italian and Frenchman in particular, our composers and players might honourably demonstrate that they did not merit the contempt with which they had been treated. […] Our singers too could prove to the astonished ears of the French that they have voices; and explain to the Italians how well they can sing much to which the “land of music” is entirely stranger.25

20Davison, who was a strong supporter of English musical nationalism, encouraged his colleagues to step forward and advocate the claims of native talents in opposition to those phalanxes of foreign virtuoso players who dominated the London scene. In this respect, the Great Exhibition could do a lot for English music.

21Quite predictably, from 1 May, when it was inaugurated, to 15 October, when it closed, the Great Exhibition strongly affected the life of opera theatres and concert venues, for large numbers of foreign as well as local visitors thronged the English capital, visited the Crystal Palace—an attraction in itself—and looked for further fashionable leisure activities to enjoy during their stay. Lumley’s response to such a challenge was perfectly consistent with the entrepreneurial attitude he had manifested on previous occasions. Instead of relying uniquely on his already successful repertoire of stock operas, the manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre decided to enrich the forthcoming season with as many novelties and attractions as possible. Surprisingly enough, no room was made for a new opera bearing the name of Verdi, a circumstance that prompted some critics to harp on about the sad state of music in Italy and to predict that the supremacy of Italian opera was definitely approaching its end.

  • 26 The Times, March 31, 1851, p. 5.
  • 27 Ibid.

22On Saturday March 22nd, the ante-Easter season at Her Majesty’s Theatre opened with Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring Caroline Duprez in the title role, followed by the ballet L’isle des amours. On 31 March The Times reviewed Daniel Auber’s Gustave III, as produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and took this opportunity to assert that its production indicated “the total inability of the Italian stage to furnish pieces for the English metropolis.”26 The choice of a French composer, the critic continued, confirmed that “Verdi’s first works were tolerated, but at last he became unendurable; and now it is plainly discovered there is no one whatever but Verdi to be found in the Italian region Italy [sic], as a necessary consequence, is given up altogether.”27

  • 28 The Musical World, March 22, 1851, p. 178.

23After the Easter pause both operatic establishments prepared to fight a fierce battle in front of an international, composite public. Among the novelties at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Le tre nozze was performed, an opera buffa in three acts composed by Giulio Alary (libretto by Arcangelo Berrettoni) and first produced at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris that year. Michael Balfe’s I quattro fratelli (the Italianised version of Les quatre fils d’Aymon given at Princess’s Theatre in 1844) and Sigismond Thalberg’s Florinda, or the Moors in Spain followed. All three were pronounced successful, but they were destined for short-lived popularity. Besides some stock operas from Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, Mozart’s Don Giovanni was also produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre, while Die Zauberflöte (given in Italian as Il flauto magico) was performed at the Royal Italian Opera. Beethoven’s Fidelio was performed in both theatres. Besides Il flauto magico and Fidelio, and in addition to the usual repertoire, the prospectus issued by the manager of the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden included six more novelties: Carl Maria von Weber’s Eurianthe, Louis Spohr’s Faust, Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, Daniel Auber’s L’enfant prodigue and Charles Gounod’s Sapho.28 It is possible to argue that Lumley and his rival colleague Frederick Gye were trying to appeal less to the local habitués than to the larger international audience gathered in London for the Exhibition, mostly composed of German and French visitors. Verdi’s operas, whose reception on the continent had been controversial, were put aside, while precedence was given to lighter works of little consequence (Le tre nozze, I quattro fratelli), to some of the best-loved Italian classics, to a few German masterpieces (e.g. Mozart and Beethoven) and to some novelties from the modern French school.

  • 29 The Times, July 14, 1851, p. 8.
  • 30 Ibid.

24Brief mention of Verdi’s role among modern operatic composers was made twice in the columns of The Times, once in July when Marietta Alboni appeared in her favourite part as Cenerentola, and a second time one month later, when Marianna Barbieri Nini was introduced to the audience on the occasion of her first appearance in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Both the events were reviewed by the critic of The Times, who raised the old issue concerning the contemptible condition of modern singing as opposed to the palmy days in which proper vocalisation was sustained by suitable melodies. Alboni was pronounced “the last of a glorious race, the last legitimate singer of the real Italian style, now on the point of dissolution.”29 The dissolution described by the critic had several causes, the chief of which was “the dearth of composers, which has made the last quarter of a century the most barren in the history of Italian opera.”30 The usual grumble followed, suggesting that the decadence that led from Rossini to Verdi passed through a generation of scanty imitators only to arrive at a rapid, inevitable conclusion.

  • 31 Ibid.

The last great genius, the last great composer, of Italy was Rossini. Bellini was a plaintive echo of his saddest strains—Donizetti a vigorous imitator, in whom everything was found but the “divine fire.” Rossini, disgusted at the growing apathy for his works in the land of his birth, went to Paris and composed French operas. He altered his style entirely, and gave the death blow to the true Italian school. This was his revenge for the neglect of those who should have cherished him as their only hope. To Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti succeeded Verdi. Verdi exhibits all the worst faults of his predecessors, exaggerated one-hundredfold, with none of the genius of Rossini, little of the tenderness of Bellini, and less of the facility and savoir faire of Donizetti. Nevertheless, Verdi has his merits— viz., occasional felicity of tune, considerable energy, and a dramatic fire that cannot be denied. But these are not enough to sustain a tottering edifice, rapidly crumbling into dust. The Italian school has seen its best days; its decline is near at hand, and it is doubtful whether anything can restore it. C’en est fini. There are no composers, no orchestras no chorus, no librettists in Italy.31

  • 32 The Times, August 6, 1851, p. 8.
  • 33 Ibid.

25On 6 August, the same journal published an account of Marianna Barbieri Nini’s impersonation of Lucrezia Borgia. “Madame Barbieri Nini owes much of her fame to the operas of Verdi, for which her style and physique eminently befit her,”32 the critic held. He did not intend to pay her a compliment. However beautiful her voice might have been, the prima donna who had premiered the female roles of I due Foscari and Macbeth had “paid the usual penalty entailed upon the exponents of Verdi’s music.”33 As a consequence, her rendition of Lucrezia was devoid of all those graceful, sweet and tender touches which are the very essence and soul of the vocal art, such faults as exaggerated accents and caricature of expression substituting for proper vocalisation.

  • 34 The other interpreters were Calista Fiorio (Maddalena), Vincenza Marchesi (Giovanna), Francesco Gio (...)
  • 35 “Foreign Correspondence—Autumn Music in Rome,” The Athenaeum, October 18, 1851, p. 1097.
  • 36 Ibid.

26Occasional mention of Verdi’s progress was made by the critic of The Athenaeum, when reporting from Italy later on that autumn. Chorley took the opportunity to attend a performance of Verdi’s new opera Rigoletto, which was given in Rome at the Teatro Argentina under the title of Viscardello because of Roman censorship. The libretto of Viscardello differed slightly from the original, the dramatic action taking place in Boston, the names of the main characters being changed so as to reflect the new setting: the Duke of Nottingham substituted for the Duke of Mantua and Viascardello for Rigoletto. The main interpreters were Carlo Beaucardè, as Il Duca di Nottingham, Filippo Coletti in the title role, Caterina Evers as Gilda, Nicola Benedetti as Sparafucile.34 The critic reviewed the performance in the usual negative terms, holding that “the opera is by no means its maker’s worst,—if only because it is one of Signor Verdi’s least noisy operas.”35 Even though the critic was willing to acknowledge that the instrumentation was in some case appropriate and even delicate, while one or two vocal phrases possessed a boldness and a brio worth remembering, he could not help but conclude his review by declaring that “the staleness and common- place of every motive is only equalled by its ugliness.”36

  • 37 Ibid.
  • 38 “Crivelli’s Elvira,” The Musical World, July 26, 1851, p. 466.
  • 39 Chorley, Thirty Years, II, p. 143.

27The Musical World gave full coverage to the entire 1851 operatic season and reported in detail on the productions and the personalities involved in either establishment. The critic urged his colleagues to seriously consider the sad condition of English music and musicians, and to look to the French to learn how to promote, support and encourage local talent. On 19 July Ernani was announced for performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre, featuring Sophie Cruvelli as Elvira and Sims Reeves in the title role. The Musical World took this opportunity to celebrate the already much celebrated Cruvelli for her excellent rendition of Elvira; after appearing successfully in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and even in Sigismond Thalberg’s dubious Florinda, Cruvelli further exhibited her superb vocal skills in Verdi’s much-to-be-regretted dramatic music. The critic argued that, having entered the innermost recesses of the musical temple when interpreting Beethoven’s music, she had gradually moved out of it and was now satisfied to wave her handkerchief on the steps of the porch. Although Verdi’s music was not worthy of the temple, it was thanks to Cruvelli that even those already inside it might consider going out to listen to her. After triumphing in Venice in 1847, in London in 1848 and in Paris in 1851, Cruvelli’s Ernani was once more triumphing over “the convulsive menaces of Signor Verdi’s ill-conditioned muse.”37 Quite similar, if not unanimous judgments made their appearance in the columns of The Times, The Morning Post and The Morning Herald, whose critics all rejoiced in the success of the singer, notwithstanding the poor quality of the music. Verdi never appeared to the critics under so favourable a guise.38 Though Chorley objected to the way in which Cruvelli misused her vocal skills and sacrificed them to her caprice and vagary.39

  • 40 The Illustrated London News, July 26, 1851, p. 114.

28Quite different a position was expressed by the critic of The Illustrated London News, who disagreed with his colleagues and took a more detached, neutral stance with regard to the Italian composer’s alleged faults. First of all, Ernani had been equally successful over the past five years, notwithstanding the different casts that had performed it. This circumstance seemed to provide solid evidence that the success of the opera was not uniquely dependant on the quality of the performers; instead, the “powerful construction of the concerted pieces” represented its main source of attraction. Although a choir of pedantic detractors had raised their voices against all the shortcomings of Verdi’s operas, an equal number of qualities were to be found in them, among them skilful dramatic colouring and sensual beauty. It was true that Verdi neglected the art of pure vocalisation, just as it was true that he favoured the expression of violent contrasts in declamatory phrases on the extreme notes of the register; however, this was exactly what the composer wanted for the sake of dramatic effect, and it was just pointless to continue to abuse him and long for the style of the past.40

29Mention of Verdi’s music was made again in the columns of The Times on 14 April 1852, when the production of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at Her Majesty’s Theatre was reviewed. Verdi’s music was called instrumental because it destroyed proper vocalisation, a feature typical of Rossini’s music.

  • 41 The Times, April 14, 1852, p. 5.

The class of opera to which L’Italiana in Algeri belongs is almost extinct. No composer of the present day attempts it, and it may safely be added that no composer of the present day, in attempting it, would be likely to succeed. For this there are substantial reasons. Singers are educated now in quite a different fashion from that which prevailed in the days of Cimarosa and Paesiello [sic], and in the early times of Rossini. Verdi and his followers have killed the school, without substituting a better. What is chiefly demanded now in a singer is a powerful voice, and a certain amount of dramatic feeling, armed with which he at once launches into the sea of public life. The consequence is inevitable. The majority of singers are quite abroad in one of Rossini’s early operas; they have neither the flexibility nor the style; either their voices are stiff and obstinate from want of the necessary training, or impaired, if not altogether destroyed, by “hallooing and singing,” not of anthems, like Falstaff, but of Verdi’s cavatinas and finales. We are much mistaken, however, if, some day, the sort of Italian opera of which the one produced last night is so admirable an example be not restored, and the modern specimens, which have really no style whatever, altogether abandoned. Such a result would be well for all parties—for singers, who wish to preserve as long as possible the quality and freshness of their voices, more especially.41

  • 42 The Musical World, April 17, 1852, pp. 243–44.

30Verdi and Rossini represented two worlds, the second composer having killed the school of which the first had been the unsurpassed champion. The very same article was also published in The Musical World a few days later, on 17 April, a circumstance strongly suggestive, once more, of the two journals sharing the same critic.42 In August, the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden revived Norma featuring as Pollio the tenor Carlo Negrini, who had made his début as a soloist in 1847 as Jacopo in I due Foscari. This circumstance once more offered the critic of The Musical World the opportunity to expand on the responsibility of Verdi’s music for spoiling the singer’s voice.

  • 43 The Musical World, August 14, 1852, p. 517.

His reputation has been chiefly acquired in Verdi’s operas; and to this may be attributed the fact of what must originally have been a fine and powerful voice, having already deteriorated in quality [...] In his style of singing Signor Negrini betrays an adhesion to that school which, most successful in the boisterous music of Verdi, is most at fault where real vocal expression and legitimate execution are demanded.43

31The gap between the Rossinian vocal style and the manner in which Verdi mistreated the voice was definitive and irremediable. Not only did the dramatic power required by Verdi’s music represent a threat to the voice, it was also an obstacle for those modern singers who, being trained in the modern style, wished to return to the florid vocal style of the past.

32When Ernani was produced on 8 May 1852 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, further comments appeared in The Times concerning the extent to which the quality of the interpretation and the merits of the singers outbalanced the scantiness of the music and the limited talent of the composer, a disequilibrium considered crucial to the success of his operas in London.

  • 44 The Times, May 10, 1852, p. 8.

Ernani was presented on Saturday, for the first time this season. Although Verdi’s best work, it is doubtful whether this opera would so long have retained possession of the stage, in a country where the claims of its composer are less easily recognized than on the continent, but for Mdlle. Sophie Cruvelli, who first appeared at Her Majesty’s Theatre, in 1848, in the character of the heroine, of which she has since retained almost exclusive possession. On other occasions when Ernani has been attempted it has failed. It may therefore be concluded that the part of Elvira, whatever its abstract musical merits, is well suited to Mdlle. Cruvelli, who enters into it with an enthusiasm which savours of evident predilection. A reasonable cause for this may be assigned in the great success she has achieved in Ernani, Nabucco, Attila, and other operas of Verdi, at Venice, Genoa, Milan, &c., and more recently at Paris— complacently regarded by Frenchmen as the arbitress and dispenser of musical reputations. Signor Verdi owes a deep debt of gratitude to Mademoiselle Cruvelli; and it is to be hoped this may not be repaid by the ultimate annihilation of her magnificent voice.44

  • 45 The Athenaeum, May 22, 1852, p. 586.

33This judgment was not shared by the critic of The Athenaeum, who considered Cruvelli’s force and passion “the mechanical display made by a young and strong person half educated in her profession and prematurely wearied.”45 Not surprisingly, the critic of The Musical World fully shared the idea that, despite the limited merit of the composer, Ernani was now cherished by the audience uniquely because of the quality of such interpreters as Sophie Cruvelli.

  • 46 The Musical World, May 15, 1852, pp. 312–13.

Verdi owes a large debt of gratitude to Sophie Cruvelli, who, more than fine chivalric story, and the striking character of the music, has helped to elevate and fix Ernani in the public mind. We are not of those who scoff and sneer at the scores of young Verdi, because they contain neither the depth of Mozart and Beethoven, nor the inventiveness of Rossini and Auber. He may be not as clever as Donizetti, nor as melodious as Bellini, nor as dramatic as Meyerbeer, nor as overpowering as Halévy; must it therefore follow that he has no merit whatsoever? Far be it from us to affirm any such thing, although, as our readers must be by this time well aware, we are no great lovers of his music. Still he has strong dramatic feeling, and is by no means devoid of energy and passion. If these sometimes degenerate into rant, it proceeds from exuberance, rather than poverty of conception. Be it as it may, there is enough, and unfortunately more than enough in Verdi’s music, to show off the capabilities of singers, and with such an artist as Cruvelli, who combines judgment with power, to very great advantage.46

34Once more, the critic of The Illustrated London News was the only one who advocated the merits of the composer and argued that, notwithstanding all the injurious, offensive and hostile opinions directed towards him, his operas were no less successful now than they had been upon their first production. As to the extent Verdi abused the singers’ voice, the critic added, it was not a question of the audience or the critic, but of the singers only.

  • 47 The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1852, p. 398.

Verdi has been most outrageously abused since the first introduction of his works into this country; but season after season his operas are reproduced, and we never yet have observed the slightest diminution in the interest and effect created by his dramatic power and colouring. There is not the slightest difficulty in pointing out the vices of his school; but it is against the wholesale condemnation of his productions that we have always protested and we must continue to protest. The objection that he strains and ruins the voice is, with due submission, the question of the singers, and not that of the audiences, who frequent the theatre for emotions and sensations, and not for the purpose of deciding whether the upper octave of an artiste’s register can stand the wear and tear of Verdi’s vocal writings.47

  • 48 The Musical World, December 25, 1852, p. 822.

35By the end of 1852, the attitude of the critics had remained largely unaltered, at least in so far as the periodicals taken into consideration are concerned. The Illustrated London News was the only journal advocating the merits of the composer, against all those who continued to credit only the interpreters with the success his operas continued to score. One new aspect emerged, regarding the antagonistic figure of Richard Wagner. On 25 December 1852, The Musical World reported in full a long article from The Athenaeum entitled, quite ironically, “The two new (rush) lights to lighten the darkness of the musical Jesuits at Leipzig.” The Athenaeum described the way in which neither Schumann nor Wagner (the two lights) could really do much to alleviate the darkness in which German music found itself. While lamenting all the faults and shortcomings exhibited by Wagner’s operas the critic went as far as to sigh: “How low must the opera goer be brought when he can think of Verdi with complacency and longing!”48


1 The Times, March 26, 1849, p. 8.

2 The Times, April 2, 1849, p. 8.

3 The Athenaeum, April 7, 1849, p. 364.

4 The Musical World, April 7, 1849, p. 212.

5 The Athenaeum, January 12, 1850, p. 51.

6 The Times, March 20, 1850, p. 8.

7 The Athenaeum, March 23, 1850, p. 320.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 The Musical World, March 23, 1850, pp. 173–74.

11 Ibid., p. 174.

12 The Athenaeum, April 27, 1850, p. 458.

13 Ibid.

14 The Musical World, May 18, 1850, p. 303.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 The Times, May 31, 1850, p. 8.

18 Ibid.

19 The Musical World, June 1, 1850, p. 338.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 “Verdi at the Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, June 8, 1850, p. 350.

23 23 Ibid., p. 351.

24 Liza Picard, Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840–1870 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), pp. 260–65.

25 The Musical World, January 11, 1851, p. 18.

26 The Times, March 31, 1851, p. 5.

27 Ibid.

28 The Musical World, March 22, 1851, p. 178.

29 The Times, July 14, 1851, p. 8.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 The Times, August 6, 1851, p. 8.

33 Ibid.

34 The other interpreters were Calista Fiorio (Maddalena), Vincenza Marchesi (Giovanna), Francesco Giorgi (Il Conte di Mornard), Ettore Mitterpoch (Marnullo), Mariano Conti (Borsa), Achille Biscossi (Il Conte di Gorin), Francesca Quadri (La Contessa), Giuseppe Bazzoli (Scudiero) and Luigi Fani (Paggio). Viscardello (Rome: Tipografia Olivieri, 1851).

35 “Foreign Correspondence—Autumn Music in Rome,” The Athenaeum, October 18, 1851, p. 1097.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 “Crivelli’s Elvira,” The Musical World, July 26, 1851, p. 466.

39 Chorley, Thirty Years, II, p. 143.

40 The Illustrated London News, July 26, 1851, p. 114.

41 The Times, April 14, 1852, p. 5.

42 The Musical World, April 17, 1852, pp. 243–44.

43 The Musical World, August 14, 1852, p. 517.

44 The Times, May 10, 1852, p. 8.

45 The Athenaeum, May 22, 1852, p. 586.

46 The Musical World, May 15, 1852, pp. 312–13.

47 The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1852, p. 398.

48 The Musical World, December 25, 1852, p. 822.


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