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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

11. I vespri siciliani (1859)

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  • 1 Benjamin Lumley, The Earl of Dudley, Mr. Lumley, and Her Majesty’s Theatre: A Narrative of Facts Ad (...)

1In 1858, Benjamin Lumley’s professioncal career in operatic management terminated, and on 10 August his establishment passed into the hands of Lord William Ward, Earl of Dudley. A long period of financial difficulties preceded this final step. Already in 1852 the financial burden of the enterprise had become too heavy to bear and a committee of noblemen was formed to assist the establishment. Among them, Lord Ward was certainly the most prominent; he soon manifested an intention to purchase the theatre together with Sir Ralph Howard, and by 1856 he became “with a single exception the possessor of every considerable charge on the property.”1 Two years later, upon conclusion of both the official and the “cheap” opera seasons, and at the end of a long legal dispute with Lord Ward, Lumley had to quit.

  • 2 The Musical World, February 12, 1859, p. 105.
  • 3 Since Les vêpres siciliennes was given in the Italian translation by Ettore Caimi, the Italian titl (...)
  • 4 The Musical World, March 19, 1859, p. 192.

2In February 1859, it was reported that Her Majesty’s Theatre had been purchased by a joint-stock company with the intention of converting it into a huge hotel.2 One month later, on 19 March, Edward Tyrrel Smith, the lessee and director of the Drury Lane Theatre, issued the official programme of his forthcoming Royal Italian Season. As stated in the prospectus, the closing of Her Majesty’s Theatre had enabled Smith to avail himself of the services not only of such prominent singers as Tietjens and Giuglini, but also of many other artists previously attached to that operatic establishment. The inaugural night was decided for the 25 April, and La sonnambula was chosen for that occasion. A repertoire of sixteen stock operas was set forth (including Ernani, La traviata, Il trovatore and Rigoletto), in addition to which at least five new operas were to be added, among them Verdi’s Macbeth and I vespri siciliani,3 Mercadante’s Il giuramento, Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell and La gazza ladra, Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha, Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro and Gluck’s Armide.4 Not all the promises made at the outset of the season were fulfilled; while I vespri siciliani was performed in London on 27 July that year, it was not until 1960 that Macbeth could be given in London.

  • 5 The Musical World, April 23, 1859, p. 264.
  • 6 The Musical World, August 6, 1859, pp. 507–08.

3The Royal Italian Opera season at Drury Lane Theatre opened on 25 April with La sonnambula conducted by Julius Benedict, while Victoire Balfe (daughter of the conductor Michael Balfe), Cesare Badiali, Castelli and Pietro Mongini played the main characters. The divertissement entitled Ariadne (ballet by Petit and music by Adolphe Adam) followed the same night.5 Great expectations accompanied the opening of the new season, for the theatre had been renovated, cleaned and decorated, allowing for more comfort and a better sight of the stage. The début of Victoire Balfe was pronounced successful and, even though Mongini fell ill, the opera went well and was repeated two days later. The production of Donizetti’s La favorite (as La favorita) followed, while Lucrezia Borgia served to introduce Tietjens, the star of the season, to the public of the Drury Lane Theatre. Then Lucia di Lammermoor was given, followed by La traviata featuring Nina Sarolta in the title role and Ludovico Graziani (brother of the baritone) as Alfredo, both in London for the first time. Then it was Enrichetta Weiser’s turn to make her appearance in London for the first time as Gilda in Rigoletto. Her debut was not well-received and she was replaced by Marietta Brambilla when the opera was reprised, her second chance coming when Mercadante’s Il giuramento was later produced. Although Weiser sang better, her rendition could do nothing to change the public’s opinion of the poor quality of the opera; as a consequence, Il giuramento was withdrawn after three performances. Il trovatore, Don Giovanni and Les Huguenots preceded the appearance of Piccolomini in La traviata, with Giuglini as Alfredo, which La fille du régiment (as La figlia del reggimento) followed soon afterwards. On 7 July, Tietjens was Norma for the first time in London and finally, on the 27th, I vespri siciliani was produced at Drury Lane.6

  • 7 The Musical World, August 20, 1859, p. 540.

4In the meantime, on 2 April the opera house at Covent Garden opened its Royal Italian Season with Il trovatore, featuring the new prima donna Marcella Lotti della Santa as Leonora and Achille De Bassini, a baritone new to that theatre, as Conte di Luna. Il trovatore, despite some shortcomings in the principals’ voices, was well received and repeated twice. After La sonnambula, Maria di Rohan and La gazza ladra, on 2 May Marcella Lotti della Santa appeared as Gilda in Rigoletto, accompanied by Mario as the Duke. On 17 May, Rosina Penco, also new to London, made her first appearance as Violetta in La traviata. Don Giovanni, I puritani, Lucrezia Borgia, Norma and Otello—featuring Giulia Grisi, Mario, Ronconi and Enrico Tamberlik—were also produced, followed by Flotow’s Martha on 31 May and Mercadante’s Il giuramento on 9 July. A solitary performance of Il trovatore was given on 19 July and the season concluded with six performances of Meyerbeer’s Dinorah. In general, the season was pronounced a success.7

5This quick summary confirms that by the late 1850s, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata had entered the regular operatic repertoire in London and had established themselves as “stock operas” in both houses. That is to say, they could be put on stage at a moment’s notice, and theatre managers could rely on them to secure a large audience for their establishments; all the more so if a cast of cherished songstresses were attached to them, as was the case with Piccolomini.

  • 8 The Musical World, May 7, 1859, p. 297.
  • 9 The Musical World, May 14, 1859, p. 314.

6This change is also visible in the opinions expressed in the London periodicals; contemporary commentators and music critics were now ready to accept these works as part of the standard operatic repertoire, alongside Ernani and Nabucco. On 7 May 1859, the critic of The Musical World pronounced Rigoletto (which had been produced at Covent Garden) the most genial of all the Italian master’s works and went so far as to claim that in this opera “the melodies, for the most part, are spontaneous, and dramatic propriety is never once lost sight of.”8 Later on, when La traviata was produced at Drury Lane, the critic spared Verdi a few words of praise for the dramatic quality of the final trio, and then focused entirely on the soprano Nina Sarolta and the vocal cast.9 He was now assessing the performers’ vocal skills and dramatic talent on the basis of a repertoire which had come to include La traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore. In terms of singing style, two scenarios were now considered acceptable: the first was marked by Rossini’s coloratura style while the second was exemplified by Verdi’s new declamatory, dramatised manner.

  • 10 The Musical World, July 30, 1859, p. 492.

7Finally, I vespri siciliani, the Italian version of Les vêpres siciliennes, was produced on 27 July 1859 at Drury Lane, the libretto having been translated into Italian by Ettore Caimi. The cast saw Tietjens as Hélène, Pietro Mongini as Amigo (Henri), Enrico Fagotti as De Montfort, Vialetti as Procida. The critic of The Musical World bestowed words of great praise on Tietjens: “she sang magnificently, and acted with extraordinary vigour and passion.”10 The music was also judged in favourable terms; the beauty of some of the melodies was especially praised as a distinctive feature of this opera, together with the dramatic effect typical of the composer, particularly in the finale.

  • 11 Ibid. The reference to the French titles suggests that what the critic had at hand was the original (...)

The music of Les vêpres siciliennes is written with more than usual care, and several of the airs have obtained a well-deserved popularity. As examples we may name the bolero, for Hélène in the last act, “Merci, jeunes amies” a florid, brilliant, and effective morceau; the romance of Henri, “La brise souffleur loin”—one of the most simple and beautiful melodies Verdi has produced; the air for Montfort, “Au sein de la puissance,” introduced into the overture; and the song “Et toi, Palerme,” for Procida. In the concerted music too, there are occasionally flashes of genius which show Sig. Verdi at his best. Of course there is one grand finale in which the composer puts forth all his strength. This occurs at the end of the third act, when the conspirators, headed by Hélène and Procida, are foiled in their attempt to assassinate De Montfort, by Henri, who has first discovered his relationship to the governor (his own “governor”). Sig. Verdi has made good use of this situation, and worked it up with dramatic effect. The duet between Montfort and Henri (when the latter learns he is the son of the former, and the former admits he is the father of the latter), is in the popular composer’s most telling manner. The quick movement, admirably sung by Signors Mongini and Fagotti, was encored with enthusiasm on Wednesday night. Taken as a whole, the last act of the Vêpres Siciliennes is perhaps the best.11

  • 12 The Times, April 5, 1859, p. 12.
  • 13 The Times, May 20, 1859, p. 8.

8Something similar can be observed in The Times, whose critic exhibited an even milder attitude towards Verdi’s recent achievements than he had done over the previous years. On 5 April, in reviewing Lotti della Santa’s second appearance in Il trovatore at Covent Garden, he described the music in very positive terms, claiming that this opera “contains some of Signor Verdi’s happiest touches and most dramatic writing— the ‘Miserere,’ the duet with Di Luna, in the course of which Leonora frustrates the ends of her enamoured persecutor by swallowing poison; and the duet with Manrico, which is interrupted by snatches of melody from the sleeping Azucena, and culminates in the death of Leonora.”12 Another favourable review made its appearance in the same journal in May, when the opera was produced at Drury Lane, featuring Tietjens in the main role. While no mention of the quality of the music was made on that occasion, words of praise were generously bestowed on the interpreters and their rendition.13 On 11 July, when Mercadante’s Il giuramento was given at Covent Garden, the critic took the opportunity to draw a comparison between the deficiencies present in Mercadante’s unsuccessful opera and the charm characteristic of Verdi’s music. While a certain degree of novelty and fresh treatment were the reasons for Verdi’s undeniable popular success, Mercadante’s lack of inventiveness seemed evident in many respects.

  • 14 The Times, July 11, 1859, p. 9.

The strongest “cast,” the most efficient band and chorus, the most complete and gorgeous stage appointments, would hardly succeed in winning for Signor Mercadante’s Giuramento even a brief interval of popularity in this country. The drama is prolix; the music, though well written and cleverly instrumented—is dreary, flat, and wearisome, overlaid with tedious recitative and lengthy solo preludes, marked throughout by a certain staleness at once showing the composer barren of invention, and precluding the charm which (as we have seen in Verdi) invariably attaches to new ideas, however unpretending, and to fresh treatment, however unelaborate.14

9Again, Verdi had finally established himself as a composer worthy of some attention, with some critics referring to his merits as a benchmark against which other composers’ achievements should be assessed.

  • 15 The Times, July 28, 1859, p. 9.
  • 16 The Times, August 1, 1859, p. 6.

10When I vespri siciliani was performed at Drury Lane, The Times proclaimed it a complete success, fully confirmed by the verdict of the public: “Another remarkable novelty, in the shape of Signor Verdi’s grand serious opera, Les vêpres siciliennes—under the Italian title of I vespri siciliani—was produced last night, for the first time in this country, with incontestable success.”15 The critic was encouraged to predict that this work would definitely maintain its place among Verdi’s best operas. The critic called attention to the composer’s inventiveness: “though the piece itself, in spite of its melodramatic and spectacular character, appears somewhat heavy and spun out, it is enriched with many of Signor Verdi’s happiest thoughts.”16 Many instances of Verdi’s resourcefulness, the critic continued, could be found in the incidental ballet, in the choruses and in the lyric moments offered by the duet for Hélène and Henri; the quartet for Hélène, Henri, Procida and De Montfort; and the tenor romance for Henri, “La brezza aleggia” in Act V, whose graceful melody would guarantee future popularity. The interpreters were said to have been brilliant and their success was undeniable as well.

  • 17 The Athenaeum, April 9, 1859, p. 493.
  • 18 The Athenaeum, April 30, 1859, p. 588.
  • 19 Ibid.
  • 20 The Athenaeum, July 16, 1859, p. 89.

11Once more, the most severe of all was the critic of The Athenaeum, who showed no more leniency towards Verdi in 1859 than he had done in previous years. While addressing the success of Il trovatore at the Royal Italian Opera early in April that year, he reiterated his grievances about the present sad state of the dramatic art, still longing for those palmy days when Rossini was able to pour out work after work, melody after melody for the public to rejoice at. “Those days are over. Signor Verdi is the best—the one—writer of modern Italy—Il trovatore is the least bad opera; and, accordingly, Il trovatore, given with new singers […] is, perhaps, not the best, so much as the only card to be played in our weary period of mediocrity.”17 Quite similar remarks made their appearance on 30 April, when the performance of La gazza ladra at Covent Garden offered the critic the opportunity to draw an infelicitous comparison between Rossini’s masterpiece and Verdi’s Il trovatore. “There are more ideas in the Introduction to La Gazza than in the entire Trovatore (in which, by the way, the ‘Miserere’ might never have been written had not a certain ‘Qual mesto gemito,’ in Semiramide, gone before it.”18 Once more the critic of The Athenaeum complained about the sad state of the vocal art, for while Rossini’s operas were written for true singers, the most recent ones had to be put in the hands of those “bald, bawling, declamatory people who in Germany and in Italy have tried of late to make sound pass for singing.”19 The critic insisted that the new declamatory style typical of Verdi’s operas was the audible consequence of a state of decline. According to Chorley, Mercadante’s Il giuramento offered itself as another good example of the sad state in which the operatic art lay. Mercadante’s uninspired works were all the more lacking when compared to Verdi’s. While Verdi’s music, despite everything, took off, Mercadante’s did not. Even though the critic was ready to acknowledge a few qualities in Mercadante, Il giuramento, as well as most of his previous operas, was doomed to a quick, inevitable oblivion. “His voices are carefully handled, his orchestra is discreet, if not inventive; yet there is no denying that his operas ‘hang fire,’ while those of Signor Verdi ‘go off’—and that among the fifty (we believe there are fifty) not one, save perhaps Elisa e Claudio, has gained an European reputation.”20

  • 21 The Athenaeum, August 6, 1859, p. 183. It is worth remembering that Chorley was then working on the (...)

12Upon the season’s conclusion, when the critic returned to the premiere of I vespri siciliani at Drury Lane, he reiterated a judgment that was consistent with his general critical attitude. Chorley had attended the Paris premiere of Les vêpres and already recorded its dubious success on that occasion. Furthermore, that opera had not proven successful in the long run; it had been revived neither in Paris nor in Italy, and it was surprising to see such an unsuccessful opera making its way to the London theatres. Another failure was easy to predict. Chorley understood I vespri siciliani as Verdi’s unsuccessful attempt to imitate and emulate the genius of Meyerbeer; the Italian composer had tried to out-do the French, but the results were weak and objectionable. In his effort to follow the French model he had sacrificed his melodic inventiveness to a kind of grandiosity which was not substantiated by adequate musical resources: “The composer is there less catching in his melody than in his other operas, while his attempts at scenic grandeur and orchestral ingenuity betray leanness and want of resource by their noise and eccentricity.”21 The interpreters shared responsibility with the composer for this failure; both Thérèse Tietjens and Pietro Mongini abused their voices by piling up loud sonorities and inappropriate ornaments at the expense of intonation and good taste.

  • 22 Ibid.

There can be no question that she [Tietjens] is more zealous in filling the part of the heroine Helena than was Mdlle. Cruvelli; there can be no question as to the superb original quality of her voice.—that her voice has gone the wrong way, is partly explained by its owner being German (which implies a false notion of vocal training), partly by the excitement which physical vehemence can always produce among a not very refined audience all the world over. For artists are strong enough to resist this.— The result is shown, in the case of Mdlle. Tietjens, by the incompleteness of every executive passage—by that failure of intonation—which is a disease, not a natural difficulty, with voices so triumphantly firm, so radiantly powerful, as hers has been. To real musicians Mdlle. Tietjens can be no longer the singer of promise that she was. On her arriving here there were hopes in one so magnificently endowed; now, we have small further expectation, except of fortissimo laid on fortissimo, of false ornament on false ornament,—of decline, in short. Very great is the pity.—Signor Mongini, too, as has been elsewhere said, is doing his worst for himself; and the consequence of such a union betwixt lady and lover was that perpetual exaggeration which is alike fatal and fatiguing.22

13Chorley’s position and line of argument had not changed much. Verdi had not improved, this last opera was possibly his worst, the interpreters were not up to the task. Contrary to his colleague from The Times, who had called attention to Tietjens’ splendid dramatic energy and excellent execution, and to the brilliant success scored by Mongini, who had won fresh laurels, Chorley considered neither the composer nor the interpreters worthy of the applause the audience had undeservedly poured on them.

  • 23 “Music,” The Spectator, July 30, 1859, p. 19.

14Meanwhile, and to our surprise, the critic of The Spectator pronounced I vespri siciliani “a ponderous work, in which the composer’s own platitudes and commonplaces are blended with laborious endeavours to imitate the depth and solidity of the German school.”23


1 Benjamin Lumley, The Earl of Dudley, Mr. Lumley, and Her Majesty’s Theatre: A Narrative of Facts Addressed to the Patrons of the Opera, His Friends, and the Public Generally (London: Bosworth & Harrison, 1863), pp. 6–7.

2 The Musical World, February 12, 1859, p. 105.

3 Since Les vêpres siciliennes was given in the Italian translation by Ettore Caimi, the Italian title will be used.

4 The Musical World, March 19, 1859, p. 192.

5 The Musical World, April 23, 1859, p. 264.

6 The Musical World, August 6, 1859, pp. 507–08.

7 The Musical World, August 20, 1859, p. 540.

8 The Musical World, May 7, 1859, p. 297.

9 The Musical World, May 14, 1859, p. 314.

10 The Musical World, July 30, 1859, p. 492.

11 Ibid. The reference to the French titles suggests that what the critic had at hand was the original French version and not the Italian translation, which had been also published for that occasion in London, with the English on facing page.

12 The Times, April 5, 1859, p. 12.

13 The Times, May 20, 1859, p. 8.

14 The Times, July 11, 1859, p. 9.

15 The Times, July 28, 1859, p. 9.

16 The Times, August 1, 1859, p. 6.

17 The Athenaeum, April 9, 1859, p. 493.

18 The Athenaeum, April 30, 1859, p. 588.

19 Ibid.

20 The Athenaeum, July 16, 1859, p. 89.

21 The Athenaeum, August 6, 1859, p. 183. It is worth remembering that Chorley was then working on the English translation of Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, which was to be produced later on that year for the Royal English Opera at Covent Garden. Chorley was criticised for the quality of his translation by the critic of The Musical World (8 October 1859).

22 Ibid.

23 “Music,” The Spectator, July 30, 1859, p. 19.


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