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Verdi in Victorian London

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Massimo Zicari

12. The Years 1860 and 1861: Un ballo in maschera

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Musical World, February 18, 1860, p. 103.
  • 2 James H. Mapleson, The Mapleson Memoirs, 1848–1888 (Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1888), 1: 23.

1In 1860 came the last act of the long-running dispute between Lord Ward and Lumley. A legal action of debt for rent was brought by the former against the latter, the plea being “one of accord and satisfaction by giving up possession of the Opera House and cancelling the lease.”1 A verdict for the plaintiff was quickly reached, consisting in damages of £4,560. On 24 February, The Times announced that Edward Tyrrel Smith, already manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, had signed an agreement to become the lessee of Her Majesty’s Theatre “on a lease of seven, fourteen or twenty-one years.”2 The news was also reported by The Musical World on the 25th, and a few weeks later the prospective opening of the Italian opera season at Her Majesty’s Theatre gained more coverage. The new manager and lessee was eager to announce that the opera season would commence on 10 April, and that all the necessary arrangements had been completed to guarantee the unsurpassed splendour and prestige for which Her Majesty’s Theatre had become deservedly famous the world over. The director had the pleasure to announce that he would “retain the invaluable services of Mademoiselle Tietjens and Madame Alboni, and secure that of Madame Adelaide Borghi Mamo” for his operatic establishment. The conductors Luigi Arditi and Julius Benedict were confirmed, while the names of Pocchini, Ferraris and Cucchi were mentioned in the ballet department.

  • 3 The Musical World, March 24, 1860, p. 196.

2A week later, the list of engagements was enriched by the inclusion of more prominent names, such as Marietta Piccolomini, Maria Brunetti (for the first time in London), Marcella Lotti della Santa and, among the men, Pietro Mongini, Belart, Corsi and Giuglini. It was the director’s intention to produce Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon and Der Freischütz, Gioacchino Rossini’s Otello and Semiramide, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha, Donizetti’s La favorite, and Verdi’s Rigoletto and Il trovatore.3

  • 4 The Musical World, March 31, 1860, p. 197.
  • 5 The Musical World, April 7, 1860, p. 221.

3On 31 March, Gye announced that the Italian opera season at Covent Garden would also commence on 10 April with a performance of Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, featuring Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, Giudita Sylvia, Italo Gardoni, Joseph Tagliafico;4 Jean-Baptiste Faure, for whom the part was originally composed, would appear in the role of Hoel.5 Rossini’s La gazza ladra and Barbiere di Siviglia, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Verdi’s Rigoletto were among the operas promised in the prospectus, besides which two novelties were also mentioned: Flotow’s Stradella and Victor Massé’s Les noces de Jeannette, under the Italian title Le Nozze di Giannetta. Costa was confirmed as the conductor and Augusts Harris as the stage manager.

  • 6 The Musical World, April 14, 1860, p. 236.
  • 7 Ibid.

4The list of vocal stars presented by both operatic establishments prompted the critic of The Musical World to express his concern for the sad state of the Italian vocal art and expand on this issue by raising a critical question: “Does legitimate Italian opera border on dissolution?”6 Not only did the question address the way in which modern composers had advanced towards a new expressive frontier, but also the extent to which the success of the opera was still dependent on the art of singing: “If Italian opera goes, the art of singing, distinguished from that of vocal declamation, must go with it.”7 On the one hand, there was the vocal declamation so dear to the younger composers, among whom the name of Verdi emerged prominently, while on the other lay the much cherished Rossinian florid style. In advocating the qualities of the old method of singing, the critic intended to draw a line between a tradition of uncorrupted vocal mastery and the distasteful fashion brought forward by the new composers. A songstress like Marietta Alboni represented a good case in point.

  • 8 Ibid.

It is notorious that those who have been nurtured in the Italian school of singing are also the best interpreters of the classic German models, and equally so that the voices of the Italians of the last and preceding generations were more enduring, and preserved their vigour and freshness far longer, than those of the present age. Not to travel, however, from our own time, compare Alboni’s execution of the airs in Figaro and Don Giovanni with that of any singer whose youth and adolescence have been chiefly devoted to the operas of Signor Verdi. The one is even, flowing, well-balanced, natural, and expressive—artistically faultless, in a word; while the other, with here and there a fine point, springing from the successful embodiment of a happy impulse, is unequal, anti- rhythmical, strained, and convulsive.8

  • 9 Ibid., p. 237.

5In our critic’s eyes, Rossini’s florid music still represented the benchmark against which the performance of individual singers was to be measured. As a consequence, the critic looked with alarm and concern at the process of degeneration that Italian vocal art was undergoing. “The art of singing is no longer taught in Italy; and now even in this vast city of London, where the Italian Opera has flourished for a century and a-half, it seems impossible to obtain a company of Italian singers, or to compose a repertory of Italian music.”9 To support his claim, the critic drew the reader’s attention to the way in which both opera houses in London had put forward a prospectus where German, Belgian and French names outnumbered the Italian among the ranks of the interpreters. The problem arose not only in such new compositions as Flotow’s Martha, but also in that of Semiramide, the most essentially Italian opera seria by the most essentially Italian composer: the German soprano Thérèse Tietjens performed Semiramide, Evrard, a Belgian, was Assur and Belart, a Spaniard, was Idreno, while the Frenchman Viallette was Oroe. Even though one might argue that it was not entirely true that Italian singers had disappeared from the international scene, the critic’s concern suggests the extent to which a change in the vocal constellation was perceived as capable of threatening or at least destabilising the traditional notion of Italian bel canto as it was generally understood.

  • 10 The Musical World, July 28, 1860, p. 477.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 478.

6Later, Verdi’s Il trovatore (14 April) and La traviata (18 April) were produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre; the first featured Tietjens, while the second had Piccolomini in the title role. Marietta Piccolomini would give five last farewell performances in her most-cherished role of Violetta. In June Ernani and again Il trovatore were performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, while on 21 July Rigoletto was successfully given at Covent Garden, featuring Mario, Ronconi, Tagliafico, Nantier-Didiée and Miolan-Carvalho. Miolan-Carvalho’s rendition of Gilda offered the critic of The Musical World the chance to expand further on the issue concerning the modern vocal style. He pronounced the quality of her voice eminently French, by which he meant that it lacked “the rich tone and volume which we are not merely accustomed to find in Italian sopranos almost as a matter of course, but also very frequently in the Germans and English.”10 Unfortunately, Miolan-Carvalho’s voice had been enfeebled by the continuous strain put upon the higher notes by performing those vocal parts that had been written by selfish and inattentive young composers. However, the critic was quite appreciative of the music allotted to the character of Gilda and held that the solo air “Caro nome che il mio cor” contained some of Verdi’s most genuine melodies and was very much in tune with the sentiment supposed to animate Gilda’s young bosom. The critic described Verdi’s orchestral accompaniments in positive terms, and pronounced them “the most varied and ingenious to be found in any opera by Signor Verdi.”11

7The 1860 opera season had recommenced under unusually favourable auspices, for the two establishments had been restored to their original splendour and were now again able to compete with each other for supremacy in the lyric art. Smith’s effort to take over the management of Her Majesty’s Theatre had been successful and the Italian opera season there had resumed the long tradition initiated by Lumley; Covent Garden continued to collect its share of success thanks to Gye’s entrepreneurial attitude and his collaborators’ skills. In both opera houses, the name of Verdi held a prominent position among those master composers on whose talents the managers had to rely in order to guarantee their financial health.

  • 12 The Musical World, March 16, 1861, p. 172.
  • 13 The Musical World, April 6, 1861, p. 217.
  • 14 The Musical World, April 13, 1861, p. 232.

8At the beginning of 1861, Edward Smith was running two establishments, Her Majesty’s Theatre and Drury Lane, and already in January a series of operatic performances in English were given at Her Majesty’s Theatre, which included Il trovatore, produced in combination with the pantomime Harlequinand Tom Thumb.As usual, during the winter months both managers busied themselves undertaking negotiations so as to secure the most cherished artists for their establishments. On 2 February Smith published a short note stating that the rumours suggesting that Tietjens and Giuglini had been engaged for the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden were groundless. On the contrary, he was eager to announce that the old cast of Her Majesty’s Theatre had been reconfirmed. In the meantime, both theatres continued the by now usual English opera season, consisting of either English operatic works written by local composers (among them Balfe and George Alexander Macfarren), or English translations of stock operas from the Italian (Il trovatore) and the French (Auber’s Le domino noir) repertoire. But when both English opera seasons terminated on 16 March that year, only one Italian opera season could open;12 in fact, on 6 April 1861 it was positively announced that there would be no performances of Italian opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre under the direction of Smith that year.13 One week later, a short announcement made its appearance in the London press, informing the public that unprecedentedly severe financial losses had led Smith to the inevitable conclusion that, “even with crowded houses night after night, the likelihood of a balance ever being struck to his advantage was far too remote to be taken into account.”14 Once again, the financial burden had played a prominent role in marring the popular success of the operatic season.

  • 15 The Musical World, April 6, 1861, p. 216.

9On 4 April, the Italian Opera Season at Covent Garden opened with Meyerbeer’s Le prophète, featuring the same cast as the previous year: Róza Csillag, Amalia Corbari, Enrico Tamberlik and Joseph Tagliafico. This circumstance offered the critic of The Musical World the chance to turn his eye again to the change in the repertoire and to the increasing attention the theatre management was paying to the production of French and German operas. “Instead of depending on those composers who created Italian Opera, and infused into it vitality and strength, the director called to his assistance foreign musicians, and entirely changed the nature and character of Italian Opera proper, as far as his theatre was concerned.”15 While the success of French opera at Covent Garden was undeniable, the critic argued that many undeservedly forgotten Italian operas were waiting to be revived. Together with Rossini, whose L’italiana in Algeri, L’inganno felice, Il Turco in Italia and even Cenerentola had been long neglected, the names of Domenico Cimarosa, Giovanni Paisiello and Niccolò Piccinni were also mentioned among those whose operas were worth resuming.

  • 16 The Musical World, April 13, 1861, p. 236.
  • 17 The identity of the critic is clarified by the initial “R” that appears at the end.
  • 18 The Musical World, June 8, 1861, p. 360.
  • 19 Ibid.
  • 20 Ibid.

10When on 9 April, Rigoletto was performed again at Covent Garden the critic of The Musical World bestowed words of generous appreciation upon the main interpreters, Giorgio Ronconi, in the title role and Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho as Gilda. Constance Nantier Didée and Joseph Tagliafico were pronounced effective, natural and picturesque, while Pietro Neri-Baraldi as the Duke of Mantua suffered from the unequal confrontation with a role that had been attached to such an unforgettable interpreter as Mario. Rigoletto was said to be Verdi’s best opera; the melodies allotted to the jester were pronounced characteristic while Verdi was said to have written nothing more genial and expressive than the music given to Gilda.16 A couple of months later, Mario’s rendition of Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia provided the critic of The Musical World, Desmond Ryan,17 with the opportunity to elaborate once more on the dramatic change in the vocal art that had occurred over the preceding decades. “Such a singer and such music are indeed constituted to uphold genuine Italian vocalisation, in spite of the degenerate influence of Signor Verdi and modern operatic composers.”18 Interestingly, in Ryan’s opinion it was not entirely the composer’s fault if the Italian vocal art had degenerated into a sad state of decadence, for “when signor Verdi commenced writing for the stage the vocalists in the legitimate Italian school were extreme rarities.”19 In the critic’s analysis, the composer had been compelled to accommodate himself to the limited capacities of those “vociferators” who had substituted for true singers; this circumstance had encouraged poorly skilled interpreters to consider a good voice the only and unique requirement necessary to undertake a successful career in the vocal art, while the severe application necessary to learn proper singing was now dismissed as a tiresome, useless task. The vicious circle thus had inevitable consequences on the repertoire itself, for the lack of good singers now prevented the production of the Rossinian operas: “The school of [Giacomo] David, [Nicola] Tacchinardi, [Manuel] Garcia, [Giovanni Battista] Rubini, [Filippo] Galli, [Antonio] Tamburini and others was gradually dying a natural death, and, as an inevitable consequence, Rossini’s music, having nobody to interpret it, was falling into disrepute.”20

11When Il trovatore was performed at Covent Garden on 7 May that year, the critic of The Athenaeum took the chance to reiterate his usual grievances and express his confidence that finally the public would recognise the poor value of Verdi’s most applauded operas.

  • 21 The Athenaeum, May 11, 1861, p. 637.

The superficial attractions of Signor Verdi’s best opera seem to be falling to their true level. The public, we suspect, has had almost enough of the few melodies in the score, too much of its noisy and meagre instrumentation, and to have found out that the extravagance of an opera story may make the whole work as dull as inexpert treatment of an historical anecdote.21

12The critic put forward the usual arguments: lack of true melodic inventiveness, an excessively noisy instrumentation and a subject not appropriate for dramatic representation. Again, a comparison was drawn between Verdi and Rossini: while the popularity of the first among the public was clearly fading away, the second was still able to appeal to the largest audience by virtue of the intrinsic artistic value of his operas. Unless proven wrong by the success of Un ballo in maschera, which was soon to be premiered in London, the critic insisted upon predicting a quick downfall for the composer’s undeserved popularity.

  • 22 Ibid.

The charm of Rigoletto and La Traviata is already worn out, so that the reign of this music, as intrinsically poor as it is superficially pompous, may possibly be approaching an end in this country, unless it be deferred by some success for Un ballo in maschera. Of this music, two contradictory accounts are given; but unless an entire transformation of style has taken place, no well-wisher to composer or to singers will regret if the downfall of a popularity so unmerited should prove to be entire and final. The pleasure in it once exhausted, it is hard to fancy any future race of operagoers returning on Signor Verdi’s music.22

13In the meantime, on 8 June, the Lyceum Theatre opened under the direction of James Henry Mapleson, the late factotum of Smith, and a new Italian opera season was inaugurated with Il trovatore, featuring Tietjens as Leonora, Alboni as Azucena, Giuglini as Manrico and Edouard Gassier as Ferrando. The same cast was announced for the performance of Verdi’s new opera, Un ballo in maschera, which was scheduled for one week later, on 15 June.

  • 23 The Musical World, June 15, 1861, p. 377.
  • 24 The Times, May 29, 1861, p. 8.
  • 25 Both the Music-Halls were run by “the father of the halls,” Charles Morton. “Canterbury Music-Hall, (...)
  • 26 Roberta Montemorra Marvin, “Verdian Opera Burlesqued: A Glimpse into Mid-Victorian Theatrical Cultu (...)

14As the editor of The Musical World testified, the production of Verdi’s new opera had been announced by the managers of both Italian theatres in a moment when the prestige of its composer seemed to be on the wane, “when his popularity appeared to totter beneath the new impetus given to good music; when the Trovatore was beginning to pall upon the public taste, and the Traviata was all but banished from the operatic repertory.”23 Although Un ballo in maschera had first appeared among the novelties announced in Gye’s prospectus that year,24 James Henry Mapleson was the first to produce it; Un ballo in maschera was given at the Lyceum Theatre on 15 June, and at Covent Garden on 24 June, with a different cast. What is more, the music of Verdi’s last opera had already been made familiar to the London public, for it had been performed at two music venues, the Canterbury and the Oxford Music Halls.25 Given that both music halls offered light entertainments typical of the “song-and- supper rooms,” it would be extremely interesting to explore the nature of those changes and adaptations in the music that might have filled the gap between the original operatic product and the expectations of a much larger public. In fact, although the issue concerning Italian opera, and Verdi’s works in particular, being burlesqued in Victorian London has been investigated,26 little attention seems to have been paid to the manner in which Verdi’s music was popularised within the province of the music hall during the same years. However, the very fact that Verdi’s music was present in venues commonly devoted to light entertainment is a strong sign of his popularity and financial profitability.

  • 27 Edward J. Dent, “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Music & Letters 33/2 (1952): 101–10.
  • 28 The Musical World, June 15, 1861, p. 377.

15In introducing Un ballo in maschera to its readers, The Musical World pointed out that its subject had been taken from Eugène Scribe’s Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué, which had already been set to music by Daniel Auber in 1833. Auber’s successful opera had been adapted by James Planché as an English melodrama and given at Coven Garden on 13 November 1833, while the Italian translation of the opera was performed in London in 1851.27 Although Verdi’s librettist Antonio Somma had recast the airs, duets and ensembles according to the conventions of the Italian stage, which meant the removal of the first ballet scene and the reduction of the second to a ballroom background, a comparison between Verdi’s new opera and its precedents was unavoidable. The Italian composer was now “bringing his music into direct competition with that of one who was a far greater master and more inspired writer than himself.”28 However, the article concluded on a note of optimism, for Verdi was the only living composer from whom not only the general public, but also the qualified critic might expect something sufficiently inspired and dramatically conceived to bear comparison with the French precedent.

  • 29 Ibid.

The general public, after all, are not such fools; and Sig. Verdi’s long- ending popularity proves incontestably not only that he possesses qualities which no other composer possesses, but that to him belongs the still rarer quality of interesting and exciting in an eminent degree. And so we, too, as well as the profanum vulgus, will be right glad to hear a new work which has emanated from his fertile pen.29

16The Musical World devoted ample space to the performance of Un ballo in maschera and two different contributions made their appearance in that journal a week later, the first focusing on the music and the second on its performance. The unprecedented situation of two different articles placed in two different columns of the same journal but relating to one and the same musical work can be explained by reference to the recent publication of a series of select piano reductions of vocal airs taken from Un ballo by the London publisher Boosey and Sons. This collection was advertised for sale in the same issue of the journal and, as a result, emphatic judgments and flattering remarks characterised both contributions. The first one appeared in the Reviews column of The Musical World and was to a good extent based on the vocal scores and piano reductions published by Boosey and Sons. The second appeared in the Operas column, where the critic reviewed the performance and the interpreters.

  • 30 The Musical World, June 22, 1861, p. 387.
  • 31 Ibid.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 390.

17As previously mentioned, Un ballo in maschera was first performed at the Lyceum Theatre on Saturday 15 June, while the Italian Opera at Covent Garden would present it one week later, on 24 June, after the revival of Rigoletto. The success of the opera at the Lyceum, the critic of The Musical World held, was undeniable and although different opinions had been expressed in this regard, it was equally undeniable that the opera was full of melodies “likely to fasten on the general ear,”30 or, to put it in clearer terms, “full of tune—of sentimental tune, dramatic tune, and purely catching tune.”31 The cavatina for the baritone “Alla vita che t’arride” from Act I, Scene 1 was compared to the insinuating music of Balfe’s ballads, while the aria for the soprano “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” from Act III Scene 1, or Renato’s aria “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima” from Act III, Scene 1, provided solid evidence of Verdi’s tunefulness. A more promising beginning was not possible and these arias would be rapidly circulating among music amateurs. About the performance the critic was no less enthusiastic and all the performers were pronounced magnificent, unqualified praise being awarded to the whole cast. Giuglini, in the role of Richard, Earl of Warwick, sang with infinite charm and never had to force his voice, while Tietjens, who appeared “to extraordinary advantage in Verdi’s energetic heroine,”32 outclassed everyone by her tragic abilities. In short, no complaint was expressed by the critic with regard to either the music or its interpretation; no specific reference was made to the loudness of the orchestra or to the coarse treatment of the voices.

18One week later, Un ballo in maschera was produced at Covent Garden with a different cast (which included Rosina Penco, Marie Miolan- Carvalho, Constance Nantier-Didiée, Francesco Graziani, Mario, Joseph Tagliafico and Zelger) and the same setting adopted in Paris in January of that year. At the Théâtre Italien, Mario had refused to be the Earl of Warwick and to wear the appropriate costume; to accommodate him, the scene was transferred to Naples, and other characters had to be changed to suit the new setting. At Covent Garden the scene was also set in Naples, instead of Boston; Amelia and Oscar had become Adelia and Edgard in Paris and remained unchanged in London, while Samuel and Tom, the two conspirators, were called Armando and Angri at Covent Garden. Mario wore three different costumes, which, The Times reported on 1 July, all suited him superbly, especially the picturesque one of a Neapolitan sailor.

  • 33 The Musical World, June 29, 1861, p. 407.

19When Un ballo in maschera was produced at Covent Garden, the critic of The Musical World was as appreciative towards the music as he had been on the previous occasion; however he now used different terms to address the question concerning the quality of the voice necessary to perform it. The cast looked powerful but, he held, Verdi’s music did not always “suit itself to the means of the best singers.”33 The music demanded an amount of energy and strength of lungs to be found in few singers; while Rosina Penco was admirable in Mozart and Rossini, she was quite inadequate as Verdi’s heroine. Francesco Graziani’s praiseworthy performance as Renato was judged wanting in dramatic vigour and truth, Mario’s impersonation of the Duke being the only performance deserving of unconditional commendation. As already suggested, the critic was now more inclined to accept Verdi among the composers worthy of his admiration; while in previous years he had condemned severely the many shortcomings noticeable in Verdi’s treatment of the voice, he now pointed out that singers formed two different classes. The first included those younger interpreters who were endowed with the necessary skills to perform Verdi’s new music, while the second comprised those who, instead, had been trained in the traditional florid style.

  • 34 The Athenaeum, June 22, 1861, p. 837.

20The critic of The Athenaeum showed no more leniency to Un ballo in maschera than he had done with Verdi’s previous operas, and he addressed the question concerning the quality of the music and the merits of its composer in the usual negative terms. The fact that Verdi was the only Italian composer enjoying an international reputation did not stem from his artistic merits but, on the contrary, from the sad state of decadence in which Italian opera lay at the moment. Although the composer seemed to have advanced in his dramatic and compositional skills, the attempt to imitate Meyerbeer had not resulted in any improvement, but rather in a reduced effectiveness in the melodies and in a less spontaneous dramatic genius. The idea of setting to music a subject for which Daniel Auber had already written some very beautiful pages was not felicitous, and the result consisted in “many old phrases, with a few new eccentricities of instrumentation.”34 The music in the first act, which takes place in the hut of the sorceress, was pronounced “more tiresome than terrible,” Ulrica’s cantabile was “more peaceful and pretty than appropriate,” while nothing could be staler than the Earl of Warrick’s barcarolle. The second act included the best music in the opera; still, when tested against Meyerbeer’s masterwork, it showed its limits. The third act did not improve the general impression: the vocal pieces were poor, while the rest of the music suffered from the infelicitous comparison with Meyerbeer and Auber.

  • 35 Ibid.

The end comes in the usual “sound and fury” of screams for the heroine, alternated with sorrowful slow notes for the tenor. To close what has been a long story, though it is one needful to be told, we must state as a conviction that Signor Verdi has not conquered a hair’s breadth of new, solid territory in his last opera.35

  • 36 The Athenaeum, July 6, 1861, p. 25.
  • 37 Ibid.

21Such a negative criticism was confirmed soon afterwards, when Un ballo in maschera was presented at Covent Garden, on the occasion of which the critic of The Athenaeum declared himself relieved to be “absolved from the necessity of returning to the dry and superficial music of this opera, and have only to speak of the cast.”36 However, he took each and every chance to throw his darts against Verdi, whose composition was again made the object of severe criticism. Miolan-Carvalho’s personation of Oscar was good, especially considering the talent and skill she had manifested in her Cherubino and the fact that she had “to fight for lean and characterless phrases in place of expressing the beautiful melodies of a great master.”37 Nantier-Didiée was a portentous sorceress, notwithstanding the insignificant music allotted to her character. The final verdict reveals the attitude of the critic at its most characteristic:

  • 38 Ibid.

On the whole, though new Italian operas, which any English hearer will admit are scarce, we conceive that Signor Verdi’s last will not plant itself on our stage even for such a short and already-exhausted life as that of his Il Trovatore. The performance, however, was received with every sign of favour, and—as a performance—deserved to be so received.38

22The conclusion chimed with that of the previous review, in that both articles insisted on the ephemeral nature of the opera’s success and the poor quality of its music. In a way, Chorley shared with his colleague from The Musical World the idea that two different singing styles had established themselves among opera singers; the difference was that he continued to treasure the old one and resent the new one unconditionally.

  • 39 The Times, May 8, 1861, p. 12.
  • 40 The Musical World, 15 June 1861, pp. 372–73.
  • 41 The Times, June 11, 1861, p. 6.

23The Times recorded the success scored by Verdi’s new opera in terms strongly suggestive of the role a single critic (Davison) was playing in two journals, The Times and The Musical World. On 10 April 1861, The Times reviewed the performance of Rigoletto, praising those genial and expressive melodies that Verdi had allotted to the part of Gilda, and indulging in a long and articulate description of Ronconi’s dramatic qualities. An identical article was reproduced three days later in the columns of The Musical World. The same happened in May, when Il trovatore was selected for the first appearance of Penco and Graziani at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden. On 8 May The Times reviewed the performance, praising the interpreters for their vocal and dramatic qualities and highlighting the way Signor Tamberlik had “electrified the house, and was twice called before the curtain amid vociferous acclamations for having interpolated, in an unexpected place, his extraordinary high chest C.”39 On 11 May the same review appeared in the columns of The Musical World. Again, on 11 June, The Times reviewed the performance of Il trovatore at the Lyceum Theatre, and the same review appeared in The Musical World four days later.40 On that occasion the critic thought it pointless to elaborate further on the quality of the music, for Il trovatore had already proven as enduring as many other undisputed masterpieces from the past (including Il barbiere di Siviglia or Don Giovanni), able to outlive “the fashion of the period at which it was originally produced.”41 The critic referred to the way in which Verdi had mistreated the singers and abused their voices in quite milder terms. He was ready to acknowledge that even Verdi’s music could be properly sung. The point was that only a good singer could “vindicate” Verdi’s reputation.

  • 42 Ibid.

It has been too persistently maintained that the music given to the Gipsy—that inauspicious and ghastly woman (vide English libretto)—can only properly be “screamed;” but it is the privilege of Madame Alboni to vindicate the reputation of Signor Verdi by showing that the music of Azucena may be sung—and sung, moreover, with as much ease as if it had proceeded straight from the fluent and graceful pen of Rossini himself.42

  • 43 Ibid.

24One last reference was made to the quality of the performance when Enrico Delle Sedie’s rendition of the character Conte di Luna was reviewed. The critic held that the singer made a good impression “especially in the romance, ‘Il balen del suo sorriso,’ which, though robbed of its native simplicity by a slight excess of ornament, he sang otherwise remarkably well, amply meriting the encore that, as a matter of course (when was ‘Il balen’ not encored?), he obtained.”43 The reference to the addition of ornaments is unequivocal and leads us to question whether two vocal styles really coexisted at the time, depending on the repertoire. In fact, even though it is clear that Verdi’s vocal writing represents a step forward towards a dramatised style, adding ornaments and replacing written cadenzas was still typical of an uninterrupted tradition that now included Verdi, alongside Bellini, Donizetti and even Rossini.

  • 44 The Times, July 1, 1861, p. 5.
  • 45 Ibid.

25Finally, on 1 July, The Times published a long and articulate review of Un ballo in maschera as performed at Covent Garden. Its tone, despite some infelicitous comparison with Auber’s precedent, was strongly appreciative. Verdi’s music was pure Verdi, “sometimes of Verdi’s best, occasionally of a less high standard, but very rarely (if ever) sinking beneath the average Verdi level.”44 Although no technical analysis was necessary, the music revealed its beauties quite naturally and a long- lasting success was easily predicted. The pieces in the first act that demanded attention were immediately individuated by the critic: the Duke’s first aria “La rivedrà nell’estasi,” thanks to its melodious character, Renato’s solo “Alla vita che t’arride,” on account of its expressiveness, and the romance of Oscar, “Volta la terrea,” because of its sparkling prettiness. Interestingly, the critic drew a comparison between Verdi’s felicitous inventiveness and two other composers; while “Alla vita che t’arride” might have passed for one of those insinuating pieces for which Balfe was so much cherished, the sparkling ballade of the Paggio revealed the touch of the late Adolphe Adam. The same remarks had made their appearance in the columns of The Musical World on 22 June, suggesting once again that a single person supervised both journals. The solo for Ulrica, “Della città all’occaso,” was really beautiful; the trio “Di' tu se fedele” was pronounced tuneful, expressive and full of character; the quintet “E’ scherzo od è follia” was the happiest of all the quintets composed by Verdi so far, for the combination of voices was irreproachable and the effect spontaneous. The third act was powerfully set to music, the composer having written no less than four “numbers of which he may reasonably be proud.” The air in which Amelia petitions Renato (“Morrà ma prima in grazia”) and that in which Renato laments his wife’s lost innocence (“O dolcezze perdute”) were “both to be admired, the first for its touching pathos, the last for its genuine and expressive melody.” Tunefulness, beauty, spontaneity, expressiveness and prettiness were the words chosen by the critic to describe Verdi’s musical accomplishments. However, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, and even Nabucco and Ernani were said to include much better and more dramatic pages than this most recent opera.45

26The critic of The Spectator uttered words of cautious optimism and acknowledged the composer’s merits despite Verdi’s unfortunate decision to set to music a text for which Auber had already written memorable pages.

  • 46 The Spectator, June 22, 1861, p. 17.

But our impression (derived from a single representation) is, that it is equal, if not superior, to any of Verdi’s previous operas, especially in the concerted music, where there is a breadth, richness of harmony, and constructive skill, of which this composer has rarely shown himself capable.46

27With only one exception, in 1861 most of the critics toned down the aggressive reviews that characterised the previous decade and conceptualised Verdi’s music in more generous and appreciative terms. While Chorley continued to antagonise Verdi and express his strongly conservative views on melodiousness and inventiveness, the others had come to accept Verdi and the dramatic style typically associated with his operas. The question concerning the vocal technique required to cope with the new style had been also put aside, for it was generally understood that a good singer could master Verdi’s dramatic style as well as the traditional florid singing.

  • 47 The Musical World, March 16, 1861, p. 164.

28In 1861, occasional echoes of the discussion concerning Richard Wagner’s recently published “The Music of the Future” reached London from the continent, and articles from the French and the German press were occasionally translated and published in The Musical World. When Wagner’s Tannhäuser was first performed in Paris on 13 March 1861, many reviews from Die Kölnische Zeitung, Die Niederrheinische Musikzeitung and Le Ménestrel were reproduced in the columns of The Musical World, reporting on first the hitches and squabbles that delayed the performance and then on the negative reception scored by its composer.47 On 23 March, a long report from Le Ménestrel (translated and abridged) was included in the columns of The Musical World, commenting on the hostile reaction of the Paris audience, owing to the unmusical nature of Wagner’s music.

  • 48 The Musical World, March 23, 1861, p. 182.

To speak plainly, they were over-excited by an orchestration invariably noisy, by laboured and interminable dissonances; by complications without end as without evident purpose, by superfluous conglomeration of details, by monotonous abuse of the first string of the fiddles, and a superabundance of recitative, tending to produce a dangerous state of turpitude among the audience.48

  • 49 The Musical World, April 6, 1861, p. 214.
  • 50 Ibid.

29The public, it was suggested, used their silence, their exclamations, their laughter, and occasionally their hisses to condemn the excesses of a musical system that went against the natural categories of good taste, and that only a well-trained specialist might consent to analyse. Similar comments made their appearance in the columns of the Niederrheinische Musik-Zeitung, and were reported in The Musical World. The critic argued that “the only considerable and determining power which successfully opposed Tannhäuser was French good taste, which revolted both against the tendentious and supernatural subject of the Legend Drama, and the unmelodious music.”49 The failure of the opera might have been easily predicted, for, in addition to the poor quality of the music, Wagner’s conduct, “his boundless self-laudation, his literary self-mirroring, his reformatory bombast, and his revolting degradation of the greatest composers of dramatic music, obliged the public to apply a severe standard to his artistic productions, for the purpose of testing what grounds there were for justifying, or ever simply excusing, his wordly bragging.”50

30Similar attention was paid by Chorley to the complete failure of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris. On 23 March 1861 The Athenaeum joined the choir and expressed its verdict on Wagner’s new no-music.

  • 51 The Athenaeum, March 23, 1861, pp. 402–03.

No doubt, allowance is to be made for antagonism stirred by Herr Wagner’s paraded disdain of the music which preceded his attempts, and by the extravagant ardour of his partisans. But be such allowance greater or less, the work brought to judgment remains intrinsically bad, [...] we are glad, for the sake of Art, that the verdict has been so condemnatory.51

Notes

1 The Musical World, February 18, 1860, p. 103.

2 James H. Mapleson, The Mapleson Memoirs, 1848–1888 (Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1888), 1: 23.

3 The Musical World, March 24, 1860, p. 196.

4 The Musical World, March 31, 1860, p. 197.

5 The Musical World, April 7, 1860, p. 221.

6 The Musical World, April 14, 1860, p. 236.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., p. 237.

10 The Musical World, July 28, 1860, p. 477.

11 Ibid., p. 478.

12 The Musical World, March 16, 1861, p. 172.

13 The Musical World, April 6, 1861, p. 217.

14 The Musical World, April 13, 1861, p. 232.

15 The Musical World, April 6, 1861, p. 216.

16 The Musical World, April 13, 1861, p. 236.

17 The identity of the critic is clarified by the initial “R” that appears at the end.

18 The Musical World, June 8, 1861, p. 360.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 The Athenaeum, May 11, 1861, p. 637.

22 Ibid.

23 The Musical World, June 15, 1861, p. 377.

24 The Times, May 29, 1861, p. 8.

25 Both the Music-Halls were run by “the father of the halls,” Charles Morton. “Canterbury Music-Hall,” in The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre, edited by Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found. Oxford University Press, 1996. Available at http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780192825742.001.0001/acref-9780192825742-e-536

26 Roberta Montemorra Marvin, “Verdian Opera Burlesqued: A Glimpse into Mid-Victorian Theatrical Culture,” Cambridge Opera Journal 15/1 (2003): 33–66.

27 Edward J. Dent, “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Music & Letters 33/2 (1952): 101–10.

28 The Musical World, June 15, 1861, p. 377.

29 Ibid.

30 The Musical World, June 22, 1861, p. 387.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., p. 390.

33 The Musical World, June 29, 1861, p. 407.

34 The Athenaeum, June 22, 1861, p. 837.

35 Ibid.

36 The Athenaeum, July 6, 1861, p. 25.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 The Times, May 8, 1861, p. 12.

40 The Musical World, 15 June 1861, pp. 372–73.

41 The Times, June 11, 1861, p. 6.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 The Times, July 1, 1861, p. 5.

45 Ibid.

46 The Spectator, June 22, 1861, p. 17.

47 The Musical World, March 16, 1861, p. 164.

48 The Musical World, March 23, 1861, p. 182.

49 The Musical World, April 6, 1861, p. 214.

50 Ibid.

51 The Athenaeum, March 23, 1861, pp. 402–03.