Opera

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), pp. 104-105

Production: André Grétry and Michel-Jean Sedaine, Richard Coeur-de-lion, Théâtre Feydeau, Paris, July 1815

Text: The Prussians are quartered all over Paris; and wherever they suspect the loyalty of the inhabitants they keep quartering more soldiers upon them. Our men are quartered out of the town – in the Bois de Boulogne – the officers excepted. One evening we went to the Théâtre Feydeau, opera comique. The first piece was ending as we entered the house, and some couplets were sung in praise of Louis XVIII; they were received with violent applause by the whole audience. One man, however, ventured to hiss, whereupon there was a great disturbance, and the individual in question was thrown out of the pit. The couplets were then encored amid tumultuous expressions of delight. It was a moving scene. The petit-pièce was entitled “Richard Coeur de Lion.” The man who represented Blondel had been with the King to Ghent, and was consequently much applauded. He sang well, and with real feeling. When Marguerite in the play said, “Vous etiez avec le Roi,” the cheering was beyond description. I cannot describe the enthusiasm which prevailed throughout the house. The theatre is dirty, the boxes small and insufferably hot.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. At the time of this diary entry, Paris was occupied by British and Prussian troops following the defeat of Napoleon. She saw the opéra comique Richard Coeur-de-lion composed by André Grétry, with a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, at the Théâtre Feydeau. It was an immensely popular work, first performed in 1784, but was not presented in France during the revolutionary period, owing to its royalist theme.

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Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Source: William Theobald Wolfe Tone (ed.), Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, written by himself; comprising a complete journal of his negotiations to procure the aid of the French for the liberation of Ireland, with selections from his diary whilst agent to the Irish Catholics (London: H. Colburn, 1827), vol. 1, pp. 212-215

Production: François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and Christoph Gluck, Iphigénie en Aulide and François-Joseph Gossec, L’Offrande à la Liberté, Théâtre des Arts, Paris, 13 February 1796

Text: In the evening at the Grand Opera, Theatre des Arts; Iphigénie. The theatre magnificent, and I should judge, about one hundred performers in the orchestra. The dresses most beautiful, and a scrupulous attention to costume, in all the decorations, which I have never seen in London. The performers were completely Grecian statues animated, and I never saw so manifestly the superiority of the taste of the ancients in dress, especially as regards the women. Iphigénie (La citoyenne Cheron) was dressed entirely in white, without the least ornament, and nothing can be imagined more truly elegant and picturesque. The acting admirable, but the singing very inferior to that of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The French cannot sing like the Italians. Agamemnon excellent. Clytemnestra still better. Achilles abominable, yet more applauded than either of them. Sang in the old French style, which is most detestable, shaking and warbling on every note: vile! vile! vile! The others sang in a style sufficiently correct. The ballet, L’Offrande à la Liberté most superb. In the centre of the stage was the statue of Liberty, with an altar blazing before her. She was surrounded by the characters in the opera, in their beautiful Grecian habits. The civic air “Veillons au salut de l’Empire” was sung by a powerful base, and received with transport by the audience. Whenever the word, esclavage was uttered, it operated like an electric shock. The Marseillaise hymn was next sung, and produced still greater enthusiasm. At the words, “Aux armes citoyens!” all the performers drew their swords and the females turned to them as encouraging them. Before the last verse there was a short pause; the time of the music was changed to a very slow movement, and supported only by the flutes and oboes; a beautiful procession entered; first little children like cherubs, with baskets of flowers ; these were followed by boys, a little more advanced, with white javelins (the Hasta pura of the ancients) in their hands. Then came two beautiful female figures, moving like the Graces themselves, with torches blazing; these were followed by four negroes, characteristically dressed, and carrying two tripods between them, which they placed respectfully on each side of the altar; next came as many Americans, in the picturesque dress of Mexico; and these were followed by an immense crowd of other performers, variously habited, who ranged themselves on both sides of the stage. The little children then approached the altar with their baskets of flowers, which they laid before the goddess; the rest in turn succeeded, and hung the altar and the base of the statue with garlands and wreaths of roses; the two females with the torches approached the tripods, and, just touching them with the fire, they kindled into a blaze. The whole then knelt down, and all of this was executed in cadence to the music and with grace beyond description. The
first part of the last verse, “Amour sacré de la patrie” was then sung slowly and solemnly, and the words “Liberté, Liberté cherie” with an emphasis which affected me most powerfully. All this was at once pathetic and sublime, beyond what I had ever seen or could almost imagine; but it was followed by an incident which crowned the whole, and rendered it indeed a spectacle worthy of a free republic. At the repetition of the words, Aux armes, citoyens! the music changed again to a martial style, the performers sprung on their feet, and in an instant the stage was filled with National Guards, who rushed in with bayonets fixed, sabres drawn, and the tri-colour flag flying. It would be impossible to describe the effect of this. I never knew what enthusiasm was before; and what heightened it beyond all conception was, that the men I saw before me were not hirelings acting a part; they were what they seemed, French citizens flying to arms, to rescue their country from slavery. They were the men who had precipitated Cobourg into the Sambre, and driven Clairfait over the Rhine, and were, at this very moment, on the eve of again hurrying to the frontiers, to encounter fresh dangers and gain fresh glory. This was what made the spectacle interesting beyond all description. I would willingly sail again from New York to enjoy again what I felt at that moment. Set the ballets of the Haymarket beside this! This sublime spectacle concluded the ballet: but why must I give it so poor a name? It was followed by another ballet, which one might call so, but even this was totally different from what such things used to be. The National Guards were introduced again, and, instead of dancing, at least three-fourths of the exhibition consisted of military evolutions, which, it should seem, are now more to the French taste than allemandes and minuets and pas de deux. So best! It is curious now to consider at what rate one may see all this. I paid for my seat in the boxes one hundred and fifty livres, in assignats, which, at the present rate, is very nearly sixpence sterling. The highest priced seats were but two hundred livres, which is eightpence. I mention this principally to introduce a conjecture which struck me at Havre, but which seems much more probable here, that the Government supports the theatres privately. And, in France, it is excellent policy, where the people are so much addicted to spectacles, of which there are now about twenty in Paris, and all full every night. What would my dearest love have felt at the “L’Offrande à la Liberté?

Comments: Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was an Irish republican who led the Irish rebellion of 1798. He went to Paris in February 1796 to persuade the revolutionary government to assist in an invasion of Ireland. Chrisoph Gluck composed two operas on the classical legend of Iphigenia, Iphigénie en Tauride and Iphigénie en Aulide. The latter had a libretto by François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and was seen by Tone at the Théâtre des Arts, later the Théâtre National de la rue de la Loi, in Paris. ‘La citoyenne Cheron’ was the actress Anne Cameroy or Anne Chéron (1767-18??). François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was a French composer. His L’Offrande à la Liberté was one of several works he wrote in celebration of the French Revolution.

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The Journal of an Excursion to the United States of North America

‘Interior View of Chestnut Street (New) Theatre’ (1798?), Penn Library

Source: Henry Wansey, The Journal of an Excursion to the United States of North America in the Summer of 1794 (Salisbury/London: J. Easton/ G. and T. Wilkie, 1796), pp. 126-127

Production: Elizabeth Inchbald, Every One Has His Fault, Chestnut Street (New) Theatre, Philadelphia, 6 June 1794

Text: In the evening, I went to the new Theatre, to see Mrs. Cowley’s Play, “Every One has his Fault,” with the Farce of “No Song No Supper.” Mrs. Whitlock, sister to Mrs. Siddons, is the chief actress; and, to my surprise, I recognized Darley, one of our actors, last winter at Salisbury, in the character of Crop. It is an elegant and convenient theatre, as large as that of Covent Garden; and, to judge from the dress and appearance of the company around me, and the actors and scenery, I should have thought I had still been in England. The ladies wore the small bonnets of the same fashion as those I saw when I left England; some of chequered straw, &c. some with their hair full dressed, without caps, as with us, and very few in the French style. The younger ladies with their hair flowing in ringlets on their shoulders. The gentlemen with round hats, their coats with high collars, and cut quite in the English fashion, and many in silk striped coats. The scenery of the stage excellent, particularly a view on the Skuylkill [i.e. Schuylkill River], about two miles from the city. The greatest part of the scenes, however, belonged once to Lord Barrymore’s Theatre, at Wargrave. The motto over the stage is novel:— “The Eagle suffers little Birds to sing.” Thereby hangs a tale. When it was in contemplation to build this Theatre, it was strongly opposed by the Quakers, who used all their influence with Congress to prevent it, as tending to corrupt the manners of the people, and encrease too much the love of pleasure. It was, however, at length carried, and this motto from Shakespear was chosen. It is applicable in another sense; for the State House, where Congress sits, is directly opposite to it, both being in Chesnut-street, and both houses are often performing at the same time. Yet the Eagle (the emblem adopted by the American government) is no ways interrupted by the chattering of these mock birds with their mimic Tones.

Comments: Henry Wansey (1752?-1827) was an English antiquarian and traveller. In 1794 he visited the United States of America and two years later published an account of his travels, including meeting President George Washington. The play he saw at the Chestnut Street Theatre (aka The New Theatre), Every One Has His Fault, was written by Elizabeth Inchbald, not Hannah Cowley, while the operatic afterpiece No Song No Supper had music by Stephen Storace and a libretto by Prince Hoare. The lead actress was Elizabeth Whitlock, sister to Sarah Siddons. Philadelphia acted as the temporary capital of the United States, 1790–1800, while Washington D.C. was under construction. “The Eagle suffers little Birds to sing” comes from Titus Andronicus.

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The Diary of John Evelyn

Source: William Bray (ed.), Memoirs of John Evelyn … comprising his diary, from 1641-1705-6, and a selection of his familiar letters, to which is subjoined, the private correspondence between King Charles I. and Sir Edward Nicholas; also between Sir Edward Hyde, afterwards Earl of Clarendon, and Sir Richard Browne, ambassador to the Court of France, in the time of King Charles I. and the usurpation, Vol. 2 (London : H. Coburn, 1827), p. 185

Production: William Davenant, The Siege of Rhodes, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, 9 January 1662

Text: I saw acted “The Third Part of the Siege of Rhodes.” In this acted yº faire and famous comedian call’d Roxalana from ye part she perform’d; and I think it was the last, she being taken to be the Earle of Oxford’s Misse (as at this time they began to call lewd women). It was in recitativa musiq.

Comments: John Evelyn (1620-1706) was an English writer and horticulturalist, who kept a diary from 1640 to 1706, though for its first twenty years or so the entries were composed from notes some time after the relevant dates. Roxalana was the actress Hester Davenport, mistress of the Earl of Oxford, and nicknamed after the part she played in William Davenant‘s The Siege of Rhodes, generally held to be the first British opera. ‘Recitativa musiq’ indicates that it was sung rather than spoken. The work was in two parts, of which this was the second, not a third.

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The Diary of an Invalid

Source: Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819 vol. 1 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), p. 141

Production: unidentified opera, Rome, 8 January 1818

Text: In the evening we went to the Italian comedy, which was so tiresome that we could not endure more than one scene. We drove afterwards to the opera. The theatre large and handsome;— six tiers of boxes. The seats in the pit are numbered, and divided off separately with elbows:— so that you may take any one of them in the morning, and secure it for the whole evening. Some plan of this kind would surely be a great improvement in our own theatres. The dancing was bad, and the singing worse. A set of burlesque dancers amused us afterwards, by aping the pirouettes of the others. The dancing of the stage gives but too much foundation for such caricatures. It is daily becoming less elegant, as the difficult is substituted for the graceful. What can be more disgusting than to see the human figure twirling round with the legs at right angles? In such an attitude, “Man delights not me nor woman neither.” All postures to be graceful should be easy and natural, and what can be more unnatural than this?

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. The theatre he visited in Rome may have been the Teatro Argentina.

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The Diary of Philipp von Neumann

Source: E. Beresford Chancellor (ed.), The Diary of Philipp von Neumann, vol. 1 (London: Philip Allan, 1928), pp. 11-12

Production: William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Covent Garden, London, 11 December 1819

Text: Dec. 11th. Went with Pahlen to Covent Garden to see Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, of which the plot hinges on two brothers and two men servants who resemble one another so closely as to produce all sorts of embarassing situations. Regnard might have supposed he was witnessing his comedy of Ménœchmes. The fact is these plays read better than they act, because the illusion is destroyed by the want of resemblance, which is always lacking among actors. Terence gave the first idea of such pieces, but then the actors played in masks and the illusion was complete. The airs introduced and sung by Miss Tree and Miss Stephens did not add to the effectiveness of the play.

Comments: Baron Philipp von Neumann (1781-1851) was an Austrian diplomat, posted at the Austrian embassy in London during the 1810s and 1820s. His diaries provide a detailed account of the political and high society life of the time, and document his many visits to the theatre and opera. Shakespeare’s play and that of Jean-François Regnard were each indebted to Plautus‘s Roman play Menaechmi. The production of The Comedy of Errors seen by Neumann was an operatic staging by Frederic Reynolds, featuring songs by Henry Bishop. Reynolds specialised in musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. The singers were Anna Maria Tree and Catherine Stephens.

Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin

Source: Henry Reeve, Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin, in the eventful winter 1805-6 (London: Longmans, Green, 1877), pp. 64-65

Production: Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Sonnleithner, Fidelio, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 21 November 1805

Text: Thursday, November 21. – Went to the Wieden Theatre to the new opera ‘Fidelio,’ the music composed by Beethoven. The story and plan of the piece are a miserable mixture of low manners and romantic situations; the airs, duets, and choruses equal to any praise. The several overtures, for there is an overture to each act, appeared to be too artificially composed to be generally pleasing, especially on being first heard. Intricacy is the character of Beethoven’s music, and it requires a well-practised ear, or a frequent repetition of the same piece, to understand and distinguish its beauties. This is the first opera he ever composed, and it was much applauded; a copy of complimentary verses was showered down from the upper gallery at the end of the piece. Beethoven presided at the pianoforte and directed the performance himself. He is a small dark young-looking man, wears spectacles, and is like Mr. Koenig. Few people present, though the house would have been crowded in every part but for the present state of public affairs.

Comments: Henry Reeve (1780–1814) was an English physician who undertook a tour through Europe over 1805-06, visiting the theatre on many occasions. Beethoven‘s opera Fidelio, with libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner, premiered at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on 20 November 1805; Reeve saw it the following day. There was one further performance, after which Beethoven reduced the opera from three acts to two, with a new overture. It was further revised in 1814. The ‘present state of public affairs’ to which Reeve refers was the French military occupation of Vienna during the Napoleonic wars.

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Riot at Covent Garden Theatre

‘Riot at Covent Garden Theatre, 1763 print, Theatre and Performance Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1763, vol. XXXII, p. 97

Production: Thomas Arne, Artaxerxes, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 February 1763

Text: A riot happened at Covent-Garden theatre occasioned by a demand being made for full prices at the opera of Artaxerxes. The mischief done was the greatest ever, known on any occasion of the like kind; all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so that if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000l. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.

Comments: The opera Artaxerxes by Thomas Arne premiered successfully at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762. When it was revived at the same theatre on 24 February 1763 a riot occurred in protest at the abolition of half-price admissions. It has been the custom to sell half-price tickets for latecomers who would see only the short afterpiece rather than the main attraction of the evening. This change in policy was fiercely opposed by some and led to several such riots, at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The protests caused the half-price concession to be re-introduced when the theatre re-opened on March 2nd. 2000l is £2,000.

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The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen

Margaret Farrell, who became Margaret Kennedy on her second marriage, as Macheath in 1777, University of Illinois Theatrical Print Collection

Source: George Atkinson Ward, The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen, an American in England, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1864 [4th ed.]), p. 305

Production: John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 25 September 1780

Text: Sept. 25. At Covent Garden Theatre; performance, “Beggar’s Opera;” parts well played, but great impropriety, not to say indecency, in Mrs. Kennedy’s personating McHeath. Bravery, gallantry, and a fearless disregard of death, the characteristics of that notorious highwayman, which female softness awkwardly imitates. Following entertainment, falsely so called; execrably foolish and childish. I am sorry to arraign even the shilling gallery for want of judgment, in suffering such unmeaning stuff to pass for a farce.

Comments: Samuel Curwen (1715-1802) was an American merchant and justice. As a British loyalist fled America in 1775, having been attacked for not opposing the British military action at Lexington and Concord, and spent ten years in Britain, during which time he became a supporter of the American cause. John Gay‘s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera was performed at Covent Garden on 25 September 1780 with the contralto Margaret Kennedy, well-known for her performances in male roles, playing Macheath.

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William Allingham: A Diary

Source: H. Allingham and D. Radford (eds.), William Allingham: A Diary (London: Macmillan, 1908), pp. 42-43

Production: Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani, La Sonnambula, Theatre Royal, Dublin, 10 October 1848

Text: Tuesday, October 10. — Dublin; to Hawkins St. Theatre to see Jenny Lind in Sonnambula, her opening night here. An hour at door, crowd thickening, rush and crush upstairs to lower gallery. Curtain rises, the charming Jenny has to wait till the reiterated greetings subside. ‘Three cheers for Jenny Lind!’ (from the gallery). ‘Wan cheer more!’ ‘A cheer for her Mother!’ at which Amina smiled. Then we had Come per me sereno etc., all to perfection, but sung as I fancied more floridly than when I heard her in London. She looks thinner. Flower-scene most exquisite and touching! O fiore — Ah non credea, the flowers falling through her hands as she sings. Ah! non giunge not very good, I thought; encored, on account of its difficulty. Half a dozen to a dozen bouquets were thrown, no extraordinary excitement.

When curtain fell I rushed down and made my way into the pit in the hope of getting one of Amina’s flowers which had fallen near the footlights, but it was gone. Cold air outside, crowd, Jenny’s carriage, police.

The Theatre at best a hollow, unwholesome, unsatisfying excitement.

Comments: William Allingham (1824-1889) was an Irish poet. Jenny Lind born Johanna Maria Lind (1820-1887) was a Swedish opera singer. Revered as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, she was highly popular across Europe and America. The Theatre Royal in Dublin’s Hawkins Street opened in 1820 and burned down in 1880. La Sonnambula is a two-act opera with music by Vincenzo Bellini and libretto by Felice Romani. The lead character is the sleepwalker Amina.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive