Old and New London: Volume 4. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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WATERLOO PLACE AND HER MAJESTY'S THEATRE.
St. James's Fields in the Time of Charles I.—St. James's Market—The "Mitre Tavern" and Mrs. Oldfield, the Actress—Hannah Lightfoot and her Union with the Prince of Wales (afterwards George III.)—The "Hoop and Bunch of Grapes"—The Criterion Theatre and Restaurant—The "White Bear"—The "Piccadilly Saloon"—The Gallery of Illustration—The Parthenoa and Raleigh Clubs—St. Philip's Chapel—Charles Street—The Junior United Service Club—Waterloo Place—Catlin's American Indian Collection—The Guards' Memorial—Her Majesty's Theatre—Supposed Origin of Operatic Performances—The First Opera House and its Struggles—Assumes the Name of "The King's Theatre"—Prohibition of Masquerades—The First Oratorio ever performed in England—Walpole's Criticism upon Vaneschi's Opera of Fetonte—Destruction of the First Opera House by Fire—Description of the First Theatre—The Theatre rebuilt—John Braham and Madame Catalani—Management of the Theatre in the Time of George IV.—Reconstruction of the Theatre in 1818—The Italian Opera from a Frenchman's Point of View—Triumphs of the King's Theatre—The Name changed to "Her Majesty's"—The "Omnibus" Row—First Appearance of Jenny Lind—Sims Reeves and Catherine Hayes—The "Black Malibran"—Mdlle. Titiens—Piccolomini and Christine Nilsson—Destruction of the Theatre by Fire in 1867—The New Theatre—The Building advertised for Sale—Messrs. Moody and Sankey's Services.
Previous to the year 1560, the tract of ground which we are about to traverse, and indeed as far north and north-west as the parish of St. Marylebone, was a vast extent of fields. There were no houses, excepting three or four in the immediate neighbourhood of what is now called Pall Mall East. In the time of Charles I., the whole of the district was unbuilt upon, and was known by the name of "St. James's Fields." In the middle of these fields stood a solitary dwelling, called "Pickadilly," mentioned by Clarendon, in his "History of the Rebellion," as "a fair house for entertainment and gaming," with handsome gravel walks and shade, and where there was an upper and a lower bowling-green, whither many of the nobility and gentry of the best quality resorted for exercise and recreation. In Charles Knight's "Old London" reference is made to a petition from Colonel Thomas Panton, read in 1671, before the Privy Council, setting forth that the petitioner having been at great charge in purchasing "a parcel of ground lying at Pickadilly," part of it being two bowling-greens fronting the Haymarket, the other lying on the north of the Tennis Court, on which several old houses were standing, and praying for leave to build on this ground, notwithstanding the royal proclamation against building on new foundations within a certain distance of London. No doubt the colonel must have had influential friends about him, for we find that, "in consequence of Sir Christopher Wren's favourable report, he obtained leave to erect houses in Windmill Street, on the east corner towards the Haymarket, and also in the two bowling-greens between the Haymarket and Leicester Fields."
In the reign of Charles II., mention is made of the Hay Market and Hedge Lane; but they were at that time literally lanes, bounded by hedges. In Faithorne's plan of London, published in 1658, no traces of houses are to be found in the north, except a single one, called the Gaming House, at the end next to Piccadilly. In the upper part of this district, on the north side of Jermyn Street, and on the site now partly covered by the Criterion Restaurant and Theatre and Lower Regent Street, a market was established in 1664. Malcolm tells that the market for all sorts of provisions was proclaimed "to be kept in St. James's Fields on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays; and for all kinds of cattle in the Hay Market, in the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields." According to Gay's "Trivia," St. James's Market was famous for its supply of veal. From Pepys we learn that the market owed its foundation to Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans, whose name is still preserved in Jermyn Street.
At the "Mitre Tavern," in the market, the mother of the charming and accomplished actress, Mrs. Oldfield, was living when the latter was quite young. One day the girl was overheard reading a play with so much power and expression, that Sir John Vanbrugh obtained for her an introduction to Rich, the patentee of Covent Garden Theatre, by whom she was engaged. Here she soon made herself a name, and became so popular, that she obtained access to the first circles. She became the mistress of General Churchill, a nephew of the great Duke of Marlborough, by whom she had a son, who married a natural daughter of Sir Robert Walpole, and obtained the rank and precedence of an earl's daughter. In the end Mrs. Oldfield had the honour of a funeral in Westminster Abbey.
In the house which stood at the corner of Market Street, in St. James's Market, at the shop of a linendraper named Wheeler, lived Hannah Lightfoot, the early flame of King George III., and indeed, if report may be credited, privately married to him. The fair Quakeress—for such was Hannah—is said to have contracted her marriage with royalty in 1759, in Kew Church. She afterwards married a Mr. Axford, and died in obscurity.
The story of Hannah Lightfoot was thoroughly sifted and discussed in the pages of Notes and Queries, the conclusion arrived at leaving little or no doubt as to the legality of her union with the young Prince.
"The 'Hoop and Bunch of Grapes,'" says Mr. Larwood, "was the sign of a public-house in St. Albans Street (now part of Waterloo Place), kept, at the beginning of the present century, by the famous Matthew Skeggs, who obtained his renown from playing, in the character of Signor Bombasto, a concerto on a broomstick at the Haymarket Theatre, adjoining. His portrait was painted by King, a friend of Hogarth, engraved by Houston, and published by Skeggs himself."
About the year 1815, some low and mean houses that stood between the market and Pall Mall were demolished, and these were soon afterwards followed by the market itself, in order to form the broad and spacious thoroughfares of Lower Regent Street and Waterloo Place. At the upper or northern end of Lower Regent Street a junction is formed right and left with Piccadilly. In that part of Piccadilly lying to the east is the "Criterion" Restaurant and Theatre. This handsome building, which combines under one roof the advantages of a restaurant on an unusually large scale, reading, billiard, hair-dressing rooms, cigar divan, concerthall, ball-room, and theatre, was built for Messrs. Spiers and Pond, in 1873, from a design by Mr. Thomas Verity. The sum originally named as the probable cost, exclusive of decorations and fittings, was £25,000, but the actual expense to the proprietors, before the vast establishment was opened, is said to have exceeded £80,000.
The "Criterion" has two façades; the principal one, in Piccadilly, is of Portland stone, decorated in the style of the French Renaissance. The doorway is arched and deeply recessed, the arch being supported by four handsome bronze columns. Figures, beautifully sculptured, representing the seasons, are placed in niches above. The frontage in Jermyn Street is of brick, picked out with Portland stone. The great dining-room, capable of accommodating 200 persons, is on the right of the central vestibule; on the left is the refreshment-buffet, at the south end of which is the smoking-divan. The grand staircase leads to the ball-room, which occupies the entire width of the Piccadilly frontage. The whole interior is richly decorated; mosaics, parquetry, painted frescoes, mirrors, gildings, and carvings, meet the eye in every direction. The upper floor is occupied by kitchens and sculleries. The right-hand entrance in Piccadilly leads to the grill-room, also to the balcony and orchestra stalls of the theatre, while the entrance to the amphitheatre stalls and parterre is from Jermyn Street, the whole theatre being below ground. It will accommodate 800 persons, and is fitted up in the most luxurious manner. It was opened on the 21st of March, 1874, with two new pieces—An American Lady, by Mr. H. J. Byron; and Topsyturveydom, by Mr. W. S. Gilbert. The company being an excellent one, and principally consisting of popular favourites, and the two authors being equally well and favourably known, the opening night was a triumphant success, giving a favourable augury of its future career. The entertainments since given have been principally of the class known as opera bouffe.
The "Criterion" stands on the site of an inn, the "White Bear," which for a century and more was one of the busiest coaching-houses in connection with the west and south-west of England. Mr. Larwood, in his "History of Sign-boards," tells us that at this inn Benjamin West, the future President of the Royal Academy, put up and spent the night on his first arrival in London from America. Here, too, he tells us, died Luke Sullivan, the engraver of some of Hogarth's most famous works, and another engraver, Chatelain—the latter in such poverty, that he was buried, at the expense of friends who had known him in better days, in the poorground attached to St. James's workhouse.
A few doors to the eastward of the "Criterion" stood for many years a house notorious from the commencement of the present century as "The Piccadilly Saloon," a house of refreshment and gambling, which was open nearly all night, and formed a scene of dissipation which, even at that time, was unparalleled in London. Its aristocratic patrons, however, did not protect it from the fate which awaits all such dens sooner or later, and it is now a thing of the past.
On the eastern side of Lower Regent Street is a large building, which till recently bore the name of the "Gallery of Illustration." It was erected from the designs of Mr. Nash, who intended it as a residence for himself. It was used occasionally for dramatic readings, and also for a class of amusements popularly known as "drawing-room entertainments." The northern wing of the building, formerly the Parthenon Club-house, is now the home of the Raleigh Club; the other portion of the edifice (formerly the Gallery of Illustration) has been converted into a restaurant, and bears the name of the "Pall Mall." The long gallery was decorated from a loggia of the Vatican at Rome.
St. Philip's Chapel, or, as it is often called, Waterloo Chapel, on the opposite side of the street, was built in 1820 from the designs of Mr. Repton. The tower is a reproduction of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, at Athens. The front is adorned with a portico, supported by four Doric columns. The interior has the appearance of a public secular assembly-room rather than of a church, being nearly square, with a double gallery, supported below by heavy piers, and above by Corinthian columns of scagliola. The ceiling is formed of a double cove, and is lighted from above.
Crossing Regent Street, and extending from St. James's Square to the Haymarket, is Charles Street. Here Burke was living in the year 1781, when he received from a poor and friendless young man, named George Crabbe, a letter asking for aid. Burke read the note, and at once responded; asked Crabbe to call on him; read, and admired his verses. "From that hour," writes Mr. Serjeant Burke, "Crabbe was a made man. Burke not only relieved his more pressing necessities, but domesticated him in his own house, introduced him to a large circle of noble and literary friends, afforded him the inestimable advantage of his critical advice, and, having established his poetical reputation to the world, finally crowned the most ardent aspirations of his protégé by getting him admitted into the Church." Such deeds of kindness deserve to be recorded to the honour of the great orator.
Waterloo Place, which we now enter, was, like Regent Street, built from the designs of Mr. Nash. Some time after the death of the architect, the New Monthly Magazine gave the following eulogium on his memory:—"Whether the stranger traverses the splendid line of Regent Street, the Quadrant, and Portland Place, until he reaches the Regent's Park—beautifully disposed, and laid out in walks and groves, ornamented with sheets of water, dotted with elegant villas, and encircled by rows of houses of noble elevation, from classic architectural designs—or takes his way from Waterloo Place towards Somerset House, and sees before him streets, and places, and arcades, occupying the sites of the filthiest courts imaginable, and finds himself in front of the splendid parish church of St. Martinin-the-Fields—able to admire its beauties, because cleared away from the wretched dwellings by which it was surrounded—we think his first inquiry will be—to whose taste genius, and enterprise, are these improvements owing? He will be answered by being told that they are all attributable to the genius, energy, and talent of Mr. Nash, to abuse and ridicule whom was the fashion of the time in which he lived. This is the best answer to the senseless cry raised against him by those whose enmity arose from their jealousy of the estimation in which he was held by the munificent monarch in whose regency and reign these wonderful changes in this part of the metropolis were effected. Mr. Nash is in his grave; and, standing in the midst of the vast alterations for which we are indebted to him, we feel inclined to say, in the words of Wren's epitaph, Si monumentum requiris, circumspice."
On the eastern side was, in 1851, and for some time afterwards, Mr. Catlin's American Indian Collection, one of the most interesting and successful of the many exhibitions that have been opened in London.
In the centre of Waterloo Place, facing the Duke of York's Column, stands the Guards' Memorial, which was erected from the designs of Mr. John Bell. It consists of a massive granite pedestal, the front of which, some eleven feet from the ground, is occupied by three bronze figures, representing a Grenadier, a Fusilier, and one of the Coldstream Guards, "in their full marching costume, as they fought at Inkerman." These figures are about eight feet high, and behind them are placed their respective flags, thus forming a pyramidal group. The front of the pedestal is inscribed with the word "Crimea." Upon this pedestal rises a smaller one, having upon either side the words "Alma," "Inkerman," "Sebastopol;" whilst the back of this upper block of granite is ornamented with a pyramidal pile of cannon—the actual broken Russian guns, burst and mutilated, as they were found in Sebastopol—having beneath it this inscription:—"To the memory of 2,162 officers and men of the Brigade of Guards who fell during the war with Russia, 1854, 1855, 1856." The whole is surmounted with a bronze figure of Honour, with her arms extended wide, and having in her hands and on her arms wreaths of laurel; and immediately beneath this figure is inscribed—"Honour to the brave."
Eastward of Waterloo Place stands Her Majesty's Theatre, or, as it is generally called, the Opera House. The building occupies a vast space of ground, with its eastern side in the Haymarket, and extends north and south from Charles Street to Pall Mall.
The species of dramatic performance which we now style an opera, in which the various emotions incidental to the action of the piece are interpreted by the aid of music, vocal and instrumental, is supposed to have originated with the Chinese. Their dramas, almost interminable (a single representation of one being an affair of many nights, and sometimes even of weeks), instead of being declaimed in the natural voice, have been, from time immemorial, delivered in a carefully intoned recitative, mingled with songs. The first work of this description produced in Europe was The Conversion of St. Paul, composed by an Italian artist, Francisco Barbarini, and performed in Rome in 1470. England was at that period by no means a musical nation; and it was not until about the commencement of the eighteenth century that, as Colley Cibber writes, "the Italian opera began first to steal into England, but in as rude a disguise as possible, in a lame hobbling translation, with metre out of measure to its original notes, sung by our own unskilful voices, with graces misapplied to almost every sentiment and action."
In 1704 a subscription was started by Sir John Vanbrugh to build a theatre for this special purpose, and £3,000 was raised in shares of £100 from each of thirty persons, who, in addition to their interest in the building, were to have an admission ticket for life to all public entertainments given therein. The foundation-stone was inscribed with the words, "Little Whig," in honour of Lady Sunderland, the most celebrated Whig toast and beauty of her day. The theatre was opened April 9th, 1705, with an Italian opera, The Triumph of Love, which was so far from being a "triumph," that it was withdrawn after having been performed three times before a mere handful of spectators. Sir John Vanbrugh and his associate Congreve, the dramatist, were not long in retiring from a management so little profitable to themselves, and the theatre was transferred to a Mr. McSwiney. The first Italian singer who made his mark on these boards was Valentini, who, on his first appearance, sang through his part in his own language, the rest of the company singing in English! The effect must have been grotesque in the extreme, and may partially account for the fact that, during the first twenty-five years of its existence, the Opera House was but very poorly supported, and was frequently made a subject for satire in the Spectator and Tatler. Under these discouraging circumstances a subscription was raised for its support, and £50,000 was thus obtained, King George I. contributing £1,000 (afterwards continued annually): from this time the theatre assumed the name of "The King's."
In 1729, says Hughson, the Grand Jury of Middlesex "presented" the fashionable and wicked diversion called masquerade, and "particularly the contriver and carrier on of masquerades at the King's Theatre in the Hay Market, in order to be punished according to law."
It appears that this species of entertainment has never been truly popular in England. The first masquerade given in London upon the foreign plan, uniting, after the Venetian fashion, elegance with rude mirth and revelry, was given by Henrietta, the queen of Charles I.; but, as it was unfortunately fixed for a Sunday, the populace in front of the Banqueting House, Whitehall, loudly complained of the profanation of the Lord's Day. A scuffle ensued between the soldiers and the people, in which half a dozen of the latter and two or three of the former were killed.
The most splendid masquerade ever known in England, as we learn from Colburn's "Kalendar of Amusements," took place at the Opera House in 1717, and was provided by Mr. Heidegger. It was allowed to exceed anything that had been known in Italy or any other country. The masquerades formerly given at the Pantheon were very celebrated. In 1783 Delphini, the famous clown, got up a grand masquerade there, in honour of the birthday and coming of age of the Prince of Wales. The tickets were sold at three guineas each, yet Delphini was a loser by the speculation.
In 1724 the Bishop of London preached a sermon against masquerades, which made such an impression, that orders were issued for their discontinuance. After the lapse of some years they were again introduced. Some excellent reasons for the renewal of the prohibited amusement appeared in the Morning Chronicle, March 7, 1770. We have already spoken of masquerades in our account of Mrs. Cornelys' house in Soho Square.
The first oratorio ever performed in England was Handel's Esther, which was produced at this theatre in 1732, and followed, later in the same year, by his Acis and Galatea. The opera must, by this time, have made vast strides in the estimation of the public, as in the year 1734 we find the famous Farinelli—at whom the newspapers of the day directed many a pointed sarcasm—receiving for the season a salary of £15,000, as well as a free benefit, which realised an additional profit of £2,000. Such, however, is the uncertain tenure of the public favour, that scarcely two years later Farinelli had the mortification of singing to a house containing but £35.
Horace Walpole, in a letter written in 1747, gives a piquant criticism upon Vaneschi's opera of Fetonte. "It is," writes he, "in what they call the French manner, but about as like it as my Lady Pomfret's hash of plural persons and singular verbs was to Italian. They sing to jigs, and dance to church-music. 'Phaeton' is run away with by horses that go a foot's pace, like the 'Electress's' coach, with such long traces, that the postilion was in one street and the coachman in another. Then comes 'Jupiter' with a farthing candle, to light a squib and a half; and that they call fireworks. 'Reginello,' the first man, is so old and so tall, that he seems to have been growing ever since the invention of operas. The first woman has had her mouth let out to show a fine set of teeth, but it lets out too much bad voice at the same time. Lord Middlesex, for his great prudence in having provided such very tractable steeds to 'Prince Phaeton's' car, is going to be Master of the Horse to the Prince of Wales; and, for his excellent economy in never paying the performers, is likely to continue in the Treasury."
In the year 1789 the usual fate of theatres befell the Opera House, which was burnt to the ground on the night of the 17th of June. The fire was supposed to have been the work of an incendiary, and suspicion attached to Pietro Carnivalli, the leader of the orchestra, who owed a grudge to Signor Ravelli, the manager, for whose benefit the performance was to have taken place the evening after the catastrophe. The company were at rehearsal when the fire broke out, and the wife of Signor Ravelli owed her life to the intrepidity of the firemen. In this conflagration the favourite opera of La Laconda, by Paesiello, was destroyed—score, separate parts, and all. It is said that Mazzinghi, who then presided at the harpsichord, undertook to reproduce from memory the whole of the instrumental accompaniments, and this he did successfully. There still exists a print of the original building, taken from a drawing made on the spot by W. Capon, published in Smith's "Historical and Literary Antiquities." It shows the front of the edifice, much as it must have been when built by Sir John Vanbrugh, in the reign of George I. It was a dull plain building, not unlike a Quaker's meeting-house. The front was "of red brick, rusticated with good gauged work." It had three circular-headed doorways, with three windows of a similar shape above; in the second floor, instead of windows, were three oblong recesses of a very heavy character, and the roof was covered with black glazed tiles. The front was thirty-four feet in width. Over the entrance-hall was "Ridant's Fencing Academy," shown by a conspicuous notice in the print. On the piers below are seen some handbills of the time, including the name of Signor Rauzzini, and of Signora Carnivalli, the wife of the man whose hand is supposed to have set fire to the theatre.
The first stone of the succeeding structure, the entrance to which is shown on page 216, was laid in April, 1790, by the Earl of Buckinghamshire, the architect being Michael Novosielski. The new theatre commenced its career under weighty liabilities, for which it was by no means fairly responsible, and of which there will be occasion to speak more in detail in our history of the Pantheon. Chancery or the Insolvent Court generally terminated the career of its first half-dozen managers, as, in addition to its hopeless load of debt, the current expenses were so enormous as to swallow up all the receipts.
The great English tenor, John Braham—as mentioned in our notice of the St. James's Theatre—made his début here in 1796, and rose at one step to the height of public favour. The year 1806 was distinguished by two great events in the history of this theatre—the introduction of Mozart's music, never before performed in England, and the début of Madame Catalani. This marvellous singer, the versatility of whose talents rendered her equally admirable in a tragic or comic rôle, received the sum of £15,000 for the season of 1809, her benefit and the various concerts which she gave amounting to £11,000 more.
Catalani is pronounced by Captain Gronow, who well recollected her, the greatest vocalist that he ever heard. He writes: "In her youth she was the finest singer in Europe, and she was much sought after by all the great people during her séjour in London. She was extremely handsome, and was considered a model as wife and mother. Catalani was very fond of money, and would never sing unless paid beforehand. She was asked, with her husband, to pass some time at Stowe, where a numerous but select party had been invited; and Madame Catalani, being asked to sing soon after dinner, willingly complied. When the day of her departure came, her husband placed in the hands of the Marquis of Buckingham the following little billet—'For seventeen songs, seventeen hundred pounds.' This large sum was paid at once without hesitation, proving that Lord Buckingham was a refined gentleman in every sense of the word."
"I visited Catalani in town," writes Cyrus Redding, "and always found her the same elegant and amiable creature, with the same sweet simple smile and modest manners. She stood unrivalled in her profession. As an actress she was by no means remarkable; yet she looked so attractive on the boards, that the audience forgave any little fault of action. And then her voice was transcendent. She sang in a private room more charmingly than in the theatre. I had known her previously. Of all the females attached to the opera, before or since, that I have seen, she pleased me most. She was a kind generous creature, without a particle of pretension, an excellent mother, and exemplary wife, wedded to a narrow-minded man, who sometimes got her an ill name from his avarice. He managed all her money transactions, and used to call her 'ma poule d'or.' I hear her now singing 'God save the King,' with her heavenly voice and pretty foreign accent, set off by a person, one of the sweetest on the stage I ever saw. For mind she was not remarkable; I never met with a singer of either sex that was so. There was an openness and candour about her quite charming. 'Monsieur Redaing, I speak no language propre. I speak one Babylonish tongue. I speak not my own tongue, nor French, nor your tongue propre.'
"Her husband, before Junot entered Lisbon, used to blaze away in the pit of the opera in a dashing French uniform, speculating upon his future poule d'or, which to him she afterwards most fully proved. He was rarely invited with his wife to the houses of people of consideration. A person I knew, half a Roman, said one day to Catalani, 'My dear half-countrywoman, how did you come to marry Valabreque?'—'I will tell you. I was at Lisbon; the Portuguese are fond of music. Great men, princes, and counts talk to me of love, and a number of fine things, but none of them talk of marrying. M. Valabreque talked of marriage—I marry M. Valabreque.'"
Captain Gronow writes thus in his "Anecdotes and Reminiscences:"—"When George IV. was Regent, this theatre was conducted on a very different system from that which now prevails. Some years previous to the period to which I refer, no one could obtain a box, or a ticket for the pit, without a voucher from one of the lady patronesses, who, in 1805, were the Duchesses of Marlborough, Devonshire, and Bedford, Lady Carlisle, and some others. In their day, after the singing and ballet were over, the company used to retire into the concert-room, where a ball took place, accompanied by refreshments and a supper. There all the rank and fashion of England were assembled, on a sort of neutral ground. At a later period the management of the Opera House fell into the hands of Mr. Waters, when it became less difficult to obtain admittance; but the strictest etiquette was still kept up as regarded the dress of the gentlemen, who were only admitted with knee-buckles, ruffles, and chapeau-bras. If there happened to be a drawing-room, the ladies would appear in their court dresses as well as the gentlemen; and on all occasions the audience of Her Majesty's Theatre was stamped with aristocratic elegance. In the boxes of the first tier might have been seen the daughters of the Duchess of Argyle, four of England's beauties; in the next box were the equally lovely Marchioness of Stafford and her daughter, Lady Elizabeth Gower, now the Duchess of Norfolk; not less remarkable were Lady Harrowby and her daughters, Lady Susan and Lady Mary Ryder. The peculiar type of female beauty which these ladies so attractively exemplified is such as can be met with only in the British isles: the full round, soul-inspired eye of Italy, and the dark hair of the sunny South, often combined with that exquisitely pearly complexion which seems to be concomitant with humidity and fog. You could scarcely gaze upon the peculiar beauty to which I refer without being as much charmed with its kindly expression as with its physical loveliness."
The theatre was reconstructed, in 1818, by Messrs. Nash and Repton, with great improvements. The interior was the first in England to be modelled in the horse-shoe shape, so favourable both for sight and sound. The dimensions were within a few feet of those of the Grand Opera House at Milan. The length from the front of the curtain to the back of the boxes was 102 feet; the extreme width, 75 feet; the stage measured 60 feet in length and 80 in width. The edifice was of brick and Bath stone, with a bas-relief on the Haymarket front representing Apollo and the Muses. It was in this year that the music of Rossini was first presented to the English public.
A French nobleman remarks, in a letter to an English friend, in 1823—"I must acknowledge that the whole universe does not offer a more splendid coup d'oeil than that which is presented by the Italian Opera in London on a Saturday night. The beauty of the theatre, the richness of the decorations, the loveliness of the women, the variety and brilliancy of their dresses and jewels, the blaze of light, the number of distinguished characters who are often found in the ranks of the audience, the general appearance of wealth and prosperity, and the total absence of all features of an opposite kind, form altogether such a picture of gaiety and magnificence as is indeed unrivalled."
From 1824 to 1840 the history of the King's Theatre is that of a series of triumphs. Pasta, Veluti (the wonderful male soprano), Sontag, Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, Lablache, and Mario successively appeared upon the stage; the five last named, who were all in their zenith about the same time, forming a brilliant constellation of talent unequalled before or since.
In 1837 the name of the theatre was changed to "Her Majesty's," in honour of the accession of Queen Victoria. The year 1841 witnessed the "Omnibus" row, almost as famous in history as the O. P. riots. The manager, Laporte, who had long been at issue with several of the talented quintette, who were the glory of his establishment, and who had formed a clique against him, had declined the further services of Tamburini. His choice of a victim was determined by the fact that he was enabled to replace the great baritone by Coletti, a singer who had achieved a great success at La Scala. But Laporte had miscalculated his power. Madame Grisi, at whose fair shrine all the jeunesse dorée of that day bowed down, induced her aristocratic admirers to organise a disturbance, which burst out on the appearance of Coletti in the place of Tamburini. The omnibus boxes were crowded with lords of high degree, foremost among whom was a prince of the blood; and Coletti was saluted with yells, hisses, and cries of "Off, off!" "Tamburini!" "Laporte!" shouted with all the force of aristocratic lungs; and finally the whole party, headed by the scion of royalty, leaped upon the stage, and the curtain fell on their shouts of "Victory." Negotiations were subsequently entered into with Tamburini, through the good offices of Count D'Orsay, and the discarded baritone was persuaded to overlook the affront and resume his place.
This battle royal is handed down to posterity in
the "Ingoldsby Legends," as "A Row in an Omnibus (Box):"—
"Dol-drum, the manager, sits in his chair,
With a gloomy brow and dissatisfied air;
And he says, as he slaps his hand on his knee,
'I'll have nothing to do with Fiddle-de-dee.
Though Fiddle-de-dee sings loud and clear,
And his tones are sweet, yet his terms are dear.
The glove won't fit!
The deuce a bit—
I shall give an engagement to Fal-de-ral-tit!'
"The prompter bow'd, and he went to his stall;
And the green baize rose at the prompter's call;
And Fal-de-ral-tit sang fol-de-rol-lol;
But scarce had he done,
When a row begun;
Such a noise was never heard under the sun.
Where is he?
He's the artiste whom we all want to see.
Bid the manager come!
It's a scandalous thing to exact such a sum
From boxes and gallery, stalls and pit,
And then fob us off with Fal-de-ral-tit!'"
The manager, being thus peremptorily summoned
by the audience—
"Smooth'd his brow,
As he well knew how;
And he walk'd on, and made a most elegant bow;
And he paused, and he smiled, and advanced to the
In his opera hat, and his opera tights. [lights,
'Ladies and gentlemen,' then said he,
'Pray what may you please to want with me?'
"Folks of all sorts, and of every degree,
Snob, and snip, and haughty grandee,
Duchesses, countesses, fresh from their tea,
And shopmen who had only come there for a spree,
Halloo'd, and hooted, and roared with glee—
None but he!
Subscribe to his terms, whatever they be!
Agree, agree, or you'll very soon see,
In a brace of shakes, we'll get up an O. P.!'"
The year 1847 was an eventful one for Her Majesty's Theatre, which had been for more than half a century the only temple of Italian opera in London. Then took place the secession of Grisi Mario, Persiani, and Tamburini, with the mighty Costa, to the new Opera in Covent Garden; then began the struggle to solve the problem whether two Italian Opera Houses could be made to pay in London—a vexed question, which seems hardly settled even yet. The same year (1847) witnessed also the first appearance of Jenny Lind, who had been persuaded to break her engagement with Mr. Bunn, the lessee of Drury Lane, in favour of Mr. Lumley.
No words can describe the furore excited by this far-famed lady from the night of her début until the time when she finally quitted the stage. As much as £30 was frequently paid for a stall on a "Jenny Lind night." As Lumley tells us in his "Reminiscences:"—"The newspapers teemed with descriptions of wild scenes of 'crushing, crowding, and squeezing; of ladies fainting in the pressure, and even of gentlemen carried out senseless; of torn dresses, and evening coats reduced to rags.'" These triumphs were, however, partially counterbalanced by the result of an action brought-by Mr. Bunn against the prima donna, for her breach of contract with him. He laid the damages at £10,000, and gained a verdict for £2,500—a loss which fell entirely on Mr. Lumley, who had undertaken to bear the vacillating fair one scathless. The operatic career, however, of the celebrated songstress was as brief as it was brilliant; for on the 18th of May, 1849, Jenny Lind made her last appearance upon any stage, as "Alice," in Roberto il Diavolo.
In 1850 the chief stars of the Italian opera at Her Majesty's were native artists, Mr. Sims Reeves and Miss Catherine Hayes. An attempt was made in the same year to produce a sensation through the introduction of the Black Malibran. The lady bearing this pretentious title was Donna Maria Martinez, a negress, who appeared in a divertissement called Les Delices du Serail, in which she sang quaint Spanish melodies, accompanying herself on the guitar. "Her songs," writes Lumley, "were full of original charm, her execution excellent, her voice sweet, pure, and true; but the whole performance was small almost to meagreness, and, although it might well be regarded as a piquant musical curiosity, it failed in any real power of attraction." In 1852 Mdlle. Titiens, the only worthy successor of Grisi in such parts as "Norma," "Lucrezia Borgia," or "Semiramide," appeared as "Valentina" in Les Huguenots.
The year 1856 produced another "great sensation" in the young, charming, and high-born Marietta Piccolomini, of whom Lumley writes:—"Once more frantic crowds struggled in the lobbies of the theatre; once more dresses were torn and hats crushed in the conflict. In what lay the charm of this new fascinator of all hearts? It would be difficult to tell, although this much is undeniable, that she exercised an almost magical power over the masses. The statistics of a 'treasury' are indisputable facts. Her voice was a high and pure soprano, with all the attraction of youth and freshness, not wide in range, sweet rather than powerful, and not gifted with any perfection of flexibility. Her vocalisation was far from being distinguished by its correctness or excellence of school; to musicians she appeared a clever amateur, but never a really great artist." This fascinating little lady created an equal furore in Paris, yet the French criticisms on her performance seem to agree with those of Lumley—as, for example, the following:—"Mdlle. Piccolomini sings with infinite charm, but is not a cantatrice. She acts with talent, but is not an actress. She is a problem—an enigma!"
Pecuniary difficulties having terminated Mr. Lumley's long managerial career, Mr. E. T. Smith became the lessee of Her Majesty's Theatre in 1860, to be succeeded, two years afterwards, by Mr. Mapleson.
Mdlle. Christine Nilsson appeared in 1867 with great success; perhaps the only artiste who has ever succeeded in realising to the full the poet's exquisite conception of "Marguerite," in Faust. This triumph was the last reserved for the old "King's Theatre," which was once more destroyed by fire on the 6th of December, 1867. At the time of the catastrophe the Earl of Dudley, as assignee of Mr. Lumley, was the lessee under the Crown, on a lease terminating in 1891. In 1862 Lord Dudley had sub-let the theatre to Mr. Mapleson for twenty-one years, at a yearly rental of £8,000, payable in advance. The earl was fully insured; but Mr. Mapleson, who unfortunately was not so, was a loser to the extent of £10,000. The great organ, valued at £800, the chandeliers, scenery, costumes, interior fittings, the whole of the musical library, besides several invaluable manuscripts of Rossini, were all destroyed. The origin of the fire was never ascertained.
Lord Dudley having decided upon rebuilding the theatre without loss of time, the site was cleared early in 1868, and the works were commenced at midsummer. The architect was Mr. Charles Lee, and the contractors Messrs. George Trollope and Sons, who undertook to complete their task in forty weeks, under a penalty of £1,000 for every following week in case of failure. This promise was so strictly fulfilled, that before the end of March, 1869, the new theatre, complete at ail points, at a cost of about £50,000, was in a condition to open its doors to the public. The old edifice having been considered deficient in stage accommodation, care had been taken in the present case to increase the size of the stage, which had been effected, as it was stated, without materially lessening the area of the auditorium. There are four tiers of boxes in front of the stage, and five tiers on either side; the space above the fourth tier in front being occupied by amphitheatre stalls, with a spacious amphitheatre behind them. As in the case of Covent Garden Theatre, the partitions between the boxes are constructed in such a manner as to be easily removed, so as to form the ordinary dress circle of a theatre, if required. Every possible precaution has been adopted to reduce the risk by fire, throughout the whole of the building, to a minimum. It is calculated that the new theatre will accommodate about 1,800 for operatic, and 2,500 for dramatic performances. So much stress had been laid upon the completion of the new edifice by the contractors before the commencement of the opera season of 1869, that both the public and the press were daily speculating upon the probable date of the opening night; when the Times of the 24th of March, 1869, published a notice from the "Directors" of Her Majesty's Theatre, to the effect that no performances would be given there during that season. Great was the surprise and consternation at this announcement, and higher still rose popular amazement when the solution of the enigma leaked out by degrees. The construction of the interior is such that, the greater part of the boxes and stalls being held on lease, the expenses must necessarily be in excess of the receipts, even in the case of a full attendance every night. In 1874 the theatre was advertised for sale by public auction; but it does not appear that any sale was effected—at all events, its doors have not been open to the public excepting for a short time during the summer of 1875, when the theatre was hired for the "revival" services of Messrs. Moody and Sankey.
Even the Italian Opera House has had its "ups and downs"—its days of popularity and the reverse. It went out of fashion, through the caprice of the aristocracy of the day, in the reign of George II., the nobility supporting their own favourite house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. What the Court then patronised was but in ill odour with the rest of the aristocracy.
"The opera, on its first introduction into England," writes a well-known author, "divided the wits, literati, and musicians of the age. By those esteemed the best judges, the English language was thought too rough and inharmonious for the music of the opera; and by men of common sense a drama in a foreign and unknown tongue was considered very absurd. However, Addison, who opposed the Italian opera on the London stage, wrote the English of Rosamond, which seemed an attempt to reconcile the discordant opinions. But this, though a beautiful poem, is said by Dr. Burney to have shown Addison's total ignorance of the first principles of music."