A succession of great divas dominated opera from the mid 19th century and no male singer could match their popularity. Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba were all sopranos, the highest-range female voice, which had the clarity and flexibility to cope with elaborate passages of flamboyant music.
Divas amassed huge fortunes and flaunted them. Once in Verdi's La Traviata at Covent Garden, Patti dismantled her jewellery and had the diamonds, valued at around £200,000 sewn onto the bodice of her costume. Two policeman were borrowed from nearby Bow Street police station and mingled with the chorus on stage to keep an eye on them. The effect was literally dazzling.
Opera at this time had no particular sense of unity in performance despite a strong sense of stage design. The stars traditionally toured with their own costumes and often had scant regard for either their colleagues or the composers. Rehearsals in the modern sense were unheard of and star singers would rarely rehearse with the rest of the cast. In performance the stars stood centre stage and ignored everyone else - even if that person were another star singing a love duet with them. Sometimes they would even insert their favourite aria or song into the opera, whether it was appropriate or not.
A charming lithograph shows the great prima donna Jenny Lind as Amina in the sleepwalking scene of Bellini’s La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker). The opera had a typical plot of the period. Amina is discovered in the bedroom of the Lord of the Manor. She is suspected of immorality and abandoned by her fiancé. The high point of the opera comes when, at night, she is seen dressed in her nightgown, candle in hand, walking across a dangerous bridge, and everyone realises that she has been sleepwalking.
Lind made her London debut in 1847, but people were already talking about her extraordinary talents. In 1845, a correspondent of the Illustrated London News reported on her performance as Amina in Frankfurt where even backstage was filled with members of the audience who couldn’t get seats in the auditorium. Her style was deceptively simple. ‘In the absence of all stage trickery or conventionalism may be distinguished this child of genius.’ She had to encore one aria twice and the conductor himself threw away his baton and applauded with the audience.
This photograph comes from a large collection of ‘cartes de visite’ and ‘cabinet cards’ removed from their backings and mounted in albums by Guy Tristram Little (d.1953) who bequeathed them to the V&A. A collector of greetings cards, games and photographs, Guy Little was a partner in the legal firm Messrs Milles Jennings White & Foster, and the solicitor and executor of Mrs. Gabrielle Enthoven, whose theatrical collection formed the basis of the Theatre Collections at the V&A.
Photography was a novel and exciting development in Victorian days. Most actors and actresses had studio photographs taken, in everyday dress or theatrical costume, for ‘cartes de visite’, and later ‘cabinet cards’. Both were albumen prints made from glass negatives, attached to stiff card backing printed with the photographer’s name.
Italian dramatic opera
Italian opera was extremely fashionable in 18th and early 19th century London and audiences flocked to see foreign star singers who were considered exotic. Singers such as Madam Catalani thrilled audiences and drew huge salaries. The profits for Catalini's 1806 season were so enormous that she demanded £7,000 for her 1807 appearances – an astronomical sum for the time. She settled for £5,000 guineas and benefit performances that would earn her another £1,000. It was hardly surprising that seat prices were high.
Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, working in the early 19th century also composed memorable works which are still performed today. The plots of their operas were sometimes taken from famous novels, like Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which was based on the fashionable best seller The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott.
This print shows Angelica Catalini in the title role of Portogallo's opera Semiramide, in which she made her London debut in 1806. 'She far exceeded any description that is within the scope of language to justly characterise', raved The Morning Post. Semiramide is Queen of Babylon, but Catalani's costume has little to do with ancient times. She wears the height of early 19th-century fashion, her dress a mixture of high-waisted Empire line and Greek overdress with the latest thing in jewellery, a neo-classical tiara, crowning her hair. Catalani's greatest successes were in Paris, where she was much admired by Napoleon.
Elizabeth Billington (1768-1818) was one of the most popular and highly paid opera singers of her day. After a triumphant debut at Covent Garden in 1786 she received a salary of £1000 to appear at the theatre for a season, and in 1801, after a period in Italy, she was in such demand in London that it was arranged for her to make alternate performances at Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres.
Her first 1801 performance was as Mandane, daughter of King Xerxes in Thomas Arne's opera Artaxerxes, and Gilray's caricature shows her in this role. Mrs Billington was known for her wide vocal range, which was shown to good effect in the opera's celebrated aria, The Soldier, tir'd of War's Alarms.
These dramatic prints show Giuditta Pasta as Medea in Mayr's opera Medea in Corinto. It was a perfect showcase for Pasta’s vocal and theatrical talents.
The priestess Medea falls in love with Jason and bears his children, but murders them when he abandons her. There were decided similarities with Bellini’s 1831opera Norma, which he wrote specially for Pasta, except that Druid priestess Norma does not kill her children.
Pasta had extraordinary range and variety of tone, but, as with Callas it was her expression of emotion through the music that held her audiences enthralled. As time went on, she could not be relied on to sing in tune, but she went on singing long after her voice had declined. The great singer Pauline Viardot likened her to Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper 'a wreck of a picture, but it is the greatest picture in the world’. Eventually she retired to Lake Como, where she could be seen tending her cabbages and chasing her turkeys.
The rise of the composer
Although star singers continued to be the great draw, the importance of the composer increased throughout the 19th century. Richard Wagner and Giuseppi Verdi were both composers and national heroes.
Wagner in Germany, Verdi in Italy, Mussorgsky in Russia and later Janacek in Czechoslovakia all used opera and music as an expression of national identity – a theme that had particular importance to many European countries at the end of the 19th century. In Russia, for example, the dominant culture had always been French-based, and there was a growing interest in exploring and promoting a Russian cultural identity.
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Rossini's achievement was to bring to comic opera the same expressive and technical vocal demands as tragic opera. His most popular opera, The Barber of Seville, was written in just 13 days. It had a catastrophic first performance when one of the lead singers fell through an open trap door in the stage and was badly hurt.
Rossini wrote a series of operas which turned traditional stories on their head, (this is what operetta composers such as Offenbach were to do later in the century). Among them was Cenerentola, Rossini's version of Cinderella, first performed in England in 1820 which abandons the fairy elements and transformation scenes in favour of endless disguises, indeed the Prince and his entire retinue are in disguise.
Rossini's opera William Tell was first given in Paris in 1829 and in London in 1830. Unlike the popular idea of operas as unbelievable stories, divorced from real life, it reflected the growing forces of nationalism in many countries throughout Europe which had led to risings across Europe in 1820.
It retold the well known legends surrounding the Swiss uprisings against the Austrians, the love of the Swiss patriot Arnold for the Austrian Mathilde, with the central story of Tell's shooting the apple from his son's head. It was Rossini's last opera and his greatest in scope, very far from the lively comic operas usually associated with him. The William Tell overture became very familiar to television audiences in the 1950s and 1960s as the signature tune of the popular Western The Lone Ranger.
Wagner's huge epic works such as Tannhauser and Lohengrin, and the four-opera The Ring Cycle (The Rhinegold, The Valkerie, Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods), drew on Germanic legend and stories.
Wagner was the first composer to demand the total unity of all the elements of a production (the gesamtkunstwerk) controlling music, costume, scenery and singers to ensure a dramatic and visually cohesive opera.
The Ring Cycle lasts about 18 hours and was the first opera to make used of a network of themes or Leitmotifs, each associated with a character or an idea. The operas are a closely woven texture of narrative, dialogue and orchestra and there are no formal arias.
The Ring Cycle has been understood by critics to be not just a story about gods and humans, but an exploration and reflection on the human condition. It has also been interpreted at different times as being socialist, fascist, Nazi or Jungian.It was standing room only in 1973 when the Sadler’s Wells Opera performed Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle in English. The stunning sci-fi setting shown in this photograph was designed by Ralph Koltai.
His sets, all gleaming rods and metallic spheres, with costumes incorporating perspex, and Glen Byam Shaw’s production, created a timeless world in which Wagner’s figures moved with an unusual humanity. It reflected both the 1960s and the Apollo moon landing, as though Tolkien met Star Wars.
The performances shot Rita Hunter as Brunnhilde to superstardom. Her radiant, glowing voice overcame any resistance to her unromantic appearance and she became the idol of the Sadler’s Wells Opera audience. Her passionate rapport with Alberto Remedios as Siegfried, (they had first met as singing students on Merseyside), as one commentator recalled ‘nearly set the theatre on fire with its intensity’
This lively illustration of a rehearsal at Covent Garden of Wagner’s Die Walküre was published in 1927. The caption gives a lot of information about the technical side of a production and all the complex elements that come together in a theatrical performance - the lights, scenery, props, bridges and the technical, musical and backstage staff as well as the performers.
The scenery at the right is marked “RHEIN Sc 2 PS 2”, which identifies it as the second wing flat (the scenery set to the sides) on the prompt side (the actors’ left when facing the audience) in scene two of Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle. The singer brandishing the spear is probably one of the greatest of all Brunnhildes, Frida Leider and the four girls are other Valkyries. They all wear the height of 1920s fashions, a complete contrast to the formidable spear brandishing Valkyries they will become in performance, with their horned helmets and metal breastplates.
Verdi wrote 28 operas on subjects ranging from Bible stories to modern manners. Many of his operas had a meaning beyond the surface story. In Nabucco, the Hebrews held captive in Egypt and the famous chorus of the Hebrew slaves, was seen as an allusion to the Austrian domination of Italy, while La Traviata, explores morality.
Based on Dumas' novel La Dame aux Camelias the opera was, surprisingly, a failure at its first performance in 1853. The title translates as 'The woman gone astray' and the heroine is a courtesan, (prostitute). This was considered to be so shocking that when La Traviata was first performed in England in 1856, it was given an historical setting rather than a contemporary one to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Victorian audience. Verdi's music was hugely popular in Italy and he said that when he heard delivery boys whistling his arias, he knew he had got it right.
Ernani, Verdi’s fifth opera, premiered in 1843. It brought Verdi international fame and was his first opera to be performed in London. The complex plot has been described as ‘three men in love with one woman, quarrelling about her, and shouting their love, not one behaving in a rational manner. They challenge one another in their hatred and agree only in seeking one another’s destruction'. Ernani poisons himself and the heroine, Elvira, falls grief-striken over his body. These postcards form a series showing scenes from the opera. They date from the early 20th century, when postcards were the usual means of fast communication and avidly collected. The performers wear typical period opera costumes of the time. The men are dressed ‘Tudorbethan’ - a mixture of Tudor and Elizabethan 16th-century costume - but the heroine is firmly early 20th century in the cut of bodice and skirt, her belt is ‘medieval’ and only the sleeves 16th century. All period theatre costumes bear the signs of the age in which they were designed and to early 20th-century eyes, they would have seemed more ‘period’ than they do today.
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