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Madame Vestris and her times online

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" In consequence of the day on which the Martyrdom
of King Charles the First took place falling on the
Tuesday, one of the usual nights of performances at
this theatre, the Opera Divertissement which we
announced for to-morrow will, at the request of
many subscribers to the opera, be postponed until
Saturday, when Madame Fodor will make her appear-
ance in Winter's celebrated opera of Proserpina with


Madame Vestris, her first appearance this season."
Apart from the cause, it is difficult to understand
why the opera should have been postponed, since the
date at first fixed was that of the day after the monarch's
martyrdom. But the ways of theatrical managers are
past finding out.

So far as the performance was concerned, the
Post, after praising the newcomer, added : " Madame
Vestris as Proserpina justified the favourable recep-
tion she met with last year. . . . Her countenance
is pleasing and her skill will enable her to make progress
with time." A few nights later, however, the critic
was in the mood to admonish. " Madame Vestris,"
he wrote, " with a fine natural talent sometimes loses
its advantages by languor ; she should learn that
sweetness is not incompatible with spirit and that
monotony is fatal to the finest tones." If the truth
were known, it might be that the vivacious Elizabetta
was becoming wearied of Winter's prettiness, and
that she felt that the absence of inspiration in the
conventional posings belonging to the operas of
Winter's school was foreign to her dramatic tem-

Following Proserpina came Zaira, also by Winter,
and of her performance the Post said : " She looked
better and sang better than we expected even from
her handsome person and captivating voice." The
organ of the upper ten for some reason was not dis-
posed to be enthusiastic. In one notice, where nothing
was said of the opera, it was explained that only space
could be found for the names of the " fashionables."

The great feature of the season was the appearance
of Braham and Madame Fodor in Mozart's Clemenza
di Tito. The great tenor's reception was overwhelm-
ing, and we read that " it was half-past twelve before
the performance was ended, and the throng was so
immense that though the greatest order and decorum
were preserved, it was with great difficulty that the
company could retire. The house could not have


been cleared before two in the morning." One is
tempted to ask that if it occupied so much time in
getting the audience out, how long did it take to
get them in ?

Meanwhile, " the grandest ballet ever produced
at the King's Theatre," to quote the advertisements,
was in preparation. This was Gonsalves di Cordova,
arranged by Armand Vestris. Several times the date
for its production was announced, but postponement
followed, once on account of the indisposition of
M. Vestris, and at others without any explanation.
The cause, however, to those who knew the ballet
master's propensities was no doubt intelligible. Even-
tually the ballet was produced and proved a success.
It kept its place in the bill until the end of the season.
Besides the operas already mentioned, the Cosa Rara
of Vicente Martin y Solar (generally known as Martini),
Mozart's Cost fan tutte, and lastly Figaro were given.
At the first performance of Cosa Rara the Princess
Charlotte and Prince Leopold were present, and
Braham, Fodor, and Vestris sang " God Save the
King " with an additional verse in honour of the
royal visitors, which so pleased them that, not con-
tented with hearing the anthem at the beginning of
the opera, they insisted upon a repetition of it at
the end !



The parting of Madame Vestris and her husband. She sings at
the Paris Italian Opera and is the life of a "certain sort of society."
Her alleged association with Windham Anstruther. The association
dissolved. Madame Vestris introduced to Elliston, the manager of
Drury Lane Theatre. Her first appearance at Drury Lane. Elliston
and his eccentricities. His production of the Coronation. Poses as
George IV. Vestris makes a hit in The Siege of Belgrade. Her success
in Artaxerxes. Braham's extravagant style.

DISASTER followed Armand Vestris after the closing
of the King's Theatre. He was arrested for debt,
cleared himself by bankruptcy, and went to Paris
with his wife and also, says one of the unreliable
biographers, with Mademoiselle Mori, his favourite
dancer. Paris seems to have been the undoing of both
husband and wife, certainly of the first, though judging
by his past there was not very much to undo. It is
asserted that Armand, having secured for himself and
Mademoiselle Mori an engagement at Naples, set out
for Italy and left his wife without any means of support.
As for the latter, Mr. T. P. Grinsted, who seems
to have given much time and attention to theatrical
history, writes : " Whilst in this gay city she found
herself neglected by her liege lord with but little
inclination to pine in solitude. The licentious metro-
polis beckoned her with its smiles, and for a time
she revelled in its giddy maze. She had constant
thoughts, however, of the profession to which she
had been introduced, and being a perfect mistress
of the language, frequently played at the French
theatres both in tragedy and drama."



According to the Dictionary of National Biography
she obtained engagements at the Italian Opera, where
she played Proserpina in a revival of Winter's opera,
with Mrs. Dickons, a favourite English singer, as
Ceres ; at the Theatre Francais, where she played
Camille to the Horace of Talma, and at other theatres.
Mrs. Baron-Wilson says : " Her appearances at the
Italian Theatre were not very frequent, but she was
the life of a certain sort of society."

The story goes that at the Odeon she met a well-
to-do Englishman, one Windham Anstruther, " who
paid her every attention " and so far insinuated him-
self into her good graces as to draw from her the avowal
of a wish that she had met with him at an earlier period
while both her hand and heart were disengaged.
Anstruther, fervently believing that he himself was
the first and only man who had succeeded in making
an impression on her heart, endeavoured to convince
her of the folly of remaining constant to a husband
who had so cruelly deserted her, but all in vain. " So
excellent an actress was she, that, believing her virtue
was impregnable, he pretended to have discovered
a flaw in her marriage articles by which in England
the union would be declared null and void. He even
assured her that he had sufficient influence to procure
the passing of a Bill which would release her from her
vows, when he would instantly make her his wife.
By arguments such as these she finally suffered herself
to be persuaded and accepted his protection."

This circumstantial story reads very plausibly, but
its truth is considerably discounted by the impression
the writer (the anonymous author previously alluded
to) was under that Madame was married to Armand
Vestris in Paris, apparently not knowing that the
marriage took place in London. The " flaw in the
marriage " (and maybe the whole story) was therefore
purely imaginary.

According to this doubtful authority, the couple
came to England, at what date does not appear (Mr,


Grinsted says she returned in 1819, but he makes no
mention of Anstruther), and took apartments at Mrs.
Harrison's, the New Hummums Tavern in Covent
Garden. Here Anstruther became on bad terms with
Mrs. Bartolozzi, his wife's mother, over some financial
transaction in which he behaved shabbily. Anstru-
ther's " sole dependence at this time," we are told,
" was on an allowance from his mother and on the
liberality of his elder brother, which being very inade-
quate to support him in the extravagant style in
which he was living with Madame at the Hummums,
he found himself in a short time greatly involved in
debt and in consequence he was arrested and conveyed
to the King's Bench. He afterwards " took the rules "
and removed to a lodging within the limits of Melina
Place, Lambeth. Monetary difficulties leading to
wrangles, the couple parted, and Madame took apart-
ments for herself and mother and Josephine her sister
in Brydges Street, Covent Garden.

Brydges Street, Covent Garden, is an unknown
thoroughfare to the Londoner of to-day. It has long
been absorbed by Catherine Street, of which it is a
continuation. In 1819 Drury Lane Theatre was at
the corner of Brydges Street, and in 1824, Poole, the
author of Paul Pry, who had had a long-standing
dispute with Robert Elliston, the lessee of Drury
Lane, in the preface to his comedy of Married and
Single, setting forth his grievances, alludes to the house
as the " Theatre Royal Elliston, at the corner of
Brydges Street near Catherine Street, in the Strand."
If Madame Vestris was residing in Brydges Street
in 1819 it was a most natural thing that she, already
launched in the theatrical world, should become
acquainted with Elliston. It is certain she was no
stranger to him by reputation.

Lord William Lennox, who married Miss Paton
(and a very unhappy marriage it was), claims credit
for the introduction of Madame Vestris to the Drury
Lane autocrat. " One evening," he says in his


Plays, Players, and Playhouses, " when I was leaving
the private-box entrance at Drury Lane, I saw two
ladies, evidently waiting for their carriage. It was
a dark, stormy, windy night ; hackney-coaches were
scarce, four-wheelers and hansom-cabs were not then
in prospective existence, and there seemed little
prospect of getting one of the above-mentioned

" Addressing the ladies, I said that if their carriage
did not come, they were welcome to have the hackney-
coach I had sent the link-boy to procure for me, and
that, in the meantime, I advised them to return to
their box, which was on the pit tier. This they did,
and in course of conversation I discovered that one
of the ladies was Madame Vestris, who was most
anxious to be introduced to the great Robert William
Elliston. While expressing my willingness to take
an early opportunity of forwarding Madame Vestris' s
views, no less a personage than the lessee himself
came down from the back of the stage towards the
footlights, which were nearly extinguished.

" ' Firemen,' he exclaimed, in a loud, pompous tone,
' see all lights put out ! I hear some voices in that

" * Yes, Mr. Elliston,' I replied. c I am here with
a lady who is most anxious to be presented to you.
You've not forgotten me, Lord William Lennox ? '

" * Delighted, my lord, to see you.'

" He came into the box, seemed delighted at
Madame Vestris's looks, and there and then engaged

She appeared in February 1820 as Lilla in Cobb's
Siege of Belgrade, a poor play with songs inserted,
the kind of thing which in those days did duty for
English opera. Braham, who played in it, was of
course the attraction.

Elliston was a strange combination of a talent which
at times amounted to genius and an impulsive eccen-
tricity that was not far removed from insanity. He


was, when he chose to be, an admirable actor, and
there were few characters in his own particular line
that he could not play better than anyone else. His
readiness of resource and his instinct for advertise-
ment were never wanting, and his self-possession under
all manner of difficulties was perfect. One of his
most daring assumptions was the impersonation of
George IV in his production at Drury Lane of the
Coronation of that monarch. The preliminaries to
this extraordinary pageant were highly amusing, but
are too long to detail here. The show itself is pro-
nounced by Elliston's biographer, George Raymond,
" as a piece of theatrical effect perhaps the most
complete ever represented on the English stage,"
and " it attracted the attention and admiration of
the whole town."

Raymond significantly adds of Elliston himself :
" There is no doubt that the extraordinary success
of the piece, the crowded assembly, the heated atmo-
sphere, and his own highly rectified temperament,
not unfrequently qualified by more material alcohol,
produced the transmutation of his wits or perhaps
drove him completely out of them. That there
were moments in which he verily believed himself
not the shadow but the substance of monarch there
can be no question. . . . But when, amid the acclama-
tions of hot-pressed Drury threading his way through
the ' upturned, wondering eyes ' of all London in
the pit, he exclaimed, ' Bless you my people,' he
believed himself no less than ' the Lord's anointed.' '
Actually a Coronation medal was struck and specimens
presented for several nights to the first two hundred
persons who entered the theatre.

With so autocratic and self-willed a personage as
Robert Elliston it would not have been surprising
had his relations with the tempestuous Madame Vestris
been marked by friction, and no doubt they had their
differences. Elliston's sense of humour, however, and
his whimsicalities saved him from any quarrel which


could not be made up. His manner, unlike that of
Macready, with whom Vestris was destined to have
many a deadly passage of arms, was never overbearing,
and he had too much affection for and too much admira-
tion of the fair sex to be rude to so charming a repre-
sentative as Eliza Vestris.

Small as the chance Cobb's inane ballad-play (pro-
duced on January 1 9th, 1820) gave Vestris to show
her accomplishments, she made a hit. The Times
wrote : " This theatre has made a splendid addition to
its company of vocal performers in the person of
Madame Vestris, who made her first appearance on
an English stage on Saturday evening, in the character
of Lilla in the Siege of Belgrade. ... If we must
hesitate to place her in the first rank of the profession,
it is because her command of its mechanical difficulties
is less complete than is required, her shake failing some-
times in brilliancy and her execution in distinction,
but in all that constitutes the soul of the art, in grace,
pathos, and just intonation, we may associate her with
the greatest names of the day." The Morning Post
was laudatory in much the same terms and mentioned
in the most flowery language at its command her
introduction of a song by Clare the " peasant poet,"
which she " understood with the most happy effect."

A much more ambitious effort was that of Arne's
opera Artaxerxes. The cast was a strong one. Braham
was Arbaces ; Incledon, Artabanes ; Miss Carew,
Mandane ; and Madame Vestris, Artaxerxes. " At
no other theatre," said the Post, " could such talents
be united in the same opera ; the taste, the brilli-
ancy, the pathos of Braham, the power, the richness,
the volume of Incledon, the execution and science
of Miss Carew, the clearness and the intelligence of
Madame Vestris. The character of Artaxerxes, though
it gives its name to the opera, is a part of second-rate
importance and much below the level of Madame

At the age of 30.



Vestris's talent. But talents can give a prominence
to parts of inferior importance."

The limes was more discriminating and more
critical. Of Arne's experiment of writing an English
opera in the grand Italian operatic style it remarked :
" The piece is now compressed into two acts, a licence
that deserves indulgence as all the best songs have
been retained and the construction of the opera
in continued recitative, a solitary imitation of the
Italian manner, has never been understood or relished
by an English audience. It has pleased solely as a
musical composition ; as a drama it is unintelligible
and therefore tedious." Whether this compression
was successful is extremely doubtful.

The character of Artaxerxes was originally written
for a soprano, but for some reason had been appro-
priated by a male voice. Madame Vestris restored
it to its original intention. " The song of * In Infancy
our Hopes and Fears,' " said the Times, " as given
by her was chaste and touching and may almost be
adduced as a specimen of the true style of simple
singing. The experience in recitative acquired by
Madame Vestris in the Italian style gave her great
advantage over the other performers."

Braham the writer reproved, and not without
reason, because of his tendency to over-ornament.
It was pointed out that " in the song of ' Water
Parted from the Sea,' by labouring too much at
expression he injured its character. It should have
been given with far more lightness and tenderness
and wholly without ornamentation, a sacrifice Braham
may make without danger to his reputation, as his
power is too well known to require its display on every
occasion." Braham had a voice of the finest quality,
and when he chose he could use it with the greatest
effect in oratorio especially. But in opera or in
the concert-room he played to the gallery and " frilled
and frittered in the Italian manner " till a simple
ballad was turned into a piece of embroidered vulgarity.



He could be, as Lord Mount-Edgcumbe, who must
have heard him in all his styles, has pointed out, " two
distinct singers according to the audience before whom
he performs."

The best description of Braham's singing when
the control within him asserted itself is give by a
Mr. Heywood in the Cornhill Magazine (December
1865). Writing of a performance of Israel in Egypt,
Mr. Heywood says : " A little thick-set man with
a light brown wig all over his eyes, a generally common
appearance, and a most unmistakably Jewish aspect
got up to sing one single line of recitative. He stood
with his head well on one side, held his music also
on one side and far out before him, gave a funny
little stamp with his foot, and then proceeded to lay
in his provision of breath with such a tremendous
shrug of his shoulders and swelling of his chest that
I very nearly burst out laughing. He said, ' But the
children of Israel went on dry land,' and then paused ;
and every sound was hushed throughout that great
space, and then as if carried out upon the solid still-
ness came those three little words ' through the sea/
And our breath failed and our pulses ceased to beat
and we bent our heads as all the wonder of the miracle
seemed to pass over us with these accents awful,
resonant, triumphant. He sat down while the whole
house thundered its applause."

He was a very poor actor, but he did not think so,
or he would not have attempted to act the Bay of
Biscay as well as sing it. On one occasion his histrionic
effort made him surprisingly ridiculous. It was at
one of the provincial musical festivals. The orchestral
platform had an exceedingly high front and Braham's
lack of stature hardly enabled him to show more than
half his body, but when he came to the last verse
in which he cries, " A sail a sail a sail ! " and he
went down on one knee, which he always did as if in
thankfulness, he disappeared altogether. The audience,
puzzled at first and alarmed, thinking he had vanished


through some mysterious trap-door, roared with
laughter when they saw the little man, with his un-
mistakably Israelitish countenance and his brown
wig, reappear safe and sound.

In addition to the pieces mentioned, an old con-
coction, Shakespeare versus Harlequin, was revived,
in which Madame Vestris played Dolly Snip in so
sprightly a fashion that it was soon seen she would
be a very valuable acquisition by reason of her versa-
tility. Shakespeare versus Harlequin merits a passing
note. It was produced under the name of Harle-
quin's Invasion by Garrick, who adapted it from an
older piece in which he himself played at the Good-
man's Fields Theatre. It was described as a " Christ-
mas gambol in the manner of the Italian comedy,"
and represented Harlequin invading the region of
poesy and the kingdom of Shakespeare and, after
various and comical adventures, being expelled.
Though ostensibly a pantomime, all the characters
had " speaking " parts. The original Dolly Snip
was Miss Pope, one of the best comedy actresses
of the Garrick period. So far as Dolly Snip is con-
cerned, Miss Pope had a worthy successor in Madame
Vestris. " Madame Vestris . . . evinced a spirit and
a naivete in Dolly Snip," writes Mrs. Baron-
Wilson, " which was highly captivating, and if culti-
vated with zealous attention will render her one of
the most pleasing actresses it has ever been our honest
enjoyment to applaud."

Applauded as she was in everything she undertook,
it was not until the end of May that the real Vestris
in all her sparkle and charming audacity burst upon
the town in MoncriefFs burlesque of Mozart's Don
Giovanni entitled Giovanni in London. Irrepressible
gaiety, beauty of face and figure, the voice of a siren,
combined to form a living picture the like of which
London had never seen before.



Vestris as Captain Macheath. Her stupendous success in Giovanni
in London. A severe condemnation. Madame's charms described in
verse. The plot of Giovanni. The music, and Vestris's vivacity and
daring costume, its attraction. " Joe Gould," the first impersonator
of the Don at the Olympic Pavilion. Played for one night only.
Elliston's style of advertising. Tom Moore delighted with Vestris
in Giovanni.

THE BEGGAR'S OPERA paved the way for Giovanni in
London. Gay's perennial piece of satire, humour, and
the sweetest of music was revived at the Haymarket
on July 22nd, 1820, for the express purpose of exploit-
ing Vestris as Captain Macheath. She was not the first
woman to personate the rollicking captain. Sprightly
Anne Catley, the very soul of audacity, played the
character at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, then run
by Mossop, in 1764. Anne had crept into the hearts
of the Irish play-going public, and as a counter-attrac-
tion, Barry, Mossop's rival at Crow Street, put on
The Beggar's Opera with himself as Macheath, Mrs.
Dancer as Polly, and Mrs. Abington as Lucy. The
revival was so successful that Mossop determined to
go one better. Anne Catley's Polly was familiar
enough to the Smock Alley audience, as the opera
had been running some time, and when it was an-
nounced that she would appear as Macheath the house
was packed and the novelty was the rage for some time.
Thirteen years or so later Mrs. Kennedy, an Irish-
woman with a remarkable contralto voice, made a
hit in the part at Covent Garden ; and in 1780 Mrs.
Cargill was the Macheath in Colman's travesty of



the opera, when all the parts were reversed. Catley,
somewhat piqued at Mrs. Cargill's success, once more
essayed Macheath, though by this time her powers were
failing, and the rival female Macheaths were the
talk of the town.

In 1820 the opera had not been performed for seven
years. With Vestris as Macheath it came as a refresh-
ing surprise a surprise all the greater as the costume
revealed the exquisite form of one of the most beauti-
fully proportioned women who had ever appeared
upon the English stage. It is not a little singular
that, coarse and vulgar as was the taste of the day,
some people professed to see impropriety in an actress
in a " breeches " part. However, the Theatrical
Inquisitor, which afterwards denounced Giovanni in
London for its indecorum, was fain to admit that
" though our sentiments of this lady's appearance in
Macheath are not precisely such as will blazon her
merit or confirm her success, . . . we are half inclined
to instance this momentous effort as the most amusing
personation in which we have hitherto beheld her.
The muses, according to Gay's ' Beggar,' pay no atten-
tion to dress, . . . but Madame Vestris in her scarlet
frock and blue cravat, . . . her dapper appearance,
high spirits and unflagging activity, were apparent
in every branch of her impersonation and rendered
her Captain Macheath . . . one of the prettiest
rattles for overgrown children with which the stage
can at present supply them." The opera ran for ten
consecutive nights, Vestris's salary being sixty guineas.

The Inquisitor a few months later relapsed into its
habitual somewhat dour mood. Elliston, immensely
taken with the " dapper " Macheath, produced the
opera at Drury Lane on November 4th. There is
no reason to believe that Vestris's performance in
this revival was at all inferior to her Haymarket imper-

Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 4 of 24)