Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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seriously with mediocrity. Writing to his sister on
February I3th, 1834, Disraeli says: "Montagu Gore
has accepted the Chiltern Hundreds, and asked me
to stand for Devizes, which I have refused. . . . Gore,
according to his address, resigns for two reasons
his health, and also because he has recanted and turned
Tory ! His health and head seem equally weak.
He is an ass, who has terminated an asinine career with
a very characteristic bray." l One is justified in
assuming that Mr. Gore in 1822 was not in possession
of more wisdom than he could claim in 1834.
(Vestris's letters to Gore and others will be found in
a subsequent chapter.)

1 Life of Disraeli (W. F. Monypenny).



CHAPTER VIII

THE WAYS OF PRIMA DONNAS

Vestris in Italian opera. The Montagu Gore " affair " again.
Josephine Bartolozzi and her admirers. Madame Vestris's alleged
" victims." Vestris announced to sing in Rossini's " oratorio "
Cyrus in Babylon. Vestris returns to the King's Theatre. The ways
of prima donnas. An impresario and his troubles. The rules of
dressing-rooms at the King's Theatre. Vestris insists upon more
candles. A queer offer to Ebers. The beautiful Miss Chester. She
is appointed reader to George IV.

THE year 1822 was not marked by any event of out-
standing importance. Madame Vestris continued at
Drury Lane, and Don Giovanni in London was put
on at intervals throughout the year. She also played
in The Pirate, a musical adaptation of Scott's novel,
and in The Beggar's Opera on March yth, the Post
remarking that in the leading character she " bore
away the palm from all other Macheaths of the day."
In The Duenna she converted Don Carlos, hitherto
always taken by a man, into a " breeches " part and
the play ran for a few nights. Artaxerxes and Paul
and Virginia (Vestris as Paul) also provided alternatives
to Giovanni. In January she took part in the first
of a series of concerts described as " Co vent Garden
Musical Performances " conducted by Bochsa, a well-
known harp player in great request. He had not
then distinguished (or extinguished) himself by running
away with the wife of Henry Bishop, the composer.
At this concert, Vestris sang her favourite song from
Artaxerxes, " In Infancy."

Her connection with Italian opera was renewed
in 1822, but she only sang once, taking the place of

80



THE WAYS OF PRIMA DONNAS 81

Madame Caradori (afterwards Caradori Allen), who
found that her soprano voice did not suit the contralto
part of Pippo in Rossini's La Gazza Ladra. During
the remainder of the season at Drury Lane she appeared
with Braham in The Haunted Tower and in the Siege
of Belgrade, and took the part of Julian in The Peasant
Boy, a musical play of no particular merit. When the
season ended at the " Lane " she went to the Hay-
market, which was then open only during the summer
months a condition of its licence, so as not to inter-
fere with the patent rights of Drury Lane and Covent
Garden Theatres. At the Haymarket she sang in
The Beggar's Opera, and " by permission of the pro-
prietor " of that theatre appeared as " Macheath "
in a performance of the opera at Covent Garden for
the benefit of Abbott, a member of the company.
On this occasion Polly was played by Miss Stephens,
" the most charming impersonation of the character
of that or any other period."

The name of Madame Vestris at this time and for
the next four or five years was not so well known to
the " man in the street " as it afterwards became.
Her engagement at the King's Theatre probably
gave her a cachet which lifted her above the common
gossip of the day. She was talked of simply as a
delightful and enchanting singer and actress, but of
herself outside the theatre little had oozed out for
the scandalmongers to take hold of. She managed
her amours skilfully and her tender affair with Montagu
Gore never became the property of the scurrilous
catchpenny writers for them to embellish in their
own peculiar style. But some of her intimate circle
of friends were acquainted with the story. One item
in the auction catalogue from which we have quoted
is very suggestive. It runs thus : "12 unsigned letters
to Harris apparently from a rejected lover of ' Ma-
dame's.' ' It is impossible to quote the more char-
acteristic passages from these extremely free letters.
References are made to " Best," Josephine (Madame's
6



82 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

sister), Duncombe, and others. Madame is constantly
referred to in the most outspoken manner ; she is
nicknamed " Plaguemidamnables." Montagu, one
learns, is settling ^700 a year on her " gold becks her
on she cannot coin you or me into it."

The dates of these letters are not given. They
probably belong to different periods, as there is no
evidence to show that Mr. Duncombe was so closely
associated with Madame Vestris at the time of the
Montagu Gore episode as he was later on, when she
was contemplating taking the Olympic Theatre.

" Best " was of course the Captain Best who,
according to Mrs. Baron-Wilson, was interested in
furthering Vestris's education in her girlhood, and
who is represented by Madame's anonymous biographer
as having an interest in her of a totally different kind.
In later years, when the Age newspaper came into
being, he was lampooned under the name of " Kettle-
drum " Best. Best's reputation does not incline one
to believe in his benevolent motives. Rumour cer-
tainly connected his name with that of Josephine
Bartolozzi in a sense which in these days would not
redound to his credit, but which a hundred years
ago would surprise few.

Mr. Tuer, in Bartolozzi and his Works, gives a
description of a miniature in ivory of Josephine,
painted after her marriage with Anderson (a racing
man who subsequently figured discreditably in Vestris's
financial matters), which represents her as " a creature
of more than ordinary loveliness. The features are
pleasing, but hardly sufficiently regular to be strictly
classical ; fine bust, very dark eyes with arched,
delicately pencilled eyebrows, a Roman nose perhaps
a trifle too long ; a mobile, smiling mouth sufficiently
open to disclose a suspicion of pearly teeth, a profusion
of auburn hair slightly shot with gold tucked behind
small shell-like ears and gathered into a simple knot,
and a skin of pearly fairness flushed with health "
altogether an attractive beauty, and one can conceive



THE WAYS OF PRIMA DONNAS 83

that she was as much run after by the beaux as her
sister Elizabetta. But she had not Elizabetta's clever-
ness.

The anonymous biographer asserts that Josephine
was the object of Lord Petersham's pursuit and that
to escape him she ran away, finding that her mother
was on the side of his lordship. " Captain Best
had afforded her protection when she fled from her
mother," says the biographer, " and it was said entirely
on the score of humanity, which no one doubted, for
he was nearly treble her age and had done many just
and disinterested actions." How this eulogium can
be reconciled with statements in other parts of the
book that " this Captain's connection with the two
sisters does not do honour to his name," that he left
Madame Vestris at Manchester for a Lady Bennet
because she paid him better and he " wanted money
and would have linked himself to the devil to have got
it," and that he " was a man possessed of as little feeling
as one of the houyhnhnms in Gulliver's 'Travels,"
it is impossible to say. Going back to the catalogue,
an item runs as follows : " Six letters to Harris from
W. Duncombe (T. S. Duncombe ?) mentioned in
a letter in parcel 5 in connection with Josephine
Bartolozzi mainly relating to money difficulties."
Parcel 5 consists of the "12 unsigned letters to Harris "
already alluded to.

The description of Josephine given by Mr. Tuer
justifies one in suspecting that she was of a nature born
to love and be loved. It can easily be imagined that
she was a source of anxiety and expense to her elder
sister. Whatever faults Eliza Vestris had, she possessed
the redeeming quality of being exceedingly generous.

Josephine's marriage was not a very happy one (it
took place some years later than the period now dealt
with). Her husband attempted the stage, but he was
a poor actor, and probably could not support his
wife. It will be seen what kind of character he was
by what is told of him later on in these pages.



84 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

Madame Vestris was certain to help her sister as
she helped her mother later on she was allowing the
latter 200 a year and these burdens, added to her
own lavish expenditure, accounted for her always
being in want of money. But she was surrounded
by a host of rich admirers, and she does not seem to
have been particularly diffident in going to them
when she was in difficulties. Mr. T. H. Duncombe
must have had Madame in his mind when he wrote :
" There was one popular actress who had the reputation
of exhausting the resources of the wealthiest admirers.
The Dives at the commencement of these intercourses
invariably became a Lazarus at its conclusion ; at
last she beggared him and she sought another dupe.
The catalogue of her victims is a remarkable one and
includes men of high social position." But an excuse
may be made for Mr. Duncombe's bitterness. She
certainly cost his father a pretty penny. Excuses
are also due to Madame. She was mingling with
the beau monde ; she had to keep up appearances,
and money flowed through her ringers like water.
On her assuming the reins of management at the
Olympic demands for financial assistance became never-
ceasing, and Mr. Duncombe probably stood her friend.

Don Giovanni in London, which had made Vestris
famous, ceased to attract after 1822, and no novelty
could be found to take its place. She had to some
extent severed herself from such parts as would attract
the pit and gallery. It looks as if at this time she
had ambitions to shine in higher forms of dramatic
art, but had not made up her mind in what direction.
She was hovering between Italian opera and the
" legitimate " drama. She renewed her engagement
at the King's Theatre for the 1823 season and appeared
in her old part of Pippo in La Gazza Ladra, as Malcolm
in La Donna del Lago and in Ricciardo e Z,oraide.
Hitherto Mozart's music had held the sway, and Don
Giovanni, Figaro, La Clemenza di Tito and Co si fan
tutte, were the favourite operas.



THE WAYS OF PRIMA DONNAS 85

In 1823, however, a large section of the musical
public went Rossini mad, and anything from his fertile
brain was eagerly looked for. It is odd to find him
talked of as having composed an oratorio ; however,
Cyrus in Babylon, produced at Drury Lane, is so
described. A semi-public rehearsal conducted by
Bochsa took place in March, when Braham, Mrs.
Salmon (identified with oratorio singing), Miss Ellen
Tree, and Madame Vestris were announced to sustain
the principal parts ; but when the first performance
was given the " Oratorio " seems to have been " cut "
and Madame Vestris did not appear her name, at
all events, is not among the soloists mentioned. The
music is described as " adding to Rossini's reputation "
whether it did or not subsequent generations have
had no chance of judging, as the work was promptly
shelved and has not been heard since, at all events
in England.

Public opinion, very tolerant in regard to morality
or rather the absence of it, made up for its laxity in
one direction by its strait-laced attitude in another.
Rossini's Mose in Egitto, touching as it did upon a
Biblical subject, was not to be thought of as fit for
the theatre, and it was produced at the King's Theatre
transformed into Peter the Hermit. Probably the
" fashionables " did not care two pins either way.

A characteristic instance of the way in which prima
donnas love each other is recorded of one performance
of Peter. One of the most beautiful airs in the opera
is " Mi manca la voce " (My voice fails me). It was
sung by Madame Camporese, and upon her pro-
nouncing the words Madame Ronzi di Begnis (over
whose surpassing beauty Ebers goes into a paroxysm
of ecstasy) remarked audibly, " E vero " (Quite true).
When the curtain fell, the encounter between the
two ladies in its forcible language would not have dis-
graced a couple of Neapolitan lazzaroni. A more
subtle display of antagonistic feminine feeling was
that shown a half-century or so later when, as



86 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

Arditi relates, Madame Lablache was singing the
part of Donna Anna in the famous trio in Don Gio-
vanni. Brignoli, the tenor, had the unpleasant habit
of expectorating constantly, and Madame, who knew
this and who was wearing a very expensive dress, was
in agony lest her gown should suffer. At last, unable
to contain herself, she whispered to him, entreatingly,
" Poyons, mon cher ami, ne pourriez-vous pas, une fois
par basard, cracker sur la robe de Donna Elvina ? "

Ebers pathetically records his troubles arising out
of the jealousies, the fits of ill-temper, and caprice
of operatic stars, male as well as female. The re-
hearsals were times of tribulation. The prima donna,
not satisfied with her part, would demand certain
alterations, and if they were refused she would walk out
of the theatre. Should the manager prove obdurate,
she promptly had an attack of illness. Whenever there
was a squabble between the leading singers, the rest
of the company took it up, all talking at once in three
or four different languages, while the chorus vociferated
their opinions pro and con. The orchestra, not
interested in the quarrel, would go on playing with-
out the voices, until the leader, tired out, put on his
hat and departed and was speedily followed by the
members of the band, leaving the distracted manager
to tear his hair.

The method adopted by Harris, one of the best
stage managers on record, the father of the late Sir
Augustus Harris, to show his disgust when things
went wrong, was equally effectual and original. Mr.
Harris always wore a top-hat of extreme glossiness,
which he appeared to regard as a sort of fetish. If
the principals, the chorus, or the ballet were inclined
to be rebellious and refused to yield to persuasion
or reprimand, Harris would burst into a torrent of
angry remonstrance, and having worked himself up
to the proper pitch, he would switch the glossy hat
from his head, throw it on the stage, and jump upon
it with an emphatic " There ! " thus indicating that



THE WAYS OF PRIMA DONNAS 87

the end of the world had come. The unruly crowd,
struck with awe at the unparalleled sacrifice, generally
recovered their senses.

The traditions attending the privileges of operatic
stars in respect to their dressing-rooms were strictly
adhered to in Ebers's time. The prima donna was
entitled to a separate room with a sofa and six wax
candles. The secunda had to put up with a room
without a sofa and had to be satisfied (or more likely
dissatisfied) with two candles only. It goes without
saying that no self-respecting cantatrice could possibly
dress herself properly with so miserable a glimmer.
At all events, Madame Vestris could not, and as the
management dared not break the rules which from
time immemorial had governed this important matter,
she went her own way and provided herself with two ad-
ditional candles at her own expense. On one occasion
when the resources of the establishment were exhausted
and the extra candles were not forthcoming, her
imperious spirit was roused, and taking her stand
behind the curtain, she refused to dress for the part
until the required number of lights was furnished,
and she won the day !

In the midst of all these worries Ebers had now
and again compensating experiences which lightened
his burdens. One of the most amusing of these
experiences is that revealed in the indignation of a
gentleman who, having presented himself for admission
at the pit door in a pair of drab pantalons, was refused
admission. He wrote a letter of protest to Ebers,
in the course of which he said : " I was dressed in a
superfine blue coat with gold buttons, a white waist-
coat, fashionable tight drab pantaloons, white silk
stockings and dress shoes, all worn but once a Jew days
before at a dress concert at the Crown and Anchor 'Tavern !
I have mixed too much in genteel society not to know
that black breeches or pantaloons with black silk
stockings is a very prevailing full dress, and why is
it so ? Because it is convenient and economical, for



88 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

you can wear a 'pair of white silk stockings but once
without washing, and a pair of black is frequently worn
for weeks without ablution. P.S. I have no objection
to submit an inspection of my dress of the evening
in question to you or any competent person you may
appoint." It does not appear that this offer was
accepted, which on the whole was a pity, as the oppor-
tunity for much fun was lost.

Vestris's work at the King's Theatre in 1823 could
hardly be called arduous, as operas were given on two
nights in the week only, and 700 for the season, which
she received, was a fairly liberal remuneration, espe-
cially as she still retained her engagements at Drury
Lane, where her old successes (excepting Giovanni}
were repeated again and again, involving no trouble,
no rehearsals, and no necessity for fresh study.

She also renewed her position at the Haymarket,
where the successful novelty was a musical play entitled
Sweethearts and Wives. Owing to the preposterous
restrictions of theatrical licences only burletta could
be given in theatres other than the patent ones, and
to add to the absurdity no one could define exactly
what a burletta really was. " Something with a little
music " was probably its nearest description. Sweet-
hearts and Wives was a burletta, and as such it caught
on and retained its place in the bill throughout the
season. It owed its success to the powerful attraction
of the two ladies in the principal characters Madame
Vestris and Miss Chester, the last-named one of the
most beautiful women on the stage. The two played
together in subsequent seasons, and Vestris's vivacity
and archness and Miss Chester's charm of face proved
a combination in which the audience revelled.

Sweethearts and Wives deserves more than a passing
notice. It was written by James Kenney, a prolific
dramatist of the sprightly order, and contained a song
which has come down to our time, figuring in number-
less editions of English popular ditties. This was
" Why are you wandering here, I pray ? " a simple



THE WAYS OF PRIMA DONNAS 89

and charming ballad which when first sung by Vestris
was received with delight. It became one of Madame' s
favourites, and was never given without the reward
of an encore. The composer, Isaac Nathan, was a
musician of considerable talent, in great request as
a teacher of singing, and occasionally acted as musical
director in the theatre. He also wrote the music
for several operas, pantomimes and melodramas,
among them Alcaid and The Illustrious Stranger,
written for Listen by Kenney. Nathan's claims for
recognition rest, however, upon his arrangement of
Hebrew melodies for which Lord Byron wrote his
well-known verses.

Miss Chester achieved great distinction by the
solace she afforded George IV in the last year of his
life, which he passed in the seclusion of " The Cottage,"
Virginia Water. Huish, who records the circumstances,
may be left to tell the story in his own words. " His
Majesty in his enforced retirement," he says, " being
prohibited fishing by the doctors, enjoyed the lighter
literature of the day, and the reading of the drama
was a favourite amusement. The latter circumstance
led to the introduction of Miss Chester into his estab-
lishment as reader to His Majesty. It was at the theatre
where the graces of the lively actress attracted the
notice of royalty, and he made his penchant known
through the means of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who
was at that time engaged in taking the portrait of
the lady as well as of His Majesty. A meeting was
soon obtained, and a kind of excuse was invented to
have Miss Chester near his person ; the dexterous
one of appointing her * female reader ' was adopted,
and a salary of 600 per annum allowed. Thus was
Miss Chester placed in the royal establishment and
her name was emblazoned in the red book." The
gobemouches were provided with a tit-bit of gossip
of which no doubt every use was made in the way of
embellishment.



CHAPTER IX

SQUABBLES AT THE KING*! THEATRE

Ebers transfers the King's Theatre to Benelli. Rossini appointed
musical conductor. Rossini's lucrative private engagements. Madame
Vestris in The Barber of Seville. Her " Rosina " not a success. Her
engagement at Drury Lane. In Shakespeare at the Haymarket.
The Beggar's Opera and incongruous costumes. Success of Alcaid.
Vestris in a " breeches " part. Private Sunday concerts projected.
A " misunderstanding " at the King's Theatre. Madame Vestris
alleged to be in fault. Hostile reception of Vestris. She bursts into
tears. The matter explained and Vestris held to be blameless. An
angry scene at Covent Garden. Vestris infuriated.

BY the time the operatic season of 1824 had commenced
Ebers had had enough of the King's Theatre and its
responsibilities and had transferred his interest to
Signor Benelli for the sum of 10,000. The sale,
however, was attended by certain liabilities, the
consequences of which Ebers did not foresee ; and
though Benelli paid the 10,000, he defaulted subse-
quently and Ebers again found himself in difficulties.
Benelli commenced with the usual flourish of
trumpets inseparable from operatic management.
The spirit of the " reformer " was shown in this
intimation which accompanied his announcement of
a redecoration of the interior of the theatre on a
scale of unprecedented magnificence : " Anxious as
well to avoid an overcrowd behind the scenes
as not to refuse one gentleman while another is ad-
mitted, it is thought right to state that the admission
behind the scenes will be strictly confined as it is
at Paris to the annual subscribers." From this it
may be assumed that Ebers's rule in respect to visitors
had been somewhat elastic.

90



SQUABBLES AT THE KING'S THEATRE 91

Benelli had a trump card in Rossini, who had been
engaged as musical conductor, his wife, Madame
Colbran, being prima donna for the season. Rossini
could not have wished for a more enthusiastic recep-
tion. He was feted everywhere, and when at Brighton
he was received by the King, the latter ordered the
band to play the overture to // Barbiere out of com-
pliment to his visitor, who, when asked by His Majesty
to say what he would like to hear, suggested, as
a tactful courtier, " God Save the King." The
episode of Rossini's introduction to Henry Bishop
indicates the famous composer's readiness and his
desire to please. Rossini could speak no English,
and in default hummed the opening bars of Bishop's
haunting melody " When the Wind Blows " from
The Miller and his Men.

Rossini had a melodious tenor voice and his emolu-
ments from the many private parties to which he
was invited were very considerable. Indeed, his
pursuit of pleasure combined with profit was carried
to an extent which aroused the wrath of the London
Magazine. " // gran Maestro Rossini," it wrote
(July 1824) " is engaged to direct the music and to
compose a new opera. He does neither the one nor
the other. The Signor is disgusted at the outset
by the failure of his wife and he leaves the orchestra
pretty much to its fate ; when . . . finding that he
could obtain fifty guineas per night . . . for conduct-
ing a private concert (our poor English conductors
do the same thing for five) and that . . . this stipend
was generally increased, often doubled, and once or
twice more than doubled . . . the Signor allows the
libretto of Ugo Re d> Italia to lie untouched upon his
table and the people of England to wait till next year
for the greatest of his works which we have the assur-
ance of Signor Benelli it was to have been." The
London Magazine did not make allowance for Rossini's
incorrigible indolence and his love of good living.
As he was able to indulge both tastes and be well paid



92 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

into the bargain it is said he made .7,000 out of his
private engagements he could afford to be indifferent
to the comments of his censor.

The season opened with Zelmira, in which Madame
Vestris had a part. The house was packed, and
when Rossini made his appearance and took his seat
at the piano, the applause was overwhelming. There



Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 7 of 24)