Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - The Opera

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THE OPERA.

life2.gif (41029 bytes)CE sont des plaisirs vifs et charmants qu'il faut goûter et non décrire. Thus, if we remember aright, pleads the excellent Philarète Chasles, as an excuse fur not doing with his pen what his compatriot, M. Gavarni, has so happily done with his pencil. As, with all deference to the sensibilities of M. Chasles, one usually finds it a far easier task to describe pleasures than to feel them, we hesitate to offer his ingenious plea for avoiding ground which is so well known as to be dangerous. It would perhaps be better, and certainly it would be truer, to allege that one follows this artist with about as much chance of putting the subject in a new light, as is left to the young gentleman "with" Talfourd orThesiger, when either advocate has sat down after his speech.
    Still, if one chose to be dreary, and were not troubled with a literary conscience, it would be easy to. divulge several very instructive things about the Italian Opera. And we know, quite well, how we should treat the subject if we were writing for the worthy millions,. and not for la créme. Do you think we should not remark upon the influence which music has exercised in all ages, and give a cursory biography of all the instrument-makers, from Tubal Cain to Erard? Should we not be classically enthusiastic concerning the choral strains of Greece, and reverentially inquisitive about [-9-] the Hebraic anthems? And if a reader escaped without an introduction to Sappho, and an allusion to. Orpheus, and a new version of the story of Arion, he would get off better than we think he ought. What is the use of all the general information which writers read up, if it is not to be reprinted upon opportunity? Dogberry was a wise man, and ought to have been made editor of a magazine in Messina for that one piece of counsel to George Seacoal, to let his reading and writing appear "when there is no occasion for such vanity." We could do so if we dared, and we know exactly where to find a chronological history of the Opera in England, with statistics of all the managements, from Sir John Gallini to Mr. Lumley; and we could tell, at second hand (for we were not at the fire), how the old house was burned in 1789; and how the Italians went to the Haymarket and then to the Pantheon; and how Novosielski designed the new building; and all about the quarrels between Goold and Taylor; and how Mr. Chambers, the banker, began to be ruined; and how worthy Mr. Ebers dashed in to the rescue of the Opera; and how the house was officially declared unsafe in 1824, and the Lord Chamberlain refused to license the performances; and how M. Laporte succeeded, and Mr. Monck Mason did not succeed. And we could recount a quantity of anecdotes - mostly very stupid, but respectable from their antiquity and the great wear and tear they have undergone - and, in fact, we could borrow a great deal; but, as aforesaid, there is such an affair as conscience.
    But one of the great beauties of this world is that there is no such thing as absolute truth. There is nothing you can look at which does not become some-[-10-]thing else if you look at it from another point of view. Now ye have not enunciated this profound reflection without a reason. We bear in mind two visits, out of certain others which we have made in our time, to the Opera. It occurs to us that by describing these, and appending them to M. Gavarni's engraving, we shall enable anybody, with only the ordinary number of heads, to give a Cerberean look at the subject-to regard it three ways at once.
    The first season we used to go to the Opera we had not a stall of our own. We think it fair to add, that neither have we one now. But we then considered our having been within those walls a circumstance of very great glory and fashion, and were accustomed to regard the mean little play-bill, which we sedulously preserved in evidence of the fact, with feelings akin to those with which Lord Tancred now peruses his certificate of having visited the shrine of the Sepulchre. Being unmarried, we decline offering any further particulars as to the date of this transition-state, except that it was during Laporte's management. On a certain non-subscription night (for we were not proud, but, on the contrary, glad to get an order) we had gone to the pit very early, and having found out a seat, were combining instruction with amusement by looking after the corresponding passages in the Italian and English librètti-a harmless recreation. The opera was the Barbiere, and we had just stuck at Figaro's celebrated
        "Donne, donne! Eterni Dei!
        Chi vi arriva a indovinar?"
    The house had filled, and as the lights were suddenly turned on, it appeared to our inexperienced sense that [-11-] the whole of the court and the aristocracy were watching the progress of our studies. We felt like the young cornet who was naturally anxious that his helmet should be properly put on, because, having joined yesterday only, of course the eyes of Europe were upon him. While arranging one's hair, and generally endeavouring that none of the Marchionesses who were watching us should have just cause to censure our appearance or attitude, we were beckoned into a box on the pit tier. But not by a Marchioness, exactly. The invitation came from a remarkably grim and snuffy barrister - a family friend. Never mind - a box - what glory! We were soon ensconced, and if one drop of melancholy mingled in our cup of happiness, as in Psyche's in heaven, it was the thought that nobody who knew us at Islington was there to see our grandeur. Our thanks were profuse, but the grim and snuffy barrister was not a pleasant person to talk civilities to.
    "I thought you looked stupid, and as I have the box to myself, you are as well here as there."
    "Stupid!" Did the Marchionesses think so? We ventured to hint that it was a "brilliant night." The grim and snuffy barrister looked positively sublime (Soulié says that the manifestation of any passion, good or bad, in excess, is sublime) with contempt.
    "A what?"
    "A - a - brilliant - at least," said we, getting frightened, "there seem to be some - some good people here."
    The curtain rose - if we knew the name of the man who rang it up that night, at that precise moment, we would send him a very small present. It saved us from annihilation. 
    [-12-] The opera proceeded until Almaviva had displayed his Order, the police had liberated him, and the stirring chorus of concerted confusion and prearranged astonishment which ends the first act, was over.
    "Now," said the grim and snuffy barrister, "you obviously know nothing about this place; and so don't call nights ' brilliant,' and people 'good,' until you are safer. There's nobody here. You are looking at the royal box, and very likely you think that man s an emperor in disguise. He's the court confectioner. In the next box - give me the glass - that's an attorney and his family; and if justice is done, he'll be knocked off the rolls next Friday. You are taking the over-dressed woman, with the emeralds, for somebody. So she is - her husband's a Jew bill-discounter, and he's gone into the stalls, where he sees a young fellow who thinks to keep out of his clutches by keeping out of his sight. The fat man over there is the sub-editor of a paper in the interest of the house; and the man above him, with the hook nose, black eyes, and one great diamond, is Tango, the sheriff's officer - he's on the watch, too, for somebody, and his man's in the lobby. That pretty woman, as you call her, I should have thought you'd have known - it's Miss Footlights, of the Haymarket Theatre; and the woman she calls her mother's with her. Those people who have brought half their parish into the box, do so because they only come once in the season, and like to talk about it. Next to them is the doctor to the theatre; he invents disorders for singers who don't want to sing, and then makes out certificates that they are very bad. I don't see how you could suppose he was Lord Aberdeen, because there's not the slightest likeness. Yes, that is somebody - it's [-13-] Sir Hafiz Vastator he's come because he knows his wife can't be here to-night. I forget the name of the girl - she's in the ballet; you'll see her leave his box before the opera is over. There's old Fugue, the composer; nobody cares for him now, but Laporte gives the old creature a corner sometimes, to remind him of the days when he was the fashionable song-writer, and ruined himself by giving suppers to the Guards. If you do not know who that lady is, I shall certainly not be the first to tell you. Beyond her, nearer the stage, is the wife of a man who brews Indian ale; and beyond her again is old Mother Jonadab, who keeps the masquerade shop, and I suppose gets boxes in payment for some of the dresses she lends the house. On a line with us - the fourth from here - is Barrels, who writes the novels of which Lady Laura Spike is author. They have had a row because he wants a quarter instead of an eighth of the purchase-money - authors are never content! Opposite is Straps, the lunatic asylum keeper, with two harmless patients (they are both tied to their chairs); and the last is Barabbas Yelp, the political writer as he calls himself. He has been abusing religion lustily for a great many years, until he has saved money and bought his son a living. So much for your 'brilliant night' !"
    We waited some years before we ventured upon the term again. And the next time we felt inclined to use it was last season.
    We had the very great pleasure, on a Jenny Lind night (and a night when Jenny sang in a part in which those not usually her worshippers admit her perfection), of attending to the Opera-house a young lady who had never visited it before. And when the wonders of pre-[-14-]ternatural vocalists have ceased to produce an effect on the ear, and when the achievements of superhuman danseuses can scarcely extort a plaudit (not that we affect to be in any such state of used-up-ishness), there is always a fresh, and what M. Chasles calls a vif plaisir, in watching the sensation their marvels produce in another. Of course, that is to say, when that other is an interesting person; for of all bores, the greatest is a bore in a state of surprise. And we regret to add, that there is so great a quantity of surprise going about just now, fresh from Paris and elsewhere, that it makes society very disagreeable. When the evening papers come in, you see every second man with his mouth wide open - an unseemly sight.
    The "Miranda" of that evening was married to her Ferdinand, but Ferdinand promised to go to sleep in the back of the box, and leave us to expound the mysteries of the enchanted region. Miranda had prepared herself for the occasion ; she knew every note of the opera, and she also knew the cast. Moreover, she had a general idea of the theatre, and did not expect (as do some) to see the Queen's box hanging from the chandelier, or (as do others) to see straw littered down in the stalls. We led her to the box with anticipations of considerable pleasure, and it may be satisfactory to state (the French novelists are always accurate on these points, so we suppose there is reason for it) that Miranda looked as a young and beautiful wife should look, that she wore amber satin with black lace thereon, and had faintly green grapes in her dark and massive hair - a costume which we prefer to that suggested for her in the "Pictorial Shakspere."
    We managed that Miranda should enter her box as [-15-] the curtain rose for the opening chorus. The house was filled, for Jenny Lind has shown us that it possible - sufficient reason being given - to get the subscribers into their places at eight o'clock.
    As Miranda advanced to the front, one huge volume of sound rose, like a giant wave, from the orchestra, while another, leaping from the stage, rushed to meet it, and both blending, broke in a mighty tide of melody at her feet. Such, at least, is her own tale ; for ourselves, we merely heard the first bars of the Sonnambula. Miranda stood, very quiet and very pale, for a few seconds, and then, without disturbance or appeal of any kind, as quietly subsided into her seat - and fainted.
    Certainly, when one thinks of it, the eye and the ear are strangely assailed in those monster buildings. It seldom strikes the habitué, because he is always thinking of some specific object-looking for some acquaintance - listening to some favourite singer - watching some especial pet of the ballet - considering where he will go next-or uttering imprecations on the button of his glove for flying away. But to anybody who goes for the sake of the opera; who is not weighing the probable merits of the parties at which he has to show himself afterwards; who, not being a member of parliament, has not to calculate how he can manage to see Carlotta Gnisi's great pas and yet get back to the House in time to speak on the Church Extension question; who, not being a critic, has not to rush from the red opera to the green one, or from the green to the red one (as, from the colour of the affiches, the rival houses are now known), to compare the finale; who, not being in love, has not to stand behind his idol's chair, talk [-16-] as brilliantly as he can, and strive to spoil the talk of I his enemies - to anybody not so disqualified, the effect of either of our Opera-houses must be overwhelming.
    Beautifully constructed, the magic circle floats the lightest whisper to you, and the ear is instantly at ease, finding that no effort is required to catch the flying tones of the music. Nor is the eye worse treated; let it fall where it will it is charmed, rather than dazzled, by the artistic adornments lavishly, but not carelessly, strewn around. And when those vast areas, glittering and perfumed, are enriched by the noteabilities of the age, and jewelled by that unrivalled beauty, which, be it a gift of fate, or an accident of race, is indisputably the characteristic of English aristocracy; when the stage, unveiling, presents one of those gorgeous scenic displays of Grieve or Marshall, in which true art, struggling with meretricious splendour for the mastery, not seldom triumphs; when the full glory of music, radiating from a perfect chorus and orchestra, floods, in one delicious tide, every channel and avenue of sound, the sense and the mind maybe pardoned if alike they yield to the mighty enchantment, and cling with the earnestness of a first love to the localities which our artist has partially, but faithfully, depicted. 

SHIRLEY BROOKS.

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]