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Theatres


London theatres premiering English opera


The following outlines the history of London theatres that premiered major English operas in this era. Five are still in use as theatres. Only one opera of note, Loder's Raymond and Agnes was premiered outside London, at the Theatre Royal, Manchester in 1855. http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/ has an extensive history and old photographs of the theatres mentioned.

 

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Originally opened in 1663, Drury Lane was one of the two theatres that had a patent to present spoken drama. In the second half of the 18th century into the first part of the 19th, it also mounted English opera, though of the usual trivial variety. Alfred Bunn took over the lease in 1831 and began presenting Italian opera before switching to English opera in 1835 when he attempted to make it a permanent home for English opera producing a string of operas mainly by Balfe as well as continental opera in English. This foundered in 1847, after which Jullien took it over but bankrupted himself within a few months with his lavish productions. Bunn took up the lease again briefly in 1850-51. After that, the theatre became primarily devoted to plays and Italian opera although it did host a number of Carl Rosa seasons later in the century with premieres of Goring Thomas's Esmeralda (1883) and Nadeshda (1885), Mackenzie's Colomba (1883) and The Troubadour (1886), Stanford's Canterbury Pilgrims (1884) and Cowen's Thorgrim (1890).

 

Covent Garden Theatre

Opened in 1732, Covent Gardenwas the other patent theatre, but also mixed in English opera, mainly the rather trivial opera of the time but including Arne's Artaxerxes. From 1810-1824, Sir Henry Bishop was musical director and included a number of continental operas translated into English but also heavily adapted for the supposedly different English conditions. Charles Kemble took over the management and in 1826 he invited Weber to become musical director. Weber died shortly after the premiere of Oberon and there was no operatic progress until Bunn took over the management in 1833. He put on a number of German operas in German as well as Bellini's La sonnambula in English but then gave up the management in 1837. It then was home to a number of visiting and native companies performing French and Italian opera until it burned down in 1847 when, on rebuilding, it was renamed the Royal Italian Opera House, burning down again in 1856. On reopening in 1858, Pyne and Harrison took on the management for part of the year during which they presented English opera, under the banner of the Royal English Opera. They withdrew in 1864 but a committee took it on for a further 2 years. The theatre then became devoted solely to Italian opera but later included French and German opera (although not English) in the main season and, by the end of the century, it had achieved it current primacy.

 

King's Theatre, later Her Majesty's Theatre

This was the main theatre for Italian opera until it burnt down in 1867. However, Smith and Mapleson produced three seasons of English opera there between 1858 and 1860, including Macfarren's Robin Hood(1860). Upon rebuilding, it continued to produce important operatic work including several Carl Rosa seasons and the first performance in England of Wagner's Der Ring.

 

Lyceum Theatre (English Opera House)

Opened in 1772, it was taken over by S.J. Arnold in 1812, who renamed it the English Opera House although still staging the usual superficial fare by Bishop, etc. However, Weber's Der Freischütz received its first performance in England there in 1824. As has been described in the main body, when it reopened in 1834, under the name both of the English Opera House and the New Theatre Royal Lyceum, it made a point of mounting new and rather more substantial English opera. Arnold gave up the management in 1838 and Balfe briefly took it on in 1841 but again the company collapsed. After that, the Lyceum was mainly used for spoken drama and some Italian opera, although Pyne and Harrison gave the premiere of Balfe's The Rose of Castile there in 1857 and it was used for Carl Rosa seasons in 1876 and 1877, including the premiere of Cowen's Pauline (1876).

 

Opera Comique, Aldwych

Opened in 1870, the theatre was chiefly known for producing operettas and particularly a number of works by Gilbert and Sullivan.  However, in 1896, it premiered Stanford's Shamus O'Brien.

 

Palace Theatre (Royal English Opera House)

This was D'Oyly Carte's attempt to establish an opera house dedicated to English opera and opera in English, but after opening with a successful premiere of Sullivan's Ivanhoe in January 1891, D'Oyly Carte had insufficient new productions ready to follow it and the project foundered. D'Oyly Carte sold it. It remains a theatre now best known for musicals.

 

Princess's Theatre

Opened in 1840, John Maddox presented continental opera in English there from 1843-50. However, he also produced a number of Balfe operas as well as the premieres of Loder's The Night Dancers in 1846 and Macfarren's King Charles II in 1849. After that, it became devoted mainly to spoken drama, although Carl Rosa used it for its first London season in 1875. The theatre was demolished in 1931.

 

St. James's Theatre

The theatre was built in 1835 to a design by Samuel Beazley and owned by the tenor John Braham. However, it had little success and by 1838 Braham was ruined and ownership moved elsewhere. During this first period, it saw two premieres:- Agnes Sorel (1835) and The Village Coquettes (1836). A Chronicle of the the St. James's Theatre, written around the turn of the 19th century, can be found at https://archive.org/details/chronicleofstjam00londuoft .   A more modern history is Barry Duncan, The St James's Theatre, it's strange & Complete History (London: Barrie and Rockcliff,1964), while pictures and commentary can be found on it at http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/StJamesTheatre.htm. It was on Duke Street and has since been demolished. The present St James's Theatre is not related to it.

 

Surrey Theatre, Lambeth (originally The Royal Circus).  Also known as The Royal Surrey Theatre.

Built in 1782 this mainly specialised in popular entertainment, although Robert Elliston produced a number of Shakespeare plays, adding music to circumvent the regulations. Later it mounted mainly drama but also some operas, including the premieres of Rodwell's Lord of the Isles (1833) and Balfe's The Devil's in it (1852). Alfred Bunn was manager for a short while. The theatre was demolished in 1934.

 

The details above are drawn mainly from George Biddlecombe, English opera from 1834 to 1864 with particular reference to the works off Michael Balfe (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), pp.332-337, Stanley Sadie, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1992), Volume 3, pp.22-37 and Eric W. White,The history of English Opera (London: Faber & Faber, 1983), p.261.


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