Lucia Elizabeth Vestris
|Lucia Elizabeth Vestris|
Lithograph c. 1831-35 - Philadelphia Museum of Art
|Died||8 August 1856
|Spouse(s)||Auguste Armand Vestris
Charles James Mathews
(1835—1856 (her death)
Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (January 1797 – 8 August 1856) was an English actress and a contralto opera singer, appearing in works by Mozart and Rossini. While popular in her time, she was more notable as a theatre producer and manager. After accumulating a fortune from her performances, she leased the Olympic Theatre in London and produced a series of burlesques and extravaganzas for which the house became famous, especially popular works by James Planché. She also produced his work at other theatres she managed.
Early life and education
She was born Elizabetta Lucia Bartolozzi in London in 1797, the first of two daughters of the highly regarded German pianist Theresa Jansen Bartolozzi and Gaetano Stefano Bartolozzi. He was a musician and son of the immigrant Francesco Bartolozzi, a noted artist and engraver, appointed as Royal Engraver to the king. Gaetano Bartolozzi was a successful art dealer, and the family moved to Europe in 1798 when he sold off his business. They spent time in Paris and Vienna before reaching Venice, where they found that their estate had been looted during the French invasion. They returned to London to start over, where Gaetano taught drawing. They separated there and Therese gave piano lessons to support her daughters.
Lucia studied music and was noted for her voice and dancing ability. She was married at age 16 to the French dancer, Auguste Armand Vestris, a scion of the great family of dancers of Florentine origin, but her husband deserted her four years later. Nevertheless, since she had started singing and acting professionally as "Madame Vestris", she retained the stage name throughout her career.
Her contralto voice and attractive appearance gained Madame Vestris her first leading role at age 18 in Italian opera in the title-role of Peter Winter's II ratto di Proserpina at the King's Theatre in 1815. She had immediate success in both London and Paris. In the French capital city she appeared at the Théâtre-Italien and various other theatres. Her supposed interpretation - reported by several critics - of Camille at the Théâtre-Français to Talma's Horace, however, has never happened. The mistake derived from a misreading of Talma's Mémoires where the actor recalls an episode in which a Madame Vestris - not Eliza Vestris, as she was born several years later, but Françoise-Marie-Rosette Gourgaud, who married Angiolo Vestris - played Camille to his Horace in 1785.
Her first hit in English was in 1820 at age 23 at the Drury Lane in Stephen Storace's Siege of Belgrade, "and she remained an extraordinary favourite in opera, musical farces and comedies until her retirement in 1854. At the King's Theatre she sang in the English premières of many Rossini operas: La gazza ladra (as Pippo, 1821), La donna del lago (as Malcolm Graeme, 1823), Ricciardo e Zoraide (as Zomira, 1823), Matilde di Shabran (as Edoardo, 1823), Zelmira (as Emma, 1824) and Semiramide (as Arsace, 1824)". She excelled in "breeches parts," and she also performed in Mozart operas, such as The Marriage of Figaro (Cherubino), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Blonde) and Don Giovanni. She was credited with popularizing such new songs as "Cherry Ripe", "Meet Me by Moonlight Alone" (written by Joseph Augustine Wade), I've been roaming," etc. She also took part in world premieres, creating the role of Felix in Isaac Nathan's comic opera The Alcaid or The Secrets of Office, (London, Little Theatre in the Haymarket, 1824), and, above all, that of Fatima in Oberon or The Elf King's Oath, "the Grand Romantic and Fairy Opera" by Carl Maria von Weber, which was given at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on 12 April 1826.
In 1830, having accumulated a fortune from her performing, she leased the Olympic Theatre from John Scott. There she began presenting a series of burlesques and extravaganzas—for which she made this house famous. She produced numerous works by the contemporary playwright James Planché, with whom she had a successful partnership, in which he also contributed ideas for staging and costumes.
Second marriage and subsequent career
She married in 1838 for the second time, to the British actor Charles James Mathews and accompanied him on tour to America. She aided him in his subsequent managerial ventures, including the management of the Lyceum Theatre and the theatre in Covent Garden.
Mme Vestris and Mathews inaugurated their management of Covent Garden with the first-known production of Love's Labour's Lost since 1605; Vestris played Rosaline. In 1840 she staged one of the first relatively uncut productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which she played Oberon. This began a tradition of female Oberons that lasted for 70 years in the British theatre.
In 1841 Vestris produced the highly successful Victorian farce London Assurance by Dion Boucicault, with possibly the first use of a "box set". The play has been popular ever since, receiving its most recent revival at the National Theatre in 2010.
She also introduced the soprano Adelaide Kemble to the theatre in Bellini’s Norma and La Sonnambula. A daughter of John Kemble, actor-manager and one of the theatre’s owners, and niece of Sarah Siddons Adelaide had a sensational but short career before retiring into marriage.
Madame was an admirable manager, and Charles an amiable assistant. The arrangements behind the scenes were perfect, the dressing rooms good, the attendants well-chosen, the wings kept clear of all intruders, no strangers or crutch and toothpick loafers allowed behind to flirt with the ballet-girls, only a very few private friends were allowed the privilege of visiting the green-room, which was as handsomely furnished as any nobleman's drawing-room, and those friends appeared always in evening dress....There was great propriety and decorum observed in every part of the establishment, great harmony, general content prevailed in every department of the theatre, and universal regret was felt when the admirable managers were compelled to resign their government.
Another writer George Vanderhoff in Dramatic Reminiscences also bears testimony to the fact that: ‘To Vestris's honour, she was not only scrupulously careful not to offend propriety by word or action, but she knew very well how to repress any attempt at double-entendre, or doubtful insinuation, in others. The green-room in Covent Garden was a most agreeable lounging place, from which was banished every word or allusion that would not be tolerated in a drawing-room.’
Her last performance (1854) was for Mathews' benefit, in an adaptation of Madame de Girardin's La Joie fait pour, called Sunshine through Clouds. She died in London in 1856.
Her musical accomplishments and education were not sufficient to distinguish her in grand opera, and in high comedy she was only moderately successful. But in plays like Loan of a Lover, Paul Pry, Naval Engagements, etc., she was "delightfully arch and bewitching." However, many an observer (and Chorley among them) "never quite forgave her for not becoming the greatest English operatic contralto of her age:"
|“||About the same time it was that Madame Vestris made her last appearance on our Italian stage. There, if she had possessed musical patience and energy, she might have queened it; because she possessed (half Italian by birth) one of the most luscious of low voices—found, since Lear's time, excellent in woman — great personal beauty, and almost faultless figure, which she knew to adorn with consummate art — and no common stage address. — But a less arduous theatrical career pleased her better; and so she, too, could not— one might perhaps say, because she would not— remain on the Italian stage.||”|
—Thirty Years' Musical Recollections, by Henry F. Chorley, London, Hurst and Blackett, 1862
In an age where women were denied autonomy, and brought up to believe they could not manage their own lives and their own money let alone run a businss employing hundreds of people including both men and women, Vestris was a business-woman par excellence. She was a trail-blazer - not only in the way she chose to live her life, but because she was not just her own boss, but literally the boss of hundreds of other people. She managed theatres; took plays on tour with a motley crew of actors, actresses and all the support staff, and only married again after her disastrous early experience with Vestris when the American authorities forced her to in order to allow her to bring her tour across their borders. Lucia Elizabeth Vestris was a prominent figure indeed in the history of British theatre and customs in the nineteenth century.
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- Casaglia (accessed 8 June 2011); Grove, p. 979
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- Anderson was by then the sole survivor of the brilliant company by whom "London Assurance" was first played (Henry Saxe Wyndham, The annals of Covent Garden theatre from 1732 to 1897, Volume 2, London, Chatto & Windus, 1906, p. 161)
- Mathews, II, pp. 105-106
- George Vanderhoff, Dramatic Reminiscences; or, actors and actresses in England and America, London, Thomas W. Cooper, 1860, p. 47 (accessible for free online in openlibrary.org)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Grove, p. 980
- Volume I, p. 242 (accessible for free online in books.google)
- Pearce, passim
- (Italian) Gherardo Casaglia, Almanacco, in Amadeusonline, Paragon s.r.l.
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- Charles E. Pearce, Madame Vestris and her times, New York, Brentano's, s.d. (accessible for free online at Internet Archive)
- Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Grove (Oxford University Press), New York, 1997 (article: Vestris [née Bartolozzi], Lucia Elizabeth [Eliza Lucy], IV, pp. 979–980) ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2
- William H. Appleton, Madame Vestris and the London Stage, New York: Columbia University Press, 1974
- Kathy Fletcher, "Planche, Vestris, and the Transvestite Role: Sexuality and Gender in Victorian Popular Theatre", in Nineteenth-Century Theatre, Vol 15, no. 1, pp. 63–70
- Charles Molloy W.M.E. (ed.), Memoirs of the life, public and private adventures, of Madame Vestris: of the Theatres Royal Drury Lane, Covent Garden, Olympic and Haymarket, with interesting and amusing anecdotes of celebrated characters in the fashionable world, detailing an interesting variety of singularly curious and amusing scenes, as perferformed before and behind the curtain (etc.), London, Printed for the bookseller, 1839 (accessible for free online at Internet Archive)
- Clifford John Williams, Madame Vestris: A Theatrical Biography, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1973
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