Fuhrman, "Scott Repatriated?: La Dame blanche Crosses the Channel"

Opera and Romanticism

Scott Repatriated?: La Dame blanche Crosses the Channel

Christina Fuhrman, Ashland University

Numerous foreign composers wrote operas based on Sir Walter Scott. This article explores the nationalistic, theatrical, and musical tensions that arose when one of these foreign Scott operas--La Dame Blanche--was unsuccessfully 'repatriated' in two different versions for London. This essay appears in _Opera and Romanticism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.

  1. In 1825, Sir Walter Scott found himself beleaguered by fans:

    [I begin] to be haunted by too much company of every kind. But especially foreigners. I do not like them . . . they are seldom long of making it evident that they know nothing about what they are talking of excepting having seen [Rossini’s] Lady of the Lake at the Opera (Scott Journal 13).
  2. This unsettling personal confrontation played out on a larger scale, for not only foreign opera lovers, but foreign Scott operas themselves crossed the channel. La Donna del Lago, La Dame blanche, Ivanhoé, and Lucia di Lammermoor all appeared on British bills.[4] Significantly, they did not initially penetrate into Scotland itself, but landed in London, where Scott’s works had already appeared in a myriad of English dramatizations.[5] This applied a further layer of translation, as English audiences hovered uneasily between difference and identity with their northern neighbor. Ultimately, they proved as ambivalent to these operatic guests as Scott to his foreign visitors. By enshrining Scott and Scotland as emblems of a romanticized other, these operas uncomfortably reminded the English of their own status as fellow consumers of this idealized picture. In reinterpreting Scott’s works for new contexts, and in reducing him to exotic symbol, these operas also jarred Englanders’ more serious political and social investment in Scott’s portrayal. Closing ranks against foreign assimilation, the English folded Scott into a protected role as "national" author.[5]

  3. Nowhere did these tensions erupt more fiercely than when La Dame blanche (1826) came to London. Although our own knowledge of foreign Scott operas has dwindled primarily to one representative—Donizetti’s Lucia di LammermoorLa Dame blanche dominated the operatic landscape during Scott’s lifetime. An amalgamation of Guy Mannering (1815) and The Monastery (1820) by composer Adrien Boieldieu and librettist Eugène Scribe, La Dame blanche racked up over a thousand performances in Paris and captivated continental Europe.[6] Not so in London. Two separate translations, at Drury Lane (1826) and Covent Garden (1827), fizzled. The opera’s unexpected failure perfectly illustrates the tensions that arose when foreigners re-appropriated an author so crucial to fledgling British identity.

  4. La Dame blanche

  5. The first problem with La Dame blanche was its drastic departure from Scott. A master of the opéra comique genre, librettist Eugène Scribe had freely distilled Scott’s novels into one of his characteristic "well-made" plots.[7] Gone is the sprawling sweep of Scottish history, the panoply of idiosyncratic Scottish characters. Instead, Scribe focused interest squarely where Scott often faltered: the central love story between Georges Brown, lost heir of Guy Mannering, and Anna, an orphan loosely modeled on Mary Avenel from The Monastery. Scribe carefully redirected "Scottish flavor" into two conduits. First, beautiful scenery, happy peasants, and native folk tunes provided the traditional, generalized markers of couleur locale.[8] Second, the essential signifier of Scotland, the supernatural, devolved not on the prophetic gypsy Meg Merrilies from Guy Mannering, but on the White Lady from The Monastery, a spirit who aids the Avenel family. Blander and more ethereal than Meg, the White Lady could serve double duty: marker of prototypical Scottish superstition on the one hand, clever plot device on the other. For the White Lady did not stay otherworldly for long. Blending supernatural flavor with the well-worn rescue plot, Scribe revealed the White Lady as a disguise for Anna, who masquerades as the spirit to help Georges reclaim his ancestral estate. As was his forte, Scribe directed all of these plot elements toward one, culminating scène à faire: the auction of the ancient castle. Almost an offstage aside in Scott, this became one of the most striking portions of the opera. Not only did the libretto inexorably lead to this scene, but Boieldieu, in a tour de force, set all of the quotidian action to music. Overall, La Dame blanche blended Scott’s novels and Scottish tunes into a kind of exotic covering for the established framework of opéra comique.

  6. La Dame blanche’s inexorably logical plot, blend of catchy Scottish tunes and novel ensembles, and carefully circumscribed supernaturalism enchanted Parisians at the première on 10 December 1825 and soon swept through continental Europe.[9] In London, however, the only opera house did not follow suit. The King’s Theatre imported most of its casts, operas, and taste directly from Italy, to the extent that it was often called "The Italian Opera House." Exceptional non-Italian operas occasionally broke through this hegemony, but only when considerable effort had been expended to Italianize them.[10] French operas battled additional barriers. Despite political tensions between the two countries, French imports occupied a well-established realm: the light ballet that rounded out the double bill. At a theater where "opera" meant Italian and "French" meant ballet, opéra comique remained a stranger, and La Dame blanche did not prompt an exception.

  7. La Dame blanche did, however, intrigue London’s biggest playhouses, Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Ostensibly the bastion of spoken drama, in reality these theaters attempted to amuse their more socially heterogeneous audience with a mix of music and speech. Shakespearian tragedies sported bolstered musical scores, for example, while English operas were essentially plays with songs and choruses.[11] With its spoken dialogue, an opéra comique such as La Dame blanche easily transitioned to these conventions, and indeed a large number of French plays and operas regularly immigrated to these playhouses.[12] An even larger number of operas of all nationalities were destined to arrive, for in 1824 Der Freischütz had achieved such astounding success that managers scurried to import any successful foreign opera (Fuhrmann, "Continental Opera"). A piece based on Scott possessed further allure, for popular English dramatizations of his works already proliferated at the playhouses.[13] French, operatic, successful, and based on Scott, La Dame blanche fit seamlessly into established patterns of importation. As music aficionado William Ayrton proclaimed, "no doubts need be entertained" of the opera’s success in London (The Harmonicon, July 1826, 154).

  8. The White Lady

  9. Yet, managers did entertain doubts. In the first London production, The White Lady at Drury Lane on 9 October 1826, librettist Samuel Beazley and composer/singer Thomas Cooke deviated drastically from the opera (Beazley, Cooke). Beazley’s changes clearly stemmed from a desire to re-translate the opera not only back into its original language, but back into a closer approximation of Scott. For readers more familiar with Scott’s exact words, Beazley reverted to original character names, repopulated the plot with additional figures from Scott, and in a few instances even replicated Scott’s actual text. Similarly, Beazley tried to reverse Scribe’s drastic fusion of Guy Mannering and The Monastery by instead pairing The Monastery with its sequel, The Abbot. As Beazley well knew, Londoners had read and re-read Guy Mannering with particular delight, and numerous English stage versions had distilled the novel into a core of key characters and incidents that Scribe’s version dangerously lacked. Not as popular, The Monastery and The Abbot offered ground less densely layered with previous adaptations.[14] In a broader sense, Scribe’s melding of the two novels mixed different settings, characters, and eras into a rather indiscriminate mass of Scottish exotica. For those more familiar with Scotland’s geography and more invested in Scott’s retelling of its history, Beazley tried to disentangle these fused strands.

  10. Most strikingly, Beazley radically altered the element most closely associated with Scotland: the supernatural. Where Scribe presented the White Lady as a clever disguise for the heroine, Beazley returned her to her original otherworldly realm. This allowed Beazley to reinstate links between Scotland and the supernatural and to weave his translation back into the original, as his White Lady intones lines verbatim from The Monastery. Her appearances also showcased Drury Lane’s considerable scenic resources. One can imagine the stage tricks and eerie lighting for directions such as the following: "the figure of the Spirit is seen in the midst of the Waters of the Fountain which gradually subside leaving the White Lady . . . in the centre of the Spring with the moonlight upon her" (Beazley 21v).

  11. Yet, as Beazley probably realized, foregrounding The Monastery and the White Lady foregrounded some of Scott’s most problematic productions. Indeed, English critics overwhelmingly pronounced The Monastery a flop and pointed to the White Lady as the primary reason. The problem lay in her supernatural status, which crossed the fine line between superstition as titillating marker of Scottish difference and superstition as disturbingly real possibility. English critics embraced mortal, socially peripheral figures who encapsulated supernatural possibility without requiring belief. Meg Merrilies of Guy Mannering epitomized this type of character, and writers praised "the spirit of that indefinable being, tinged with melancholy, clothed with fierce grandeur, and breathing prophecy" (The London Times, 13 March 1816). In unflattering contrast, the unabashedly unreal White Lady jarred the realistic historical backdrop and obliged readers to adopt beliefs ascribed to the incredulous and uneducated. The Monthly Review scorned "ghosts, and kelpies, and white ladies" as "weeds which will flourish in a coarser soil, and are ill-exchanged for the exquisite creations on which [the author’s] fancy has heretofore been occupied" (April 1820, 426). The paranormal, much like Scotland itself, could offer a pleasing, temporary escape from the quotidian. Embracing superstition as reality, however, dangerously erased class lines and overthrew rationality. Too blatantly transgressing the circumscribed purview allowed to both Scotland and the supernatural, the White Lady rankled readers, and Scott all but eliminated her from The Abbot.

  12. Beazley tried to patch these potential leaks as well. First, he relegated the White Lady to a peripheral plot agent. Her advice to the hero is essentially to follow on his present course, and the materialization of her statue in its rightful place only confirms what legal documents have already proven. Beazley further marginalized supernaturalism by juxtaposing these actual instances with several simulated ones. Unlike Scribe, however, Beazley redirected ghostly disguises away from the virtuous heroine and toward either villainous or comic characters. To evil Julian and his henchman, Christie of the Cluithill, superstition provides a convenient cover-up for crime. They lodge Roland in the White Lady’s chamber since, "being reported to be haunted, whatever happens, it will be laid to the Spirit" (Beazley 25v). Christie then enters the chamber, disguised as the White Lady, to murder Roland. They are thwarted, however, by another disguised White Lady, this time of the comic variety. Drawing on the amusing qualities of Father Philip’s watery encounter with the White Lady in The Monastery, Beazley crafted a comic scene in which village women, dressed as spirits, frighten Father Philip into relinquishing papers that prove Roland’s legitimacy.

  13. Father Philip’s burlesqued downfall points to another problematic area: the portrayal of the Catholic clergy. To move La Dame blanche closer to The Monastery and The Abbot, Beazley could not avoid the religious strife that lay at the core of these novels. Yet, he had to navigate both strict censorship of religious references onstage—even "for heaven’s sake" did not survive the censor’s pen—and increasing tension over "the Catholic question," which culminated some two years later in the passage of the Emancipation Bill (Connolly; Stephens, Censorship). Beazley tried to diffuse potential concerns by shedding an ambiguous but ultimately lighthearted light on monastic life. Most of the monks are like naughty children, prone to ogling women and colluding with criminals, but ultimately so foolish that they are easily foiled. Yet, to balance this portrayal, the Abbot is a wise, strong leader who rights his subordinates’ wrongs and helps the hero. This stance clearly draws on Scott, but trades his harsher critiques and more intense religious battles for a fairly innocuous portrayal.

  14. While Beazley labored to realign Scribe to Scott, Thomas Cooke tried to recompose Boieldieu for playhouse listeners. As noted earlier, opera at the playhouses meant a heterogeneous mix of native products and foreign imports, all appearing in a fairly equal blend of song and speech. As an opéra comique, La Dame blanche already contained spoken dialogue and joined a steady stream of importations from this genre. Yet, as Cooke knew, London audiences could rarely swallow these translations whole. Song and speech did not simply mix on the playhouse stage, they mixed in such a way that dialogue propelled the action, while music provided decoration and reflection. Bravura solos highlighted star singers, touching ballads elicited tears, and catchy choruses swelled the thriving sheet music market. Extended ensembles that melded music and action occupied the bottom rung in this aesthetic. Scott himself voiced the prevalent sentiment: "complicated harmonies seem to me a babble of confused though pleasing sounds. Yet songs and simple melodies especially if connected with words and ideas have as much effect on me as on most people" (Scott, Journal 7). Many foreign imports therefore needed significant reworking to fit playhouse proportions, and radical adaptations abounded. At the same time, however, the success of Der Freischütz in 1824, coupled with a growing interest in a more work-oriented approach, began to realign attitudes to foreign imports. The late 1820s saw the beginnings of a move from transformation to relatively straight translation (Fuhrmann, "Adapted").

  15. Cooke’s version of La Dame blanche hovered between these two practices. On the one hand, Cooke added virtually nothing to Boieldieu. On the other, he kept only a drastically reduced, reworked portion of the original score. What Cooke discarded or changed pinpoints the fissures that still separated London playhouse from continental opera house. Easiest to retain were Boieldieu’s quotes of Scottish tunes. Scottish melodies provided an aural counterpart to Scott’s romanticized picture of Scotland, and they proliferated in both sheet music collections and English Scott dramatizations.[15] More problematic was the score’s sheer length and complexity. Cooke excised almost half of the numbers outright and extensively curtailed many others. Ensembles disappeared disproportionately. Cooke preserved virtually all solos, but eliminated over half of the ensembles, and pruned those remaining to their briefest, most melodic moments. The auction scene, with its lengthy combination of everyday action and dramatically responsive music, grated most egregiously against the English operatic aesthetic. The only solution seemed to be to avoid it altogether, and Beazley’s plot changes did just that, neatly solving both dramatic and musical dilemmas. Overall, from a lengthy score in which massive musical conglomerates melded with the action, Cooke culled a restrained smattering of appealing solos and tuneful choruses with a hint of Scottish coloring.

  16. In only one instance could Cooke not reformat Boieldieu’s raw material into the necessary shape. At the point where Beazley deviated most from Scribe—the supernatural White Lady—Cooke too could no longer enlist Boieldieu. In the operatic encounter, Georges seems half to suspect it is Anna, and the touch of the "White Lady" makes him more amorous than awestruck. Boieldieu’s duet, consequently, is a rather lighthearted piece full of flexible vocal display. This would not mesh with the spectacular visual effects of the White Lady at Drury Lane, and Cooke supplied a new setting with an eerily monotone vocal line and solemn organ chords.

  17. Ultimately, something quite different from all "originals"—opera and novels—appeared at Drury Lane. Trying to serve many masters, Beazley rushed now to satisfy Scott purists, now to preserve the basic outline of Scribe, now to offer eye-catching display and comic relief, now to preserve and yet mitigate the White Lady’s ghostly status. Cooke’s score, meanwhile, reads almost like sheet music excerpts from the opera, carefully enclosing Boieldieu’s most marketable tunes in packages easily separated from the action. The White Lady shows the strain of crafting an acceptably British amalgam of Scott and his operatic offspring.

  18. The White Maid

  19. Covent Garden hoped to rout this conglomerate with their own, more faithful version of the French opera. Delays, however, deferred it to January, some three months after The White Lady had already come and gone. Rehearsals had been proceeding in November when the first blow struck: leading lady Mary Ann Paton, a celebrated Scottish soprano, refused to continue. A tangle of accusations and counter-accusations muddy a clear reason for her desertion. Librettist John Howard Payne, in his newspaper The Opera Glass, painted her as a shallow prima donna. In his view, Paton had not wished to be compared to the other female star, Eliza Vestris, or had wreaked petty revenge for being refused free tickets (The Opera Glass, 4 and 11 December 1826). In a rebuttal in The Times, Paton herself blamed the "melodramatic and pantomimic business," as well as having to sing a song as if she were old Meg Merrilies.[16] Yet, according to TheOpera Glass and The Times, Paton had insisted on appropriating this very song, originally assigned to a lesser character. Telling "anecdotes of her early life in Scotland," and saying that she had "observed the very action in question (something about a spinning-wheel)," Paton declared that she was "the only actress on the stage capable of giving the situation the effect of which it was susceptible" (The Opera Glass, 4 December 1826, repr. The London Times, 7 December 1826). One wonders whether, amidst political infighting, nationalistic issues may have colored Paton’s decision. Paton clearly felt strong ties to her heritage. She "sang with wonderful power and pathos her native Scotch ballads" (Kemble 98) and, as the above reports show, evidently felt her nationality gave her particular insight. Although Paton appeared in several English Scott adaptations, perhaps disagreements over this foreign portrayal played into her refusal.[17]

  20. Whatever the reason, the management had to replace Paton with a lesser singer, Miss Cawse. Just as they cleared this roadblock, another surfaced. This one stemmed from mezzo-soprano Eliza Vestris who, interestingly, played the leading male role. Women often played young boys or female characters who assumed male disguise, but few assumed a romantic male lead. Vestris, however, was an unusually shrewd, popular, and charming woman who made something of a specialty of "pants" roles.[18] Her allure, her considerable singing and acting abilities, and the lack of comparably strong tenors on the roster made her a clear choice for this demanding role.[19] One wonders whether Paton might have withdrawn because she had to view Vestris as both potential female rival and male stage lover. Critics, however, used to Vestris’s mutation into a man, seemed to enjoy the physical display of the substitution and to glide over its gender disturbances. One seemed unconcerned that Vestris "captivat[ed] the hearts of the ladies" (The Theatrical Observer, 28 March 1827) in this apparel, for example, while another blithely mixed gendered praises: she "bore the belle" by looking "manly and . . . handsome" (The Literary Chronicle, 6 January 1827). Vestris’s appearance as a man thus apparently caused little concern, but her health was another matter, for in mid-December she fell ill. The winter weather and tiring performance schedule may have claimed Vestris. Illness, however, was sometimes a theatrical byword for perfect health, as performers used physical ailments to protest financial or political ones.[20] Perhaps not coincidentally, Paton became unwell soon after Vestris recovered. One wonders whether protestations of poor health masked power struggles between the two women, uneasiness over their roles as romantic leads, or continued conflicts with the management.

  21. Vestris did recover, however, and the opera finally opened in early January. Still, circumstances hardly looked propitious. The opera had Vestris, but it did not have Paton, long delay had either heightened or dissipated anticipation, and Christmas pantomime audiences wanted Harlequin’s antics, not complex operas.[21] In the midst of these setbacks, Payne and Covent Garden clung to what they hoped would be their trump card: fidelity. Increasingly, fidelity entered the fierce battlefield of theatrical competition. A growing interest in authorial autonomy and a "work-oriented" aesthetic pervaded theatrical criticism.[22] Responding to these trends, musically well-equipped theaters such as Covent Garden began to use fidelity to distinguish their versions, especially when, as in this case, tardiness left them little other recourse. Advertisements boasted that "[t]he whole of Boildieu’s music will be introduced exactly as at Paris, for the purpose of giving the British public an opportunity of appreciating the merits of the most celebrated work of one of the greatest masters" (The Theatrical Observer, 24 November 1826).

  22. Although the music is no longer extant, it seems this was no empty rhetoric. A reconstruction of the probable score shows that, in stark contrast to Cooke’s concessions to playhouse taste, composer G. H. Rodwell only minimally mediated Boieldieu’s music. Indeed, so closely did The White Maid follow the contours of the original score that librettist Payne felt obliged to apologize for the resulting awkwardness of his poetry (The Morning Chronicle, 3 January 1827). Significantly, however, even within such a circumscribed context for change, Payne still attempted to reconcile Scribe to Scott. Unable to follow Beazley’s drastic leap back to The Monastery, Payne inched the text back toward Guy Mannering. When he could not reintroduce Scott’s actual characters, he slipped in passing references to them. The farmer’s wife is now Dandie Dinmont’s daughter,[23] for example, and one scene is reset in Dominie Sampson’s old library. Most strikingly, Payne tried to reroute Scottish superstition away from the troublesome White Lady and back to its primary—and much applauded—vehicle in Guy Mannering, gypsy Meg Merrilies. Even beyond the grave, Meg’s prophesies shape the plot, while her otherworldly aura re-infuses the White Maid with supernatural possibility. It was crossing her advice that led to Brown’s kidnapping, her efforts that avoided his murder, her prophesy that heralded his return, her deathbed confession that proves his identity, and even her memory that entwines with the legend of the White Maid. The heroine’s old nurse suggests "some think [Meg] the real guardian spirit of the Castle and will have it that she’s not dead, but had only put on the gypsey . . . , and . . . has returned into her original form of the white lady" (Payne 169). Bound by Boieldieu’s score to retain Scribe’s problematically mortal White Lady, Payne clearly tried to compensate by resurrecting a proven conduit of Scottish supernaturalism. These were subtle concessions, though, and overall The White Maid did live up to its billing as the "actual" La Dame blanche.

  23. Critical Responses

  24. Neither drastic grafting nor modest pruning, however, could save these transplants. Copious newspaper reviews provide our primary route to understanding why. At the beginning of virtually every review sits the main bone of contention: the mutation of Scott’s novels into foreign operatic form. Critics, often literary and political correspondents first, theatrical reviewers second, bemoaned the necessary slippage between novel and dramatization. Even Daniel Terry’s immensely popular staging of Guy Mannering in 1816, sanctioned by Scott himself, had not overcome this barrier: "scarcely any degree of skill in the adaptation of [the novel] to the stage, or of genius in the principal actors, could transfer to the play even a faint resemblance to that fervid and ungovernable interest which agitates us through so many pages of the history itself."[24]

  25. La Dame blanche hit this sensitive nerve full throttle. Scribe not only transferred novel to stage, he freely combined different novels and time periods into an indiscriminate conglomerate of "otherness." Scott’s picture of Scotland was too crucial to burgeoning British identity, and Scott himself too valued as a source of nationalistic literary pride, for reviewers to accept this heterogeneous reworking. Even Beazley’s version, so painstakingly re-infused with Scott, met with virulent dismissal. Edward Sterling insisted on severing the connection to Scott: "from the title we were led to suppose that the piece was founded on one of the tales of the "Great Unknown," but the plot bears no affinity to any of them" (The London Times 10 October 1826). Tellingly, the Literary Gazette writer incorrectly—and xenophobically—shifted blame to French ignorance: "the resemblance it bears to [The Monastery] is so very slight, that it is, in all probability, a close translation of the French opera" (14 October 1826).

  26. If Beazley’s stew of Scribe and Scott evoked little sympathy, Payne’s careful preservation of Scribe drowned in protest. Critics railed at the nonchalant mixture and alteration of works ingrained in British cultural consciousness. Scribe had casually renamed or omitted characters so familiar that they had "acquired a species of historical existence" (The Examiner, 7 January 1827). He had blithely mixed distinct historical periods, re-appropriating Britons’ reality as a kind of malleable fiction: "this may do very well in France—the names, times, and places, may be there romantic—with us they are more often common-place" (The Theatrical Observer, 3 January 1827). Reviewers painstakingly pointed out every departure and anachronism, distancing Scott as far as possible from foreign assimilation. Payne’s vaunted fidelity did not assuage the outrage. Indeed, it only exacerbated it, for, as Beazley had only too painfully found, one could not remain faithful to both "originals." John Payne Collier chastised: "to say that the story is taken from Sir Walter Scott, is merely absurd . . . In this respect, and in this country, such a defect might and ought to have been remedied; for if the music were to be sacredly preserved, there is no reason why equal homage should be paid to the ignorance and incongruities of the French writer" (The Morning Chronicle, 3 January 1827).

  27. Some held out hope of a direct link between fidelity to Scott and success. Thomas Noon Talfourd counseled that "[a] more interesting drama might have been framed with closer adherence to the original [The Monastery], which, though unequal and unsatisfactory as a whole, contains passages of great beauty" (The New Monthly Magazine, 1 November 1826). Others, however, recognized that fidelity to Scott’s "unequal and unsatisfactory" original formed part of the problem. As the Literary Chronicle writer admitted, "The Monastery, by Sir Walter Scott, is one of his most unpopular works; and . . . we think [Boieldieu’s] White Lady will be quite as unsuccessful as her predecessor" (14 October 1826).

  28. As explored earlier, perhaps the most pressing problem in the Monastery was the White Lady herself. One critic felt Beazley’s version improved Scott’s novel. "This supernatural creation, in the romance, sports a something between tragedy and comedy, and has not been deemed a very happy conception; but in the drama it is grave, and altogether devoid of humour, as a spirit of quality ought to be" (The Examiner, 15 October 1826). All other critics, however, found the White Lady either dissatisfactory or unworthy of comment.

  29. William Ayrton pointed to the probable reason: "[t]he superiority of the French over the English story, as a drama, will be readily admitted: the one is satisfied with natural events; the other, for the sake of a little scenic effect, has recourse to supernatural agency . . . and confesses its inherent weakness by thus addressing itself to the tastes of the vulgar" (The Harmonicon, November 1826, 230). Although other writers balked at praising the "natural" preferences of the French, virtually every review rehashed the second objection. The supernatural equaled the spectacular, and spectacle raised the most hoary rhetorical specter of early nineteenth-century dramatic criticism: the alleged decline of the drama.[25] Deeply concerned that Britain’s Shakespearian heritage seemed to be dying, critics toiled to understand the causes. Many concluded that the financial need of bigger theaters necessitated flashy, "safe" shows—more often than not already proven popular abroad—that could draw the large, socially heterogeneous crowds necessary for high box office receipts. Typically, such shows fell into the much-maligned genre of melodrama. Most prevalent in the less reputable "minor" theatres and concerned with gesture, performance, and visual show over author and text, melodrama seemed to be choking the educated basis of Britain’s dramatic heritage. Even literature seemed infected. With his penchant for supernatural coloring, his creation of vast, sweeping plots, and his reliance on intense, dramatic tableaux at pivotal points, Scott sometimes drew reprimands for a dangerously theatrical, melodramatic vein. By its nature, an operatic version brought these tendencies into full flower. Critics repeatedly pointed to theatrical, performance-based elements as the most striking aspects of the London adaptations. As Edward Holmes quipped, "[t]he scene-painter, as is often now the case, had shown more talents than the scene-writer . . . In time, Old Drury will be called the Dramorama" (The Atlas, 15 October 1826). This last jab encapsulated the pervasive fear: that Drury Lane and Covent Garden would meld with the largely lower-class pleasures of dioramas and melodramas, erasing any space for national drama.

  30. Nobody employed this rhetoric more vigorously than Payne. In his mouthpiece, The Opera Glass, he relentlessly discredited the Drury Lane adaptation and carefully primed the audience for his own. He tied Beazley’s version to lesser, minor theater productions: it was "more like a chef-d’œuvre of the minor stage, than fit for a national theatre." He played into critics’ growing preference for fidelity and their disdain for mercenary motives: "[i]n purporting to be the Dame Blanche of Boieldieu, . . . it commits the reputation of a very admirable work and composer, in a way equally disingenuous and sordid. It exposes his talent to be utterly unappreciated for the beggarly advantage of a few paltry pounds" (The Opera Glass, 16 October 1826). He deliberately planted worries that his own faithful, non-spectacular version would fail: "Whether John Bull will bear a couple of hours of mere music, without either ghosts, or broad fun, or red fire, or roaring seas, or dancing devils, we shall be able to tell better next week" (The Opera Glass, 21 December 1826).

  31. Unfortunately for Payne, however, his version endured even harsher criticism than Beazley’s. Although William Ayrton, a staunch supporter of the opera, thought the White Maid’s disguise showed "more good sense" (The Harmonicon, February 1827, 38) on the part of the French, all other reviewers insisted on linking the disguise to the most incomprehensible absurdity. Edward Sterling railed: "The White Maid, who performs all sorts of impossible things . . . to not the slightest possible purpose, is no witch, nor "White woman," nor goblin after all; but only a young lady, with six yards square of thin muslin thrown over her head, playing the fool, for what object no human intellect can arrive at" (The London Times, 3 January 1827). Critics may not have wanted supernatural beings willfully to alter the course of events, but neither did they want the essential Scottish aura of otherworldly possibility to be stripped bare by mortal disguise. Nor, perhaps, did they wish the supernatural to meld with the sexual, as otherworldly beings turned out to be alluring mortal women in flimsy garments. Music added a final element to this disturbing overexposure. The fleshly nature of the "spirit" simply could not be denied when she sang onstage for long periods or joined with others in ensembles. As the Examiner critic spelled out, "[t]he notion of a spirit, or pretended spirit, singing, ten minutes at a time, in the midst of a multitude of people, is ludicrous in the extreme" (7 January 1827).

  32. Music played a crucial role in critical appraisals. After all, it was Boieldieu’s music that had required a libretto diluted from its literary sources, Boieldieu’s music that had lent the piece success despite its variance from Scott, and Boieldieu’s music that had helped entice London theater managers to import the work. Yet again, critics embraced neither Cooke’s mediated version nor Rodwell’s faithful transmission. Cooke’s exertions drew praise from most reviewers, but few seemed able to understand the French frenzy over the score. Edward Holmes granted that the music "has been much celebrated in Paris," but did not think it would "hit the English taste" (The Atlas, 15 October 1826). Similarly, John Payne Collier condescended "[t]he music certainly does not seem to merit the extravagant praises given to it in some of the French Papers, but a part of it is pretty and appropriate" (The Morning Chronicle, 10 October 1826). Neither of these writers elaborated on their opinion, however, and indeed critics seemed at a loss to explain their lukewarm interest in the music.

  33. One senses that nationalistic reticence may have informed these guarded appraisals. Underlying resentment at a French takeover of Scottish themes and tunes seems to tinge many reviews. The Literary Gazette critic, for example, admitted that the score, "principally by Boieldieu," excited French critics, but noted that English audiences did not encore a single piece. S/he then agreed with speculation that the work succeeded in Paris chiefly because of a "spirit of rivalry" with Rossini, and because of the Scottish tune "Robin Adair."[26] In other words, this may be the best the French can oppose to Rossini, but its appeal lay in what was not "principally" by Boieldieu, and what was British property: the borrowed Scottish melody. For French ears, these novel sounds could serve as uncomplicated markers of Scottish identity. For the English, however, the tunes were neither novel nor uncomplicated. Suitably domesticated in numerous sheet music arrangements, the melodies perpetuated a view of Scotland as an aural landscape comfortably similar to England, yet distinguished by a few characteristic rhythms and turns of phrase. A simplistic French connection between Scottish song and Scottish character jolted this nuanced agenda, yet also uncomfortably pointed up the similarly naïve English desire to typify Scotland in song.

  34. Critics’ guarded praise may also have sprung from the knowledge that they heard only selected bits of Boieldieu, and interest in Covent Garden’s full version therefore increased. Perhaps, as Payne so urgently hoped, hearing all of Boieldieu’s score would reveal its appeal. In the event, however, only the Theatrical Observer writer embraced the music without reservation: "[t]he music is delightful; by its sole power it interested an unmusical audience—it possesses a . . . theatrical art never, perhaps, surpassed. The opening reminded us of the celebrated haram-chorus in [Carl Maria von Weber’s] Oberon . . . the auction scene almost surpasses praise" (3 January 1827).

  35. These exact points elicited the opposite reaction from most critics. Far from "interesting an unmusical audience" or "possessing theatrical art," the score seemed overgrown with exactly what English playhouse audiences least enjoyed: long, complex ensembles intertwined with the action. Such a dense score precluded beloved encores, complicated the extraction of individual numbers for sheet music sale, and befuddled an understanding of the plot. This last proved particularly egregious, since not only were listeners confused, but the connection to Scott further obscured. Tellingly, Edward Sterling tried to use only the dialogue between musical numbers to discern the derivation from Scott: "[a]s far as may be guessed from the expression of a few disjointed speeches which are uttered between the dances, and chorusses, rushings on of mobs, &c., . . . either the French author of the piece, or the translator, would seem to have selected a single incident, or character, from every one of the Waverley novels" (The London Times, 3 January 1827). In yet another strike against it, the "reminder" of Weber, along with the Scottish tunes, weakened the score’s originality. As the Examiner writer politely waffled, "the music . . . certainly exhibits no small portion of spirit and science. For originality, we cannot say quite so much; a fact which may possibly arise from . . . certain Scottish melodies which are altogether familiar to British ears. There is also a striking imitation of the style of Weber in the chorusses, which are however spirited and effective" (7 January 1827).

  36. Finally, few felt that the auction scene "surpassed praise." Indeed, most struggled with this challenge to the usual boundaries for musical subjects. Edward Sterling found the musical auction ludicrous, more suited for burlesque than serious opera, and worried about the precedent it set: "certainly there is that merit no future composer ever can hope to surpass; unless he were to ‘set’ the Vagrant Act—or a Road Bill—or the Chancery Report—or a Chief Justice’s Charge in a case of libel" (The London Times, 3 January 1827). Here, Sterling seems concerned not only that a ridiculous sense of realism might puncture theatrical illusion, but that this trend might spiral into a dangerous introduction of political material into the operatic sphere. Defenders of the scene foundered for counterarguments, insisting that comedy had been intended, or that one could not "deem it more absurd than many other subjects which have been musically dramatised" (The Examiner, 7 January 1827).

  37. Here lay the heart of the matter. As the Atlas critic ruminated,

    Story, dialogue, and sense, are . . . so wholly secondary to music in an Opera, that we, perhaps, have no business to find fault; the more especially as at Drury Lane they preserved the White Lady of the romance, and left out the music—at the other theatre, they have abandoned the story of the novelist, and preserved the work of the musician; and the fact is this, that we were not in the least pleased at the former house—while, on the contrary, at Covent Garden, where sense was sacrificed to sound, we listened with great pleasure. (3 January 1827)

    Music possessed an unsettling power to palliate even the most questionable libretto. As such, it seemed part of the decline of drama, another unworthy, sensory aphrodisiac that weaned audiences away from intellectual, literary value. Some tried to split sound from sense, excusing the deviation from Scott as a necessary element of a lesser genre. As Thomas Noon Talfourd instructed, "[t]he . . . poetry of operas is rarely of any value whatever; nor is coherency of plot much more important, if there be situations . . . capable of suggesting the sentiment of the music" (The New Monthly Magazine, 1 February 1827, 54-55). Others tried to enshrine Boieldieu’s score in a learned sphere, on a par with literary excellence in elevating listeners’ taste. Hoping that the English would learn from the foreign model, William Ayrton lectured "[s]ome of the concerted pieces are very long—and (as is the good custom of French operas) carry on the business of the piece, and are not mere excrescences upon it" (The Harmonicon, June 1826, 111). Yet, as the Atlas critic admitted, opera evaded efforts to separate music from sensory pleasure or to resist this pleasure, even when it beguiled one into enjoying mutated Scott.

  38. Conclusion

  39. Ultimately, neither Beazley’s sweeping alterations nor Payne’s careful reproduction succeeded. The former ran only nine nights, the latter thirteen. Exasperated, Payne exclaimed: "the language of music is universal; the self-same sounds have been heard throughout all Europe with uniform success, . . . and there must be something ‘more than natural’ in the dogmatism which . . . would reverse [audiences’] decision, and treat them and the rest of the connoisseurs as blunderers" (The Opera Glass, 13 January 1827). In the same article, Payne laid blame squarely at critics’ feet: "[t]he tone adopted in some instances about this production, was too ferocious for its motives to be mistaken by those at all acquainted with the mysteries of the press." Indeed, TheMorning Chronicle and TheTimes, especially, ran such virulently negative reviews that one suspects some larger power play at work.[27] Their criticism compounded the aggravations outlined earlier: Paton’s desertion; Vestris’s illness; and the unfortunate timing of its premiere during Christmas pantomime season. Even at Drury Lane, illness—or, as Payne suggested, insufficient time to learn the piece—delayed the premiere.[28] Worse, once The White Lady had premiered, the manager apparently withdrew it early so that he would not have to pay Beazley any further.[29]

  40. Vindictive critics, capricious performers, tightfisted managers, untutored audiences, uneasiness at French appropriation of Scottish themes—were they responsible for La Dame blanche’s relative failure? Some more subtle combination of these surely contributed. Yet, in search of an answer, we might digress to those Italian Scott operas better-known today: Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (1819) and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835).[30] Undoubtedly two of the most popular Scott operas, both received a respectable but only moderate response in London. Reading critics’ comments, one almost imagines oneself back with La Dame blanche. Again, anxiety at the musical mutation of Scott pervaded reviews. Of La Donna del Lago, Thomas Massa Alsager complained that "[a] story so familiar to an English audience [was] thus made ridiculous by want of taste or parsimony" (The London Times, 19 February 1823), while the Musical World writer found Lucia di Lammermoor "a sort of rhythmical assassination . . . of Sir Walter Scott’s charming ‘Bride of Lammermoor,’ . . . scarcely one point, either in the libretto or the score, presenting a recognizable feature of the original" (The Musical World, 26 January 1843). Again, the score elicited either grudging praise or outright condemnation: Rossini’s music was "flat, stale and unprofitable," Donizetti’s "tame, cold, and spiritless" (The Literary Gazette, 18 February 1823 and The Atlas, 7 April 1838). Thus, rhetoric against foreign musical reworkings of Scott stretched essentially unchanged over at least two decades, pointing to larger reasons for lukewarm showings.

  41. Reviewing an English version of Lucia, the Morning Chronicle critic teased out the concerns that plagued these attempts to re-assimilate foreign Scott opera:

    Lucia di Lammermoor, though a vile burlesque of the most exquisitely pathetic of Walter Scott’s tales, may be tolerated on the Italian stage, because, when we see a set of Italian actors gesticulating after their own fashion, and hear them declaiming in their own tongue, and tickling our ears with the delicate trickery of their ‘most sweet voices,’ the whole thing is so exotic, so foreign, that it may be listened to from beginning to end without once putting anybody in mind of Scott or his beautiful story. But the familiarity of an English performance alters the case; the likeness becomes apparent, and the poverty and meanness of the copy are the more perceptible, because contrasted every moment with the richness and beauty of the original. (20 January 1843)

    Here, one can see the tangles of exoticism that choked these return visits. Both Scott’s novels and foreign operas provided romanticized escapes for English audiences. Scott reshaped Scotland as a mysterious, picturesque, yet unthreatening other, while foreign opera transported listeners away from everyday speech with an enchanting alien tongue and vocal "trickery." A foreign Scott opera translated into English destroyed all of these illusions. Stripped of the protective coating of foreign singing, divergent views of Scott and competing needs for his "exoticized" picture of Scotland collided.

  42. Ultimately, any attempt to re-import these operas ran aground fundamental problems of what national identity and national theater should be. An Italian or French opera on Sir Walter Scott in London was something akin to, say, a Russian opera on Mark Twain in New York. So ingrained was Scott in British consciousness, so closely tied to how Britons wished to fashion Scottishness, that foreign attempts to reinterpret him seemed at once misguided and threatening. La Dame blanche met with the most resistance because it violated what Britons most cherished in Scott. Scribe melded problematic novels, tossed aside historical accuracy, and recast the supernatural as mortal disguise. Equally disturbing, Boieldieu appropriated national tunes to create a score opposed to the basic values of the national stage. Even the very genre of opera fed into Britons’ resistance. Music both necessitated and palliated the condensed libretto, and thus seemed linked to the perceived decline of drama into the realms of sight and sound. Clearly aware of these pitfalls, adapters struggled to fold the opera back into Britons’ perceptions of Scott. But, just as Scott recoiled from foreign tourists who claimed to know him through musical mediation, Britons resisted these disturbing operatic portraits of themselves. Ultimately, nationalistic, theatrical, and musical divides made the White Lady one citizen the British could not repatriate.


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[Cooke, T.] The Celebrated Musical Romance of The White Lady … chiefly Selected from Boieldieu’s Opera La Dame Blanche, and adapted to the English Stage by T. Cooke. London: Clementi, Collard & Collard, n.d.

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Earlier versions of this paper were presented in 2004 at the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference, Iowa City and the North American British Music Studies Association Conference, Oberlin. I would like to thank participants at these conferences, Russell Weaver, Gillen Wood, and the anonymous readers for this journal for their suggestions and comments on previous drafts.

1 For Scott’s crucial, often conflicted role in creating this image, see especially Davis, Acts of Union, Gamer, Glendenning, Gold and Gold, Harvie, and Withers. For links between Scotland, Scott, and the supernatural, see especially Le Tellier and Parsons. As Scott himself rather wryly commented in The Bride of Lammermoor, “this would not be a Scottish story, unless it manifested a tinge of Scottish superstition” (Scott, Bride 187).

2 Technically, at this point in time we should refer to both England and Scotland as “Britain.” I deliberately use all three terms, however, to indicate continuing tensions among these identities.

3 Scott’s works enjoyed numerous dramatizations and formed the basis for more opera libretti than any other author except Shakespeare. For the immensity of this phenomenon, see, for example, Bolton and Mitchell, Walter Scott and More Scott. Although Scott published his novels anonymously until 23 February 1827, his authorship was widely surmised well before this date. John Payne Collier even wittily referred to him as “the great known” (The Morning Chronicle, 10 October 1826). Although newspaper reviews of the time were anonymous, in many cases we do know the probable reviewer. To avoid constant, awkward wording such as “the critic we believe to be x,” I use those critics’ names of which we are reasonably sure. See Fenner 11-53.

4 Boieldieu’s La Dame blanche (1825) arrived in 1826, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (1819) in 1823, his pastiche Ivanhoé (1826) in 1829, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) in 1838. See Loewenberg.

5 Loewenberg does not list any performances of these operas in Scottish cities. Bolton indicates that a “Scotch pas d’action” from La Dame blanche (1825) appeared in Glasgow in 1831, and that an Italian company performed La Donna del Lago (1819) in Edinburgh in 1835. Bolton 30, 374.

6 Todd and Bowden 455. These two novels form the primary sources for the libretto, although Favre suggests The Lady of the Lake, Le Fantôme blanc, and an anecdote about vassals protecting their exiled master’s estate as other possible models. Favre 2:115.

7 Arguably the most experienced and successful stage writer of early nineteenth-century France, Scribe (1791-1861) wrote or co-authored well over one hundred libretti in the 1810s-60s. See Pendle.

8 Boieldieu was one of the only foreign composers to use actual Scottish tunes in his setting of Scott. See Fiske 102-04. Boieldieu himself, however, insisted that he only used “Robin Adair.” See Rivista Musicale Italiana (1915): 522, qtd. in Favre 2:125.

9La Dame blanche reached its thousandth performance in Paris in 1862. Soon after its premiere, the opera appeared throughout France and the rest of continental Europe. In 1826 alone, for example, it played in Liège, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, Pressburg, and Copenhagen. See Loewenberg 698-99.

10 For the repertoire of the King’s Theatre in the early nineteenth century, see Fenner, Hall-Witt, and Loewenberg. To my knowledge, between 1800 and 1830 the only non-Italian language operas to merit translation were Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1791) and Spontini’s La Vestale (1807).

11 For the repertoire of these theatres, see, for example, Fenner and Nicoll.

12 So prevalent were French imports on the English stage that J. Augustine Wade quipped “[w]henever ... any thing rises to the rank of being accounted a lively and entertaining piece, it is a moral certainty that it is a translation from the French.” The Athenaeum, 1828, 13. Often these were plays, but opéras-comiques had appeared regularly since the late eighteenth century, usually with substantially new scores. See Armondino. A few of Boieldieu’s works had already made their way to Covent Garden, where Jean de Paris (1812) appeared in 1814, Le petit chaperon rouge (1818) in 1818.

13 For example, Guy Mannering appeared in numerous versions starting in 1816, Rob Roy in numerous versions starting in 1818, The Heart of Midlothian in 1819, The Antiquary, Old Mortality, and Ivanhoe in 1820, The Legend of Montrose in 1822, The Fortunes of Nigel in 1823, and The Talisman and Peveril of the Peak in 1826. See Biddlecombe and Fiske, Bolton, and Mitchell Walter Scott and More Scott.

14Guy Mannering had appeared in versions at: Covent Garden (1816, still playing in 1826, prepared with Scott’s blessing); The English Opera House (1821, taken from a French version); Sadler’s Wells (1821); and The Cobourg (two versions, 1821 and 1826). On the other hand, there had been only one version each of The Monastery and The Abbot, in 1820 at Sadler’s Wells and the Tottenham Theatre, respectively.

15 For a discussion of the role Scottish songs played in negotiations of British identity, see Davis “At ‘sang about.’”

16 9 December 1826. She is most likely referring to “Pauvre dame Marguerite.”

17 In the same season as The White Lady, for example, Paton appeared in English versions of Guy Mannering and Peveril of the Peak. Apparently, however, the latter had also occasioned some reluctance. In his tirade against Paton’s refusal of The White Maid, Payne noted “[t]his is not the first time of Miss Paton’s trifling with managers; and the same circumstance of which we now complain would have occurred in the last new opera, Peveril of the Peak, had she not more prudently relented.” The Opera Glass, 11 December 1826. Sibling rivalry may have added a final layer to the controversy, since Paton’s less celebrated sister, a Miss I. Paton, had played the White Lady at Drury Lane to good reviews.

18 For theatrical cross-dressing in Britain, and Vestris’s relationship to it, see Straub and Cowgill.

19 As the Atlas critic noted, “[i]t is idle to talk against putting women into male attire—is there a man on the stage whom the house could have put in this long and pleasant part of George Brown? We can think of none of them in [Vestris's place] without horror” (7 January 1827). The main tenor at Covent Garden that season seems to have been Antonio Sapio, whom John Payne Collier criticized as “deficient in expression and variety, and although he sings … without any fault which a mere musician can point out, he produces little or no effect upon the mind of the hearer” (The Morning Chronicle, 21 February 1827).

20 Doctors’ notes sometimes appeared on playbills, perhaps to assuage audiences’ suspicion. Reports also surfaced of performers being too ill to appear onstage, but not too ill to attend other events. See, for example, Wooddeson 27.

21 As the Theatrical Observer critic gently rebuked, “We doubt not that we shall find similar beauties in other parts of the composition, when the pantomime-loving galleries will give us leave to hear the whole distinctly” (3 January 1827).

22 For discussions of these issues, see especially Goehr and Weber.

23 Reintroductions of Scott trip over each other here, since she is re-named Ailie, Dinmont’s wife in Scott.

24The London Times 13 March 1816. This version was still playing when La Dame blanche appeared in London.

25 The issue of decline pervaded early nineteenth-century London theater, and is too vast to address here. For further discussion, see Fuhrmann “Adapted” and Moody.

26The Literary Gazette, 14 October 1826. Emphasis mine. Fenner lists Thomas Billington, Thomas Greenwood, or Miss Wilkinson as possible reviewers during this time period, so I have left the gender of the reviewer open (53).

27 John Payne Collier, critic for the Morning Chronicle, was a well-known Shakespeare scholar now rather infamous for his fabrications of literary documents. Edward Sterling was another important figure, of Scottish descent but raised in Ireland, who dominated the Times during this period. Although we can only guess their motives, Collier’s literary interests and Sterling’s Scottish heritage and strong political views may have contributed to their negative assessments (Stephen and Lee). Paton’s desertion may also have been bound up with Sterling’s vitriol. On 7 December, the Times reprinted verbatim an article from the Opera Glass that chastised Paton for her refusal. Paton then wrote a letter to the Times in protest (9 December 1826). That The Times initially supported Payne against Paton, yet then ran the most virulent criticism of Payne’s version, may indicate that some alienation over this issue occurred.

28 Tirelessly vaunting his own more faithful version, and hinting at the reason for tardiness, Payne wrote “[t]he novelty advertised for Drury Lane is deferred; the reason assigned is indisposition,—but the performers did not, on dit, get their musical parts delivered till Tuesday last,—and the extreme difficulty of studying them at so short a notice, may readily account for the sudden illness … We do not know how much of Boieldieu’s music is retained, but we are convinced, it must require more talent than was ever yet found in a theatre to do it justice, if it is all retained, in a week’s (we may say, even a month’s) rehearsal” (The Opera Glass, 9 October 1826).

29 Nelson and Cross, entry for 12 November 1826. Authors tended to be paid an initial sum—Payne reported that Beazley received a hefty £300—and then a fee based on nights performed. The Opera Glass, 2 October 1826. See also Stephens Profession 25-41.

30 In February 1823, La Donna del Lago appeared in full, in Italian, at the King’s Theatre, then in English excerpts at the oratorio performances at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Lucia di Lammermoor ran at the King’s Theatre in Italian in 1838, in English at the Princess’s in 1843, and in French for one night of a benefit performance by a Belgian company at Drury Lane in 1845.