t h e   r o s a   t r o u p e

Arthur Goring Thomas, Alexander Mackenzie, and Francis Hueffer

Goring Thomas

Arthur Goring Thomas

Carl Rosa, as the champion of English Opera, was expected to commission operas from native composers. His first attempt, Cowen’s Pauline of 1876, had made little impression but about 1880 with artistic rather than commercial motives he tried again seeking operas from composers Arthur Goring Thomas and Alexander Mackenzie. Thomas, born of a wealthy family at Ratton Park, Sussex, on 21 November 1851, studied under Emile Durand at the Paris Conservatoire from 1874 and later at the Royal Academy of Music under Ebenezer Prout and Arthur Sullivan. Mackenzie, born of an Edinburgh musical family on 22 August 1847, studied with his musician father, then in Germany from about 1857 and with the Royal College of Music from 1862. Rosa eventually announced both operas for the London season of 1883.

Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie

Thomas’s opera, Esmeralda, with a libretto by Theo Marzials and Alberto Randegger derived from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, opened the London season at Drury Lane on 26 March 1883 with Randegger also conducting. Mackenzie’s opera Colomba, based on a story by Prosper Mérimée, followed on 9 April with the composer conducting and a libretto by Francis Hueffer, writer, music critic of the Times newspaper and disciple of Wagner. Both works were enthusiastically received with Esmeralda seen as French inspired and Colomba in a more mature Wagnerian mould. Production and performance were praised although there was some criticism of Hueffer’s contribution. The London season with two prestigious world premieres had gone well and prompted Rosa to invite both composers to write another opera.

Francis Hueffer

Francis Hueffer

Thomas’s second opera Nadeshda, premiered at Drury Lane on 16 April 1885, was set in eighteenth century Russia with the writer Julian Sturgis providing the libretto and Randegger again conducting. It was seen as a more dramatic and mature work without losing French melodic charm. Mackenzie’s second offering The Troubadour premiered in the same theatre a year later on 8 June 1886 with the same librettist and the composer again conducting. There was a mixed response to the music with the blood and gore of the Hueffer libretto based on a twelfth century Provencal romance receiving severe criticism. The eminent critic Herman Klein concluded that ‘The gloomy book of The Troubadour proved to be one of the very worst ever designed for operatic purposes’.

How did these operas fare when they ceased to be novelties? Esmeralda opera proved to be a popular success with about a hundred Rosa performances by the end of the decade. There were also productions in Germany, and 1890 performances in French at Covent Garden with Melba and Jean de Reske. Nadeshda received almost sixty performances from 1885 to 1887. It was not a failure but it did not repeat the popular appeal of Esmeralda. Mackenzie’s Colomba had only twenty provincial performances after the London premiere and Troubadour was a disaster with only five London and no provincial performances. These mixed fortunes did not deter Rosa and he continued to commission new operas in the hope of prestige if not profit.

Another Thomas opera, The Golden Web, was first performed at Liverpool on 15 February 1893 after the composer’s death, but made no lasting impression. He was the most successful of all the composers commissioned by Carl Rosa and there may have been more to come. Unfortunately his health was fragile. He was subject to periods of depression and on 20 March 1892 he committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train at West Hampstead Station. He is buried in Finchley cemetery.

Mackenzie in contrast had a long and productive life in music as composer and conductor. He was knighted in 1895 and served as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1888 until 1924 when he retired from public life. He died at his home in London on 28 April 1935 and was cremated at Golders Green. There is a memorial to him at his wife’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. Hueffer of the gloomy libretto died quite young on 18 January 1889 and was buried at Saint Pancras Cemetery, Finchley.

© 2020 John Ward

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