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Opera in London during the Nineteenth-Century No.9

Pip Clayton,

Donizetti Society Newsletter 107, June 2009, pp. 13-17.


In my article in Newsletter No. 106, I raised the question, who was Sir Michael Costa?  And said that I would answer this in the next Newsletter. Little did I know what a task I had set for myself.  Very little written information is available about this man whom I consider one of the most important figures in the musical life in Britain in the second half of the 1800s.  The Oxford Dictionary of Music details his life in a paragraph of just sixteen lines, while the Concise Dictionary of National Biography manages only twelve lines.  The Grove Dictionary of Opera is much more informative with a fairly substantial entry of three paragraphs.  In April 2007, an English Heritage Blue Plaque was placed on the house in Eccleston Street, where he had lived between 1857-83.  Newspaper reports of the occasion mentioned a biography, but, unfortunately, I have been unable to find a copy or ascertain even if one exists. (There is a modern one by John Goulden, Michael Costa: England's First Conductor, published by Ashgate in February 2015.)

Sir Michael  Andrew Angus Costa

His Early Life and Career

At this time he appeared to follow the continental style of conducting with a baton.  Prior to then the orchestra was presided over by the pianist at rehearsal, but in performance was led by the first violin. By 1833, he was both director and conductor of the Italian Opera at the King's Theatre, posts he held for the next thirteen years.  His reforms of the orchestra and the chorus made the King's (later Her Majesty's) Theatre one of the finest in Europe, attracting some of the greatest singers of the age such as Grisi, Persiani, Mario, Tamburini, Lablache and others.

In 1846, he was invited to take over the directorship of The Philharmonic Society and its orchestra, but the manager of Her Majesty's Theatre, Benjamin Lumley, refused his permission to accept the appointment.  That refusal cost Lumley dear.  Costa left and took fifty-three members of the orchestra with him.  Even more damaging was that a lot of the chorus and main artists went with him.  Of the five singers mentioned previously only Lablache stayed behind.  They moved to an old theatre where opera had been given but which was mainly used as a playhouse.  That theatre was Covent Garden soon to be changed into a rival opera house in a scheme originated by the composer Giuseppe Persiani.  It was Costa who recommended a civil engineer, Benedict Albano, to take charge of the alterations.  Work began in the December of 1846 and, within five weeks, the interior had been demolished and work had been started on the rebuild.  As the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden Theatre with Michael Costa at its artistic helm opened on the 6th April, l847. (It is interesting to note that Michael Balfe took over the vacant position at Her Majesty’s).

Costa was an autocrat and during these years it was he and not the management who engaged players and singers for the orchestra and chorus.  He would not tolerate substitutes either at rehearsal or at performance, a common practice at that time.  The manager, Frederick Gye, decided to get rid of him and at the end of the Spring season of 1868, informed Costa that in the future all engagements would be made by the management. A new contract was offered but Costa refused and left, informing the press that he had not resigned but that his position now was untenable.  The conductor for the autumn season was Luigi Arditi, who mentions in his memoirs “I was heartily greeted by the audience, the members of the orchestra, however, maintained a dogged silence”.  

Costa became conductor at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for a while, eventually returning to Her Majesty’s where he stayed until 1880.  During these fifty years he had conducted nearly every performance at theatres where he was employed and yet found time to compose a fair amount of music that included sacred and symphonic works, songs and canzonettas, cantatas, oratorios and full scores for, at least, four ballets.  One, Sir Huon was written for perhaps the greatest ballerina of the age, Marie Taglioni, in 1833, and later, in 1844, another, Alma, for her successor Fanny Cerrito. 

His two main operas

Two more operas were composed in his maturity, the first, with music borrowed from his opera Malvina of 1829, was Malek Adhel.  This was produced in Paris at the Théâtre-Italien on 14 January, 1837 with Grisi, Albertazzi, Rubini, Tamburini and Lablache in the cast.  It was given in London later that year at Her Majesty’s on the 18th May where the critical acclaim was only slightly better than it had been in Paris.   The opera is set in the time of the Crusades. Matilda (Grisi) is the sister of Richard Cœur de Lion (Ivanoff) and betrothed to Lusignan, King of Cypress (Tamburini).  Malek Adhel, the brother of Saladin (Rubini), holds her captive, but falls in love with her and returns her to the Crusaders.  He then asks for her hand in marriage but the Monk of Tyre (Lablache) vetoes the proposal and tragedy ensues.  The critic Henry Chorley said “Whether a great conductor can be a great composer, is a doubtful matter”, but also said it was “a thoroughly conscientious work, with an amount of melody with which the composer has never been credited”.

London was Don Carlos, one of three new operas that season, the other two being Herold's Zampa and Ricci’s Corrado d'Altamura.  Costa’s opera, which is quite different to Verdi’s version, opened on the 25th June, 1844.  There is no Grand Inquisitor or Princess Eboli.  Her place is taken by Gomez, an enemy of Carlos.  He has stolen a miniature from Queen Isabel (Grisi) given to her by Carlos (Mario), before she had married King Philip (Lablache).  Count Posa (Fornassari) urges Carlos to flee Madrid but before he can do so Philip brings him before the Inquisition, which condemns him to death.  Hearing the sentence Carlos snatches a dagger from the King's belt and stabs himself.  As he dies all look on as the Queen is taken away to be left to the tender mercy of the Inquisition. The first night was not a triumph.  Both Mario and Lablache were indisposed with sore throats and the performance was considerably cut.  The following Thursday, contrary to her custom, Queen Victoria, a friend of Costa, visited the theatre and the opera gainedfavour over successive evenings, but even so had only a few performances.

Chorley said that “Don Carlos was the worthiest of the three [new operas given that season] but had not the good fortune to please the public even though full of good music: the orchestra is handled with a thorough knowledge of effect and colour. One trio for male voices is so solid and fine that it ought not to have been so soon forgotten”.  Benjamin Lumley the Director of the opera house in his memoirs writes that “Don Carlos was well mounted but like Malek Adhel sunk into the vast limbo of forgotten works, it neither attracted the public nor brought money in. Also the artists all complained that the tessitura was too high and that if the management continued to give the opera there would be injury to their voices, I was obliged to withdraw the opera.  The composer, [who] felt he could not suspect the artists or believe in the dissatisfaction of the public, blamed me for the failure of his opera”.


His Wider Character and Reputation

Costa vigorously defended London against sacred monsters, most especially against Verdi (who had filched his Don Carlos) and Meyerbeer (simply because he was Meyerbeer).  The London International Exhibition of 1862 was a robust example of all this.  Early in 1862, he received a letter from Her Majesty's Commissioners for the Exhibition asking him to “undertake the direction and management of the musical arrangements”.  It informed him that “they wish to have four musical compositions by artists representing France, Germany, Italy and England to be performed at the opening ceremony” adding that “they have requested Messrs. Auber, Meyerbeer, and Verdi to supply each a new piece of music”. 

Sterndale Bennett was to represent England, but Costa refusedto conduct any work whatsoever by Sterndale Bennett as he did not like him, and having previously ordered Meyerbeer out of Covent Garden he did not bother to rehearse his work at all but left it to an assistant.  Meyerbeer had asked for ten rehearsals, he got two.  Verdi was told on arrival in England that his cantata [1would not be performed as Costa refused to accept it under any circumstances.  Verdi was obliged to write to The Times to complain, and only in response to public protest did it get a hearing, but that was elsewhere and without Costa on the podium!  Auber alone got through unscathed. (There is every reason to believe that Costa himself had invited Mercadante and others but these failed to make the deadline!).

Costa’s reputation rests upon his conducting skills and abrief résumé shows how busy he was.  As conductor of the Philharmonic Society from 1846 to 1854 he raised the standard of the orchestra to such a level that Richard Wagner said it was one of the finest in Europe.  He directed many of the main music Festivals around the country, including the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival from 1849 to 1882, Bradford 1853, the Handel Festivals from 1857 to 1880 and the Leeds Festivals from 1857 to 1880.  His association with the Sacred Harmonic Society lasted many years from 1848.  As the director of music, he was responsible for the opening concerts at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and for the opening ceremony of The Royal Albert Hall In 1871.

Costa was also in great demand by managements and manyfamous singers to write arias for interpolation.  For example, for Giulia Grisi, he wrote 'Dall'asilo della pace' for insertion into Rossini's L'assedio di Corinto, and for the world-famous star mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran he wrote 'Suon profondo' in 1836, a scena ed aria to sing in concert in London (her sister Pauline Viardot later used it for interpolation into Rossini's Otello).  These and other occasional pieces can be found on the BravuraDiva CD [Opera Rara ORR 231] .  He also completed Balfe's last unfinished opera, Il talismano.

Like all else that was offered to a “land without music”,his considerable output of operas and ballets, oratorios and cantatas, symphonic and chamber music, sacred and secular songs and arias found no lasting favour with the public. All are now forgotten. Of his oratorio, Eli, written in 1855, Rossini said, “Good old Costa has sent me an oratorio score and a Stilton cheese.  The cheese was very good!”.  However, one, at least, of his compositions we hear nearly every day, that is his arrangement of our own [British] National Anthem.

Costa was well liked by Queen Victoria and the royal family,he taught the children music and was often invited to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle to play piano duets and sing with both the Queen and Prince Albert. He also organised many of the private concerts held at either of these two establishments. He became a naturalized English, taking as his name Michael Andrew Angus and, in 1869, received a Knighthood for Services to Conducting becoming the first recipient of this honour. Other decorations included a Knight Commander of the Crown in Italy, the Royal Order of Frederick, and one which I find intriguing, Knight of the Turkish Order of the Medjidie (thus joining Donizetti).

Costa was well acquainted with Donizetti. In the firstseason of the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden was Donizetti's Maria di Rohan.  Its score was especially interesting as Costa had obtained from the maestro, on visiting him for the last time in Paris, all the new music added for that city in the composer's autograph.  These pieces still exist interleaved into the manuscript of Maria di Rohan in the archives of Covent Garden, just as Costa left them.  There is the possibility that the forgotten music of Donizetti's Elisabetta, an opera whose manuscript was discovered in the cellars of the great theatre in the last few years, was also given to Costa by the stricken composer in an attempt to fulfil the contract that he had been offered for London a year or two before. Sadly, Elisabetta was never performed until a concert performance was given in London in 1997. 

Costa moved to Hove on the south coast in 1883 to indulge his love of sea air and died there in 1884.  He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London, not far from Balfe.


[1] The cantata in question was Verdi's Inno delle nazioni with a text by Boito, for soprano, coro and orchestra [Verdi claimed he never wrote "occasional" pieces].  It was given 5 performances beginning on 24  May, 1862, at Her Majesty's Theatre, with Therese Tietjens as soloist.




Page initially published in  June 2009