Small picture of Donizetti




A Romance for Marcella

 Alexander Weatherson

Donizetti Society Newsletter 125, June 2015, pp. 3-5.

 The article was in memory of Basil Walsh, who did considerable work both on the Irish opera composer Michael William Balfe and on Irish music in general.


Basil ran a number of websites which are still accessible as of October 2015:-

on Balfe - 

on Balfe's Continental operas - 

on soprano Catherine Hayes -

and on Irish Classical Music Pioneers - .


He also wrote several articles for the Newsletter including Balfe's visit to Donizetti in 1845, a concert in Dublin in 1838 starring Persiani and Rubini and one on Balfe's Italian Operas and two books - Michael W. Balfe: A Unique Victorian Composer (Irish Academic Press, 2008) and Catherine Hayes: The Hibernian Prima Donna (Irish Academic Press, 2000).



In Ronald Crichton's amiable review of the concert performance of Il furioso  that we sponsored with Pro Opera at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1979 he regrets that the last-minute substitution of an indisposed Marcella prevented us from hearing a romanza expressly composed for the opera by Michael William Balfe.   It was all too true alas.  Lynn Barber took the place of Sally Burgess at twenty-four-hours notice so the very first unveiling of an unknown insert by Balfe had to be abandoned.   Sometime after 1846 - soon after he took up his baton as principal conductor at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket the Anglo-Irish composer masterminded a new edition of Il furioso for a second staging in the city (the first having been at the Lyceum Theatre on 17 December 1836).  It was a project that never reached the stage for reasons now unknown but whose score remains patiently waiting in the British Library [ADD 30913].   We were deprived in 1979, or so it would seem, just as audiences were deprived in 1847 or soon after.  In his day it would have been commonplace for such an unwonted addition to appear in the work of a famous composer and no maestro of Balfe's generation could have resisted adding at least something of his own to a work he so greatly admired.  And there indeed it was, waiting  to be discovered, with all the rest of the music - bound-in among the large folio pages of Act II of the BL manuscript is the autograph of  a suave Andante assai in Eb  6/8,  nine pages of  18mo oblong format unusually scored for Strings, Harp and Horn and destined for the sympathetic Marcella whose role has some significance in the drama but very little to sing in this Donizetti masterwork.  It is a treasure trove in a diminutive holograph hiding among the pages and signed boldly in the top corner.

Marcella opens the action of the opera memorably enough, but then is more or less left on the shelf,   just like the score in the library.  This manuscript begs all sorts of questions.   Could Balfe have been writing the romanza for his wife?  It is not an insignificant item.   Lina Roser Balfe was thirty-six years old and the right age for the part but she scarcely sang mezzo roles and doesn't seem to have been around at the time.   The piece is in four quatrains and two strophe.  Did he write the text himself?   We shall never know but apart from some oddities and conventional sentiments it has a sweetness and urgency unusual in the horrid days of Alfred Bunn and his gang of literary assassins.

There is a seventeen bar prelude  -  boldly virtuosic with wonderful flourishes - the harp in fluttering dialogue with the placid accents of a serene horn melody coming to a head in a gentle melisma and pizzicato strings as the voice enters:  Marcella has an extended lilting melody with a great many chromatic modulations urged on by the harp and horn,  the full reprise after some twenty bars of music leading to a cadenza rising to A flat and a terminal cluster of staccato semi-quavers is capped by a figured harp diminuendo (the horn now silent) and buzzing strings. An enigmatic note at the end suggests that Balfe (with endearing Irish tastes) would have liked two harps which would have made this romanza a strenuous proposition had they in fact materialised!

The text is as follows:

Quando lieto del suo affetto

di speranza si pascea,

come avesse un cielo in petto,

tutto in lui spirava amor.

Ma dal dì che traditrice

fu scoperta la sua bella,

da quel giorno l'infelice

This is an aria of Balfe's maturity, it is clear, that our conductor in 1979,  Leslie Head, decided to place immediately after the Act II tempesta (an embellishment added for the La Scala revival?) that features in the OTOS score,  that is, immediately before the recitative 'Dovè, dovè sarà?' when Bartolomeo remembers  he had promised two pistols to one of his native Chiefs and decides to send Kaidamà to deliver them.  No doubt such an insert aria would have made an unnecessary hole in the unfolding of the plot but one his audience (if not the composer or librettist) would have welcomed with its dreamy hiatus and  intimate colour.

But its timing is the key I think.  He had an especially affecting relationship with Donizetti. Even though his remarkable vocal career had been far more Rossinian, Bellinian and Pacinian than Donizettian, Balfe's links with the Bergamasc were always close and he was one of the poignant few to struggle past the barriers put up by Andrea Donizetti and make the pilgrimage (see here) to see the stricken composer in tragic seclusion at Ivry in precisely this period  - the period, that is, of the Marcella romanza...   Could it have been composed in its wake?

Possibly we have here (note the colour, the wording, and note the harps) his own idiosyncratic response.




Page initially published in  June 2015