Balfe's The Maid of Artois (1836)

                      Its history


The Maid of Artois' libretto was written by Alfred Bunn, manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Balfe had much faith in Bunn as a stage lyricist, but analysis of his books shows that he was not particularly gifted: he often provided lyrics of unbalanced syllabic length, which would clearly have hampered Balfe's composition.  The opera opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on May 27, 1836 to considerable public and critical acclaim. Arias were encored as was, amazingly, the overture.

Much of the opera's initial attraction resulted from the engagement of Mme Maria Malibran, the superstar of her day, who enjoyed an enthusiastic following all over Europe ensuring box office success wherever she appeared. Malibran had been a friend of Balfe since their appearance together at the Paris Opera and he wrote The Maid of Artois partly as a vehicle for her, shortly before her untimely death, aged only 27, in Manchester following a riding accident.  It is reported that Malibran's singing compass was remarkably wide and judging from the characters she played she would have been classed as an alto with soprano reach as she managed three octaves. Where alternative phrases of coloratura are shown in the score it is likely she sung the lower version. She had died before the score was printed, and so Balfe decided to set brighter higher versions of coloratura without fear of upsetting her. This would allow the music to be more in keeping with the youthful character of Isoline.




Details of its première recording by Victorian Opera Northwest can be found here.

The story is principally a 'Manon Lescaut' plot set in the time of Louis XV in which a girl in love is poached by a rich Marquis. Fate decrees that the lovers end their days in the wastes of the desert, until an unexpected rescue comes.  

Jules is searching for his lost love Isoline, whom the Marquis has designs on, but he is tricked by Sans Regret into enlisting. Sans regret tells the Marquis about this new recruit and his connection to Isoline to whom the Marquis shows Jules' enlistment paper so that she knows that Jules is in his power.  Jules attempts to escape and find Isoline but is eventually captured and sent off to prison in Africa.

In Act 2, the scene switches to the prison in Africa, where a new governor, the Marquis, arrives accompanied by several people including Isoline. She recognises Jules and the two escape out into the desert.  Resigned to die of thirst they hear the distant sounds of a band and a procession of the Marquis and his retinue appears on the horizon. The couple are rescued and pardoned by the Marquis and the opera ends happily with Isoline singing of her rapture.


The original cast

The original cast of The Maid of Artois was a distinguished gathering of popular singers of the time, all in their twenties and thirties:

Mme Maria Malibran (contralto), Isoline,  was born in Paris and went to Italy where she studied, spoke a number of languages, well known at the the Paris Opéra (where she met Balfe) and at La Scala, Milan. She first came to Drury Lane in 1834 when 26 to star in the first English La Sonnambula and Fidelio.

Mr John Templeton (tenor) from Scotland was 34 when he appeared as Jules de Montangon. He had made his debut with Malibran in La Sonnambula at Drury Lane in 1834.

Mr Henry Phillips (baritone) was Bristol born and 35 when he appeared as the Marquis. With theatrical parents he was noted for Handelian solos and played Caspar when Der Freischutz opened in London in 1824. He manipulated composers by demanding a ballad for his part so it could be sold separately to promote his name.

Mr Arthur Seguin (bass), Synnelet, an Irish Londoner trained at the Royal Academy of Music and was noted for his wide compass, making a name when singing at Govern Garden in their 1833-4 season. He joined Drury Lane for Balfe's The Siege of Rochelle the previous year when aged 26.

Mr Hatton (Officer of the Guard) was a 26 year old Liverpudlian singer and self-taught composer who arrived in London in 1832. He went on the supply Drury Lane with an operetta,  The Queen of the Thames, in 1844.

Miss Elizabeth Poole (soprano), the youngest of the company (aged 16), came to Drury Lane in 1834 when she took a minor Page role in Gustavus in 1834 and went on to sing regularly in English opera and give recitals. It is likely she sang in The Siege of Rochelle which followed Gustavus.


© Victorian Opera Northwest, 2005 - 2010.