Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Too many Roses for Rosina

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The little two-act musical piece entitled Rosina (its text fills but nine small-print double columned pages in my libretto, 46pp in the original, with all the cuts opened) was first produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on New Year’s eve 1782, as an afterpiece to a production of Henry II. It was a sticky-beak night at the Garden, for the part of Rosamund in the Shakespeare was played by Mary Robinson, the recently cast-off mistress of the very young Prince of Wales. Her notices were not likely to be good (‘the rantings of a strolling company’), and indeed the ‘gentlemen’ of the press rightfully neglected Henry II in favour of its afterpiece.

Rosina was a simple little piece, penned – book and lyrics – by a Mrs Frances Brooke (née Moore), with a story allegedly adapted from the Book of Ruth (‘Palemon and Lavinia’) telling of the orphaned daughter of an officer, raised by his servant, and toiling as a gleaner on the lands of the local squire, who wins his heart and hand, in spite of the machinations and money of his military brother. To this more than conventional tale, Mrs Brooke added, in conventional operetta fashion, a pair of soubrettes to lighten the sighing with some sprightly bickering and songs. The comic gleaning-maid, in fact, became the preferred role of many stars.

Mrs Martyr, the original Phoebe
Mrs Brooke has become fashionable in the present century. Academics have devoted regular articles to her and, in particularly, the novels that she penned. Someone has even called her America’s (!) first female novelist, because she spent a little part of her life in Canada whence her clergyman husband was seconded. She was pureblood English. Nobody, as far as I know, has dubbed her the first female to write a hit musical, which is surprising, because her ‘fashion’ these days is very largely her sex. Women’s studies, and all that.


The few bits on Mrs Brooke that I have read (I couldn’t face them all), however, seem to miss out dealing proportionately with the lady’s greatest success by far. Rosina outdid all her novels, and was performed all round Britain for a century, a standard piece in every stock company’s repertoire and played by just about every touring prima donna.


 Why? It simply caught on. After its first showing with Mr Bannister and his wife as the sweethearts, Mrs Kennedy (in trousers) and Mrs Martyr as the comedy couple, and Mr Brett as the baddie, it was praised: ‘The dialogue is easy and agreeable and the airs in general are not destitute of poetical merit … All Mr Shield’s music gave great satisfaction and we congratulate Mr Brookes (sic) upon the success of her piece’ (Town and Country Magazine). It was a thoroughly agreeable, digestible end to an evening’s theatre-going, and it went on to join The Beggar’s Opera, No Song, no Supper, The Quaker and their ilk in the class of ‘the most played musicals’ in the English-speaking world. In 1966 it was recorded by Decca with Robert Tear and Elizabeth Harwood.


William Shield ought to have a book written about him. Maybe he has. His list of successful operettas, musical comedies and light operas includes some of the most famed and durable of his time: Rosina, The Poor Soldier, The Castle of Andalusia, Lock and Key, The Farmer, The Woodman, and his songs some of the most memorable of the era: from the tenor ‘The Thorn’ to the great basso dramatic scena ‘The Wolf’.

William Shield



So, what got me on to Rosina, Mrs Brooke and Shield? My famous volume includes two pieces of sheet music, published by Mr Shade, ‘from Rosina’. One of them is ‘The Bud of a Rose’ (otherwise ‘Her mouth which a smile’) a little ballad sung by our hero at the dawn of admiration. 


The other is another Rose piece: ‘A Rose Tree full in bloom’. Sic. And this is very odd. Because that duet actually saw the light of stage in Shield’s next musical show, The Poor Soldier (Covent Garden 4 November 1873), featuring many of the same cast, and its lyric is not the work of Mrs Brooke, but of John O’Keeffe. It was exceedingly popular, so its seems unlikely (or does it?) that Mr Shade would make such a basic error. Was Mrs Kennedy (in trousers again) and Mrs Bannister’s duo interpolated into Rosina as a tenor solo at some stage?


 Mrs Brooke’s text and Shield’s music were ‘revised’ by John Oxenford and Joseph L Hatton in 1874, as Rosina continued its career through England and beyond, but The Poor Soldier also had many years of a more modest life… would it have been disembowelled to swell the more popular work?


I can’t find any evidence of such a twenty-first century mishmashing, so until any future discovery I lean towards a fault on the part of Mr Shade!

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