Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Gilbert and Sullivan prima donna mystery solved

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Who WAS Emilie Petrelli? Well …




‘When Emilie Petrelli, soprano, appeared, from nowhere, in Brighton in 1874, the press assured its readers that her name was really and truly Petrelli and that she was British-raised of an Italian father.

One part of that, at least, in fact practically the whole jolly lot, was clearly not true. There is no one by the name of Emilie Petrelli in any register of documents in the British Isles. So how could I find out who this lady really was, whence she came and whither she went?  Well, one just has a shot. I did. And I found a jigsaw which clicked together suspiciously well. Or I thought it did. 

Emilie de Nigris was born – either in Naples or in France, according to the censi – the daughter of Giovanni Battista de Nigris (1793-1871), a language teacher, and his English wife, Emily. John was teaching in Jersey in 1851, but by 1861 the family was in Liverpool, and on 16 February 1861 the Saturday Evening concerts presented ‘Emilietta de Nigris aged 8, the juvenile Mozart and the Infant Sappho combined ... who has appeared before the Emperor Napoleon and the King of Sardinia…’. This ‘juvenile Thalberg’ apparently specialised in florid playing and florid vocalising. The de Nigrises moved on to Brighton during the sixties, and Emilie can be seen performing in Guernsey and in Weston-super-Mare before, with the dawn of the seventies – and the death of her father --  she vanishes.

And in 1874, Miss Emilie Petrelli (‘splendid contralto singing’) appeared at Brighton Theatre Royal singing ‘Should he upbraid’ and ‘Comin thru the rye’ between the pieces, and in Mortier de Fontaine’s concert at the Pavilion, before ‘this young lady of great promise’ mounted her own concert (1 February 1875). 
At some stage, she enrolled at George Lansdowne Cottell’s London Conservatoire of Music and appeared at the concerts of that unassuming institution, before in October 1878 she won an engagement at the Covent Garden proms. She next became visible at the Royal Aquarium concerts (Wallace’s ‘Song of May’, Guernsey’s ‘O buy my flowers’, La Fille du régiment with Jose Sherrington) but she was seen mostly in the various concerts arranged by Cottell.

On 13 September 1879 she was introduced the theatre public, when she played one week as Josephine, at the Olympic Theatre, in the breakaway production of HMS Pinafore. She was judged ‘an exceedingly fascinating Josephine’ with a ‘youthful excellent voice and a graceful appearance’ and was promptly hired for D’Oyly Carte’s touring company, replacing Elinor Loveday, in the same role. When the tour company played the mock-up copyright performance of an approximate The Pirates of Penzance at Paignton, Mlle Petrelli was the first British Mabel.
Following the tour (which confusingly lists a Mr F Petrelli among its chorus) she joined the company at the Connaught Theatre to play Marie in a production of Le Voyage en Chine (27 May 1880), and took over from Constance Loseby as Stella in the Alhambra’s hit production of La Fille du tambour-major, scoring a very decided successShe remained at the Alhambra to feature behind Miss Loseby as Lisette in Mefistofele II (‘Man is the Monarch of creation’) before, on 22 January 1881, crossing to the Opera Comique to succeed to the role of Mabel in The Pirates of Penzancefor the last months of its run (‘graceful and agreeable stage presence combined with sufficient vocal skill ... a very acceptable representative of her role..’).

Emilie could have stayed with the Carte company. She was cast in the title-role of the succeedingPatience, but apparently found the role too soubrette-like, and threw the part up before opening.


She moved instead to the Philharmonic for a reprise of Le Voyage en Chine and in December 1881 returned to the Alhambra to play the Princess Desirée to the Black Crook of Miss Loseby. The following year she played the leading role of Dorothy in Edward Solomon’s The Vicar of Bray before taking a job as Miss Cherry Tart (otherwise ‘Beauty’) in the pantomime Beauty and the Beast at the Queen’s Theatre, Manchester. ‘Miss Emilie Petrelli’ quoth the local critic ‘has the advantage of not requiring artificial aid to enable her to look the part to perfection. She acts with grace and freedom and sings with more than ordinary ability and finish’.
I spot her once more, at the Edinburgh Lyceum, the following year, as Fairy in Little Red Riding Hood, and then …

While Mlle Petrelli goes into suspended animation for a decade, Signorina de Nigris shows up again, in concert in modest company at Brighton. Odd.

And then, in 1894, after more than a decade, Mlle Petrelli resurfaces, tacked into the musical comedy King Kodak at the Lyric Theatre. During the next few years she was seen in the odd concert; singing ‘Ernani involami’ at J A Cave’s Benefit, pushing de Leuville’s ‘The First Kiss’, singing ‘Ah fors’e lui’ and ‘Bel raggio’ with a telepathist at Steinway Hall, billed as ‘of the Milan and Paris concerts’. Really? She is ‘of The Elms, Campbell Road, Croydon’.
In 1898 she turned up at Kilburn in a little show called The Pasha(‘Carmena’) and my last sighting of La Petrelli is playing the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at Birmingham in 1898-9.

But it’s not my last sighting of Miss de Nigris. I spot her singing at Brighton’s West Pier, I spot her mother’s death in 1906 at the Steyning Union Workhouse, I spot her playing piano for scripture readings in 1908, in a flat at 91a Ormiston Road, Hammersmith in 1911, and in 1925, ‘Emila de Nigris’ died in Willesden at recordedly 91 years of age. Victorian scribal error, I think. 71 is more like it.

So, are Mlle Petrelli and Signorina de Nigris one and the same person?
Most of the pointers were a little bit positive, but … 

And, then … Advertisement in the Hastings and St Leonard Observer: ‘Madame Emilie Petrelli prima donna Covent Garden ...’ not only giving lessons, but still singing! ‘RAM’ ! ‘pupil of Randegger’. And more such, between 1904 and 1915. ..!

In 1909: ‘Madame Petrelli RAM’ ‘late pupil of Signor Randegger and of Signor Fiori’, ‘professor of breathing voice production’ and the ‘Petrelli modifications of the old Italian art of singing… Madame Petrelli’s Vocal Academy, The Priory, Belvedere, Kent. (Voice trial free by appointment)’.

I thought I had better start again.

What about ‘singing lessons by a lady, student at the Royal Academy of Music, who learned voice production under Signor Randegger and was a pupil of Signor Fiori for four years… Miss Ethel Lloyd, 54 Acacia Rd., St John’s Wood NW’?   Naaaaah.

But around the corner the truth was there, just hiding…

A number of years of searching further on, another little herring (was it red?) surfaced, to throw into the pool. Emilie offered copies of ‘The First Kiss’ for sale (in 1895) from ‘her home’ at The Elms, 18 Campbell Rd., Croydon. Well, in 1898 and 1901 The Elms was occupied by orchid-growing Dr Frederic Fitzherbert Hills and his wife … Emily Mary Jane Hills.  Emily. In 1911, the widowed Mrs Hills is living in Eastbourne and … a professor of singing... hello, hello!

YES! Mrs Hills was born Emily Mary Jane Peters in 1859 … so throw the pieces of the jigsaw in the air, scrub the de Nigris non-connection, the fibbing little lady is found. Emily Peters. Why didn’t I guess? Father James Peters, mother Emily née Flint. Christened at St Bride, Fleet Street… there they are in Brydges Street, Covent Garden in the 1861 census, and father is twenty-seven and … a vocalist… from … Brighton! I had all the clues, why didn’t I find this before? De Nigris be damned! In 1871, there they are, mother and daughter, in Windmillhill, Herstmonceux. By 1891, she is Mrs Frederic F Hills and the couple are living in Devon House, Whitehall, Gloucestershire where the good Doctor is running a medical practice, in 1901 they are in The Elms, Croydon …

Frederic died 3 March 1909, at the Priory, Belvedere, aged 55. 
Emily in 1925.

When you know the facts (well, I can’t find the marriage, but…), it all fits in! De Nigris Schmigris! And won’t the Gilbert and Sullivan fraternity be happy …

PETRELLI, Emilie[PETERS, Emily Mary Jane] (b Brydges Street, Covent Garden 1859; d 17a Derwent Rd, Anerley, Kent 23 January 1925)

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