Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Scottish Nightingale of the Bouffes-Parisiennes

For the past thirty years, Miss Augusta Thomson of Glasgow has been a curious item in my collection of Victorian Vocalists.  I had never even succeeded in tracking down more than a line drawing of the lady. And then, this morning, up popped a photo of her on e-bay. It looked nothing like the drawing ... but it needed to be enshrined on my blog, and it got me thinking about Augusta once more ..

THOMSON, Augusta (b Glasgow 11 December 1836; d 141 Cambridge St , Pimlico 14 March 1877)

Augusta Thomson seems to have been a should-have-been. But her apparently determinedly curious career didn’t turn out that way.

Augusta was born in Glasgow in 1836, the daughter of musician and composer Andrew Thomson and his second wife, Isabella (née McKinlay). Most of Thomson’s first family followed their father into good careers in music – Joanna (Mrs Rodwell, Mme Ferrari) (qv) as a vocalist, pianist and more importantly a teacher, James as a pianist, and Jessie Millar Thomson also as a teacher and songwriter. 
Augusta was at first trained by her half-sister, Joanna, and she appeared in public for the first time at the age of seventeen in a concert given by Signor and Madame (sic) Ferrari at the Hanover Square Rooms 19 May 1854. She sang ‘Sull’ aria’ with her sister. She put in another appearance at Joanna’s 1855 (16 May) concert, and then went off to France to study at the Paris conservatoire. She was awarded an 3rd accessit in her first year, and followed up by taking the 1er prix ‘à l’uninamité’ in July 1858. The press spread itself over her ‘soprano of magnificent volume and of unrivalled purity and flexibility’ as displayed in the Huguenots aria ‘O beau pays de Touraine’ and back home in Glasgow the local paper printed a Scotsman in Paris notice: ‘one of the rewards was carried off by a young lady from Glasgow, the sister of one of your most talented professors of music. Possessing a voice of extraordinary power, as well as of the most classic purity and flexibility, the singing of Miss Augusta Thomson was much applauded, and offered a most favourable contrast to the florid and tremulous style of vocalisation so prevalent here..’.
As a prize-winner, Miss Thomson had to make herself available to the French national theatres and, although the Conservatoire records that she went, logically, to the Opéra-Comique, in fact she didn’t. She went straight to the Paris Opéra. The knowledgeable British press was immediately on it guard. Miss Thompson, the young English vocalist who carried off the first prize at the late examination of the Conservatoire, has been engaged for the Grand-Opéra, and will make her début as Mathilde in Guillaume Tell on the occasion of the rentrée of M Gueymard on the 1st of October— that is, if the same influence be not exerted against her as was made use of against Miss Birch some years ago — which must be fresh in the recollection of our readers. Miss Thomson, however, appears ‘with a difference’ on the French stage. Miss Birch was taught in England, where, of course, they know nothing of singing. Miss Thomson, on the other hand, is a real pupil of the Conservatoire. It is curious to perceive how the Parisian press glorifies MRévial, the master, and says little of Miss Thomson, the scholar; as if teaching— French teaching— was everything, and genius, intellect, powers, accomplishments, energy, application, resolve, and bias, nothing. This is the invariable mode of criticising in the most polite capital in Europe’.
If the paragraph sounded rather nationalistic and neurotic, there was nevertheless truth in it. The power struggles at the Opéra were notorious, and Miss Birch – one of the great sopranos of the era – had indeed been disgracefully treated there. Augusta didn’t do much better. 

It seems that the debut actually took place 12 January 1859. Gueymard was Arnold, and Belval, Bonnehée, Mme Altès-Ribault and Mlle de la Pommeraye were the other principals. I can find no reviews. Odd in a country where a debutante at the Opéra got incommensurate coverage The press merely commented ‘Mlle Thompson a reparu cette semaine à l-Opéra dans le personnage de Mathilde de Guillaume Tell. La debutante a bien dit sa romance ‘Sombre forêts’; son duo avec Arnold et le beau finale du troisième acte lui ont également valu des applaudissements’. But she did not follow up as Marguerite in Les Huguenots. She went home.

Her first British appearance after her return was in no less a venue than the Philharmonic Society 16 May 1859: ‘the event of special interest was the debut of Miss Augusta Thompson a young lady who has achieved extraordinary success at Paris where she has attained the highest honours of the conservatoire, and made a most promising appearance at the Académie’. She caused a sensation. She sang ‘Reviens ma noble protectrice’ (La Part du diable) and her William Tell duet with Belart and the press responded ‘She has a magnificent soprano voice, while her powers of execution are consummate’. ‘[This] foreshadows an amount of reputation for her in this country second to none’. ‘A Louisa Pyne en herbe’. Buckingham Palace responded by commanding the young singer to perform there the next Friday.

She continued home to Scotland, on a wave of publicity. But Scotland was annoyed at the special increased prices and only enthused mildly (‘Merce dilette amiche’, ‘Quanto amore’, ‘Carno nome’, ‘Comin’ thru the rye’, ‘A Mile from Edinboro Town’). On her return to town, she appeared first at the New Philharmonic concerts (‘Pensa alla patria’,’Robert toi que j’aime) and the critic opined that French music suited her far better than Italian. He was clearly right and Augusta leaned away from the Italian somewhat thereafter.

And there was plenty of thereafter. In 1860, Augusta Thomson was seen frequently in the West End concert rooms during the season singing ‘Sombres forêts’, ‘Jours de mon enfance’ (Pré aux clercs), L’Etoile du nord, ‘Take thou this cup’ (Lurline), ‘Ah me, he comes not’ from Barnett’s Fair Rosamond, ‘Il Bacio’, Berger’s ‘Ave Maria’ et al. She appeared again with the Philharmonic Society, in the Royal Society of Musicians Messiah, at the Vincent Wallace concert at Crystal Palace, at Her Majesty’s Theatre for Mrs Anderson, sang Sidney Pratten’s music at his concert, and took part in countless personal concerts (Frederick Chatterton, Marie Rieder, Emma Busby, Lucy Leffler, Harold Thomas, F Scotson Clark, Mr and Mrs Tennant, Susanna Cole, Edmond Depret, Louisa Vinning, John Thomas, George Russell, Mr Willing, Aguilar, Augustus Mann etc etc). In August, she appeared at Mellon’s concerts at the Floral Hall where she shared the soprano music of The Messiah with Parepa, in December she made a debut at the Monday Pops (Haydn’s ‘Fidelity’, ‘My pardon, dearest treasure’) and she ended the year with a Messiah at Aberdeen.

1861 continued on much the same bases. More Monday Pops(‘Zuleika’, Mozart’s ‘The Very Angels Weep’, Macfarren and Dussek songs), and various concerts where she displayed her new favourite, the aria ‘Le Pouvoir de chant’ from Auber’s La Circassienne), plus yet another return to the Philharmonic (‘Miss Augusta Thomson, who is steadily making way, gave one of the loveliest airs from Spohr's Jessonda with real expression’ Le Comte Ory with Gardoni). When Francesco Berger staged a Don Giovanni selection she sang Zerlina, she took part in the concerts of Mme Rieder, Miss Busby, W G Cusins, Louis and Adolph Ries, Pratten, Madame Puzzi, Howard Glover, Mrs Anderson, Ganz and others, and towards the end of the year she was featured in Prince George Galitzin’s proms, where she performed his music and also that of Howard Glover and others more classic, and visited Leeds for an unfortunate production of Benedict’s Undine ([she was] the only redeeming feature’). Finally, she made ‘her accustomed annual visit’ to Glasgow were they were more generous to her this time: ‘a beautiful soprano voice of extensive range, clear and sweet, and her brilliancy and fluency of execution were amply shown in ‘Qui la voce’ and ‘Could life’s dark scene’ from Glover’s Ruy Blas. 

From Glasgow, however, she did not continue back directly to London. In the company of Alexandre Billet (piano) and Guillaume Paque (’cello), she headed for Geneva where she was rousingly received (‘voix ravissante’) and to France, and when she did return to England it was only for a handful of concerts.

‘Miss Augusta Thomson, who has been for some time missing, having disappeared from London at the moment when she was beginning to be of value … is engaged at the Bouffes-Parisiennes in Paris—by which it would seem as if she intends to work out her career in foreign opera. ...’

On 23 February 1863 she appeared at the Bouffes playing the principal girl, Inès, alongside Delphine Ugalde and Lucille Tostée in the first Paris production of Nuitter and Offenbach’s Les Bavards. The production has made it to Wikipedia where Augusta in just mentioned as ‘Thompson’. She wasn’t liked by the Univers Musicale: ‘A part une debutante qui a failli compromettre son rôle, la demoiselle Thomson qui serait mieux placé dans le genre sérieux car elle manque absolument de gaîeté, l’execution laissait rien a desirer’. The Bouffes closed for demolition in April, and the troupe headed for Ems.  I imagine Augusta went with them. But when the new theatre opened in January 1864, she was not there. She was back in Scotland, singing ‘Quand tu chantes’ and Scots ballads at the Glasgow Saturday Concerts. Up till now, the stage had not been very favourable to her.

As Ines in Les Bavards

She made a first appearance in Manchester in February 1864 in the Halle concerts, and then she made a surprising switch. On 3 April she opened at the Manchester Theatre Royal in the title role of the burlesque Ixion. Then, later in the year, I see her playing in a version of Leah (with ‘Sing Birdie Sing’ and Faust interpolated), Ixion and The Child of the Regiment at Nottingham, Jeannette’s Wedding and the burlesque Perdita with Lydia Thompson at Liverpool and at Christmas principal girl in the pantomime, The Jolly Miller of Dee at Birkenhead.

17 April 1865, however, she was brought back from burlesque and the provinces. She opened at Drury Lane cast as Sabrina in the masque Comus and once again was praised to the skies. But Comus over, she joined up with Terrott, Bartleman and Annie Leng in a ‘Royal English Opéra-Comique Company’ playing The Sleeping Queen, Violet’s Playthings, Once too Often, La Serva Padrona etc, adapted by herself) in polite venues.

But she was brought, again, back to London to appear at the Gallery of Illustration where she gave London a taste of the Offenbachian with her performance in Ching-Chow-Hi (Ba-ta-clan). No one, this time, complained of a lack of gaiety.

In September, she was recalled to Drury Lane for more Comus and at Christmastide she was principal girl in the Lane’s pantomime Little King Pippin.

After the festive season, she returned to Liverpool and burlesque, in July to the Princess’s for drama (‘she sang and acted with great vivacity’) and at the end of the year The Invisible Prince (Abricotina). The Princess season folded, but Augusta returned to Drury Lane where she and Tom Whiffen took over the roles in the panto curtain-raiser Terrible Hymen (Avant la noce).

But from Drury Lane, she continued to the very suburban Marylebone Theatre where ‘the great English vocalist from the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden ‘ ‘the Queen of English songsters’
played in a version of the Daughter of the Regiment, before starting on a reasonably downmarket series of productions: a remake of Auber’s Manon Lescaut written by herself as Sunshine and Shadow, The Colleen Bawn with music from The Lily of Killarney, Violet’s Playthings, The Muleteer of Toledo with music from The Rose of Castille, the pasticcio The Burgomaster’s Daughter featuring bits of Auber, ‘Sing Birdie Sing’, ‘The Hunters Horn’ et al, Violetta, a for the suburbs La Traviata, and extravaganza fashioned from Rob Roy, a Maritana in the same mould, then a reasonably un-deconstructed The Black Domino and The Slave, and a burlesque of Lucrezia Borgia with Augusta as Orsini … and then she was ill. Again.

She was engaged for the SurreyTheatre, and presumably more of the same, but fate and John Russell of Covent Garden intervened. Augusta was hired to play Wanda in what was to turn out to be the important production of La Grande-Duchesse, alongside William Harrison and Julia Mathews. Her experience of things French and of real opéra-bouffe served her well, and Augusta was hailed as perfect in the part. La Grande-Duchesse, as history tells, only played four weeks in this initial season, and Augusta went off to play The Fair One With the Golden Locks at the Surrey, but come the season Russell remounted his hit, and sent it on the road. Mrs Howard Paul was now the Duchess and the piece was as popular in Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester as at Covent Garden. 20 June 1868 it came to the Olympic Theatre for a second London season.

Opéra-bouffe was becoming the rage, but did Augusta stick with it? No. She returned to burlesque and the her collection of song-studded plays. She took them to Scotland, and Scotland was notimpressed with her versions of The Flowers of the Forest, True unto Death, The Maid and the Magpie, The Prisoner, A Border Marriage et al. When she starred in panto (The Long Pack) at Newcastle, it was a flop and had to be removed. But she continued with her dramas with arias, and took her own company to West Hartlepool with a bundle of them. Her version of The Muleteer of Toledo not only helped itself to items from The Rose of Castile but also from La Périchole.
At the end of the year she joined Mrs Liston at the Olympic Theatre, singing Jeannette’s Wedding and Little Emly as a forepiece. But 4 January 1870, Mrs Liston produced the burlesque The Princess by W S Gilbert, and Augusta was cast as Prince Cyril.
John Russell recalled her to opéra-bouffe, to replace the upwardly-mobile Emily Soldene in Barbe-bleue, but as soon as that tour ended it was back to burlesque with Francis Fairlie and with W H Swanborough. When she played Marchioness in Little Nell the press enthused ‘she displayed an amount of talent as a character actress that we had not hitherto given her credit for’.

21 March 1871 she returned to the opéra-bouffe stage as Zanetta in Henry Leslie’s Liverpool production of La Princesse de Trébizonde (‘her voice is peculiarly suited to Offenbach’s light, merry music and she is a great favourite’..) This production was to tour for a very long time, but Augusta, typically, did not stay long. She switched to play Frédégonde in a tour of Chilpéric, from which she retired in August ‘sick from overwork’ and, I suspect, from her friend and business partner, Estelle Bodenham.

When she returned, she joined Swanborough again, playing burlesque at the Crystal Palace (with Manon Lescaut’s ‘L’Eclat de rire’ and Bishop’s ‘The Pilgrim of Love’ interpolated), and then moved to the Royalty Theatre to where J E Mallandaine had brought his ‘musically complete’ provincial production of Chilpéric. Alas, he brought it without its drawing star, Miss Emily Soldene, and although Augusta gave her impeccable Frédégonde in ideal style, the run was not long. Mallandaine then staged his Paquita with Augusta in the title-role. It played 13 performances, and Miss Thomson was soon back with Swanborough, playing Rochester in Violet’s Playthings and a cut-down revised interpolated-into version of Ixion. ‘A superb soprano voice and exquisite acting ... we can not recall any vocalist obtaining a similar reception since Miss Louisa Pyne..’

The Swanborough connection bore West End fruit, and Augusta Thomson, billed big, appeared (27 November 1871) at their Strand Theatre. She played the title-role in Ivanhoe, and in Burnand’s Arion, then in Brough’s Pygmalion, before quitting the company and going out on another Chilpéric tour (24 March 1872) with W H Tilla – the King who had failed to fill the shoes of Soldene – as her leading man. Before long, the producers cried enough, and Augusta and Tilla took their place as managers. Cox and Box was played as an afterpiece to the opéra-bouffe: Augusta played Box. By August, however, she was weakening and was off, ill, again. They added a selection from the Soldene hit, Geneviève de Brabant to the repertoire, but by September they had shuttered and Augusta was at Bristol playing the Earl of Leicester in Little Amy Robsart.

Another opéra-bouffe engagement soon raised its head. 18 November 1872, Richard Mansell produced The Bridge of Sighs at the St James’s Theatre with Augusta in the splendid prima donna rôle of Catarina Cornaro. It had a rocky ride, closing in disarray when Augusta got ill again, then being remounted the following February in a cut version. It still failed.

30 June 1873 she was cast in Prince Moselle in Snae Fell at the Gaiety Theatre, but typically she abandoned the Gaiety to return to Henry Leslie, back in her old role of Zanetta, for the last weeks of his tour, before heading back to Liverpool. At Liverpool she played La Grande-Duchesse, a new and short-lived extravaganza Lothair, the pantomime The King of the Golden Valley and Clairette to the Lange of Lennox Grey in the latest opéra-comique megahit La Fille de Madame Angot.
Her Clairette was noticed, and she was soon back with Hollingshead and the Gaiety company, touring with Nellie Farren and J G Taylor as Zanetta in La Princesse de Trébizonde, Morgiana in The Forty Thieves and in Offenbach’s The Great Metropolis. 
She ended 1874 touring with the Liston company and playing Little Red Riding Hood at Glasgow, and in 1875 went out again with the Gaiety Company before recreating her Wanda, for Charles Morton, to the Duchess of Cornélie d’Anka for a season at the Opéra-Comique.

And now things began to shrink. Her next engagement was touring with a certain Albert Montgomery’s troupe playing in the musical comedy Loo, and then in Karl Meyder’s operetta company playing little 1-acters. She also got mixed up with a fairly hopeless type who called himself George D’Arcy (real name Willie Yelland), Estelle Bodenham’s widower, who joined in the remaking and pasticcio plotting with very little talent and advertised Offenbach and Augusta large.

At Christmas 1876 she appeared as principal boy in Open Sesame at the East-End Standard Theatre. Her principal boy was Alhambra ex-star Rose Bell, once Mlle de la Pommeraye and a member of the cast of that Guillaume Tell at the Paris Opéra, eighteen years ago, when anything had seemed possible for the ‘girlish, little’ Augusta Thomson.

It was her last stage appearance. Augusta died a few months later of ‘brain disease (one month & fourteen days) and paralysis (7 days)’. She had worked steadily all her career, except during her frequent illnesses, sometimes in splendid, classy companies and for most of the best musical-theatre managers in Britain. And sometimes in some very poor vehicles and places, for some less than notable managers. She had never again ventured into the opera. Perhaps wisely. But she had proven herself a perfect opéra-bouffe and opéra-comique leading girl … why, oh why …?

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