A story of success, from unlikely beginnings ..
ALESSANDRI, Enrichetta [ALEXANDER, Harriet] (b Whitechapel, London, ?1829; d Caprera, 27 Broadway, Sandown, Isle of Wight, 11 November 1913)
ALESSANDRI, Adele [ALEXANDER, Adelaide] (b Whitechapel, London, ?1830; d Hebron, Pell Street, Sandown, Isle of Wight, 16 January 1901)
Once upon a time, there was a Jewish, East End cattle merchant named Louis Alexander (d 1860). Louis had been born in Chatham, Kent, somewhere around about the turn of the eighteenth-into-the-nineteenth century, but his calling, at some stage in the 1820s, led him away from Kent, up to London, and to its great Smithfield meat market. He can be seen in Somerset Street (‘butcher’) in 1825. It was there that he would make what was to be a decidedly successful career in the meat business. On his way up, Louis married a young woman named Hannah and, in the half a dozen years from 1829 onwards, they produced five children: four daughters and a son. Adelaide, then Harriet, then Julia, then Eliza, and, finally, Albert Louis.
Albert Louis married Esther Somers from Finsbury, and became – perhaps predictably -- a butcher. Eliza married a Mr Bowers and lost him rather quickly. Adelaide, Harriet and Julia devoted themselves to music. They devoted themselves to it so thoroughly that none of them ever married and, when their active years were done, all four of the sisters Alexander – the three spinsters and the widow -- retired to the Isle of Wight where together they saw in the twentieth century and saw out the last days of their comfortable lives.
In fact, only two of the singing Alexander sisters would have a career as a public performer, Harriet the soprano and, in particular, Adelaide the mezzo-contralto who would cover the British provincial touring routes for some twenty years playing leading contralto roles in everything from the grandest of operas to a bit of merry burlesque.
The teenaged Alexander girls were taught their music by a gentleman named Mr Stocking ‘of 21 Osnaburgh Street, Regent’s Park’, and he launched them in public, along with a number of his other pupils, at a concert at the Princess’s Concert Room on 16 June 1847. The bill included a few familiar names from the London concert scene – the ubiquitous Fred Lablaches, husband and wife, John Parry with his superlative comic songs and tenor Scipione Brizzi, plus another small-time London music teacher, Mdlle Cinzia (née Cynthia) Pagliardini (piano and vocals) who was co-sponsoring the do, and her brother Tito, but the body of the bill was made up of Mr Stocking’s pupils: Miss Emily Badger, already seen out at a few small concerts over half a dozen seasons, Miss Lucy Pettigrew, Mr Philip Clark and Miss A Alexander and Miss H Alexander (‘their debut’). The press was dismissive.
The following season Mr Stocking presented his pupils again, and the Alexander girls, once again, shared a stage with the Lablaches and Parry, but in 1848 (24 October) they went boldly forth and presented their own concert, at the favourite venue of the East London Jewish concertgoer: the Sussex Hall in Leadenhall Street. ‘Miss Adelaide Alexander and Miss Harriette Alexander have the honour to announce their first evening concert…’ The Misses Badger and Pettigrew were still there, and Mr Stocking shared the conducting, but the Misses Alexander had snared not only the fine contralto, Sara Flower, but the doyen of British basses, Henry Phillips, for their show. In 1849 (26 December) they repeated the exercise with Henry Russell as their star attraction, and in 1850 (12 November) they took Crosby Hall and featured Louisa Bassano, Adam Leffler and Rose Braham, alongside their own efforts.
By 1851, however, the girls had moved on from the fold of Mr Stocking, for when they turned up – in the large shadow of the Pyne sisters, Misses Messent and Bassano, Evelina Garcia, Stigelli and Whitworth – singing at Greenwich’s Lecture Hall they were labelled as ‘pupils of Felice Ronconi’, the third of the singing Ronconi brothers, and now resident in Westminster. They appeared, singing duets, with Kalozdy’s Hungarian Band and staged their annual (23 March 1852) at Crosby Hall with Evelina Garcia, Louisa Bassano, Fedor, Campanella and Felice Ronconi and a certain success (‘both young and pretty, both sopranos ... sang popular duets by Horn and Glover with the most perfect ensemble … Miss H Alexander gave a spirited reading from the last act of La Sonnambula...’). Things had looked up.
In early 1855 a paragraph found its way into the British musical press: ‘The Misses Alexander – From correspondence we have received from Italy, and also from the Italian newspapers, we hear that two of our country-women, the Misses Alexander, are singing with great success at Padua under the names of the Signore Adele and Enrichetta Alessandri. They have also sung in Milan and Piedmont with the greatest applause. At Padua, where they are singing now, the public is a most difficult one to please, being always accustomed to artistes of the first rank. The Misses Alexander, however, have succeeded in obtaining the applause of every audience they have sung before in this town. The greatest proof of their success is that since their debut they have never been without engagements’.
All right, it sounded distinctly like a ‘placed’ paragraph. And it also, very noticeably, didn’t say what the girls had been singing, or where – which would make it seem possible that we are taking about concert appearances rather than operatic ones – but I have managed to winkle out one mention of the pair, announced as a debut, at Milan’s Santa Radegonda in April 1854 (Un’avventura di Scaramuccia with Adele, alongside Vincenzo Galli, Il Furioso with Enrichetta) for the primavera season, then via the Agenzia Burcardi of Milan, in October, at Voghera (‘pupils of Maestro Prati’), where Adele sang Gondi in Maria di Rohan ‘molto bene’ and Harriet in Buzzi’s Saul, alongside Carmela Marziali and the tenor, Luigi Lelmi; and another from January 1855, from Padua’s Teatro dei Concordi, where Adele is singing the fairy in Crispino e la comare and in Saffo‘ottimamente’ alongside prima donna Sofia Peruzzi, before being cast in the title-role of Mercadante’s opera Leonora (‘sostenne la parte difficile con lode’).
‘Adele’ and ‘Enrichetta’ were, it is quite clear, doing distinctly all right. For it was no small step from Sussex Hall and Crosby Hall, and the baton of Mr Stocking, to taking on the vocalists of Italy on their home territory. Even if it were only in Voghera and Padua.
Later in the year their progress was spotted once more ‘Vicenza – two young English vocalists Mdlles Henrietta and Adelaide Alexander have been engaged [by Burcardi] at the Teatro di Sassari for the autumn and carnival, the former as prima donna soprano assoluta, the other as prima donna mezzo-soprano assoluta’, and then, ‘The two sisters Alexander are gone to Girona’ in Spain, where Enrichetta (‘pupil of Prati’) made a ‘fortunatissimo’ appearance as Lucia di Lammermoor and Linda di Chamounix. In October 1856, the girls were at Palma di Majorca where Enrichetta sang La Traviata with Barbacini, and Adele was Maddalena in Rigoletto, alongside the debut of ‘Maria Alfieri’, otherwise Mary Ann Croft from London. In Autumn, they are gathering ‘il più felice successo’ at Spalato (Il Columella, Barbiere di Siviglia) and Sebenico with the buffo Finelli (‘onore garndissimo’), but for Carnevale 1857-8, le signore Enrichetta Alessandri prima donna assoluta soprano and Adele Alessandri contralto seem to have had their engagements cancelled by the ‘noble directors’ of the Teatro Allighieri, Ravenna, as not meeting with their approval.
Enrichetta moved on, in 1858, to the Teatro di Chieti for primavera and, as a hurried replacement for an insufficient soprano, at the Teatro di Crema where she can be seen playing La Traviata and La Sonnambula to ‘applausi e chiamate senza fine’. ‘La giovane prima donna emerse specialmente, cantò con buon gusto e fu festeggiatissima’. Then, in Spring, they were together again, at Alessandria, before Enrichetta was engaged at the Teatro Re in Pavia (22 May La Traviata with Dordoni), and both played at Intra in the summer (La Traviata, La Sonnambula), and then at the Teatro Rossini in Turin (Crispino e la comare, Il Nuovo Figaro). Enrichetta interpolate the Venzano Waltz into the second opera! Next, they are to be seen at Legnano, playing opposite each other in Linda di Chamounix while Enrichetta made her umpteenth hit as La Traviata and also appeared as Adina in L’Elisir d’amore. In March 1859, I see Enrichetta singing Chiara di Rosemberg and Lucia di Lammermoor at the Teatro dei Concordi at Lonigo.
I suspect they could have continued in similar fashion for some years, but now the girls came home, to make the next part of their careers in England.
It was Harriet who was the first or at least the more visible, to ‘take off’, and she took off in the grandest of style. Thirtyish year old Harriet – metamorphosed, now, permanently into Enrichetta Alessandri – was hired for what was, of course, not her ‘first appearance on any stage’ as a principal soprano at Her Majesty’s Theatre. London’s opera house. In spite of the Italianising of her name, Harriet was not, however, hired for the Italian opera. In the face of the success of the Pyne and Harrison troupe in their London seasons of English opera, E T Smith was mounting a rival English opera season. His prima donna was the proven Euphrosyne Parepa, and such top English singers as Swift, Santley, Mme Lemmens Sherrington and Sims Reeves were part of the prospectus. As was this unknown Enrichetta Alessandri ‘who has’, Smith assured, ‘gained fame in Spain and Italy’. Fame is perhaps putting it a little strongly.
Harriet made her debut in the supporting part of the Countess Filomela in the British production of Massé’s La Reine Topaze (26 December 1860), playing the ‘other woman’ to the Queen Topaze of Parepa, the hero of Swift and the ‘other fellow’ of Charles Santley. The Era reported ‘Mdlle Alessandri, with her neat style of execution, was exceedingly valuable’ in the vast shadow of Parepa and the opera was accounted ‘a decided success’. La Reine Topazewas followed by La Traviata with Parepa starred, after which was scheduled The Bohemian Girl with Parepa as Arline. But Parepa’s Arline had to wait. When the Bohemian Girl opening night came, she was off, and Harriet – only a month into her British career -- was on. ‘Owing to the indisposition of Madame Parepa, Miss Alessandri has taken the role of Arline in The Bohemian Girl throughout the week, and has acquitted herself with great success. The young lady has a graceful figure, a good voice, and is a careful executant of the music intrusted to her.’
Harriet’s next assignment was ‘back to normal’. On 15 February Smith put up Fra Diavolo with Swift in the title role and Parepa as Zerlina. Harriet played the lively Lady Allcash in a team with comedian George Honey as her Lord. But that was her lot. The rest of the season was devoted to performances of Robin Hood and of the new The Amber Witch, with Helen Lemmens Sherrington starred and in neither of which was Harriet cast, before Smith’s English opera gave way to the annual Italian opera season.
In the meanwhile, Adelaide had also made a start in the British theatre, and if she had not made it in such glamorous and metropolitan circumstances as her elder sister, her’s was nevertheless a fine job for a young singer. ‘Miss Adela Alexander’ was cast as principal contralto with Madame Hermine Rudersdorff’s opera company, which had recently undergone a little reconstitution before its Christmas season at Cork. The company opened on St Stephen’s Night 1860, and thus the two sisters made their British stage debut on the selfsame night, on opposite sides of the Irish channel. Madame Rudersdorff carried a substantial repertoire ranging from Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata, The Barber of Seville, La Sonnambula, Martha, Lucrezia Borgia and Don Giovanni to such as Adam’s La Poupée de Nuremberg andThe Crown Diamonds. Madame also carried a tight little company. At Her Majesty’s Theatre, an artist might take part in just two or three operas a season: in this type of company there were no nights off. Adela fulfilled the contralto roles in each and every opera of the repertoire. She apparently got off to a slightly nervous start, but soon the trade press was noting ‘Miss Alexander has greatly improved now that she is accustomed to the size of the theatre’ and then ‘Miss Alexander acquitted herself most creditably in her varied and arduous parts’. The Rudersdorff company moved on from Ireland to England in the new year, playing at Leeds and Leicester and it ended its tour at Easter at Brighton, when its star headed back to London and the year’s Italian opera season.
So Harriet and Adelaide went home to 2 Torriani Grove, Camden Road Villas, to wait for their next opportunities. They don’t seem to have been too long a-coming, although, apart from a rare concert appearance together at a Benefit at St James’s Hall on 26 February 1862, I don’t spot either of them on the British scene again until November 1862.
But there is a reason. The girls had been down South American way, as part of an Italian opera company headed by Maria Palmieri (ex-Alfieri, ex-Croft), her husband Tito, Francesco Briani (recently of Smith’s Her Majesty’s Italian Opera, London) and Nicola Contadini. I spot Adela, in particular, culling laurels as the page in Ballo in maschera.
Back in Britain, at the end of the year, it was Enrichetta who was to the fore, back at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and this time in the Italian opera, when a handful of ‘extra performances’ were put on to coincide with the closing of the Great Exhibition. Titiens, Giuglini, Rudersdorff and other top-of-the-bill names took part, but there were some less familiar names further down the bills. One of them was Mdlle Alessandri cast in the part of Enrichetta in I Puritani.
And then, just a few weeks later, an announcement came forth, under the heading ‘Addison’s English and Italian Opera Company’. Mr Addison was sending out a tour (30 December 1862) with a company including Miss Enrichetta Alessandri prima donna from Her Majesty’s Theatre and the principal theatres of Italy, Spain and Rio de Janeiro, Miss Adele Alessandri prima contralto from the principal cities of Italy, Spain and Rio de Janeiro, Mr John Manley primo tenore from the English Opera, Drury Lane, Joseph Addison primo baritone from the principal theatres in Italy …
Quite where the ambitious Mr Addison, who had not been near the ‘principal theatre in Italy’ led his troupe and for how long, I know not, but it wasn’t for long, for, by Easter, he was back in his accustomed place, playing supporting roles in Henry Manley’s almost as small-scale touring troupe and the sisters were advertising, from Chatham Villa, Cantlowe’s Rd, Camden Square, for their next job.
Things would, however, soon get back to more respectable levels. Adele (as she finally became), the contralto, seems to have the been more eminently hireable, for during the course of the year she can be seen as contralto with Norman Kirby’s little Boudoir Opera Company, and then, more importantly, with Edmund Rosenthal’s company, touring alongside the appreciable soprano Annie Tonnellier, tenor Parkinson and Rosenthal himself as baritone. The Rosenthal company played not only opera, but also burlesque and, while not all the artists doubled, Adele was one who did. One moment she would be playing Donna Carmen in The Rose of Castille or Azucena in Il Trovatore, the Gipsy Queen in The Bohemian Girl or Lazarillo in Maritana, the next she would be the Princess Violet in the burlesque of Prince Amabel or Cupid in Endymion!It was a combination of styles which she obviously fulfilled entirely successfully, for Adele stayed with the Rosenthal company, touring the better provincial dates with his practised productions, until January of 1865, when Rosenthal suffered one of his intermittent cashflow crises and closed down.
For the later part of that time, she toured alongside her sister. For, Annie Tonnellier and Lizzie Haigh-Dyer having each done a stint as star soprano of the troupe, in mid-1864 Harriet took over and, although following in behind two of the most outstanding prime donne of the British operatic circuits, she proved well liked. ‘She sang the music faithfully and with great spirit’ noticed a Nottingham critic who also credited Adele with and as ‘an excellent contralto voice, a really charming actress and already a great favourite’. The sisters played opposite each other as Azucena and Leonora, Lazarillo and Maritana, Arline and the Gipsy Queen, Marguerite and Siebel, but Harriet didn’t take part in the burlesques.
When Rosenthal folded, Adele went off to join the equally substantial Loveday opera company (prima donna: Lizzie Haigh-Dyer), but in July 1865 the two sisters got back together again when Marian Taylor, Rosenthal’s sometime partner, mounted a season of opera and burlesque at the Pavilion Theatre, London. Parkinson, Rosenthal and Henry Lewens supported and the regular Rosenthal repertoire did duty.
Thereafter, Adele did rather the better of the two. She spent good periods singing as first contralto with the well-established Durand and Rosenthal companies, with Loveday and Summers’s (or Loveday without Summers’s) first-class road companies (‘a lively, globulated little lady, with a merry, elastic voice, and frequently meets with applause’) and only occasionally appeared with minor groups. She also dipped into the world of the Christmas pantomime, and appeared at the Middlesborough Theatre Royal (1870) as Maid Marian to the Robin Hood of Emily Cross. Harriet, on the other hand, although she did further stints with Rosenthal and with the Haighs, was more often to be seen out with combinations such as the William Offord/Susanna Cole group, the small-scale Pauline Grayston company, and one or two of those fit-up troupes whose name, composition and manager’s name seemed to change twice a maybe moneyless month.
They spent some further time, in 1872, touring together with Charles Durand, and Adele played a season at London’s Standard Theatre again with Durand (prima donna: Rose Hersee) in July of that year, before in January 1873 the two of them turned up together in the unlikely surroundings of the Theatre Royal, Bolton, on a ‘special engagement’ to liven up Mr J P Weston’s Little Jack Horner pantomime. Harriet was ‘King Arthur’, Adele was ‘Lillian’ and the critic reported ‘both ladies having made themselves favourites here with Rosenthal’s opera company ... they met again with a hearty reception’.
In 1874-5, Adele took up with Henry and Lizzie Haigh and worked with them and baritone Henry Rowland in a series of operatic recitals, and when the Haighs produced La Fille de Madame Angot she played Clairette to the Lange of ‘Madame Haigh-Dyer’. It seems rather odd to have a 45 year-old contralto singing the very youthful soubrette part of Clairette, but it does appear that, in spite of her Azucenas (and that role, in Victorian times, was often taken by a soprano) and so forth, that Adele was vocally more of a mezzo-soprano. And physically? H Wayne Ellis mentions her simply as ‘a pretty Jewess’. I suspect she was not large. Just a mezzo-soprano.
The following year, she delved further into opéra-bouffe when she joined the company which was supposed to make a star out of a delightful little soprano by name Rose Lee. Rose’s husband had her starring in the double title-role of Giroflé-Giroflà, and Adele? This time she played the decidedly low comedy contralto mother of the affair! Then, they did Geneviève de Brabant and Adele got the rather ungrateful part of Brigitte. But Edinburgh’s Era critic assured ‘that she displayed excellent vocal qualities and played with an amount of verve which carried the audience with her’.
In January 1877, I spot the two sisters giving a concert in Huddersfield’s Gymnasium Theatre as part of a concert party tour with a singer named Bernard Beresford and a pianist who billed herself as Mlle Demoreau Corri, but by February they are back in London, advertising their services together or separately for ‘opera, concerts, opéra-bouffe or leads in burlesque’.
But they didn’t apparently get much. At knocking fifty, they’d had their time in the sun. I spot Adele singing Maddalena in Rigoletto at the Crystal Palace as late as 1883, and that’s it. But by then the sisters’ advertisements, so prolific over the years, have dried up.
It was in 1883 that mother Hannah died, at the age of 86. The mother and four daughters had been living for some years in Lewisham, but with mother gone, the girls did not stay there. In 1887, they upped sticks and departed for retirement and Sandown, in the Isle of Wight. Adele was the first to pass on, in 1901 at the given age of 70. Harriet died in 1913. Her death notice in the Times recorded that she was ‘second daughter of Louis Alexander of the London Cattle Market’ and ‘aged 85’. It also recorded that she was ‘Enrichetta Alessandri, prima donna of Her Majesty’s Theatre’. Well, I guess that for that one week when Parepa was off, and she went on as Arline, she was.
|Caprera, Sandown ... is this the sisters' last home? The address is wrong ...|
In their Isle of Wight days, it was Enrichetta (who kept that name) who had the higher profile. At Adele’s death, the local papers reported merely that ‘the sister of Madame Alessandri’ had died, but when Enrichetta’s turn came, the same journal devoted a considerable obituary to her, and painted a rare pen portrait of the elderly singing teacher: ‘Although she had leaned heavily upon the somewhat curious combination of an umbrella and a stick, with which she assisted herself about the town, the march of the years had robbed her kindly, genial disposition of none of its brightness. She was the very embodiment of sunshine and good humour even until her last conscious moments..’
‘She was musical in her early days’, it went on, ‘and having family ties with Braham, was persuaded to continue her studies at Milan, She and her sister, the late Mme Adele Alessandri, who also had a most successful career in opera, were students in Milan during the siege relieved by Garibaldi, and helped to make lint for the wounded soldiers. So successful was she as a vocalist in Milan that she became prima donna in Italian opera and had engagements all over Eastern Europe, visiting all the towns of importance in Spain and Italy, and fulfilling engagements in Roumania and South America. As far back as 1860 she was engaged as ‘prima donna assoluta’ at Her Majesty’s Theatre …’
‘On retiring from the operatic stage, she took to teaching as a profession and some of her pupils have been eminently successful … and one of her pupils was Miss May Hayden…’
Family ties with Braham? Well, they say all Jewish folk are related, but … is there something I don’t know, here?
When I visited the Isle of Wight, I made a pilgrimage to Sandown cemetery in hope of finding a gravestone or two with a birthdate thereupon, but I drew a blank. Both sisters, so the local newspapers tell us, were cremated in Woking.
Enrichetta’s obit vouchsafed that she was ‘survived by her invalid sister’, without saying which one, however it seems to have been Julia, who, I see, died in the Isle of Wight, aged 87 in 1916. I don’t know about Eliza.
Brother Albert (b Whitechapel 1835; d Isle of Wight 28 November 1921), who was now ‘of Petherton, Sandown’ did, it seems, all right. I spot him in the 1881 census living in Islington with his wife, four sons, three daughters, a nephew and two servants and, now, no longer a butcher but a dairy farmer. In 1901, like his father, he is ‘cattle salesman’ and his sons are into beef and milk as well. The sons were Louis Albert, Frederick Charles, Henry James and Reuben Lawrence. But I liked the daughters best. It was almost a repeat of the ‘team’ of the previous generation. Annie Adele Alexander (Mrs Andrade, b Mile End 25 September 1871; d Bournemouth 26 November 1941), Julia Maud Alexander (b Mile End 22 June 1873; d Isle of Wight 15 January 1941) and Harriet Esther Alexander. (Mrs Skelton, b Islington 6 February 1881; d Sutton 8 November 1971). But I don’t think any of them became a prima donna.
The singing sisters of Smithfield Market were a hard act to follow.