Friday, April 16, 2021

'Signora Savelli': a very large soprano mystery

You can only try for so long. And I’ve tried to winkle out the ultimately rather sad story behind ‘Signorina Elisa Savelli’ for many, many years. As you can see – no dates, no name – I haven’t wholly succeeded.

‘Elisa Savelli’ turns up for me, for the first time, in Milan in June 1868, as Lisetta Savelli, ‘singing in private circles’, and next in Voghera playing in Le Domino Noir of Lauro Rossi, ‘the star of the evening being a young English prima donna, La Signora Savelli, who admirably played the difficult part of Estella. The audience were most enthusiastic in their applause, and repeatedly called the young lady before the curtain. It is thought that a brilliant career is likely to await this young artiste…’

The Italian press reported ‘Gli amici e ammiratori inglese seguono Elisa Savelli nei vari teatri italiani con intenso interesse. Non accade troppo spesso che una donna inglese giunga a far sentire la sua voce e a farsi applaudire dal pubblico italiano. Come già sapete, il di lei nome inglese è Sewell’.

The English press: ‘Eliza Savelli has caused quite a furore at the Theatre Rossini at Lugo, Italy. The young lady, who possesses a beautiful and sympathetic soprano, is engaged for the autumn to appear in three new operas, as prima donna, at the theatre of Ferrara…’ I see her at Ferrara in Ferrari’s Il Menestrello and Don Pasquale with Ernesto Leva, the at Rimini and at Modena (Il Birraio di Preston, Le Educande di Sorrento) and at Chios playing with ‘beau succès’ in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Back home, they reported that she had played La Traviata and Martha in Milan, but I haven’t found that. And the papers, in both countries, kept repeating that she was an Englishwoman and her real name was Sewell.

So maybe it was. But the British papers seemed to make the repetition in such a way as to make it sound as if she were, even if only a little, known back home. Not to me. I have searched and searched, and the only musical Sewells I have found round the time were a Dr John Sewell of Rotherham, Yorks Mus Doc and his four daughters. And in the 1871 census they all seem to be at home or married. Result: I have no inkling who ‘Mdlle Savelli’ was.

But Britain was soon to hear her. ‘Signorina Elisa Savelli, prima donna assoluta soprano has returned to London after a brilliant and successful career of four years in Italy, singing in Milan and other principal cities … engaged from Milan to represent the Principal Part in the Opera Le Roi Carotte … apply, Mr Carte’. Well, she had been engaged as principal girl in the Alhambra’s spectacular opéra-bouffe alongside Cornélie d’Anka, so ‘the Principal Part’ might have been a slight exaggeration, but she was agreed to be ‘a capital representative’ of Rosée du soir’ ‘who was literally overwhelmed with bouquets for a charming and plaintive air’. In fact, when the very-vivacious Kate Santley came in to replace d’Anka, the press commented ‘It may be possible to match, but it were scarcely possible to outshine the popularity that Madlle Elisa Savelli has acquired …’ But Kate would have managed. Elisa had a crack though. When Annetta Scasi was off, in the principal boy role of Robin Wildfire, she went on ‘and created what we may truthfully call a furore’.

‘She is specially engaged for the part of the Princess in The Black Crook …’. And she was.

The Black Crook, which had nothing in common with the pasticcio American melodrama of the same name, was simply a remake of the famous French féerie La Biche au Bois, done in the Alhambra’s own oversized and decorated style. Mdlle d’Anka was back to play the fairy of the title, Julia Seaman was the black villainess, Kate Santley had the scene-stealing soubrette part, and Elisa didn’t come out of it so well this time: ‘Madlle Savelli who plays the imprisoned Princess has a good voice, almost ruined as to method by a persistent use of the wretched vibrato. To such an extent does she carry this abuse of her natural gifts that scarcely on note is given with any pretension to steadiness’. ‘This lady is unfortunately one of those who, failing in most of the very first requisites of her art, is clearly profoundly convinced that she has little or nothing to learn…’. She stayed but a little time, and Mdlle d’Anka took over her role.

Elisa returned to Italy, and I spot her appearing in Le Domino noir in the lesser Teatro Gerbino in Turin, but when she returned to Britain in 1874, and lined up for the Manchester Prince’s Theatre proms, under Rivière, she was now billed as ‘prima donna La Scala Milan and the Italian Opera, Paris’. She apparently sang there on 14 April (‘Parlate d’amore’, ‘Merce, dilette amiche’), and the local critic noted ‘Mdlle Savelli is a bravura singer, with a very fair voice but somewhat hard in style’.

But Carte was doing his job, and a fortnight later she opened (now ‘from San Carlo, Naples and Les Italiens’) at the St James’s Theatre, London in what was announced as a version (cruelly treated’) of Offenbach’s Vert-Vert. It was an amateurish affair, provoking ‘jeers and laughter’ and ‘the curtain fell to a miserable fiasco’. ‘Miss Savelli, a really talented young singer, was the sole redeeming feature of the entertainment, if such it could be styled’; ‘when her songs are in the range of her voice she sings them very pleasantly, but…’. But, as it turned out, she wasn’t the redeeming feature. Vert-Vert, instead of closing down, had a sort of a run, when word got round that it included a dirty dance. Soon the press was able to report ‘Mdlle Savelli is nightly encored in ‘The Love Waltz’ as the piece was shrunk of remaining plot a dialogue to a virtual music-hall evening.

When its time in London was done, Elisa and the Riperelle dance routine headed for Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham. And also to court. Producer Fairlie sued journalist Henry Pottinger Stephens for writing that his show was the most incompetent and indecent of the time. Madame (?) Savelli’s name came up several times and even Carte – her agent – didn’t really say that more than that she had been the best of a bad lot.

I don’t know where Elisa went next. Back to Italy, I guess. Or … is it she singing Donna Elvira (‘debut’) at the Salle Ventadour with Therese Singer and Emma Albani in March 1877. I don’t catch up with her until mid-1877, by which time she is leading (‘prima donna drammatica assoluta’) a Compaña Lirica Italiana, with Adriana Kortene (contralto), to Caracas. What they did there, and for how long, and where Elisa went next goodness only knows.

But in 1885, ‘Miss Saville’ (what!?) arrives back in Britain. She advertises as ‘prima donna soprano drammatica’ and ‘a member of the Italian opera company’ (which one?) and she is in tandem with a bass going by the name of Signor Enrico Brennelli. The Signor was the son of a [deceased] dentist, Daniel James Moodie, and his [deceased] wife Elizabeth Cecilia née Moodie ‘daughter of Afleck Moodie, late Deputy Comissary General, Van Dieman’s Land’ and he was by birth-name William James Afleck Brenneis (b 23 Henrietta Street, London 30 September 1855). Uppingham educated, he had decided to go in for music. He had evidently done time in Australia, America and Italy (I see him at Rovigo in 1882), and in 1883 he was in Ireland singing Sparafucile and Bide-the-bent in an underpowered opera company. Then in the odd London concert.

The two appeared together in concert at Brighton and Clifton (‘Convien partir’, ‘Stella Confidente’) 17 September 1885, and I next spy them on 27 February 1886 opening in the Italian opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Elisa sang Leonora on the first night: 'Those present last night when the '’house of amber curtains' reopened its door with a performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore would scarcely have felt inclined to declare that Italian opera was a thing of the past unless some bright, particular star condescended to brighten it with her presence, for a large and friendly audience had gathered together to hear this old and hackneyed work, who certainly were not attracted by any particular bright star, seeing there was nothing of the sort upon the premises. ... The heroine was, vocally speaking, well rendered by a Madame Elisa Savelli, who, if we are not mistaken, some fifteen years or so since was known as a Miss Sewell. Time has, however, not improved her personal appearance, as she is now considerably too broad for her length, and, in the bridal dress of which satin, bore a curious resemblance to Miss Minnie Warren, the wife of General Tom Thumb. Being accommodated with a tall, stern lady as a maid of honour (Mdlle Corona) made this lack of symmetry all the more apparent. ...', ‘In Saturday's representation Madame Savelli was cast for Leonora, and Signor Fernando for her ill-fated troubadour lover; ... In her performance as Leonora Madame Savelli displayed considerable vocal and dramatic power in the declamatory portions of her music, with an occasional tendency to exaggerated effort and a strained use of her upper notes. She was favourably received throughout, especially in the great scenes with Manrico and the Count. ...'

'Her Majesty's Theatre was re-opened last night for a season of Italian opera at cheap prices. ... The Leonora was, curiously enough, taken from the Alhambra, where she sang some years ago as Mdlle. Savelli, the foreign equivalent of her own English name of Miss Sewell. Although still in fairly good voice the lady has now attained well night the physical proportions of a Titiens and Parepa combined, and her appearance in bridal costume was irresistably comical. ...'

‘Without ranking ourselves with those unimaginative individuals who cannot overlook certain personal disqualifications for a role when its rendering is illuminated by genius, we must say that we had to ''make believe very much'' indeed to accept a portly, matronly lady of Madame Savelli's physique as an ideal Leonora. There is something cruel, to our thinking, in calling upon a person of Madame Savelli's liberal proportions and limited dramatic and vocal acquirements, to face a London audience in such a part. No one felt more keenly than ourselves the failure of the singer to reach the higher notes of her role, and to embody the emotional characteristics of the heroine; and no one sympathised more with the lady in her difficulty in assuming kneeling and falling attitudes. The fault, we felt, was not so much hers as that of those who permitted her to appear in a wrong position - literally and metaphorically...’

The message was clear, and it was most succinctly put by the scribe who wrote ‘[she has] a waist to drive about which would be almost a shilling cab fare’.

Monsieur Carillon’s opera ‘season’ folded pronto.

Later in the year, the pair can be seen giving operatic arias at the Trocadero Music Hall, but then Elisa disappears. I assume she isn’t the Mrs (widow) Elizabeth Goult whom ‘Enrico’ married in 1889. Oh! Divorce Court records. 1888. Mrs Brenneis the previous (Isabel Mary Parsoné) sues for divorce stating ‘since the month of September 1884 [her husband] had lived and cohabited with a woman named or passing by the name of Madame Elisa Savelli or Madame Brennelli and that he has habitually committed adultery with her at divers places..’. One of those places was apparently an Italian restaurant. Maybe she was Mrs Elizabeth Goult!

Could she, I wondered, be the Sgra Savelli singing Nedda in I Pagliacci at the San Carlo, Naples in January 1893? And Mimi in La Bohème in Trieste in April 1897 and Genoa in November … and 1898 in Lisbon as … what Mme Stuarda-Savelli? Mlle Savelli as Charlotte in Werther at the Costanzi in Rome in 1900 … impossible. Ah! Signorina Giuseppina Savelli prima donna mezzo-soprano… I was not fond of the idea of a shilling-cab-ride sized Mimi!

As for Enrico, he appeared in the press and the courts regularly. Three English divorces (and troubles of the kind in Italy, too) in five or six years, two bankruptcies in three years, all sorts of bludging charges, under both his names plus those of Duca de Brianza and Baron Gioconda which he assumed, and finally, in 1904, Count Enrico Brennelli was sent to jail for eight months for gaining money by false pretences. I see he was also hauled up before the beak in 1897 for deserting the wife, Emma née Richmond, whom he wed in 1891… if Elisa had been Elizabeth, that marriage hadn't lasted long!

'Enrico' was still alive in the 1911 census .. widower …  but thereafter I lose him. And 'Elisa' ... well, maybe one day I'll know ... 

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER: Bryan Kesselman has come up with two great bits of evidence.  

"Mlle Savelli' singing at the Haymarket in 1867 with Lucy Fosbroke ...

and 'Miss Sewell' in Cambridgeshire in 1866 ...

Here goes today!  A problem shared can often be a problem solved .. 26 September 1866 'Miss Sewell of Cambridge' singing 'Let the Bright Seraphim' at Over, and I'll bet it's she singing 'Beautiful Moon' at the St Giles and St Peter's Penny Readings, and later 'The Nightingale's Trill' and 'The Minute Gun at Sea'. January 1867 at the Workmen's Hall, Barnwell ('The Meeting of theWaters', 'Home Sweet Home' and at the Trinity Parish Schoolroom, then giving the Messiah airs 'with a sweetness that elicited repeated applause' at the Albert Institute .. and here we are! Miss Sewell is a pupil of Mr Henry James Brown and daughter of the overseer of the machine department ...'. She's still appearing in local concerts in February 1868 ... and what? In December? But she's in Italy. Worrisome.

So off to Cambridge, 1861 ... but disappointment!  Very few Sewells. James a boot and shoemaker with daughters Margarett (b 1840) and Emily Jane (b 1839), a servant girl from Haddenham, an 80 year-old. A widowed compositor from Lowestoft ...  There's Mr Brown 'organist' with wife and six children ... Oh! Hang on! Compositor? The Pitt Press .... Joseph Lawrence Sewell ... 1861 living with widowed sister-in-law Susan Grear and niece Matilda Grear aged 23, draper's assistant, remarried 1861 tailor's widow Jane Tuffill, stepdaughter Amelia Elizabeth Tuffill (b 1853) ... he died in 1872 ...  oh dear ...

Well, I guess Amelia Elizabeth Tuffill is our leading contender ... but no, she died in 1935, a spinster .. a longtime ironmongers cashier ... What about her sisters Priscilla Jane (b 1847) and Julia Hannah (b 1849) ... Priscilla died 1868. Julia married a local lad ...
Oh dear... I'm getting nervous ...
Just when I thought I was getting there .... a yellow brick wall ... 

And I was right to be nervous. Right to worry about that last December concert .... Miss Sewell from Cambridge has turned out, after more sterling digging by Bryan, to be a red herring.

Today, he discovered that a family historian has posted this item on an Australian tree .. '[her mother] pursued a dazzling career as an opera singer under the stage name of 'Lisetta Savelli' ..'  Well, 'dazzling' is a bit overstated ...

Miss Elizabeth Sewell, daughter of Henry Thomas Sewell, born about 1847 ...  married at about 18 to a tutor from Hove, by name William Nettlingham. Daughters Lillian (?) and Florence Mary (1867). At the time, she is 'of Pimlico', but I can't find her there. Nor can I find father anywhere, unless he is the HTS who was a Lt Engineer in the Indian Army who died in Lahore in 1856.  Or the upholsterer from Worcester? On her very scrappy marriage certificate, Elizabeth has left the 'father's occupation' box pointedly black.
Well, 'Elisa' swanned off to Italy in 1868, and I see, in the 1871 census, the children are farmed out with the bootmaking in-laws. Tiens! and there are three. Charlotte born Ascot (6), Elizabeth born Brighton (4) and Florence Mary born Reigate (2). The marriage fizzled out, there was apparently a divorce, William scooted off to Australia and found consolation with Emily Anne Matthews, apparently ran pubs in Grafton, Maitland et al and died at Wee Waa in 1903 (19 March)...
Florence took the Downunder trail at some stage, and when she married Mr Benjamin Harvey Payne of Brisbane in 1885 she was described as 'only daughter of Mr William Nettlingham, late of Tiaro'. Yes? I think so. Mr Nettlingham headmaster of the school 1880-1884 ...  but who, then, is Florence Emily Mat[t]ews daughter of William Nettlingham of Grafton who became Mrs Studdert?  Honestly, this family!

And Madame Savelli ... ? Well, at that time she was getting ready to return to the British stage and her 'cab-ride' review. The family historian says that after 1875 she 'stayed in Europe with her elder daughter'. So be it. They don't seem to turn up in Britain after the Italian opera and Brennelli fiasci ...

Well, maybe we'll find the answer in another decade or so.

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