I don't know quite why this lady didn't make it into my Victorian Vocalists. Or, having not done so, hasn't yet been enshrined on my blog. Her story is a fascinating one. Anyway, this morning good old e-bay threw up a rare photo of her and jogged my arm ...
BELL, Rose [BERDALLE DE LA POMMERAYE, Anna Céline] (b 16 rue de la Savonnerie, Rouen 23 November 1834; d Nice 10 April 1886)
Mlle Céline de la Pommeraye had a career in music and the theatre which took place in three parts, each of the three accompanied by a new name. And the third time she got it most decidedly right.
Mlle de la Pommeraye was born in Rouen, the daughter of a well-known couple of printers and lithographers, Pierre Adolphe Berdalle de la Pommeraye and his wife Anne Françoise Panthot de Longe (b Lyon 9 October 1801, m Paris 4 May 1824). She studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where after a third accesit in Opéra-Comique in 1853, she graduated with the first prize of the establishment in 1856, following a particularly successful final concours singing the role of Vaccai’s Roméo. ‘Une très belle personne douée d’une voix de mezzo-soprano très sympathetique’. She was promptly engaged for the Paris Opéra, and announced to debut in the well-established La Reine de Chypre of Halévy, in the role of Catarina Cornaro, created by Rosine Stoltz some 15 years earlier and, most recently, the property of Mme Tedesco. She followed behind the Parisian debuts of one Mlle Elmire, from the Brussels Theatre, another ‘mezzosoprano forte’ with a wide range, in the same role. Mlle Elmire was much liked. And thus Mlle de la Pommeraye, around whom their was some rustle of influence and newspaper jiggery-pokery, and who would have had to contend for newspaper space with the death and funeral of Adolphe Adam and of Fumagalli, plus an Imperial Decree about a revision of pensions for opera staff which took up all the front pages of the music press, waspostponed. She was postponed. Frankly, until the same time next year.
La France Musicale chronicled the ‘début longtemps attendu’ of the ‘ex-premier prix du Conservatoire’ ‘La jeune cantatrice a resolument abordé le role de Catharina dans La Reine de Chypre’, alongside the habitual Roger and Bonnehée. ‘La tentative n’est pas sans danger; hâtons-nous de dire qu’elle s’en est tirée avec bonheur et succès. Sa figure expressive et noble, sa taille élégante, son geste et sa démarche aristocratiques, lui onttout d’abord conciliée les suffrages du publique; sa voix et son bel accent dramatique on ensuite décelé, ou plutôt compléte la victoire .. ce début a été trop éclatante … Mlle La Pommeraye aura pour premier résultat de delivrer l’Opéra du règne des dictatures’.
Ah ha. A little politics. Perhaps because this was a Rosine Stoltz role? And the dictatrice par excellence, now performing the same role at Montpelier, had not so long ago had another attempt at the Opéra. But politics reigned in the Paris music press as well, and Mlle de la Pommeraye’s notices were – as in Le Figaro– elsewhere damning. La France Musicale had a second hurrah the following week, assuring the public that Céline ‘n’est pas restée au dessous d’aucune de ses dévancières’! She was being put on a par with Stoltz and Tedesco. Mlle Elmire seemed forgotten. ‘On ne pouvait certes espérer un plus heureux resultat’. Simple and natural as an actress, real and passionate as a singer… destined to hold a high rank amongst our singers…’
The new singer gave a second La Reine de Chypre ... and then Mme Borghi-Mamo arrived in Paris, and there were other new artists to bring forward… and I spot her only being rather oddly hastened on one occasion to deputise for Borgi-Mamo, alongside Mme Lafon and Sapin, as a mezzo-soprano Azucena (‘Elle y a deployé d’excellente intentions dramatiques et le public ne lui a pas épargné ses encouragements’).
Mlle de la Pommeraye remained on the books at the Opéra for half a dozen years, but she doesn’t seem to have appeared on the stage there a great deal. I spot her taking over as Edwige in Guillaume Tell at one stage, performing the Eugène Gautier cantata Quinze Aout (August 1861) with Morère, and when Gounod’s La Reine de Saba was put into rehearsal, it was she, by particular request of the composer, who was cast in the mezzo role of Sarahil. But by the time the piece got to the stage (and flopped) Mlle Tenby had taken on that part.
The music press noted in 1858, ‘Mlle de la Pommeraye, qui a refusé tout récemment, pour ne point quitter l’Opéra, où elle finira bien par avoir la place qu’elle mérite, un magnifique engagement dans un des principaux theatres du département, fait à des rares intervalles, des apparitions dans Guillaume Tell. Le role d’Edwige, voilà son lot; il n’est pas brillant, mais la jeune artiste sait en tirer un assez bon parti pour se faire remarquer. Il serait temps de l’introduire plus largement dans le repertoire. Mlle de la Pommeraye a tout ce qu’il faut pour réussir; il ne lui a manqué jusqu’a ce jour que des encouragements de l’administration et de plus fréquentes occasions de se produire devant la publique..’
She didn’t get them. A few days later she was given an Azucena to sing, but then, it was business as usual. During her period under contract to the Opéra, she did however eventually play on the stage out of town (I note her at the Théâtre des Arts at Rouen in April/May 1859, taking over as Azucena and giving a ‘très moyen’ Leonore in La Favorita), as well as in the Paris concerts, often to fine reviews. When she appeared at Notre Dame des Arts, singing Alary’s Oratorio with Tamberlik she was dubbed ‘remarquable’ ‘il est impossible de mettre plus d’âme et de deployer une plus touchante voix’.
Finally, Mlle de la Pommeraye gave up on the Opéra. She became a soprano, she became Mlle Celina Pomerani, and she moved across to the Théâtre des Italiens where she was cast as Desdemona to the Othello of Tamberlik. Once again, her debut seems to have gone off fine, but once again she doesn’t seem to have been used during the one season she spent at the Italiens. Yet, later, on it would be called ‘a success’, and after she had left at least one concert reviewer sighed over one of her actressy performances in concert ‘she should be at the Italiens’. Well, she had been: but the girl who seemingly had everything, majestic height, striking looks, undoubted acting ability and a voice that had won her a premier prix and employment at Paris’s two principal opera houses, couldn’t make it. What was wrong?
Mlle Pomerani went into the bin after the Italiens engagement, and Mlle de la Pommeraye emerged again for mezzo-soprano engagements in provincial opera houses. And again the puzzle emerged. She gave her Leonore in La Favorita – an ideal role, it would seem – and was judged ‘faible’, a few weeks later she sang the role at Amiens and was lauded for both her singing and her acting. At Troyes, when she sang with the local Philharmonic Society, the local critic was amazed. Her talent, he professed, ‘was completely transformed’ as he registered ‘a double success as French and Italian vocalist’.
Back in Paris, she gave a concert of her own at the Salle Herz, including Jules D’Aoust’s opérette L’Amour voleur (April 1866) in which, once more, her acting was especially praised, and, on the other hand, sang in a Pasdeloup production of Beethoven’s Messe Solenelle at Saint-Eustache (22 November 1866) where her talent in sacred music was once again noted. At a Polish concert at Salle Herz, she sang in Polish and also gave a song of her own composition.
Mlle de la Pommeraye was making her way. If sometimes it seemed that way was downwards, after a decade of work she was still at it. But not for long: Mlle de la Pommeraye was about to follow Mlle Pomerani into extinction.
In April 1867, Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse was produced in Paris and became the most extraordinary success that the French musical stage had witnessed in years. Provincial theatres hastened to mount their own productions of the show, too often with prime donne vocally unsuitable and, more importantly, lacking the burlesque spirit and acting ability so necessary to properly perform the role.
But the advent of opéra-bouffe as the entertainment of the moment here, as elsewhere, suddenly hurtled to the forefront new stars with the right combination of singing and acting ability, and a certain sex appeal, that the genre required. And, in France, one of the most outstanding of these (some averred the single outstanding one) was a certain Mlle Rose Bell.
Céline de la Pommeraye metamorphosed into Rose Bell some time during 1867. She’s still La Pommeraye when she sings at Ems in July. I think, unless I’ve missed something, that her first appearance in her new guise may have been at Amiens towards the end of the year. Mlle de la Pommeraye had sung in Amiens before and the local press were not slow to recognise in Mlle Rose Bell a singer whom they already knew (‘une belle jeune femme que nous avions déjà eu le plaisir d’applaudir dans un concert d’une de nos sociétés musicales...), they were also overwhelmed by her in her new metamorphosis.
L’Orchestre reported of a ‘cantatrice distinguée que l’on a entendu a l’Opéra et qui est de plus une comédienne intelligente’: then ‘[elle] vient de jouer à Amiens La Grande-Duchesse avec un succès éclatante. M Carrier dans le rôle de Fritz a partagé avec elle les applaudissements..’
The success was soon to be confirmed in the most brilliant manner. ‘Rose’ continued on to Liège, where she teamed up for 21 nights (4 December 1867-13 January 1868) with José Dupuis, the original Parisian creator of the soldier Fritz and the Paris of La Belle Hélène, and a native of that city. The local press was obviously occupied in welcoming home their triumphant star, but they saved some lines for his leading lady: ‘Mlle Rose Bell jouait à ses côtés, et nous aimons à constater qu’elle a détaillée le rôle de la Belle Helene avec une grande souplesse. Cette dame chante bien, possède une jolie voix, et ce qui ne gâte jamais rien, est une jeune et belle femme’, before warming up and crediting her ‘une comedienne consommé, voix agréable, élégance dans tous ses mouvements, richesse de costumes, naturel du jeu, tout le monde est d’accord pour lui reconnaître un talent inimitable et au dessus de tout éloge’ ‘une duchesse délicieuse. Elle chante, joue et débite son role avec une crânerie toute charmante. Il nous semble difficile pour ne pas dire impossible de mieux dire, mieux faire et mieux chanter. Mlle Rose Bell est simplement parfaite dans La Grande-Duchesse. La succès enthousiaste qui lui a été reservée en est la preuve la plus irecusable’. The journals even permitted themselves a little humour when the new star of opéra-bouffe did a half-turn and played the title-role in Mignon, alongside Cabel and Mlle Lagye. ‘Mignonne’ they grinned was scarcely a well-named role for such a tall lady.
|Rose with Petit in ... what? The Phantom of the Opéra?|
If Mlle de la Pommeraye had struggled for recognition and fame, Mlle Rose-Bell had her arms full in just a few performances, and that would be the way it would stay. Third time lucky, Mlle Bell succeeded where Mlle de la Pommeraye and Mlle Pomerani had not.
It is said that she sang at several other Belgian theatres, but I next pick her up at Marseilles, where the press got rather snotty about opéra-bouffe such as La Grande-Duchesse and Geneviève de Brabant being played instead of Meyerbeer or Halévy and judged the performances a failure, and then to the Théâtre Français, Bordeaux. Bordeaux was Liège all over again. Teamed once again with Jules Carrier, Rose Bell caused a sensation. ‘A phenomenal success’ trumpeted the local press, as journalists penned poetry to her and the theatre overflowed in a manner that the nights of Mlle Nantier in Samson et Dalila could not even approach.
Rose Bell and Carrier stayed in Bordeaux from 23 April until August, adding Barbe-Bleue, La Belle Hélène and Fleur de thé to their lists before the departure of one whom a poetic newspaperman had christened ‘la prima donna galbeuse’ and her leading man. They were departing, however, because they were other where engaged. They were headed to New York as the stars of Mr Jacob Grau’s troupe, which aimed to jump on the bandwagon of the first triumphant American performances of opéra-bouffe.
Grau’s company opened at the New York Théâtre Français on 5 October 1868, with Rose Bell (prematurely announced as Mlle Rosa-Belli) sharing the limelight with the young and rising Marie Desclauzas – destined to be one of the greatest stars of opéra-bouffe and -comique in France – and with Carrier. La Grande-Duchesse was given first and The Clipper was decidedly impressed: ‘a fine, stately lady and rather prepossessing. She made a decidedly favourable impression and all her songs were encored. She sang the sabre song with great skill was encored three times and it was repeated in the same exquisite style. Rose Bell has a splendid voice - now high and thrilling and anon low and voluptuous...’ Indeed, if Lucille Tostée had got there first, and the piece had stunned America with its display of the can-can, Rose Bell was as if in another class to her predecessor as a performer. Two weeks, however, was all La Grande-Duchesse was kept on – New York had, after all, seen it before, after which Genevieve de Brabant was substituted and this time the company – much intrinsically superior overall to its Bateman management predecessor – triumphed. Genevieve was a huge hit. There was just time left to stage Fleur de thé before the season ended 14 April, and the company (which had already done the traditional flying visit to Brooklyn) set off to the Academy of Music, Philadelphia (‘she is tall, handsome and possesses a clear, sweet, highly-cultivated voice, acting with a great deal of spirit and animation…’), to the Mozart Hall, Cincinnati and to Crosby’s Opera House, Chicago. Rose had had a bit of time off for illness, so they didn’t get Chilpéric on, and she and Desclauzas took turns at playing the Duchess. But they added La Vie Parisienne and L’Oeil crevé to their repertoire, as they headed back to New York for a long week (29 May-7 June), before the company returned to France, wreathed in laurels. Rose actually stayed on a little while and appeared in concert at the Steinway Hall, but when she did leave she and Desclauzas left behind a memory of genuine French opéra-bouffe performed in the classiest fashion possible. None of the small throng of bouffers who followed – not even Irma, nor Aimée, nor Paola Marié nor Coralie Geoffroy – would ever outdo Grau’s twin prima donnas and their performances in America’s French opéra-bouffe theatre, ‘Rose Bell’ would go down as a phenomenon in American musical theatre history.
Meanwhile, back in France, a promising young singer from the Opéra-Comique tried her hand at La Grande-Duchesse in the provinces. ‘She will be pushed to efface the memory of Rose Bell’, pondered the local press. Marie Roze (at that stage simple ‘Marie Rose’) would find other areas of the operatic world for her successes.
Rose Bell arrived back in France in October 1869, and immediately took up an engagement at Boulogne-sur-mer, playing Barbe-bleue, La Belle Hélène, La Grande-Duchesse. The reaction was stunning. If, as the press at first judged, she was a little more poised and elegant than Hortense Schneider, not quite so near-the-knuckle, and thus perhaps not quite so bouffe as the roles’ famous creator, they soon came round to superlatives, and not just for her ‘voix profonde, bien timbrée d’expressive’, and the public were there ahead of them. The line outside stretched down the street an hour before the box office opened, and ‘hundred were turned away’ quite literally. Rose was acclaimed ‘La Ristori de l’opérette’ and her combination with Vallée (Fritz) and Leers (Boum) in La Grande-Duchesse had Boulogne proclaiming that the show simply could not have been better done, in Paris, London, Berlin, Brussels or Vienna. And they may have been right.
In December, Rose Bell moved on to Anvers, in Metz she made the receipts rebound to unheard-of heights in a production in which her waiting ladies in La Grande-Duchesse were played by the rising Mary Albert and Anna-Céline van Ghell, and Les Bavards was on the programme. From Anvers, on to a ‘grand succès’ in Gand ... later in Nice in Fleur de Thé, in Chambéry, in Bordeaux and with the troupe of Monsieur Goby at Arcachon. I see her playing Le Petit Faust at Le Havre, La Belle Hélène at Avignon to a highbrow critic who found even Rigoletto unworthy of his opera house’s attention, and as Gabrielle in Les Cent Vierges at Marseilles. Rose Bell was the provincial prima donne par excellence of opéra-bouffe. But nobody brought her to town, it seems, until…
Rose Bell did finally return to the metropolis, for a long stay and perhaps the most glorious years of her stage career. But that metropolis was not Paris, but London.
Man-of-all-theatrical fingers in the pie, Edward P Hingston, had set up the Opera Comique, London, as a house for opéra-bouffe productions, and had done reasonably well with his production of L’Oeil crevé with Julia Mathews and Pattie Laverne as his leading ladies. Come Christmas, however, Miss Mathews departed north for her lucrative pantomime engagement, and Hingston was obliged to recast the role of Fleur-de-Noblesse. He decided to bring Mlle Rose Bell across from France. And on 14 December 1872, Mlle Rose Bell opened in London, to a decidedly appreciative press and public. ‘She has a good voice, executes with spirit and brilliancy, and in personal appearance is most attractive’ nodded The Times.
Unfortunately, Hingston’s next productions – Offenbach’s The Bohemians (Le Roman Comique) in which Rose was cast in pants as Enguerrand des Moranges, and Jonas’s Le Canard à trois becs in which she again took most effectively to trousers as Spaniello (‘she still finds our language a little troublesome’), did not come up to the first show in popularity, and unfortunately Mlle Rose-Bell was paired with a co-star in Miss Laverne with whom she evidently cohabited less happily than she had done with Desclauzas. When Miss Laverne was cast in a topical version of Offenbach’s ‘Ile de Tulipatan (Kissi-Kissi) as an afterpiece, and the afterpiece became the attraction of the evening, Mlle Bell moved on.
She moved on to the Alhambra, where large-scale productions of spectacular opéra-bouffe and opéra-comique were currently the diet, as leading lady. That is to say, as a leading lady. For if cohabitation with Miss Laverne had proven complicated, cohabitation with her Alhambra ‘principal girl’, Kate Santley, would lead to riots and the lawcourts.
Rose’s first production at the Alhambra was La Belle Hélène (16 August 1873), but she did not play Helen. The British public had shown a decided preference for the tall, leggy Miss Bell in tights, so whilst the flirtatious, overtly sexy Miss Santley took on the role which Rose had played so successfully in America and France, Rose was cast as Paris. The piece was a fine success, the two ladies were most successful in it, and it ran until it was time to produce the Christmas special. This was a pasticcio version of Don Juan, and Rose was cast again in tights in the show’s title-role. If possible, she was even more successful in this one. She made a great success of a song pilfered from Le Pont des soupirs and again in a number ‘Sparkling Wine’ written for her by the theatre’s conductor Georges Jacobi. Kate Santley was Haidée, here the principal of his abandoned ladies, equipped with a pretty song by Freddie Clay. Don Juan proved popular and successful, but during its run things came to a peak between if,not necessarily the two prime donne, then their supporters. For each of the ladies had attracted a team who rendered nothing to 21st century football ‘fans’. They crowded the theatre to cheer their favourite and to hiss the other lady, and finally the whole thing ended up with a lawsuit for ‘conspiracy’ against the Bell faction. Most of them had already fled. But Kate took two months off all the same.
On 15 April 1876, she returned to her old place at the Alhambra to play Prince Caprice in a revival of Le Voyage dans la lune, but by June she was advertising that, come October, she would be finished at the vast theatre in Leicester Square.
Her next engagement was a couple of steps further from the Paris Opéra: she appeared as Mujd Pasha, the robber chief, in Open Sesame (a version of the Ali Baba tale) at the suburban Standard Theatre for Christmas, and on 13 March 1877 ‘Mlle Rose Bell, the Alhambra Queen’ made her debut on the British music-hall stage, in an act in which she (and her costume) deftly mixed masculine and feminine elements. She found music-hall engagements plentiful, and began by playing 9pm at the Sun, 9.45 at the Canterbury and 10.45 at the London Pavilion, before at Whitsun switching to the Royal, Holborn, where she sang selections from Le Voyage dans la lune, and Le Pont des soupirs, followed by a season in Manchester.
In November 1877, she returned to the stage, in a second-rate touring light-opera company playing the page in John of Paris, Fra Diavolo and Lange alongside Miss M L Vincent, Henry Hallam, Francis Gaynar and Juliette Piemonte in productions which really had a scent of end-of-career to them. She took over from Pattie Laverne in the unsuccessful Richard South tour of the British opéra-comique Pom, returned once more to pantomime as principal boy in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Park Theatre (‘It’s nice’ and ‘The nightingale’ ‘encored five times nightly’). The Park Theatre then gave Pom a bit of a try, and Rose Bell repeated the role of Trainette.
In 1880 (20 December) the Alhambra produced a revised edition of Le Petit Faust under the title Mefistofele and the nearly fifty year-old Rose was cast as Siebel. It was her swansong, so it was fitting that it should be at the Alhambra.
Twenty-three years on from La Reine du Chypre at the Paris Opera, and after a dozen years as ‘Rose Bell’, Céline de la Pommeraye announced her retirement. She was, it was written, going to devote herself to her two children.
I have never been sure to whom (and if) ‘Mlle Bell’ was married. T Allston Brown in his splendid, and sidelight filled, work on the New York stage says that she was, during her time in New York the wife of Monsieur Gambogi, the chorus master of the Grau company. And, indeed, they travelled across to New York on the St Laurent, 23 September 1868, as – damn them – Monsieur Gambogi Bell and Rosa Bell. Yet she continued to appear and to be written about as Mademoiselle. Now, it appeared, she had another husband. And, from somewhere, children. Could perhaps the Hippolyte Gambogi who died in Wandsworth in 1879 be the first one … was he one of the Paris music publishing family, Gambogi (Edouard-Hippolyte and Charles-Jean) frères.. or is he the Hippolyte Gambogi ‘younger brother of Peppe’, ‘sometime of Nantes’, whom I spot in 1855 giving singing lessons in Paris and composing songs, one of which has just been sung by Wartel, another by Bonnehée, Gardoni, Miolan-Carvalho .? I think I’m warm.
However, once she leaves the Alhambra in 1881, I lose track of Rose Bell by any other name. I cannot find her in the census of 1881, when she was still playing in Leicester Square, and I cannot find mention of her in the French press thereafter until in April 1886 the papers pick up the fact of her death, in Nice.
I can’t even get her death certificate (as I did her birth one), because I don’t know what her name was by 1886. I suppose there’s always a chance that it could have still been de la Pommeraye.
The Berdalle de la Pommeraye family produced another celebrated scion, Céline’s brother, [Pierre] Henri [Victor] Berdalle de la Pommeraye (1839-1891) who became well-known in Paris as a journalist and conferencier. In the early days of the Franco-Prussian war, he can be seen (‘Secretaire de la Société des Gens de Lettres de Paris, Officier au 115 Battaillon de Guerre’) lecturing at the Hanover Square Rooms on The Siege of Paris.
His son, Pierre, left his mark on the artistic world when he served as the model to Renoir for the painting ‘Child with Punch doll’.
The New York Times obituary of Rose also confided that she was ‘a relative’ of the murderous Dr Edmond Desiré Couty de la Pommeraye or De Pommerais, a homeopathic doctor who was guillotined in 1864 for the murder by digitalin of his mistress. I think there is a bit of a leap of the imagination there.