Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Macclesfield Diva: Fanny Ayton.


My version of the tale of Fanny Ayton ...

AYTON, Fanny [AYTON, Frances] (b Macclesfield 27 December 1803; d 12 Park Street, Dover 21 May 1891)

Fanny Ayton wasn’t precisely a Victorian vocalist. She could have been. She should have been. But she didn’t make it. By the time Victoria came to the throne, Fanny had thrown it in. Thrown in a career which, at one early stage, had been prophesied as likely to be something quite startling.

Frances Ayton was born, or at least christened, in Macclesfield, Cheshire. She was never quite honest about the date, and Messrs Brown and Stratton’s erratic 19th-century work on British Musical Biography insists that it was in the year 1806. For yes, in a work which isn’t focused on vocalists and which, thus, leaves out from its pages the majority of the Victorian age’s best singers, Fanny Ayton actually gets an entry. She was like that. Messrs Kutsch and Riemans in their Grosser Sängerlexikon have largely copied the above article, with a couple of variations and an extra German phrase or two tacked in. For, yes, they who are indeed focussed on vocalists, but who nevertheless omit from their volumes many truly important English artists of the nineteenth century, have her in too. Born 1806. And now I’m including her, too. She somehow demands it. So, Fanny has been being handed down to posterity all right. But, alas, in a rather inaccurate and incomplete state.

For, of course, to start with, it wasn’t in 1806 that she was born. It was 1803. December the 27th. Parents, William Ayton Esq and his wife Sarah, ‘youngest daughter of John Thompson Esq of Chiswick’, who had been wed at Chiswick, 16 January 1802.

I, unfortunately, know nothing more of William Ayton (‘a commercial gentleman’ ‘of Macclesfield’), nor of his wife Sarah. However, there seem to have been some rather consequent London-banker-descended Aytons in that place at the turn of the 19th century, and a silk manufacturer of means, but the biographer of the British painter, Richard Westall (d 11 December 1836) – the artist of ‘Sappho in the Lesbian Shades Chanting the Hymn of Love’ and ‘Cardinal Wolsey Seeking Refuge in the Abbey of Leicester’ – and drawing master to the Princess Victoria, has come up with some details which may help me to get there in the end. For Westall’s correspondence reveals that he was related to the relevant Aytons – his mother was Mary née Ayton, his closest friend and maybe cousin was John Ayton (‘of Russell Place, Fitzroy Square’, who died 24 August 1829 aged 47 on the sands at Eastbourne), and Fanny – whom he apparently painted at least once in her brief heyday – was a relation of some undefined kind. A niece, maybe, or so says Leigh Hunt, referring to her as ‘Miss Fanny Ayton, who once made a great fuss and a good deal of money as an Italian cantatrice’, or even a great-niece. But it seems, in any case, that she was reasonably well connected. So, I imagine her father wasn't the William Ayton of Macclesfield, cotton spinner, who went bankrupt in 1808. But maybe was the William Ayton Esq of the Macclesfield School Board.

When she was in her teens, Fanny, ‘a pupil of [Giovanni] Liverati’, was sent to Italy to study music. Brown and Stratton say ‘with Manielli in Florence’, so maybe so. The results were apparently highly satisfactory, and the young soprano soon made her way on to the Italian operatic stage. B&S say it was in the title-role of Carlo Coccia’s Clotilde at La Fenice in 1825, K&R mentions the same opera, but insists on the venue being the Teatro Communale, Bologna, the following year. And, just to contradict them both, I proffer the original cast list of Pacini’s Temistocle, produced at Lucca’s Teatro del Giglio on 23 August 1823, which includes, alongside Tacchinardi in the title-role and Pisaroni as Xerxes, Roxane: Fanny Ayton. So, it seems that Venice and Bologna weren’t the first after all.

But I have, nevertheless, spotted her at the Teatro San Lucca, Venice, in autumn 1825 (‘eine nicht starke aber angenehme Stimme und eine gute Gesangsmethode’, ‘[she] has a voice of no great power, but of a very pleasing kind, and she shows an excellent school’) where she did indeed sing in Clotilde, and Chiara di Rosembergh, at the Teatro fu Obizzi in Padua in 1826, singing in Eliza e Claudio with Teresa Picchi, and I can confirm the Bologna appearance, also in 1826, with Clotilde – reported to the home press by an English diarist who found Fanny ‘a pretty girl who sings well [and who] seems to be a great favourite with the audience’ -- and with a piece named La gelosa vilane (‘Miss Ayton much pleased in this opera and the Ferranti gives us hope of her becoming an actress, as well as a singer far beyond the common stamp’). But another voyager of the time, who heard her in Italy, described her merely as ‘an agreeable singer, but nothing beyond mediocrity’ asserting ‘she was well received at Venice and elsewhere, as an exotic’.

In December 1826, the news came that she was headed for England: that ‘the impresario at Venice had ‘very reluctantly consented to spare her’ and that she had ‘overcome the great obstacles thrown in the way of her quitting Italy, where her fame had rapidly spread’.

It seems that the Venetian credit was, in any case, the one she considered the most important because, when the 23 year-old singer finally did come home, after some well-publicised adventures: (‘She was detained in Italy by the severity of the weather and, in crossing the Alps, narrowly escaped with her life. The letters from Venice, Mantua, Bologna, Turin and Milan, speak of her singing and acting in the same unqualified terms of admiration […] as of the inimitable Billington ...’) she had herself billed as ‘from La Fenice, Venice’. 

The Morning Post obliges with much pre-puffery
The bill in question was a decidedly surprising and important one, for it was for no less a holy place than the King’s Theatre: London’s high and mighty home of Italian opera. A theatre not noted for hiring young English girls as its star sopranos (‘A Macclesfield girl of one and twenty performing at our Italian theatre’ gasped the New Monthly Magazine). But Miss Fanny Ayton had made it.

The opera opened its season with a sure and established value, Rosalbina Caradori in Spontini’s La Vestale and Pacini’s La Schiava in Baghdad, and then – after a pause in the performances, due to the demise of the Duke of York -- on 3 February, Laporte launched his new prima donna, as Ninetta in Rossini’s La gazza ladra, with De Begnis, Zuchelli and Curioni in support and Eliza Vestris as Pippo. The Times reported ‘The first appearance of Mademoiselle Fanny Ayton, from the Theatre La Fenice at Venice, attracted on Saturday evening a crowded audience. The expectation of the musical portion of the public had been strongly excited with respect to the talent of this young lady. Mademoiselle Ayton is certainly a vocalist of ability – but not perhaps of that extensive ability that ought to be possessed by her who aspires to the situation of prima donna at the King’s Theatre. Her lower tones are deficient in strength, and her upper tones are emitted with too much effort, but her middle notes – decidedly the best part of her voice – are pleasing. She is mistress of much science, and possesses many personal attractions. Mademoiselle Ayton is of the middle size of women, and extremely well formed. Her countenance is handsome and intelligent, but better adapted we think to the expression of lively than of serious sensations… Throughout the whole evening she appeared to more advantage in the concerted pieces than in the solos, although her opening air ‘Di piacer mi balza il cor’ was encored. The most touching and delicate solo which she delivered in the course of the evening was that which occurs when Ninetta presses on her friend Pippo the acceptance of the cross which hangs from her neck … Her reception was extremely hospitable...’

This critic went back on the second night and allowed himself a second volley of reservations: ‘Mademoiselle Ayton is a very clever woman. She seems, as an actress, to be entirely alive to the scene; she feels, and very properly feels that, in the performance of an interesting operatic character, something beyond mere singing is necessary. Perhaps she carries this idea a little too far. In the impassioned scenes her energetic action was true to nature – it accorded with the scene – and, of course, it told well; but when, in matter of a more ordinary character, we still saw the outstretched arms and uplifted brow, we were inclined to think that Mademoiselle had studied a little too much in the school of art. The vocal abilities of Mademoiselle Ayton deserve no inconsiderable tribute of praise. Her style of singing, whether the movement be melancholy or lively, is perfectly in accordance with good taste. She evidently knows what ought to be done, but her voice does not second the desire of her mind. The voice of Mademoiselle Ayton is, undoubtedly, not of the best description. When mingled with the organs of others in a concerted piece, it aids, not inconsiderably, in producing a strong effect; but when left to its own resources, with in solo or in dialogue, it is thin, almost tiny, querulous and very frequently becomes unpleasant. Ninetta’s beautiful air ‘Di piacer’ was encored, and deserved to be…’

On 27 February, Laporte produced his next opera of the season, and Fanny was again cast in the leading role. The opera was Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, the role was that of the ‘heroine’, Fiorilla, and she was again teamed with Curioni, de Begnis and Zuchelli. This time, the Times man, who – like many another music and theatre scribe -- was spending incommensurate inches on his dissection of the talents of ‘Mademoiselle’ Ayton, started trying to rationalise his ideas of what was right and what was wrong with the new English prima donna, and he came up with what seems not a wholly coherent answer: ‘She displays great merit [in the part] though as a whole, especially as regards the vocal exertion, it is extremely unequal. The duet with Geronimo ‘Per piacere alla Signora’ in the first act, which by the way is a very difficult one, was deficient in that spirit of coquetry and elegant volubility Madame de Begnis used to display, but her portion of the celebrated quintet ‘Oh! guardate che accidente’ was charmingly sung, and he last air, ‘Ah se poco e il duol’, an effort of talent seldom surpassed on this or any other stage. It satisfied us, as it evidently did the audience, that Miss Ayton possesses the elements of a singer of the first rank; and that with such taste, precision and grace as she displayed in that song, time and cultivation, by improving her powers and establishing her self-possession, must advance her rapidly in the profession she has chosen. Her voice was often thin and weak and occasionally, when strained, harsh, but the correctness of her ear, which caused her notes to blend well with the harmony, made these defects less perceptible in her than they would have been in almost any other singer. It is unusual for a voice of that quality to tell so well as that of Miss Ayton does in the concerted pieces. Her conception of the character was good but very much under-acted…’

The next production at the King’s was Pietro l’eremita which served to introduce another newcomer, Giacinta Toso, who followed up in Ricciardo e Zoraide and Maria Stuart regina di Scozia, and finally Giuditta Pasta came in to sing Semiramide, Meyer’s Medea [in Corinto] and Mercadante’s Didone. In mid-season the bass Vincenzo Galli arrived from Paris and succeeded to the role of the heroine’s father in La gazza ladra, and the Times gentleman took a third bite at Fanny’s Ninetta: ‘Mademoiselle Ayton impersonated Ninetta in a manner not far removed from mediocrity. This lady attempts to do too much. Were she to be less ambitious she would please more. She is fond of ornament to a faulty excess, for by introducing it she frequently destroys the sentiment the composer meant to express. More than once on Saturday evening, passages intended to convey the idea of deep grief were made to assume quite a contrary character by a misplaced display of execution. Her opening air ‘Di piacer’ met with some interruption. It was encored, but not without considerable opposition’. She repeated the role on 19 July for her Benefit, and, maybe for that reason, the gentleman’s fourth bite was tastier: ‘... she very judiciously selected [the piece] for her Benefit because, in the character of Ninetta, she appears to more advantage than she does in any other part which she has essayed […] Madmoiselle Ayton sustained the character of Ninetta with much ability. She gave the admirable air ‘Di piacer’ with great skill… Her interview with her father and her rejection of the advances of the vile magistrate were marked by many proofs of talent … Mademoiselle Ayton led the sestetto commencing ‘Mi sento opprimere’ exceedingly well. This was, perhaps, her best effort during the evening. It was a ‘strain soft and melancholy’ and the sensations which Rossini’s music are here calculated to excite were not marred by any ill-judged effort to produce what is called a striking effect... Mademoiselle Ayton played and sang with feeling. Her performance was greatly applauded throughout the evening.’

More applauded, however, was the second part of the entertainment, he last act of Romeo e Giulietta, performed by Pasta (Romeo) and Caradori (Juliet).

In the meantime, while Toso (unsuccessfully) and Pasta (successfully) prima-donna-ed at the King’s Theatre, Fanny had not been idle. First of all, she turned up at no less a venue than the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. A new young writer by the name of Michael Rophino Lacy had fabricated an English opera out of Il Turco in Italia, under the title The Turkish Lovers or the Faithful Infidel, and Mr Price mounted it with the resident John Braham, Rosalie Geesin, Horn, Harley and Fanny Kelly, and with a guest prima donna: Miss Fanny Ayton in ‘her first appearance on the English stage’ (1 May 1827).

‘In this piece Miss Fanny Ayton, whose ‘native talent’ was a sin in the ears of the connoisseurs in the Haymarket, made an appearance and played off her foreign airs with éclat. She is a perfect prima donna in miniature – a pretty little English girl, with a thin fluty voice, and much clearness and gaiety, who has caught with singular aptitude the style and manner of the Italian school of singing and acting…’, judged one critic, while another wrote: ‘Her manner as an actress was pleasing and ladylike, but her voice in speaking was frequently inaudible and far from pleasing in its tone, while her songs for the most part were feeble and ill-executed. Some allowance must however be made for the novelty of the situation and the embarrassment of performing in a language to which she is unaccustomed in stage representations, though her native one. Her reception, as usual on such occasions, was kind and encouraging.’

This critic was even harder on the piece, for which he predicted a quick extinction, but I see that both it and Fanny were still there on 30 May when The Turkish Lovers was given its 9th performance. And it even reached its 10th on 23 June. It was dragged back for some makeweight performances, slimmed as a pantomime forepiece, the next season, but Fanny hadn't waited around for those.

During the season, Fanny also appeared on the concert platform. In May and the early days of June, she can be spotted singing in a number of matinees and soirees, notably at the one given at the Argyll Rooms by the singer Tomasso Rovedino and her singing teacher, Giovanni Liverati (8 June). Fanny gave her ‘original cast’ showpiece from Temistocle, ‘Tacete ohimè quei cantici’, joined de Begnis in a new duet by Liverati, and took part in a finale from the same gentleman’s opera, The Choice. Elsewhere, she was seen in Miss Stephens’ Benefit a Drury Lane, with the other 'Italians' at the Marquis of Hertford's soiree at Hertford House (10 April, Temistocle), in the concert for a New Musical Fund, in Bochsa’s concert, Linley's concert ('Ah! se poco il duol'), Mori's concert ('Di piacer' 'to much applause'), at Madame Cittadini's and at nine year-old Camillo Sivori’s performance, at the Academic Concerts, and almost always on bills where she was the only or a rare native artist.

When the London season was over, Fanny (‘prima donna of the King’s Theatre’) set out on the road, in the company of de Begnis, Torri, De Angeli, Giubilei, Rubbi and other artists from the King’s Theatre, and equipped with a King’s Theatre repertoire including Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Il Turco in Italia, La Gazza ladra, Don Giovanni and Il Fanatico per la musica, playing her way through Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Manchester was all agog at the thought of a Macclesfield prima donna, and, if the local press found more to enthuse about in the performances of Torri, Giubelei and de Begnis, they were not disappointed in their Rosina. 'In singing she articulates distinctly, and there is much purity in her intonation: her style is truly Italian. The cavatina of 'Una voce' was warbled with much sweetness ...'

In Edinburgh, it appears, she encountered Sir Walter Scott who recorded in his diary: ‘December 21 [1827] A very sweet, pretty-looking young lady, the Prima Donna of the Italian Opera, now performing here, by name Miss Ayton came to breakfast this morning, with her father (a bore, after the manner of all fathers, mothers, aunts, and other chaperons of pretty actresses)! Miss Ayton talks very prettily, and, I dare say, sings beautifully, though too much in the Italian manner, I fear, to be a great favourite of mine.’

Back in London, Fanny returned not to the King’s Theatre but to Drury Lane (25 April 1828), to team once again with John Braham, this time in an English ‘opera’. The Times, of course, was half-fig, half-raisin about the exercise. ‘Miss Ayton appeared last night in Guy Mannering’, wrote the critic ‘as Lucy Bertram. It is the first time that she has undertaken a part the music of which professes to be unmixed with the foreign school, and we must say her Italian habits were rather too conspicuous throughout her singing. Scotch and English music of the character which is introduced in the opera will not bear florid ornament; it strikes the ear at once as being out of place. Nevertheless, Miss Ayton went through her part in a manner which rendered it highly interesting. We look upon this lady as an extremely valuable acquisition to any theatre; and although the Italian opera is far best suited to her talents, and we should have preferred seeing her there, it is a matter for congratulation to all theatrical visitors that she has not altogether ceased to grace the stage with her appearance’.

During the course of the season, Fanny essayed several further English roles. First came Love in a Village (Rosetta) with Braham, Dowton and with Miss Love playing Young Meadows, and then, on 14 May, to a number of raised eyebrows, she appeared as Katharine to the Petruchio of Wallack in The Taming of the Shrew. The response was surprising: ‘her acting was excellent throughout and the selection made of her to represent that difficult part has evinced just discrimination on the part of the managers. Besides the spirit and dramatic interest which she infused into the part, the vocal share which she had to sustain, with it, received justice at her hands, which reflected high credit on her musical talents’, or ‘Miss Fanny Ayton played Katherine most delightfully. This lady does not at first win upon us: a short period, however, elapses ere we discover in her a spirited and sensible actress and if not a first-rate at least a very efficient singer’. It appears indeed that the ‘great vocal additions’ (in a rather Rossinian style) had been made to the play by Messrs Braham and T Cooke, and Braham, cast as Hortensio, and Fanny took the bulk of it. Fanny’s share included Cooke’s ‘Wilt thou have music?’ and ‘Love and Music’, Braham’s ‘True Love is an ever fixed mark’ duet, sung with the composer, ‘On a Day’, and a Mercadante piece arranged by Cooke as ‘If Love Hath Lent you Twenty Thousand Tongues’.

When the Benefit season came round, several other pieces were given a showing and Fanny appeared as Kathleen in The Poor Soldier, as Morna in the ballad opera Malvina, as Jane, Countess of Brittany in The English Fleet and, at her own evening on 18 June, she played Lilla in The Siege of Belgrade alongside Braham, Cooper, Harley and Mrs Geesin. The Benefits were also an occasion for concert giving, and Fanny rendered ‘Bid me discourse’, ‘The soldier tir’d’, ‘Crazy Jane’, ‘La Biondina’ (inevitably, with variations by Paer), ‘Di piacer’, ‘The Mocking Bird’ and joined in many a duet and trio, notably ‘Echo in a sportive mood’ (with Braham and Miss Love) and, on the occasion of her own Benefit, duets with each of the other main members of the company – ‘When thy bosom heaves a sigh’ with Braham, ‘Tell me where is fancy bred’ with Miss Love, ‘Do you think by this to teaze me?’ and ‘When a little farm we keep’ with Harley – as well as a piece by Mayer with the Italian opera’s baritone, Pellegrini.

Come September 1828, Fanny again went to the country, this time playing her ‘English’ repertoire – Guy Mannering, Love in a Village, No Song No Supper and so forth – and in November, when she returned to town, an announcement went forth to the effect that she would be returning to Drury Lane as leading vocalist and that an English version of Le Comte Ory would be produced for her.

She didn’t and it wasn’t. In fact, as far as I can see, she didn’t get back into a London theatre proper for some two years. I spot her during 1829 singing at the Choral Fund Benefit (February 27) with Braham, the Knyvetts, the Phillipses and others of less note, playing a month’s engagement at the Vauxhall Gardens singing Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1 June) and Cenerentola (17 June) with some of the lesser lights from the Italian opera house, and singing at a Benefit concert at the Argyll Rooms in good company (De Begnis, Donzelli, Mlle Blasis, Nina Sontag &c). So, what happened?

Here, Westall’s biographer has, again, come up with an interesting letter. Westall writes to an associate in September 1829: ‘… Fanny is undoubtedly a perfect mistress of her art, but it would be far better that her knowledge that she is so, should be kept from the public eye … I will undoubtedly communicate the substance of your remarks to her; and I wish to have your permission to make an extract from your letter to show her because I am sure that your opinions cannot be conveyed in so forcible a way if anything is altered. I will of course take care she shall have no idea of the author.’ It rather sounds as if Fanny has been ‘pulling the prima donna string a bit tightly’ and making herself less than popular.

But Fanny did win one splendid engagement in 1829. She was engaged for October’s Birmingham Musical Festival, a distinctly prestigious affair, featuring largely an area – English oratorio -- into which she had not heretofore ventured. And which also featured Maria Malibran, Mary Ann Paton, Mademoiselle Blasis and Deborah Knyvett as well as old colleagues John Braham and de Begnis. It seems, however, that Fanny fouled up. Her friend on The Times reported on the performance of The Messiah on day two: ‘We cannot help noticing an instance of wretched taste in the allotment of the air ‘He shall feed his flock’ to Miss F Ayton, who, as if on purpose to place herself in the worst possible position, came into the orchestra too late for the first part of the song which was therefore sung by Miss Paton. Miss F Ayton, disdaining to take a lesson in the performance of Handel’s song from that lady, gave to the latter half of it her own reading, and nothing could be worse in every respect. We advise her never again to commit herself, and insult her hearers, by such an exhibition’. And he came back, in his summary of the event, to hammer that ‘her musical education could not have qualified her’ to sing Handel in the fashion required by an English provincial festival.

However, The Times festival critic didn’t bother to report on the dreadfully secular opera concerts which also made up part of the Festival, and he thus missed an event. One item was a selection from Rossini’s La donna del lago, in which Fanny took part. She shared a duet with a 19 year-old Italian who had been sent across by the composer Zingarelli to conduct the scheduled premiere of his cantata. The lofty Brums wouldn’t allow such a thing, but they allowed the young man to sing. The Times was not impressed ‘Signor Costa did not shine in his performance of Haydn’s ‘Gratias agimus’. He has the vice of many Italian artists, incorrect intonation, to a painful degree... while Curioni and Begrez were in England, there could be no need to bring from Naples a person so much their inferior.’ Signor Costa, who was reckoned, thus, along with Fanny as the other disaster of the Festival, remained in England, but he didn’t sing, he conducted, and he ended up as Sir Michael Costa, musical supremo of the Italian opera and a very mighty man.

Fanny spent much of 1830 in the provinces, and I see her, over Christmas 1829 and January 1830, guesting at the Theatre Royal, Dublin playing, in tandem with Braham, in The Poor Soldier, and as the Countess Sterloff in a new piece called Love in Wrinkles, Eudiga in Charles XII and Zelinda in The Slave. The Dublin press was not wholly convinced and she pulled bad press until the last named piece, when the critic allowed 'Miss Ayton wants melody, but her scientific and skilful management of a naturally slender voice, is perhaps unequalled. She was loudly encored in 'The Mocking Bird'. In Charles XII: 'Miss Ayton also pleased us much on this occasion. She sang 'Hide, gentle moon' sweetly and was encored twice -- in our opinion, once would have been quite enough'. 'In No Song, No Supper, Miss Ayton played Margaretta very creditably, and sang with much sweetness and splendid execution and skill 'The Merry Swiss Maid' and 'With Lowly Suit and Plaintive Ditty'. At the end of the season, the same critic apostrophised Miss Ayton: 'you are meritorious, but you are in too exalted a position', before concluding 'Miss Ayton's action, as an actress, is miserable; a cockatoo shake of the head - a dealing about of the arms -- her countenance exhibiting nothing but archness ... Miss Ayton's singing, like her acting, would be very well is she confined herself to a simple song, and delighted not in those cadences and flourishes, where her want of volume of tone is so apparent... In conclusion, we must most benevolently suggest, that she would be an agreeable and sprightly performer in parts of vivacity not requiring much expression or power'.

From Dublin, she proceeded to Belfast (Love in a Village, Turn Out &c) and to Glasgow where the report was that she was 'rapturously encored, beyond all praise' in 'Una voce' and the Echo Song, and made a perfect hit with her arch comedy…' and, in April and May, to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. In August she was at Derby, in October at Leicester then Sheffield and in November at the Theatre Royal, Liverpool in The Slave, No Song No Supper, Charles XII, Englishmen in India and comedies such as A Husband at Sight.

In February 1831, however, she turned up again in perhaps the last place one would have expected. London’s Italian opera. When the prospectus went out, there she was ‘her first appearance at this theatre these three years’ amongst the soprani, alongside Madame Vespermann ‘from Munich’ and Madame Rubini, both making their English debuts, Mlle Beck from Paris, Castelli, Filiani and the big names, Madame Méric Lalande and Gulietta Pasta.

What Laporte had planned for Fanny, one cannot know. Whatever it was, it was not what she got. For, in the very first days of the season, emergency hit. On 8 February 1831, Katharina Vespermann was scheduled for Rosina in Barbiere, but she called in ‘sick’. Her replacement was Fanny Ayton. The following week, the same lady was to have taken the lead in a revival of Ricciardo e Zoraide, but she was still being sick. Again, Fanny went on. Even The Times was appreciative: ‘This young lady has made considerable progress as a singer and an actress since we had last seen her, There was no evidence of hasty preparation in her performance on Saturday, and, as on the preceding occasion, she played with considerable vivacity and sang with much spirit’. With the tenor, David, making his first appearance in London as Ricciardo, and Curioni and Mlle Beck in support, the performance turned out quite an occasion.

On 26 February Fanny came out in her third opera of the season. The occasion was a revival of Il Marimonio segreto with Lablache in the role of Geronimo. Vespermann was Carolina, Mlle Filiani took Fidalma and Fanny was Elisetta, and The Times did a sort of volte face: ‘Miss Ayton was an active, clever and bustling little Lisetta. The histrionic powers of this young lady are so superior to her vocal ones, that we should think the English stage would suit her better than the Italian.’

It was in May, with the arrival of Pasta, that Fanny got her fourth and last opportunity. Mayer’s Medea was brought back (12 May) for the star, and Fanny was cast, alongside Rubini, Curioni and Lablache, in the second soprano role of Creusa, previously sung by Caradori ('Caro albergo'). Performances of Medea, varied with concerts and Benefits (one of which at Drury Lane, for William Farren), kept Fanny occupied to the end of the season, but the end of the season at the Italian opera was no ending for Fanny. Days after the curtain fell on the last performance of Medea, on August 16, Fanny was up on the stage again. But on the other side of the river.

No Pastas and Lablaches here. This was the Surrey Theatre, the home of the transpontine melodrama, and their newest production was an old ‘operatic vaudeville’ entitled The Savoyarde. Star: Miss Fanny Ayton. And her co-workers were Mr C Hill, Mr Edwin, and two lasses who had graduated from the theatre’s kiddie shows, Miss Somerville and the little Miss Mattley who would one day find more fame than any of them as the music-halls’ Mrs Caulfield. The Savoyarde was followed by A Husband at Sight (Catherine) and The Sonnambulist (Ernestine) during the three week engagement, after which Fanny crossed back to the City side, and took up a like run of roles at the City of London Theatre: Donna Isidora in the comic opera Brother and Sister, Guy Mannering in which she ‘introduced a variety of favourite songs besides those belonging to the opera and was encored in several’, the musical farce Of Age Tomorrow, and Eudiga in Charles the Twelfth.

If it seemed that Fanny had found a new niche as a megastar of the minor theatres, that illusion was quickly dispelled. For, in February, she returned to town and to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The occasion was the production of a first English version of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable given as The Daemon or The Mystic Branch (20 February 1832). A cast worthy of the Lane was assembled for what was left of the opera in this particular ‘adaptation’. Henry Phillips took Bertram, Joseph Wood (Robert) and John Templeton (Raimbault) were the tenors, and Mrs Wood (late Miss Paton) was Alice, with Fanny in the role of Isabella. She ‘sang so sadly out of tune and time, that the effect of the music was entirely destroyed. We never remembered to have felt so distressed at listening to any singer and the audience failed not to mark their disapprobation’ reported The Drama, and another referred to her ‘sharp face and sharp voice’ or, more kindly, ‘a pretty lively actress but she has no ear – she sings most outrageously sharp’. ‘Miss Ayton sang most wickedly out of time and was hissed accordingly, a hint which we trust will not be thrown away upon her against her next appearance’ agreed The Times.

But he was not going to get a chance to have another go at her. For there was no next appearance. Not in London.

Messrs Brown and Stratton simply report her playing in The Daemon and comment ‘the date of her death remains in doubt’. Herren Kutsch and Riemans gloss out with words to the effect that details of her subsequent life and career are lost. But they aren’t.

I spot her playing at the Manchester Theatre Royal 2 February 1833 for a week, in Nell Gwynne, The Rendezvous, Charles the Twelfth and her preferred comic entertainment A Husband at Sight; at the Theatre Royal Leeds for three nights 25 March in ‘musical dramas’, at the Liver Theatre from 8 April (six nights, Tit for Tat, or How to Gain 3000 Pounds, Cupid the God of Love, The Kiss or, Pay to my Order, Water Witch, Peccadilloes ‘La biondina in gondoletta’, ‘Through the wood and the bower’ ‘What a merry, merry life’, ‘Under the rose’), the Adelphi Theatre Edinburgh 25 May 1833, playing in a petite comedy The Bride of Ludgate ‘in which she will introduce several ballads’, Sweethearts and wives, John of Paris, Charles the Second, Nell Gwynne (‘exquisite simplicity and archness’), Abon Hassan and Wilhelmina in The Waterman, Caroline in My Cousin (‘Should he upbraid etc), Donna Isidora in Brother and Sister and Margaretta in No Song, No Supper opposite the rising John Frazer. And a fortnight later she became a wife.

Fanny Ayton didn’t fade away at all. She left the stage to get married, and the name of the man married she married was James Wilson Barlow, who, having been born in Islington, 5 May 1808 was, at 25, four years younger than herself. The couple were wed in his home-town of Liverpool on 12 July 1833, and the following year, on 18 April 1834, in Wigan, Lancs, Fanny gave birth to a daughter, Adela Fanny Barlow. In 1845, Mrs James Barlow (late Miss Fanny Ayton of Her Majesty’s Theatre) was advertising for singing pupils from 19 Clifford Street, Bond Street.

James, according to the bankruptcy reports, was at that time a coal merchant, by the time of the 1861 census, he was an agent for Normandy’s Patent Aerated Fresh Water Company (Limited), the manufacturer of an internationally reputed condensing apparatus invented by a certain Dr Normandy for making fresh water out of sea water.
James Barlow died in 1862, but Fanny lived on, with her unmarried daughter, until 1891. She died, ‘suddenly’, at Dover on the 21 May of that year. Fanny Barlow ‘formerly of 8 Meath Street, Battersea, now at 12 Park Street’ left in her will the sum of about seventy pounds. Adela lived on in Dover and died there in 1910.

Fanny’s short career was a strange one. As one contemporary mused, she was constantly expected to do something splendid in music and the theatre, but, somehow, she never fulfilled those expectations. Henry Chorley, in his not always reliable memoirs, spent more than a page giving his version of the reason. ‘She might’ he proposes ‘have done good service to the stage had not her natural powers, at first barely sufficient, prematurely given way’. He speaks of her as ‘Fanny Ayton, who was more in the form and order of an Italian singer from comic opera than any of my countrywomen whom I have since heard or seen attempt it. Her voice had been trained by good masters: it was a weak voice – not unlike that of Mlle Piccolomini, but more supple and flexible, and it had a certain sprightly life in it. She had considerable execution, a certain piquancy and taste of her own, and – what English artists generally lack – accent. Her appearance was pleasing; if it was not distinguished, not vulgar. Were such a singer as she was to appear now, I can imagine her succeeding in a certain range of parts. But the young girl had the misfortune to arrive here at the time when the great foreign artists were the rule … The new Rosina and Fiorilla excited some attention and a little wonderment by her clever ease on the stage, and her fluent Italian, but this was merely for the moment. Her voice had small charm and she had hardly sung here for three months ere its intonation gave way at once and for ever, the tone becoming at last too painful to be endured. She struggled on for a second season in what then passed for paraphrased foreign Opera on the English stage; she went down with Italian companies (in those days rarities) into our provincial towns, she fought up courageously against disappointment and the failure of means for a year or two, and then passed out of public sight.’

But, somehow, she still interests people today. She has even made it, in a rather skinny form, to Wikipedia.

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