Wednesday, September 14, 2022

RICCARDI or, Gilbert & Sullivan's operas come to New Zealand

I put together this hitherto-not-compiled little bit of Australasian theatre history earlier this year for the Sullivan Society magazine. Since not everybody is a subscriber to that splendid wee publication, I am reprinting my article here ... 

"Exhuming factual history, untainted by bias of every kind, is not an easy job. I quote, for the umpteenth time, the contemporary reports of the battle of Marathon. Each side published its version of what happened at the famous fight, and each side -- Greeks and Persians -- reckoned they'd won.

Even more difficult is exhuming show business history, littered as it is with lies, self-serving publicity, pseudonyms, niche interests, and other things that are seldom what they seem.

But that is the field into which I've chosen to submerge myself for the last forty years, and especially, in my elderly and physically inactive invalidism, over the last decade.

Well, I've won some and I've lost some, but I keep on trying.

Anyone who has dabbled in New Zealand musical-theatre history, and early productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas down under knows the name of 'Signor Riccardi'. He was responsible for the stagings of the country's first pro-but-mostly-am productions of The Sorcerer and HMS Pinafore. But does anyone know anything about him? About the life and career of the man dubbed 'the great Riccardi' by the Australian press in 1891.

Well, I've delved, and I've won some and I've lost some. At his death, it was said, here and there, that his name was really Tom Richards, which seems likely enough, but, elsewhere, it was claimed as Richard Green. I think that the latter journalist might have got muddled with another Italianised baritone, Signor Verdi. All I know is that he was married and died as 'Riccardi'. Maybe the official Australian records would reveal the truth.

There is little difficulty in overlooking his life and work once he arrived in Australasia. It-- what there was of it -- is clearly recorded. But he was about 28 years of age at his arrival ('of Milan'). What had he been doing there? Allegedly singing. OK. Where?

The Sydney Morning Herald published an obituary which claimed for him 'a stage career both in Italy and England', 'concert room work in London and the English provinces', 'an important tour with Sims Reeves starred and Mme Enriquez and Jos[i]e Sherrington'. Another paper mentioned Rigoletto at Covent Garden ... Of none of these putative stage appearances or 'events' can I find any trace at all. I have an 18-page list of Lizzie Enriquez's engagements, including 3 pages covering the years 1875-8 when Tom allegedly was in England. Nothing. As for concerts ....

I have found two. And one was evidently his first. It was the Second Subscription Concert of 1875 (12 March) given by the respected Henry Leslie Choir and Tom was the basso soloist alongside the very modest light soprano, Eva Leslie (Henry's niece), RAM medallist contralto Elizabeth Bolingbroke and, rather surprisingly, top tenor Edward Lloyd. He or Leslie got his 'debut' into a few national papers

and his performance of 'Honour and Arms' and Giovanni Clari's antique 'O quam tristis et afflicta' was reviewed or reported widely as well. Some papers merely echoed the press handout '[he] has studied in Italy and made a favourable impression on the Italian stage' 'appearances in Milan, Bergamo and Brescia' ... but the notices from those who had actually attended the concert ranged from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News's 'a voice of good compass and power and singularly sympathetic in quality and he met with great applause and a recall ..' or the Daily Telegraph's 'As a vocalist this gentleman may still learn a great deal but his natural gifts are great ... a baritone-bass of rare quality ...' and the Illustrated London News's 'he possesses a voice which is capable of being turned to very good account and he will no doubt improve on the favourable impression already made'. The Graphic was more straightforward: 'A Mr Riccardi in airs by Clari and Handel displayed a fine voice (baritone-bass) with which culture may do much, but without culture must remain vox et praterea nihil'. In other words a big, unwieldy bass-baritone voice (apparently with a bit of a wobble) and a lot to learn. Italy? Really? But clearly not ready to sing alongside Edward Lloyd and Miss Bolingbroke. I wonder how, why and with the help of whom Tom had got this engagement. The next test was to be whether the same helper/teacher, or his performance, would get him any more. Well, I have found just the one: 26 June at the Beethoven Rooms in Harley Street, the music teacher Miss Edwards 'of Ebury Street' gave her reasonably low-key annual Benefit. The bill included the Vlach tenor Urio, Gounod ex-protégé Georg Werrenrath and mezzo-soprano Alice Fairman and a few folk I do not recognise.

And then I could nothing find until Signor Tom sailed into Auckland in April of 1878? I looked everywhere. Even Milan. Nothing. But at last there surfaced a tardy 'corroboration'! A journalist writes in 1905 '[I] knew him 35 years ago when he was studying singing under Professor Sangiovanni in Milan and was present when he made a highly sucessful debut as Don Basilio in the Barbiere di Siviglia. An engagement with Tamberlik at the Tacon Theatre, Havana followed ...'.  Now how do I track those dates down? Yes! Found him 1872. Havana ...  

Marietta Bulli-Paoli, Giorgio Ronconi, the young Giovanni Tagliapetra ...  So if Havana is true, the rest very well may be. Fair enough. But ... well, we all know 'credits' ... I suspect these were not enduring engagements.

Auckland in 1878 owned few, if any, full-time professional vocalists. The odd demi-pro. The odd music teacher who received occasional remuneration for a performance. So modest, indeed, were the amateurs of the Auckland Choral Society (founded 1855) that when they gave their first Messiah the press dutifully declined to mention the names of the amateur lady soloists. Those singers were, of course, unremunerated. This point, I make, to show that Tom was not coming south to make a professional performing career. That idea had seemingly been abandoned when he boarded ship. But the fates would have their word to say.

He advertised as a teacher of Italian, too. So, maybe he had been to Milan! 

Later the ad changes to 'teacher of English and Italian singing'. And he is going to form a choral class. How many teaching pupils or striving choristers the novice instructor got is not known (the advertisements stopped pretty quickly), but he did get the odd engagement as a vocalist. At the Auckland Choral Society's 4th concert in August he took the bass part in Gounod's Mass with Miss Marian Edger, RAM, sometime music teacher at the Ladies' Collegiate School, and a Mr Harker. He also sang 'I never can forget' and the Invocation from Robert le diable. He 'made his first appearance on this occasion before an Auckland audience .. no doubt that he will be a great acquisition to the musical talent of Auckland'. 

It was announced that Tom would run a school at the piano warehouse of Mr and Mrs Hoffmann (who seem to have been his sponsors from the start). Whether it happened or not, I know not, but in September he was back on the platform, with Eva Davenport and Charles Harding, supporting Amy Sherwin in one of her 'farewell concerts' (6 November). He sang 'O tu, Palermo' and 'a new musical composition by Professor [Martin] Swallow' to Shelley's 'Time' of which the feature was 'a tremendous trill of 5 1/2 bars on the upper E flat'. At Christmas he took the bass solos in The Messiah, in January he sang at another local 'Farewell' concert ('In questa tomba', 'Hybrias the Cretan') before Miss Sherwin said Farewell once more (Gordiginani's 'La Benedizione', 'Yeomen's Wedding'). And then ...

'A musical experiment is about to be tried ... it is nothing less than a season of opéra-bouffe by Auckland ladies and gentlemen who have usually been regarded as amateurs ... the leading performers will be Signor Riccardi, Mrs Reed née Leaf, Miss Teague .. Miss Isabel Hunter of the Thames and Mr Crain ... The works to be presented are novel in themselves - having never been produced in Auckland. The first on the list is Sir Arthur Sullivan's Sorcerer, to be followed by HMS Pinafore.

And it happened. R Julius De Lias, the Alsatian-born proprietor of the Theatre Royal, took the company in (whether he was the actual producer, I not not sure) and .. well, the stories differ, depending on whose tale the teller is telling. I like the one that goes 'Mr Chaplin came over from America with the first scores of Pinafore and with Mr deLias engaged a company ...'. Mr George D Chaplin was an American actor whom de Lias had hired the previous August to top-bill at his theatre in everything from Hamlet and Othello to Money. After a very successful tour, Chaplin had returned to America but in June 1879 he visited De Lias and Auckland again ... But ... it doesn't quite fit. The music of The Sorcerer had been available in New Zealand for a year already ... and the production had happened in May ... 

Henry ('Harry') Hodson [HODGSON, Henry Watts] (b London x 15 June 1852; d Sydney 6 October 1932) 'baritone brilliante from Australia' directed the stage. Young Mr Hodson was London-born, to a  Bermondsey hatter, and raised in Castlemaine. He was an actor and baritone who had played (King in Maritana, Don Florio in Rose of Castille, Frank in Fledermaus &c) with the Simonsen company, with Lydia Howarde, visited New Zealand as a supporting local-pickup with the Soldene troupe and, most recently, with another troupe run by Giovanni Pompei, on a 4-month contract to de Lias. That troupe imploded and he had found himself stranded in Auckland. He not only directed but played John Wellington Wells.
Hodson would go on to spend more than forty years as an actor, playing good musical parts with Nellie Stewart and Clara Merivale as well as in farce comedy, then directing, playing character and comedy roles of all kinds, as well as taking a few unfortunate turns at management ('no more capable all-round actor is to be found on the Australian stage'), right into the 1920s. He married in 1884 singer 'Annie Nicholson' [Annie Louisa Hiscocks] daughter of the proprietor of Hiscocks Federal Minstrels (divorced 1901) by whom he had four children. He also had two daughters by a second marriage.

A pretty fair cast was put together, given the time and place. By Riccardi? Possibly. But I think rather by de Lias and possibly the conductor Joseph Brown (d Symonds Street, 14 November 1883), the originator of the Choral Society and organist at St Matthew's Church. But who knows?

Anne Eliza Leaf (b Beverley 7 September 1854; d Durban, South Africa 14 July 1935); who was only briefly Mrs Reed, turned out to be much more than an amateur. She went on from this production to leading roles in comic opera on four continents

Charles Thomas Harding (b Deptford 26 February 1846; d Great Warley, Essex 1 July 1895) was another immigrant, who was running a coal and firewood business in Auckland's Mechanics' Bay when he began, seemingly around 1876, appearing in amateur concerts ('My Star of Heaven', 'I Never Can Forget', 'The Moon Has Raised Her Lamp Above'). The singing proved more successful than the firewood: Harding's business was bankrupted roundly in October 1877. By 1879, he was agreed to be 'one of our leading local singers'. And so it proved. He moved on to Australia, America and beyond in a tidy career as a tenor. He was, at one stage said in the press to be Mr Annie Leaf (she was between husbands), but as he had a wife and a bundle of children back home this was evidently nowt but scuttlebut.

John Anderson Crain (b Glasgow 13 August 1846; d Sydney 5 August 1908) a tailor's son from Glasgow, a civil engineer by profession, vice-president of the Association of Engineers (Glasgow), and 'a tenor robusto of an old and conscientious school of singers' was said to have been a fellow student of Riccardi in Milan. He soon mutated into a baritone and, by the 1890s, his voice gone, a stage director and manager, a journalist ... He was billed as being 'of the principle (sic) theatres of Germany and Italy', which seem even less likely than Tom's Brescia and Bergamo (where there was, in fact, a Teatro Riccardi!), and The Sorcerer was 'his first appearance in Australasia'.

The other principal ladies did not attempt an extended professional career. Isabel Hunter [or RADCLIFF] (b Clay Cross, Derbyshire 1855; d Auckland 30 August 1908) played with the company until the end of its existence, by which time she had married Edwin Troupe Brassey (1 July 1880) and returned to singing with the Thames and Auckland amateurs. Brassey died at age 31 and the antics of his family are another story. Bella had one daughter.

The young contralto Catherine ('Tottie') Teague (b Auckland 10 September 1857; d Sydney1932) lingered longer in the theatre, but in 1880 she too married. However, she doesn't then disappear from view, for she married Tom Riccardi. Thereafter she only occasionally trod the boards. The Riccardis had two children: Reginald Henry Percy (b Auckland 1 April 1881; d Sydney 27 March 1905) and Ruby Gladys (b Sydney 14 February 1886; d Balmain 1970).

Kate Heath (b Torquay,1856; d Vancouver 13 January 1928) (Mrs Frederick Theodore Klingenf[i]eld, contralto) was another leftover from the Pompei company. She would go on to play Hebe, Aurora in Giroflé-Girofla and other character roles, and later appeared in small roles with the Simonsen company and the Montague-Turner company (Buda, Molly Pitt in Martha, Amélie in La Grande-Duchesse, Duchess in The Rose of Castille) and after settling in Dunedin, with Carmini Morley, in comedy and all types of concert.  She, husband and daughter later moved to America, then back to England anf finally to Canada.   

Comedian and comic-songster Robert ('Bob') Love (b Adelaide 12 January 1849; d December 1927) became a well-known character in Australiasian and Asian showbusiness. He mutated into a circus manager (he married the owner) and I spy him last having a leg amputated in Yokohama in 1910. 

So, back to 1879.

If Tom were not the original producer and instigator of the season, he nevertheless got featured billing, became the front man for the show ('Mr Riccardi's Comic Opera Company') and at some stage he 'had an interest' in the company. 

After the extremely successful production, and two-weeks' performances of The Sorcerer, with Annie Leaf and Harding latterly adding The Rose of the Auvergne to the entertainment, the company duly announced HMS Pinafore. Hodson played Deadeye and Riccardi and his big voice were ... Sir Joseph Porter!

Bob Beckett seems to have fallen overboard.

Where success shines, the twinkle of lucre soon appears. And noise came from the Kelly and Leon Minstrel troupe in Australia claiming that they had the copyright on both operas for New Zealand. They didn't, of course. Pinafore was played ten times before ... The Sorcerer was brought back. 'The music of The Sorcerer is of a higher class, and many consider the opera greatly superior to Pinafore' quoth the New Zealand Herald. Giroflé-Girofla and Maritana helped fill the final nights. The six weeks of Auckland performances came to an end and the company headed off to Thames, Grahamstown et al with the two G&S operas and Giroflé-Girofla in their baggage ... and the first demands for non-payment of bills hit the courts.

But the company 'of 25' boarded the Ladybird to sail south to the Princess's Theatre, Dunedin ... Misses Leaf, Hunter, Heath, Sandford, Duke (2), Lincoln and Phillips; Messrs Riccardi, Crain, Harding, Hodson, 'Bob' Love, Riley, Bell, Scott, Bachelder and F T Klingenfield. Um. That's 18. Where is Miss Teague? She was there.

I don't suppose that, from the start, the operas were played to the Gilbertian letter perfect. They weren't in Dunedin. 'Mr Ricciardi will introduce his great nautical ballad..' which appears to have been 'Tom Bowling'. 'Mr Riccardi's great song '[Engaged to] So-and-So' with a grotesque piccolo obbligato played by himself, as Dr Daly' ... and, yes, the five bar trill.

On to Timaru, Oamaru, the Oddfellow's Hall at Christchurch, the Academy of Music in Wellington, Nelson, Wanganui ... and there, it came to an abrupt halt. Hodson related, years later, that it had been a 'champagne and oysters' tour: the amateurs all having a great time for a few months until whoever's money it was ran out. It is not surprising that when, shortly afterwards, when a rather ritzy Lyster production, headed by the ex-prima donna of the Carl Rosa Opera, was mounted in Australia, a journalist sighed 'for real fun and jollity I preferred the performances of Riccardi's amateur company in Wellington'.

And, guess what? When the lawsuits began in earnest, who were the defendants? Crain and Harding. What about Riccardi? demanded the press. But Tom had got out in time.

Well, the party was over, but the Auckland amateurs had made their mark. They had effectively launched the G&S operas in New Zealand, and they had launched at least five of their number on to solid professional careers.

Tom and Tottie went on to Hawera for a couple of nights with Bella Hunter and a concert/operetta programme. But Mr Riccardi wasn't finished yet. Within months he was up and having another go, with Annie, Bella, Tottie, Crain, and Harding delivering Trial by Jury (first played in New Zealand by Lydia Howarde 31 August 1876), A Puff of Smoke, Pinafore et al to Taranaki and there were rumours, not for the first time, of Melbourne. But in December he was back in Auckland, doing another Messiah.

But the Melbourne rumours had foundation. The company was 'reorganised' with George Leopold replacing Hodson, and they reopened at the Auckland Theatre Royal with Leopold's 'new version' of Giroflé-Girofla. Somehow, J C Williamson had now firmly established their rights in the operas for New Zealand, and 'the Riccardi Company' had seemingly  -- goodness knows how! -- either to pay up or close down. But Pinafore and The Sorcerer were given in any case. Then theatre and 'star' had money arguments, the season closed ... and 4 February 1880 Riccardi, Harding and Miss Leaf sailed for Melbourne and, on the tail of their New Zealand efforts, the effective beginning of their professional careers.

Which is where I, for the meanwhile, shall stop.

Charles and Annie, and their careers, are each worth an article on their own. And, indeed, probably have had one. Tom didn't do as well as they. He would repeat his Sir Joseph Porter for Lyster ('Riccardi looks wearied out by the long continued repetition of the part of Sir Joseph') and later share it with the non-singing J C Williamson, until Williamson wisely opted out. He spent considerable periods with the shoestring Simonsen family troupe touring an improbable number of approximate operas (Ferrando in Il Trovatore, Oroveso in Norma, Caspar in Freischütz, Bidethebent in Lucia di Lammermoor, Rodolfo in La Sonnambula, Samuel in Un Ballo in maschera, Doctor in La Traviata, Stabat Mater, Arnheim, Don Jose, Alfonso in Lucrezia Borgia, Plunkett in Martha, Arimanes in Satanella and, of course, Sir Joseph Porter), he appeared as General Boum in La Grande-Duchesse, sang Ambrokind in Kowalski's Vercingetorix with Leandro Coy and Gabrielle Boema (24 September 1881), and played with a Williamson touring opera troupe which toured back to New Zealand ... He played the Colonel in Patience and the Sergeant in Pirates of Penzance ..

He also went bankrupt again, suffered a nasty dose of scarlet fever in New Zealand which meant he had to be left behind till cured, and ultimately defected from the Simonsen troupe which promptly crashed. And then he fell seriously ill with rheumatics and dropsy ... It was only three years since he had made his entry on to the professional stage, but this was the veritable end of his career. He tried to make a comeback but, in the end, he ended up back where he had started: teaching and doing the odd concert ..

It was an odd and rather sad career. Nothing ever really equalled those first fine months of carefree amateur performances. But those performances have gone down in musical-theatre history.

Tom died at Roslyn Gardens, Darlinghurst 6 April 1913, allegedly aged 62. He is buried in Gore Hill Cemetery ... Bless his 'genial, old' bones. Whoever he was .... "

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