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Illuminating Gustavus the Third and the Art of Spectacle in 1830s London

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2017


To turn to 1830s London is to explore a time and place newly obsessed with the eye and with lighting technologies. Understanding how opera was experienced at this time, therefore, requires that visuality be brought to the fore. One staging in particular, that of Gustavus the Third, adapted from Daniel Auber’s Gustave III for Covent Garden in 1833, reveals how new discussions about light and vision were influencing responses to opera. While London adaptations of French grands opéras in the nineteenth century have often been dismissed as shabby imitations, critics insisted that the spectacle in Gustavus outstripped anything that had ever been done in Paris. The reason, I propose, was the source and focus of that spectacle: light.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2017 

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Tamsin Alexander, Goldsmiths, University of London;

Versions of this article have been presented at various talks and conferences, and I am extremely grateful to those who contributed to the discussions that followed. Particular thanks go to those present at the ‘Grand Opera on the Move’ conference (King’s College London, December 2014), where these ideas were put forward in their earliest and roughest form. I am most deeply indebted to Laura Protano-Biggs, Sarah Hibberd and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions.


1 The Literary Gazette (16 November 1833).

2 As reported in The Age (17 November 1833).

3 Such studies include Hibberd, Sarah, French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, 2009); Gerhard, Anselm, The Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Mary Whittall (Chicago, 1998)Google Scholar; and Newark, Cormac, ‘Metaphors for Meyerbeer’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 127 (2002), 2343 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also note Shephard, Tim and Leonard, Anne, eds., Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture (New York, 2013)Google Scholar, which includes essays on bringing visual culture into music studies (and vice versa).

4 See Davies, James Q., ‘Dancing the Symphonic: Beethoven-Bochsa’s Symphonie pastorale, 1829’, 19th-Century Music 27 (2003), 2547 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Romantic Anatomies of Performance (Berkeley, 2014). Laura Tunbridge has also outlined the importance of the visual in Schuman’s Manfred; see ‘Schumann’s Manfred in the Mental Theatre’, Cambridge Opera Journal 15 (2003), 153–83.

5 For a review of some of the literature following this argument, see Smith, Mark M., Sensory History (Oxford, 2007), 910 Google Scholar. de Bolla, Peter in The Education of the Eye: Painting, Landscape, and Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford, 2003) contends that obsession with visual display and vision reached new heights earlier, in the mid-eighteenth century.

6 Otter, Chris, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910 (Chicago, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1990)Google Scholar.

7 Hall-Witt, Jennifer, Fashionable Acts: Opera and Elite Culture in London, 1780–1880 (Durham, NH, 2007), 2728 Google Scholar. Hall-Witt argues that dimming the house lights did not necessarily mean that audiences became more focused; it could equally facilitate more intimate socialising.

8 Johnson, James H., Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, 1995), 240 Google Scholar.

9 Some exceptions include Greenwald, Helen M., ‘ Son et lumière: Verdi, Attila, and the Sunrise over the Lagoon’, Cambridge Opera Journal 21 (2009), 267277 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Gerhard, Anselm, ‘Verdi’s Attila: A Study in Chiaroscuro ’, Cambridge Opera Journal 21 (2009), 279289 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Beyond opera studies, various explorations have been made of theatrical lighting more generally, including Booth, Michael R., Theatre in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar; West, Shearer, ‘Manufacturing Spectacle’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre, 1737–1832, ed. Julia Swindells and David Francis Taylor (Oxford, 2014), 286303 ; and Rees, Terence, Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas (London, 1978)Google Scholar.

10 See Moody, Jane, Illegitimate Theatre in London: 1770–1840 (Cambridge, 2000), esp. 1247 Google Scholar.

11 A fuller summary of Bunn’s career can be found in Bratton, Jacqueline S., The Making of the West End Stage: Marriage, Management and Mapping of Gender in London, 1830–1870 (Cambridge, 2011), 1011 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Bunn’s memoir, The Stage: Both Before and Behind the Curtain (London, 1840)Google Scholar.

12 The phrase ‘Grand Junction’ was first used to describe the joining of two British railway companies in 1833, as detailed in a forthcoming publication by Sarah Hibberd: ‘“Cockneys in a Fever”: Auber’s Gustave in London’, Grand Opera Outside Paris, ed. Jens Hesselager (forthcoming). I am thankful to her for sharing the manuscript with me.

13 The ways in which grands opéras were adapted for London have received ample attention. See Burwick, Frederick, ‘Masaniello on the London Stage’, in Dante and Italy in British Romanticism, ed. Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass (New York, 2011), 161182 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hibberd, Sarah, ‘Grand Opera in Britain and the Americas’, in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, ed. David Charlton (Cambridge, 2003), 404410 ; Gabriella Dideriksen, ‘Repertory and Rivalry: Opera at the Second Covent Garden Theatre, 1830–1856’, PhD diss., King’s College London (1997), 286–331; Fuhrmann, Christina, ‘In Enemy Territory? Scribe and Grand Opera in London, 1829–1833’, in Eugène Scribe und das europäische Musiktheater, ed. Sebastian Werr (Berlin, 2007), 89106 Google Scholar; and Fuhrmann, , Foreign Opera at the London Playhouses: From Mozart to Bellini (Cambridge, 2015), 146194 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Moody, Illegitimate Theatre, 3–4.

15 As described in Ayrton, William, ‘On the State of Our Theatres’, The Harmonicon 11 (1833), 2728 Google Scholar.

16 The review in The Literary Gazette (that opened this article) continued: ‘we do not think it necessary to enter into any of the details of this drama’ (16 November 1833), while Auber’s music was dismissed by others as ‘trash’ (as, for instance, in Old England (17 November 1833)). To reiterate Fuhrmann’s analysis of the opera’s British reception that season, few ‘found Auber worthy of careful preservation’ (Foreign Opera, 190).

17 The Sun (14 November 1833).

18 Bunn recounted his travels in The Stage, 125–31.

19 See Dideriksen, ‘Repertory and Rivalry’, 176.

20 The Monthly Magazine (17 March 1834). Such remarks echoed comments made in reference to melodrama, as in an article for The Literary Guardian (19 November 1831), which voiced concerns that ‘the machinist, the painter, and the “picture” grouper were called into action’ instead of the poet.

21 The Athenaeum (16 November 1833).

22 The Metropolitan Magazine 6 (March 1833), 323.

23 The Examiner (17 November 1833). Peacock was primarily a novelist and poet but also wrote opera criticism for the paper.

24 See, for instance, The Examiner (17 November 1833): ‘a little too blue, but highly effective’ and The Sunday Herald (17 November 1833): ‘the scenery (by the three Grieves) is very beautiful; but we object to the green hue of the waters in the Distant View of Stockholm by Moonlight; but all stage moonlights, when reflected by lakes and seas, are apt to be so misrepresented’.

25 See, for instance, The Theatrical Observer (20 December 1833).

26 Robinson Planché, James, Gustavus the Third; or, The Masked Ball (London, 1833)Google Scholar. See Fuhrmann’s Foreign Opera, 183–94, and Dideriksen’s ‘Repertory and Rivalry’, 309–17, for a thorough account of the adaptation process, which I will not rehearse here. I am extremely grateful to Fuhrmann for sharing her work with me prior to the publication of Foreign Opera.

27 Leaving Gustav in Scribe’s form would also have run the risk of drawing parallels with the previous king, George IV, who was notorious for his legion of mistresses, including the wives of his friends. William IV, by contrast, was well liked and, since his coronation, had not been known as an adulterer. A more William IV-like Gustav, therefore, was equally likely to increase the pathos of the scene.

28 The term ‘eclipse[d]’ comes from The Courier (14 November 1833). The words ‘splendid’ and ‘brilliant’ were used in almost every review. To list but a few (all date from 14 November 1833 unless stated otherwise): The Albion and Star (similar to reviews in Bell’s Life in London and The Times); The Athenaeum (16 November); The Courier; The Literary Gazette (16 November); The Monthly Magazine (1 December); The Morning Chronicle; The News (17 November); The New Weekly Dispatch (24 November); Old England (17 November); The Standard (the same review was printed in The Morning Post); The St James Chronicle (almost the same review as in The Morning Herald and The London Packet); The Sun; and The True Sun. Auber’s music was described as ‘sparkling’ in the following issues from 14 November: The News; The St James Chronicle (same review also in The London Packet and The Morning Herald); The True Sun and The United Kingdom (on 17 November).

29 The Theatrical Observer (9 November 1833).

30 Planché, Gustavus the Third, 40. Scribe’s version also mentions that the ball should be ‘magnificently illuminated’, but does not use language relating to light in the chorus.

31 The Theatrical Inquisitor 1 (October 1820), 272. Due to such complaints, gaslight was removed from the King’s Theatre in 1821 (only to be reinstalled in 1828). See Hall-Witt, Fashionable Acts, 28.

32 Otter, The Victorian Eye, 27.

33 A letter to the editor of The Dramatic Magazine signed ‘Chiro-Medicus’ (1 December 1829). For more on fears about sensory overstimulation in everyday urban life, see Parker, Roger, ‘“As a Stranger Give it Welcome”: Musical Meanings in 1830s London’, in Representation in Western Music, ed. Joshua S. Walden (Cambridge, 2013), 3334 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Otter, The Victorian Eye, 40–98.

34 The Theatrical Inquisitor 1 (October 1820), 272.

35 See Otter, The Victorian Eye, 260–1.

36 Booth, Theatre in the Victorian Age, 85.

37 These fittings were described in an announcement in The Times (8 September 1817), recorded in Rees, Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas, 10.

38 See a report on Drury Lane in The Examiner (7 September 1817), quoted in Frederick Penzel, Theatre Lighting before Electricity (Middletown, CT, 1978), 39–41.

39 Note that such complaints had also been made when floating oil footlights were used, but became more common following the introduction of gas. See Roy, Donald and Emeljanow, Victor, Romantic and Revolutionary Theatre, 1789–1860 (Cambridge, 2003), 392 Google Scholar.

40 Gas brackets were the extension of a gas supply pipe out of the wall, which featured a control tap and a burner at the far end. See Rees, Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas, 94.

41 For more on the links between gas and modernity, see Nead, Lynda, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (New Haven, 2000), 8398 Google Scholar.

42 ‘A History of Gas’, Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (27 September 1834).

43 The Athenaeum (16 November 1833). ‘Rush-lights’, as the name implies, were candles made by lighting rushes.

44 Arnold’s Library of the Fine Arts 1 (November 1832), 61.

45 As noted by the critic for The Times (23 February 1835): ‘It is conceived in obvious emulation of the celebrated bal masqué of the opera of Gustavus’.

46 The Age (8 March 1835).

47 The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons (1 April 1835).

48 See Clark, Maribeth, ‘The Role of Gustave, ou Le bal masqué in Restraining the Bourgeois Body of the July Monarchy’, The Musical Quarterly 88 (2005), 211 Google Scholar.

49 The Figaro in London (23 November 1833).

50 For example, in The Age, it was said to have ‘surpassed’ the ‘blaze’ achieved in Paris (17 November 1833).

51 Bunn, The Stage, 131.

52 See Saglia, Diego, ‘Theatre, Drama, and Vision in the Romantic Age: Stages of the New’, in The Oxford Handbook of European Romanticism, ed. Paul Hamilton (Oxford, 2016), 759 Google Scholar.

53 Although some suspected that Véron’s true goal in visiting London was to scout out singing talent, a report in La Revue des modes de Paris (1 (1833), 385–6) read: ‘Le directeur de l’Opéra, M. Véron, est déjà de retour de Londres. Le but de son voyage était d’étudier le système d’éclairage appliqué aux théâtres anglais.’ For more on gaslight in Paris theatres, see Roy and Emeljanow, Romantic and Revolutionary Theatre, 385–90.

54 The Globe, quoted in The Age (17 November 1833).

55 The Spectator 6 (1833), 1075.

56 The News (17 November 1833). The actual number may have been a little higher; Bunn recorded in a letter that ‘on reference to our Gas Man, more than 1200 lights altogether’ were used on the stage for Gustavus (quoted in Rees, Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas, 13).

57 The Figaro in London (23 November 1833).

58 See Armstrong, Isobel, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830–1880 (Oxford, 2008)Google Scholar.

59 The Age (17 November 1833).

60 The Literary Gazette (12 January 1833).

61 See Hibberd, Sarah, ‘ Le Naufrage de la Méduse and Operatic Spectacle in 1830s Paris’, 19th-Century Music 36 (2013), 248263 Google Scholar; and Newark, ‘Metaphors for Meyerbeer’, 23–43.

62 See Hibberd, Sarah, ‘Auber’s Gustave III: History as Opera’, in Music, Theater and Cultural Transfer: Paris, 1830–1914, ed. Annegret Fauser and Mark Everist (Chicago, 2009), 168172 Google Scholar. This is supported by comments made by the French critic Jules Janin: ‘It is impossible to describe this endless madness, this whirl, this bizarrerie, on which the rays of two thousand wax tapers, in their crystal lustres, pour an inundation of mellow light. I, who am so well accustomed to spectacles like this – I, who am, unfortunately, not easily disposed to be surprised – I am yet dazzled with this radiant scene’, quoted and translated in Creathorne Clayton, Ellen, Queens of Song (New York, 1865), 324325 Google Scholar.

63 As in The Town: ‘innumerable cut glass chandeliers and golden candelabras’ (17 November 1833). Another exaggerated that there were ‘ten thousand lamps’ (The United Kingdom (17 November 1833)).

64 The Morning Post (and also in The Standard) (14 November 1833).

65 The Weekly Dispatch (17 November 1833). Crary has explored the ways in which artists attempted to represent visual overstimulation through the example of J.M.W. Turner’s Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge (1843) in Techniques of the Observer, 138–41.

66 The Times (14 November 1833). This review was repeated in Bell’s Life in London, The Observer and The Albion and Star.

67 The Age (17 November 1833).

68 Hibberd offers further detail on this in ‘Cockneys in a Fever’.

69 The Sunday Times (17 November 1833).

70 The Morning Post (and in The Standard) (14 November 1833) (the author here was possibly John Ella).

71 The Times (14 November 1833) (repeated in Bell’s Life in London, The Observer and The Albion and Star).

72 The Examiner (17 November 1833).

73 The Theatrical Examiner (17 November 1833).

74 Hibberd, French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination, 57.

75 Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, 134–41.

76 The Town (17 November 1833).

77 Nead has also suggested, in relation to spectacular scenes in the 1860s, that gaslight had the ability to create the illusion of reality on the stage (see Nead, Victorian Babylon, 100).

78 See Clark, ‘The Role of Gustave’, 216 and 211, and Hibberd, ‘Auber’s Gustave III’, 165–6.

79 As in Paris, the tradition declined somewhat in London after the eighteenth century, but masked balls still took place regularly at theatres and in private saloons. See Castle, Terry, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford, 1986), 331332 Google Scholar.

80 These characters are listed in a humorous review of Gustavus in the form of a song which appeared in The Age (1 December 1833).

81 Planché, Compare, Gustavus the Third, 40, and Scribe, Gustave III, ou Le Bal masqué, opéra historique en cinq actes suivi d’une relation de la mort de Gustave III extraite de l’ouvrage de M. Coxe sur la Suède (Paris, 1833), 68 Google Scholar.

82 The Weekly Dispatch (17 November 1833).

83 For a discussion of the Coburg’s looking-glass curtain, see Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, 97–9.

84 The Spectator 6 (1833), 1075.

85 See reports in The Morning Chronicle (1 May 1833), and The Age (26 January 1834).

86 An advertisement for a King’s Theatre ball reported in 1833: ‘The pit and stage made level will form a grand saloon’ (The Morning Chronicle (1 May 1833)). A similar practice could be found elsewhere, including Paris (see Clark, ‘The Role of Gustave’, 209–10).

87 This perk does not appear to have been publicised openly. It was reported in The Weekly Dispatch as follows: ‘we have been told that any person who chose might have tickets of admission to view the spectacle – if he would mingle in the group of the stage’ (17 November 1833).

88 The Age (17 November 1833): ‘We have seen a dozen Lords at a time on the stage, whom neither mask, nor domino, could at all conceal from us; and by the side of them, or among them, we have seen sundry Ambassadors … to the Court of St. James’s … enjoying themselves amongst the motley group.’

89 Rumours that ladies of the public could pay to appear in the grand finale were reported by Jules Janin in Le Journal de débats (11 March 1833) (see Clark, ‘The Role of Gustave’, 226). Eventually, Bunn stopped allowing gentlemen up on the stage, due to complaints that they danced awkwardly and tried to pursue the ballerinas (see The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance (1 January 1834)).

90 The Age (1 December 1833).

91 This said, Clark has pointed out that in Paris, too, audiences would often dance operas before they heard them. See ‘The Quadrille as Embodied Musical Experience in 19th-Century Paris’, The Journal of Musicology 19 (2002), 503–4.

92 The Theatrical Observer (2 April 1833).

93 The Morning Post reported on both events on 15 and 19 April 1833 respectively. Almack’s held another ball in June, which included Weippert’s band and these quadrilles again (see The Morning Post (28 June 1833)).

94 As reported in The Morning Chronicle (27 May 1833).

95 The News, for example, recorded that ‘a long list of fashionables’ was in attendance. The young Victoria noted attending the performance in her diary entry on 13 November 1833, but also that she did not enjoy it. In fact, she left at 10:45 pm, possibly before the finale began. See the transcriptions of her diaries at (accessed 17 August 2015).

96 The phrase ‘brilliantly illuminated’, which appeared frequently in relation to Gustavus, was a staple for advertising balls. A template, for instance, was used to advertise the King’s Theatre masked balls in the daily papers of 1833 and 1834 using the phrase (see issues of The Morning Post in March–May 1833 and The Morning Chronicle, April–May 1834), as was a masked ball at Drury Lane in 1829 (see The Age (28 June 1829)). It was used for balls beyond the theatres too, as in the report on Victoria’s birthday celebrations: ‘the entire suite of State Rooms were very brilliantly illuminated with chandeliers and candelabras’, The Morning Chronicle (27 May 1833).

97 This lighting in the auditorium is detailed in Foote, Horace, A Companion to the Theatres; and Manual of the British Drama (London, 1829), 49 Google Scholar.

98 These more intricate techniques had been introduced to London by Louis Daguerre and his moving dioramas in the 1820s. See Altick, Richard D., The Shows of London (Cambridge, MA, 1978), 190 Google Scholar.

99 The Morning Chronicle (14 November 1833).

100 The Examiner (17 November 1833).

101 The Age (1 December 1833).

102 Figaro in London (7 December 1833).

103 This problem was described in a letter from ‘a gallery frequenter’ printed in The Examiner (9 June 1833).

104 So strong was this distraction that soon the scene was separated out from the opera altogether. Following on from the success of the first season, Bunn programmed Gustavus every year until 1838, moving across to Drury Lane once he stopped managing Covent Garden in 1835. In most cases, Gustavus was not the main piece of the evening, and was placed after a play or another opera and reduced to either the first two acts or, more often, to the finale. Various sources had predicted that this would happen. For instance, in The Weekly Dispatch: ‘As a full opera this piece can never stand at first price. Curtailment may bring a few pounds of nine o’clock money, and the masquerade-scene may do ditto, as a sort of interlude’ (17 November 1833).

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