Riot at the opera

Thomas Arne
Public domain

A new exhibition has just gone up in the Anderson Room display cases celebrating Thomas Arne’s Tricentenary. One of the really fun things about curating an exhibition is learning all kinds of things that you never knew before. For me the great discovery was Arne’s opera, Artaxerxes, now largely forgotten, during his lifetime it was his most popular work.

The first English opera seria, it was premiered in February, 1762 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. It was immediately popular, and had great reviews. The St. James’s Chronicle lavished praise on the work “….so excellent in its kind, that it will probably stand as one of the chefs d’oeuvres of that very great Master [i.e. Arne]. The airs are most admirably set and all the accompanyments [sic] inimitable.” Its popularity led to it being revived in the following February, but unfortunately events conspired to make the revival notorious.

It had been customary to sell theatre seats at full-price if you wished to see the entire show (typically a shorter play, the main feature which might be a play or an opera, and possibly several entr’actes), or half-price if you only joined the show after the third act of the main attraction. In February 1763 this was changed, when the management of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre, who were effectively running a ticket-pricing cartel, decided to charge full-price at whatever point in the performance the audience arrived. Pamphlets were published, and audience members rioted at Drury Lane – ladies were advised to leave the theatre as the house was about to be set on fire. A more muted riot took place at Covent Garden, and was quickly dispelled when the manager, John Beard, acceded to the rioters’ demands.

Riot at a performance of Artaxerxes, Covent Garden, February 1763 (photo public domain, Wikimedia)

However on February 23rd, they returned in force, this time to a performance of Artaxerxes. Beard now refused to back down, and insisted on charging full-price, and in spite of the singers’ best attempts to get on with the opera, the stage was stormed, and the opera stopped. By 9.30 p.m. when the management were showing no signs of giving into audience demands, the rioters had enough, and started to tear down the chandeliers and the pillars supporting the gallery. They caused an incredible £2,000 worth of damage – this at a time when a servant-girl’s annual wage would amount to little more than £4. A print by L.P. Boitard to commemorate the Fitzgiggo riot (as it came to be known taking its name from Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, the pamphleteer and eminence grise behind the riots) was released shortly afterwards, and is one of the earliest illustrations of a riot taking place in a theatre. The singers masterfully attempt to repel boarders, but it is clearly a lost cause.

Artaxerxes continued to be a staple of the English operatic scene until well into the 1830s. Haydn, visiting London in 1791, was astonished by the opera. But by 1814, it was over-performed, with even “Jane Austen complaining that “I was very tired of Artaxerxes.” Having been dropped from the standard repertoire it has only recently been revived at Covent Garden, this time, thankfully, in a rather more peaceful production than that of 1763.

Come and see our Arne exhibition – it’s on at the University Library until January 10th. And why not listen to Artaxerxes, available from the Pendlebury Library, classmark CD.C.489.

About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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