Michael William Balfe

By Basil Walsh

 The Opéra Comique

Michael William Balfe (Dublin, 1808—Hertfordshire, England, 1870) came from a musical background, his father being a dancing master who gave classes in Dublin and Wexford. Michael Balfe’s musical gifts were already apparent at an early age. He gave his first concert as a soloist at the Rotunda Concert Rooms in central Dublin in 1817 at age nine. He continued to perform in concerts over the next few years. He had his first song, The Lover's Mistake, published in Dublin in 1822. Eager to learn and gain professional status, Balfe was drawn to London where there was more opportunity for him. The catalyst came in 1823, when his father died, putting pressure on the young Balfe to bring money into the household for his mother and sisters. Fortunately, Balfe never lacked confidence or self-assurance. In that same year, aged just 15 years, Balfe thus went to the capital of the British Empire, where he initially studied music with C.F. Horn, a teacher and organist at St. Georges Chapel Royale at Windsor. He also managed to get himself engaged as a violinist at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where the orchestra was directed by fellow Dubliner, Thomas S. Cooke. He gave his first solo concerts at Drury Lane Theatre on March 19, 1823. Balfe quickly began to take on new challenges as a vocalist, but without much success. Having gained the patronage of a visiting Italian nobleman, the Count Mazzara, Balfe decided to move to Rome in 1825  for vocal study and musical composition.

The young Irishman’s first substantial stay on mainland Europe was in Paris in early 1827, when the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini—whom Balfe had already met in the French capital on his way down to Rome in late 1825—introduced him to the renowned composer Gioachino Rossini. Balfe played and sung for Rossini at the latter’s home at the Hôtel Ronseray at 10-12, Boulevard Montmartre (9th arrondissement, building no longer exists). Rossini was so impressed by Balfe’s performance that he promised to advance the Irishman’s career as long as he underwent further vocal training. Thus it was that after more singing lessons, Balfe, then aged just 19, landed the role of Figaro in a production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Comédie Italienne, debuting in January 1828. (The Comédie Italienne where Balfe performed on rue Favart (2nd arrondissement) burned down in 1838. Renamed the Opéra Comique, it went up in flames again during a performance in May 1887, with the loss of 400 lives. The present incarnation of the Opéra Comique was built in 1894-1898).

 L'Etoile de Séville libretto  The Salon Erard
Balfe remained almost two years in Paris, during which time he performed opposite the legendary singers, Maria Malibran and Henriette Sontag. The relationship he developed during this period with Malibran in particular would be very helpful to Balfe's career in later years. 

The Irishman returned to Italy at the end of 1828 with a letter of introduction from Rossini. During the next several years, he composed the incidental music for a ballet at the Teatro Canobbiana in Milan (1825) and three operas that were performed quite successfully in Palermo (1829), Pavia (1831) and Milan (1833). While in Milan, he sang in Rossini's Otello at La Scala alongside Maria Malibran. Later in 1833, he again partnered with Malibran in Venice in operas by Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini. It was during this period that Malibran nicknamed Balfe "le Rossini anglais". During his Italian sojourn, Balfe met and married Lina Roser, a young soprano who was having a successful career in Milan, Bergamo, Parma and other opera centres. Lina Roser-Balfe was the daughter of Franz de Paula Roser, a well-established Austrian composer of 65 operettas who once had studied with Wolfgang Mozart, while Lina studied with one of Mozart's sons, Karl Thomas Mozart. 

After moving to London in 1835 with his wife and new-born daughter, Louisa "Gigia", Balfe continued to sing in operas and concerts. He also plunged wholeheartedly into operatic composition, with a new work, The Siege of Rochelle, premiered at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in October 1835. This opera catapulted Balfe to fame. The following year, with The Maid of Artois, Balfe made good on his promise to compose an opera for his friend Maria Malibran who, alas, died from injuries incurred in a horse-riding accident four months after she sung in the work’s premiere in London. During this period, Balfe also composed arrangements for Thomas Moore's Melodies.

 Fire at the Académie Royale
In late 1837, Balfe moved again to Paris, taking an apartment in rue de la Victoire (9th arrondissement), where his second daughter was born, but work soon brought him back to the British capital. In September 1841, Balfe moved yet again from London to Paris after an opera venture he had backed went bankrupt. In the French capital, he presented a number of operatic works for the Opéra Comique, including the much-acclaimed Le Puits d’Amour, which premiered at the Opéra Comique in April 1843. During this Parisian sojourn, Balfe met up with his Limerick-born musician friend, George Alexander Osborne (Limerick, 1806—London,1893), who had previously helped Balfe to practice for the role of Figaro in The Barber of Seville. Osborne, who was a friend of Frédéric Chopin, Franz List, Rossini, Berlioz and the latter’s Irish wife, Harriet Smithson, among others, now introduced Balfe to fellow members of the Paris musical coterie. One of these was Pierre Erard (nephew of the famous piano manufacturer, Sébastien), who organized a ‘Grand Concert Balfe’ at his salon in Paris in March 1842. In the course of over half a century (from 1823 to 1878), the famous Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Listz played frequently at the Salon Erard, which continues to function as a concert hall at 13, rue du Mail (2nd arrondissement). In the French capital, he presented a new operatic work , the much-acclaimed Le Puits d'Amour, with a libretto by Eugène Scribe, which premiered at the Opéra Comique (as the Théâtre Italien was now known) in April 1843.

Balfe was back in London in November 1843 for the premiere of his most popular opera The Bohemian Girl. Over the following couple of years, he travelled frequently between Paris and London in tandem with the staging of his latest opera, Les quatre fils Aymon, in July 1844. In December 1845, he produced L’Etoile de Seville at the Académie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera), a unique distinction for a composer from the British Isles. Fellow composers Frédéric Chopin, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Daniel Auber all attended the premiere. Les quatre fils Aymon  had a stellar cast and ran for 15 performances, which meant it was a considerable success. The premises of the Académie Royale—which has changed its name several times over the course of history and now finds itself incarnated in the Opéra National de Paris—were on the rue Le Peletier (2nd arrondissement) before being destroyed by fire in 1873.
 Balfe statue in the Theatre Royal
Balfe was again in Paris in1868 and 1869 to work on the local production of The Bohemian Girl, which premièred at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet (1st arrondissement) on December 30, 1869. Later, just like the Comédie Italienne and the opera house in the rue Le Peletier, the 
Théâtre Lyrique was to be destroyed. It was one of a number of buildings destroyed during fighting between Communards and government troops in May 1871.
Balfe’s last visit to Paris was in 1869-1870, when he gave an address at 154, avenue des Champs Elysées (8th arrondissement). During this final stay in Paris, Balfe attended a celebrated production of La Bohémienne ( the French version of The Bohemian Girl)--described by Sinéad Sturgeon as “the only nineteenth-century British opera to enjoy a genuinely international reputation”. In 1991, Enya included the most famous aria from The Bohemian Girl, 'I dreamed I dwelt in marble halls", on her album Shepherd Moons. 
Early in 1870, Balfe was flattered to learn that he had been awarded the Legion of Honour by the French emperor, Napoleon III, for his services to music in France.  In all, Balfe composed 28 operas. Three of them were written exclusively for Paris theatres, each of which was a success. The French version of his most popular opera, The Bohemian Girl, was significantly augmented by additional vocal music and a ballet. (An earlier, shorter version was performed in Rouen in 1862). The three French operas Balfe composed were later given German- and English-language librettos and were performed successfully in places such as London, Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Hamburg and several other cities. Most of Balfe's original operatic scores are available in the British Library.
Select Bibliography
Michael William Balfe
Michael W. Balfe—A Unique Victorian Composer (2008)
Basil Walsh
"Michael W. Balfe, the ‘Irish Italian’", Basil Walsh, in History Ireland, vol. 11, issue 1, Spring 2003