Michael William Balfe (Dublin, 1808—Hertfordshire, England, 1870) came from a musical background, his father being an eminent violinist and dancing master. Michael Balfe’s musical gifts were already apparent at an early age. Eager to learn, Balfe must have realised early on that to perfect his art he had little choice but to look outside a country that has precious little by way of a tradition of classical or operatic music. The catalyst came in 1823, when his father died, putting pressure on the young Balfe to bring money into the household. In that year, aged just 15 years, Balfe went to London, where he studied music, was engaged as a violinist at the Theatre Royal, and also did some opera singing. Having gained the patronage of an Italian nobleman, the Count Mazzara, Balfe decided to move to Rome in 1825 to study, sing professionally, and compose musical compositions of his own.
The Irishman’s first substantial stay in Paris commenced in early 1827, when the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini—whom Balfe had already met on his way down to Rome in late 1825—introduced him to the 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 training. Thus it was that after more singing lessons, Balfe, then aged just 19, landed the role of Figaro in a production Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Théâtre Italien debuting in January 1828. (The Théâtre Italien 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).
Balfe remained almost two years in Paris, during which time he came to know the legendary opera singer Maria Malibran, who bestowed upon Balfe the title of “le Rossini anglais”. The Irishman returned to Italy at the end of 1828, where he was to spend the most part of the following six years, composing three operas and one ballet, and singing in that country’s main opera venues, including the Teatro della Scala in Milan. After moving to London in 1835, Balfe plunged wholeheartedly into operatic composition. Balfe composed new arrangements for Thomas Moore’s Melodies and had a resounding success with a new work, The Siege of Rochelle, which premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in October 1835. 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.
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 December 30, 1869. It would seem that Balfe placed a curse on all the Parisian theatres he worked in, for, just like the Théâtre Italien and the opera house in the rue Le Peletier, the Théâtre Lyrique was to be destroyed by fire. The Salle du Théâtre Lyrique, which was on the Place du Châtelet (1st arrondissement), 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. During this final stay in Paris, Balfe attended a celebrated production of The Bohemian Girl (described by Sinéad Sturgeon as “the only nineteenth-century British opera to enjoy a genuinely international reputation”) and was awarded the Legion of Honour.
Michael William Balfe
Michael W. Balfe—A Unique Victorian Composer (2008)
"Michael W. Balfe, the ‘Irish Italian’", Basil Walsh, in History Ireland, vol. 11, issue 1, Spring 2003