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The History of 'The Bohemian Girl'
An Opera by Michael William Balfe

"The Bohemian Girl" was first produced at Drury Lane Theatre on November 27, 1843. Sir Julius Benedict was then the musical chief at Drury Lane, but Balfe himself conducted the first performance.

At this performance, the audience went almost wild with enthusiasm. "I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls" and "Then you’ll remember me" were twice repeated. For a few nights after the initial representation, however, the opera did not draw. The audiences that came were indeed enthusiastic, but it was not until nearly a fortnight had passed that there was anything like adequate houses. In consequence of this Balfe had in the meantime gone to Paris, where he had other engagements on hand. But Drury Lane was filling up every night, and at last Bunn was in a position to send this message to the composer: "Come back to London. The ‘Bohemian Girl’ is a triumph. Houses crammed every night."

And so it went on till the hundredth night. Messrs. Chappell had given Balfe £500 for the right of printing and publishing the songs, and such was the demand for copies of these that they repaid themselves in a very short time. Bunn received £100 from the same firm for the use of the words. The melodies were snatched up and sung everywhere in an incredibly short time. They were warbled to countless pianos, whistled by errand-boys, ground out on barrel-organs till, as one put it, they "beat upon the ear night and day like the waves of the restless ocean." The success of the opera and its influence upon society were, in fact, unparalleled. Mr. W. A. Barrett, Balfe’s latest biographer, says that everything was tinged with a gipsy complexion. Scores of songs relating to gipsy life were issued from the Press. Novelists wrote stories in which were revived the old worked-up incidents connected with the wandering tribe. Readers began to inquire for George Borrow’s book on the "Gipsies of Spain," issued two years before, and his publishers were encouraged to produce a new book by him in consequence of the success of the first. In short, the town was gipsy mad, and all because of "The Bohemian Girl."

Nor did the popularity of the opera cease with its run in London. Staudigl, the eminent basso, produced it in a German version, and so popular did it become in the critical Fatherland that it was played at three different theatres in Vienna at the same time. It is one of the very few English operas that have ever achieved such distinction. In its Italian form it was produced at Drury Lane as "La Zingara" in February 1858, with Mdlle. Piccolomini as Arline, and Giuglini as Thaddeus. Giuglini’s rendering of "When other lips" was so exquisite that he was invariably encored. On this particular evening one encore was not sufficient for the audience, and Piccolomini, whose part obliged her to remain on the stage listening to his love song, grew weary of the reiterated call for a repetition and calmly fetched a chair and sat herself down with a resigned look on her face, much to Giuglini’s disgust. The French version, called "La Bohémienne," for which Balfe added several numbers and extended his original to five Acts, was produced at the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, in December 1869, and gained for Balfe the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

It may be added, in supplement of what has been said about the first production of "The Bohemian Girl" in 1843, that at the close of the hundredth performance Balfe was led on the stage and presented with a valuable tea-service. The inscription read: "To Mr. M. W. Balfe, the composer of eleven successful operas in London." Somebody subsequently remarked to Gilbert à Becket that it seemed odd to present an Irishman with a tea-service, whereupon the inveterate punster replied that he supposed it was in allusion to the Bohemian Girl!

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