Naturalising Semiramide in 1842: Adaptation, Spectacle and English Prima Donnas

Hutchinson, Catherine Lucy Jean. 2019. Naturalising Semiramide in 1842: Adaptation, Spectacle and English Prima Donnas. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis examines how Rossini’s Semiramide was adapted by T.H. Reynoldson for Covent Garden in 1842, where it was mounted for the first time in the English language, in a spectacular production. Semiramide was performed by Adelaide Kemble, a compelling actress who overturned what had been the dominant interpretation of the role, Giuditta Pasta’s, creating a new one that was vulnerable and womanly. Mary Shaw as Arsace had a refined simplicity and gave meaning to recitative in a way that was unknown in England. With their high standard, Kemble and Shaw were seen as English singers who could compete as equals with the fashionable foreign singers at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The transfer of Semiramide to Covent Garden resulted in an entanglement of English, Italian and other cultural values and operatic practices.

The main purpose of this study is, through a close reading of newspapers, memoirs, letters and other contemporary documents, as well as existing iconography, to examine how the opera was ‘naturalised’ for Covent Garden; and to test how well Werner and Zimmermann’s model of histoire croisée and Homi Bhabha’s theories about ambivalence can be applied to this revival of Rossini’s opera. In so doing, it analyses the norms, prejudices and preoccupations of the interpretative communities of the adapters, singers and critics.

I argue that the adaptation and spectacle tilted the opera towards the populist genres of melodrama and pantomime. I also propose that Kemble and Shaw’s performances represented a fusion of English and Italian singing. On a larger scale, this study shines a light on the values and performance practices in London theatres at the time and adds to the body of literature about operatic adaptations and staging, as well as prima donna culture

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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Prima donna culture, London performance practice, operatic adaptation, cultural transfer, Adelaide Kemble, Mary Shaw

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31 May 2019

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

18 Jun 2019 10:37

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:14


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