Staging Manfred

Alfred Bunn’s production of Manfred (Covent Garden, October 29,1834 to February 18, 1835) maintained a successful season and was regularly performed during subsequent years. The major constituents, however, were in unfortunate competition. Stage lighting gave emphasis to the immense paintings by Thomas and William Grieve. The playbill forewarned the audience that “Chandeliers around the Front of the Boxes will not be used on the Evenings of the Performance of Manfred.” The backdrop paintings were crucial to Bunn’s production. “In order to produce the necessary effects of Light and Shade,” downstage action took place in the shadows. Henry Gaskell Denvil in the lead role as Manfred sought to impersonate the author, though dead and gone, reanimating himself as the character condemned to an internal vigil. His performance was intended as another stage enactment of Lord Byron and his personal scandal, representing on stage an impersonation of Byron performing the role of the Byronic character. The impersonations had become more familiar to London audiences than any of the fading memories of the poet. As Byron himself confessed, Edmund Kean was exceptionally skilled in his impersonations. When Denvil took on the role of Manfred at Covent Garden, his performance was burdened by expectations that he would not simply impersonate Byron in that role, but also reprise Edmund Kean’s well-known impersonations of Byron. Also competing with Denvil’s performance as a voice in the shadows beneath the vast backdrop paintings, was the full orchestral score by Henry Rowley Bishop, who rearranged lyrics as popular opera with elaborate solos and choruses. Among the most striking alterations was the retention of the song of the witches (“As the raven sits / On the raven stone”) from the concluding scene of Byron’s original version. Bishop has transformed the song for Ellen Tree, with chorus, at the close of her scene as the Witch of the Alps. Bishop also altered Byron’s revised conclusion, substituting a song made of lines from The Giaour (“This—as the stream and ocean greet”). Bunn succeeded in adapting Manfred as a spectacular musical production, but Bishop’s abbreviated and rearranged libretto deprived the audience of much of Byron’s dramatic poem.