Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cantrice, Castrati e otre Bestie - Part III

The Rival Queens - Part I

The history of opera is riff with stories of rivalries between singers - male and female - though often those frictions are more in the minds of their supporters than of the favourites they champion.  Several modern day (i.e. late 20th century) examples spring to mind - rather disappointingly today the majority of operatic stars vow undying love for their peers and colleagues in syrupy air-kissy intermission features on High Definition broadcasts that make one long for the days of Maria Callas and her infamous comparison of her voice to Renata Tebaldi's.**

Gone are the days of a *Nellie Melba sailing through the red velvet curtains after pushing aside a young Giovanni Martinelli as the audience chanted his name with the remark that her dear public wanted their "Auntie Nellie".  Or the even more heady events of 6 June 1727 during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte when a battle royal or rather a battle before the royals broke out between the fans of the two reigning queens of song at Handel's Royal Academy of Music.

As an astounded Princess Caroline looked on Francesa Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni are reported to have heaped insults, in Italian, on each other and finally resorted to pulling each others hair as their adoring fans egged them on with catcalls, cheers and other "indecencies".  According to the local press the disheveled prime donne were escorted off stage, several of the audience arrested and the performance - and the opera season - was suspended.   There is sufficient proof that the press may have exaggerated the events of the battling donne (imagine our surprise!!!) and that the cause of the major disturbance were more the actions of  their devoted followers than the two singers themselves.  The Cuzzonists were led by Lady Pembroke who it is said encouraged her entourage to hiss Faustina.  This led to a satirical verse making the rounds of the town:
Old poets sing that beasts did dance 
Whenever Orpheus play’d, 
So to Faustina’s charming voice 
Wise Pembroke’s asses bray’d.
In fact the two ladies were considered the "best of enemies" and there is a possibility that behind the scenes they were on cordial if not sisterly terms.   The Royal Academy was not the first stage they had shared and, thought the concept was new for the London opera scene, it was not unknown in an Italy house to have two prime donne in the same opera.  There is also the very good possibility that the directors of the Royal Academy manipulated the situation to sell tickets for their often financially troubled company.

A playbill from 1747 for Lee's popular tragedy which
had pitted rival actresses against each other on the
English stage since 1677.  The same story had served
Paolo Antonio Rolli as the inspiration for his Alessandro
which featured the two "Rival Queens" of opera twenty
years earlier.
Cuzzoni and Bordoni first shared the London stage in Handel's Alessandro; the argument of which was well-known to English playgoers as the subject of Nathaniel Lee's popular and oft-revived 1677 tragedy The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great - a popular vehicle for rival actresses.   And a source had been feeding the press and public curiosity with stories of backstage intrigue and tensions for several weeks before the prima.   The occasion itself passed without incident - the only fireworks being the vocal ones on stage.  Handel had provided music of equal brilliance for each of them.  He had made sure that both roles were of equal length and wrote one short duet (Placa l'alma) for the two of them.  He knew Cuzzoni's abilities and style well but based Faustina's music on what he knew of her previous repertoire.  Later he was to replace two of her arias with music that he felt exploited her abilities more completely.

Their joint appearance was a great success and the coffers of the Royal Academy were filled by a public that began to clamour for tickets to see the "Rival Queens".  After that first overwhelming triumph the city waited impatiently to see what Handel, Bononcini and company were going to create for the two of them.   And they were not to be disappointed: Handel wrote five works that featured the two divas.  It must not have been an easy task as he had to pay particular attention to who got what to sing, when they got to sing it and with whom.  And the abilities and demands of the great castrato Senesino had to be considered - Francesco Bernardi, the third member of Handel's "dream team",  was not know to give up centre stage easily.  It was a delicate balancing act.

The "rivalry" continued in the 1727-28 season however when Bordoni was offered a salary that was one guinea more than Cuzzoni for the next season  the soprano reacted to the insult by almost immediately packing her bags and returning to the continent. The financially troubled company hoped the affair would soon be forgotten but they had not such luck.   That same season John Gay's The Beggar's Opera opened and Handel's bickering divas were immortalized as the back-biting heroines Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit.  The much worshiped goddess had become a source of fun and the pretensions of Italian opera the butt of a very successful satire.

By 1729 the Academy declared bankruptcy and was dissolved.   Bordoni was never to appear in England again however Cuzzoni was to make an ill-fated return several years later.

A ticket for a performance of The Beggar's Opera at Covent Garden for the benefit of Thomas Walker the original MacHeath.  It shows the unhappy Captain trapped between his battling "wives".  The design is attributed to Hogarth.

As mention Cuzzoni and Faustina had first appeared together in Venice and were great favourites there - and both had been the subjects of Anon Maria Zanetti's satirical pen.

 Francesca Cuzzoni 


Born in Parma in 1700 (?) Francesca Cuzzoni (called la Parmigiana) made her debut in her home town at the age of 16 in Dafni, a pastoral opera, starring Vittoria Tesi.  However she was not to remain in the shadow of other singers for long.  By 1718 she was appearing on the stage of San Giovanni Grisostomo with Faustina Bordoni and Antonio Bernacchi.  She went on to appear on the major stages of Italy and in 1722 debuted with Handel's Royal Academy in London.   She had been enticed to make the channel crossing, accompanied by her husband the harpsichordist, teacher and composer Pier Giuseppe Sandoni, by a £2000 salary and the proceeds of a benefit.

Cuzzoni had appeared many times with the renowned male soprano Nichola Grimaldi or Nicolino.  The
Carnivale season of 1730 they appeared in three operas - Idaspe, Artaserese and Mitridate; Zanetti
neglected to note which of the three was lined in this caricature
Cussoni was not known for her stage presence - she was a cold actress by the days' standards - nor her personal beauty - her receding chin is perfectly captured in Zanetti's caricature and badly hidden in one of the few official portraits.  Nor was she known for her sense of style - singers provided their own wardrobe as them moved from stage to stage and her's was often remarked upon as being rather dowdy.  However it should be noted that the brown silk dress shot with silver that she wore in Rodelinda set a fashion trend amongst the younger ladies of London.  With Cussoni it was her vocal talents that enchanted as Cleopatra, Rodelinda, Asteria and several other damsels in distress that Handel,  Bononcini and her husband wrote for her.

The painter of one of the few "official" portraits of Francesca
Cuzzoni did his best to highlight the lady's better features.
What he could not capture was the magic of her voice which
overrode any physical shortcomings she may have had.
Her London debut was as Teofane in Handel's Ottone on January 12, 1723. The story is often told that she had found that "Falsa immagine"***, her first aria, was not to her liking: she felt it was too simple and did not display her talents to their fullest.  She also had a sneaking suspicion that it had been originally written for Maddalena Salvai, Handel's previous prima donna.  Handel, who unlike many of the composers of his time would only indulge singers' whims so far, is said to have grabbed her by the waist and threatened to throw her out the window, growling: Madame you are a devil, but I will make you know that I am Beelzebub, King of the Devils.  A cowed Cuzzoni sang the aria and her debut was an incredible success.  The Royal Academy also basked in financial success with ticket prices doubling and tripling for subsequent performances.

She had a range of two octaves and her high notes were said to be unrivaled in clearness and sweetness.   It was reported that she seemed incapable of singing out of tune and had a true intonation that impressed even her rivals.  Her unaffected style fit the sympathetic roles that Handel wrote for her. 

After leaving London following the aforementioned salary insult she travelled to various opera houses in Europe and met with success everywhere but Vienna where her outrageous salary demands met with a cold reception from the local impresario.   Though she and Sandoni had separated she appeared in his operas in Venice, Modena, Bologna, Naples, Piacenz and during Carnivale seasons in 1730-1734.  In 1734 she returned to London as prima donna for the ill-fated Opera of the Nobility.  The company folded after one season and Cuzzoni made her way back to the Continent.

"Though Tuneful Scarecrow and Thou Warbling Bird" by Joseph Goupy was said to be based on a design
by the Countess of Burlington.  Farinelli and Cuzzoni had been hired by James John Heidegger, a Swiss
entrepreneur seen here lurking in the background, to perform in London. Goupy's caricature of Handel is
said to have ended their friendship.

Though she was to continue giving concerts it appears that her last operatic performance was in Hamburg in 1741.  That same year it was rumoured and gleefully reported by at least one London newspaper that she had been charged with poisoning her husband and was to be executed.  She and Sandori had been long separated and her reported act of mariticide was a good seven years before his actual demise of natural causes.

Her appointment in 1746 as court singer in Stuttgart was cut short when she left the city leaving a large number of unpaid debts.    Cuzzoni's demand for astronomical fees may have been more than a matter of prestige - she was often in debt and one of her last appearances in London was a benefit in May of 1751.  The advertisement for the concert including a begging note from the prima donna stating: "I am so extremely sensible of the many Obligations I have already received from the Nobility and Gentry of this Kingdom ... that nothing but extreme necessity and a desire of doing justice, could induce me to trouble them again, but being unhappily involved in a few Debts, am extremely desirous of attempting every Thing in my Power to pay them, before I quit England ..."  Sadly the concert was not a success and Walpole called her "old Cuzzoni" and Burney remarked on her "thin, cracked voice".  She left London for Holland shortly after; however once again the problem of debts followed her and she spent some time in Debtor's Prison.  The Prison Governor allowed her to earn money from performing to gradually pay back her creditors.

After that her name was noticeably missing from playbills or announcements and she faded from the music scene.  It is known that she went to Bologna and spent the remaining years of her life there living in poverty.  It was rumored that she found employment as a button maker and on her death in 1770 the once great prima donna left neither estate nor family. 

If Cuzzoni died in penury life after London was to be an entirely different story for her rival.

...  to be continued.

*I repeat this story with the possibility that it is an operatic urban legend but if it didn't happen it could have!

** Again possibly another operatic legend but during an interview with Time Magazine Callas is  quoted as saying that comparing her to Tebaldi was like comparing champagne with Coca-Cola.  However a bystander insists she said "champagne to cognac" and some else quipped "No, to Coca-cola" which the interviewer then attributed to Callas.

***This link will take you to a lovely performance by Rose Manion from a rather unusual programme aired in the UK called "A Night with Handel" filmed in and around modern London.

May 18 - 1944:  Deportation of Crimean Tatars by the government of the  Soviet Union.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many many thanks for such interesting stories!
Allow me to be so daring and tell you, that the lady of this portrait is Susannah Cibber.