MoboReader > Literature > Great Singers, First Series / Faustina Bordoni To Henrietta Sontag

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Great Singers, First Series / Faustina Bordoni To Henrietta Sontag By George T. Ferris Characters: 10123

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


During the early portion of the eighteenth century the art of the stage excited the interests and passions of the English public to a degree never equaled since. Politics and religion hardly surpassed it in the power of creating cabals and sects and in stirring up animosities. This was specially marked in music. The great Handel, who had not then found his true vocation as an oratorio composer, was in the culmination of his power as manager of the opera, though he was irritated by hostile factions. The musical quarrels of the time were almost as interesting as the Gluck-Piccini war in Paris in the latter part of the same century, and the literati took part in it with a zest and wit not less piquant and noticeable. Handel, serenely grand in his musical conceptions, was personally passionate and fretful; and the contest of satire, scandal, and witticism raged without intermission between him and his rivals, supported on each hand by princes and nobles, and also by the great dignitaries of the republic of letters. In this tumult the singers (always a genus irritabile, like the race of poets) who belonged to the opera companies took an active part.

Not the least noteworthy episode of this conflict was the feud between two foremost sirens of the lyric stage, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. When the brilliant Faustina appeared in London, as a fresh importation of Handel, who was as indefatigable in purveying novelties as any modern Mapleson or Strakosch, Cuzzoni was the idol of the public, having succeeded to that honor after Anastasia Robinson retired from the stage as Countess of Peterborough. Handel some years before had introduced Cuzzoni to the English stage, and, though kept in constant turmoil by her insolence and caprice, had taken great pains to display her fine voice by the composition of airs specially suited to her. It is recorded that one morning, after she had refused at rehearsal to sing a song written for her by the master, such rage took possession of Handel that he seized her fiercely, and threatened to hurl her from the window unless she succumbed. One of the arias composed for this singer extorted from Main-waring, a musician bitterly at odds with Handel, the remark, "The great bear was certainly inspired when he wrote that song."

Cuzzoni's popularity with the public had so augmented her native conceit and insolence as to make a rival unbearable. Though she was ugly and ill made, of a turbulent and obstinate temper, ungrateful and capricious, she deported herself as if she possessed all the graces of beauty, art, and genius, and regarded the allegiance of the public as her native right. London had indeed given her some claim to this arrogance, as from the first it had treated her with brilliant distinction, so that fashionable ladies had adopted the style of her stage dresses, and duels were fought by the young "bucks" and "swells" of the time over the right to escort her to her carriage. The bitterness with which Cuzzoni hated Faustina was aggravated by the fact that the latter, in addition to her great ability as a singer, was younger, far more beautiful, and of most fascinating and amiable manner. Handel and the directors of the King's theatre were in ecstasies that they had secured two such exquisite singers; but their joy was destined to receive a sudden check in the bitter squabbles which speedily arose. Indeed, the two singers did not meet in battle for the first time, for seven years before they had been rival candidates for favor in Italy. Faustina Bordoni possessed remarkable beauty of figure and face, an expression full of fire and intelligence, to which she united tact, amiability, and prudence. As singers the rivals were nearly equal; for Faustina, while surpassing the Cuzzoni in power of execution, had not the command of expression which made the latter's art so pathetic and touching. Dr. Barney, the musical historian, and father of Madame d'Arblay, describes Cuzzoni in these words: "A native warble enabled her to execute divisions with such facility as to conceal every appearance of difficulty; and so soft and touching was the natural tone of her voice, that she rendered pathetic whatever she sang, in which she had leisure to unfold its whole volume. The art of conducting, sustaining, increasing, and diminishing her tones by minute degrees, acquired for her among professors the title of complete mistress of her art. In a canta-bile air, though the notes she added were few, she never lost a favorable opportunity of enriching the cantilena with all the refinements and embellishments of the time. Her shake was perfect; she had a creative fancy, and the power of occasionally accelerating and retarding the measure in the most artificial manner by what the Italians call tempo rubato. Her high notes were unrivaled in clearness and sweetness, and her intonations were so just and fixed that it seemed as if it were not in her power to sing out of tune." The celebrated flute-player Quantz, instructor of Frederick II., also gave Dr. Burn

ey the following account of Faustina's artistic qualities: "Faustina had a mezzo-soprano voice, that was less clear than penetrating. Her compass now was only from B flat to G in alt; but after this time she extended its limits downward. She possessed what the Italians call un cantar granito; her execution was articulate and brilliant. She had a fluent tongue for pronouncing words rapidly and distinctly, and a flexible throat for divisions, with so beautiful a shake that she put it in motion upon short notice, just when she would. The passages might be smooth, or by leaps, or consisting of iterations of the same note; their execution was equally easy to her as to any instrument whatever. She was, doubtless, the first who introduced with success a swift repetition of the same note. She sang adagios with great passion and expression, but was not equally successful if such deep sorrow were to be impressed on the hearer as might require dragging, sliding, or notes of syncopation and tempo rubato. She had a very happy memory in arbitrary changes and embellishments, and a clear and quick judgment in giving to words their full value and expression. In her action she was very happy; and as her performance possessed that flexibility of muscles and face-play which constitute expression, she succeeded equally well in furious, tender, and amorous parts. In short, she was born for singing and acting."

Faustina's amiability would have kept her on good terms with a rival; but Cuzzoni's malice and envy ignored the fact that their respective qualities were rather adapted to complement than to vie with each other. Handel, who had a world of trouble with his singers, strove to keep them on amicable terms, but without success. The town was divided into two parties: the Cuzzoni faction was headed by the Countess of Pembroke, and that of Faustina by the Countess of Burlington and Lady Delawar, while the men most loudly declared for the Venetian beauty.

At last the feud came to a climax. On the 20th of June, 1727, a brilliant gathering of rank and fashion filled the opera-house to hear the two prime donne, who were to sing together. On their appearance they were received with a storm of mingled hissing and clapping of hands, which soon augmented into a hurricane of catcalls, shrieking, and stamping. Even the presence of royalty could not restrain the wild uproar, and accomplished women of the world took part in these discordant sounds. Dr. Arbuthnot, in alluding to the disgraceful scene, wrote in the "London Journal" this stinging rebuke: "?sop's story of the cat, who, at the petition of her lover, was changed into a fine woman, is pretty well known; notwithstanding which alteration, we find that upon the appearance of a mouse she could not resist the temptation of springing out of his arms, though it was on the very wedding night. Our English audience have been for some time returning to their cattish nature, of which some particular sounds from the gallery have given us sufficient warning. And since they have so openly declared themselves, I must only desire that they must not think they can put on the fine woman again just when they please, but content themselves with their skill in caterwauling." The following epigram was called out by the proceedings of the evening, which were mostly stimulated by the Pembroke party, who supported Cuzzoni:

"Old poets sing that beasts did dance

Whenever Orpheus played:

So to Faustina's charming voice

Wise Pembroke's asses brayed."

The two fair cantatrices even forgot themselves so far as to come to blows on several occasions, and the scandalous chronicle of the times was enlivened with epigrams, lampoons, libels, and duels in rapid succession. This amusing but disgraceful feud was burlesqued in a farce called "Contretemps, or The Rival Queens," which was performed at Heidigger's theatre. Faustina as the Queen of Bologna and Cuzzoni as Princess of Modena were made to seize each other by the hair, and lacerate each other's faces. Handel looks on with cynical attention, and calmly orders that the antagonists be "left to fight it out, inasmuch as the only way to calm their fury is to let them satisfy it."

The directors of the opera finally solved the difficulty in the following manner: Cuzzoni had solemnly sworn never to accept a guinea less than her rival. As Faustina was far more attractive and manageable, she was offered just one guinea more than Cuzzoni, who learning the fact broke her contract in a fury of indignation, and accepted a Viennese engagement. The well-known Ambrose Philips addressed the following farewell lines to the wrathful singer:

"Little siren of the stage,

Charmer of an idle age,

Empty warbler, breathing lyre,

Wanton gale of fond desire;

Bane of every manly art,

Sweet enfeebler of the heart;

Oh! too pleasing is thy strain.

Hence to southern climes again,

Tuneful mischief, vocal spell;

To this island bid farewell:

Leave us as we ought to be-

Leave the Britons rough and free."

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