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Great Singers, First Series / Faustina Bordoni To Henrietta Sontag By George T. Ferris Characters: 7572

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Faustina Bordoni, who from the time of her radiant début was known as the "New Siren," was the daughter of a noble Venetian family, formerly one of the governing families of the republic. Born in the year 1700, she began to study her art at an early age under Gasparoni, who developed a beautiful and flexible voice to the greatest advantage. She made her first appearance at the age of sixteen in Pollarolo's "Ariodante," and her beauty, which was ravishing, her exquisite voice, dramatic power, and artistic skill, gave her an immediate place as one of the greatest ornaments of the lyric stage. She came into rivalry with Cuzzoni even at this early period, but carried off the palm of victory as she did in after-years. Venice, Naples, Florence, and Vienna were successively the scenes of her triumphant reign as an artist, and she became acknowledged as the most brilliant singer in Europe. At Vienna she was appointed court singer at a salary of fifteen thousand thalers. Here she was found by Handel, who carried her to London, where she made her début May 5,1726, in that great composer's "Alessandro," very appropriately singing Statira to the Roxana of Cuzzoni. Faustina's amiable and unobtrusive character seems to have made her an unwilling participant in the quarrels into which circumstances forced her, and to have always deserved the eulogium pronounced by Apostolo Zeno on her departure from Vienna: "But whatever good fortune she meets with, she merits it all by her courteous and polite manners, as well as talents, with which she has enchanted and gained the esteem and affection of the whole court." Throughout life a sweet temper and unspotted purity of character made her the idol of her friends as well as of the general public. Faustina seems to have left London gladly, though her short career of two years there was a brilliant artistic success. The scandalous bickerings and feuds through which she passed made her departure more of a pleasure to herself than to the lovers of music in turbulent London.

She returned to Venice in 1728, where she met Adolph Hasse, who was leader of the orchestra at the theatre in which she was engaged. Faustina, in the full bloom of her loveliness, was more than ever the object of popular adulation; and many of the wealthy young nobles of Venice laid their names and fortunes at her feet. But the charming singer had found her fate. She and Hasse had fallen in love with each other at first sight, and Faustina was proof against the blandishments of the gilded youth of Italy. Hasse was the most popular dramatic composer of the age, and had so endeared himself to the Italian public that he was known as "il caro Sassone," a title which had also been previously given to Handel. Hasse had commenced life as a tenor singer, but his talent for composition soon lifted him into a higher field of effort. His first opera was produced at Brunswick, but its reception showed that he must yet master more of the heights and depths of musical science before attaining any deserved success. So he proceeded to Italy, and studied under Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti. In a few years he became a celebrity, and the opera-houses of Italy eagerly vied with each other in procuring new works from his fecund talent. Faustina, then at the zenith of her powers and charms, and Hasse, the most admired composer of the day, were congenial mates, and their marriage was not long delayed.

Of this composer a few passing words of summary may be interesting. His career was one long success, and he wrote more than a hundred operas, besides a host of other compositions. Few composers have had during their lifetime such world-wide celebrity, and of these few none are so completely forgotten now. The facile powers of Hasse seem to ha

ve reflected the most genial though not the deepest influences of his time. He had nothing in common with the grand German school then rising into notice, or with the simple majesty of the early Italian writers. Himself originally a singer, and living in an age of brilliant singers, he was one of the first representatives of that school of Italian opera which was called into being by the worship of vocal art for its own sake. He had an inexhaustible flow of tunefulness, and the few charming songs of his now extant show great elegance of melodic structure, and such sympathy with the needs of the voice as make them the most perfect vehicle for expression and display on the part of the singer. For ten years, that most wonderful of male singers, as musical historians unite in calling Farinelli, charmed away the melancholy of Philip V. of Spain by singing to him every evening the same two melodies of Hasse, taken from the opera of "Artaserse."

In 1731 the celebrated couple accepted an offer from the brilliant Court of Dresden, presided over by Augustus II., as great a lover of art and literature as Goethe's Duke of Saxe-Weimar, or as the present Louis of Bavaria. This aesthetic monarch squandered great sums on pictures and music, and gave Hasse unlimited power and resources to place the Dresden opera on such a footing as to make it foremost in Europe. His first opera produced in Dresden was the masterpiece of his life, "Alessandro dell' Indie," and its great success was perhaps owing in part to the splendid singing and acting of Faustina, for whom indeed the music had been carefully designed. As the husband of the most fascinating prima donna of her age, Hasse had no easy time. His life was still further embittered by the presence and intrigues of Porpora, his old master and now rival, and jealousy of Porpora's pupil, Mingotti, who threatened to dispute the sway of his wife. Hasse's musical spite was amusingly shown in writing an air for Mingotti in his "Demofoonte." He composed the music for what he thought was the defective part of her voice, while the accompaniment was contrived to destroy all effect. Mingotti was nothing daunted, but by hard study and ingenious adaptation so conquered the difficulties of the air, that it became one of her greatest show-pieces. A combination of various causes so dissatisfied the composer with Dresden, that he divided his time between that city, Venice, Milan, Naples, and London, though the Saxon capital remained his professed home. One of his diversions was the establishment of opera in London in opposition to Handel; but he became so ardent an admirer of that great man's genius, that he refused to be a tool in the hands of the latter's enemies, though several of his operas met with brilliant success in the English capital.

Dresden life at last flowed more easily with Hasse and Faustina on the advent of Augustus III., who possessed his father's connoisseurship without his crotchets and favoritism. Here he remained, with the exception of a short Venetian sojourn, till late in life. On the evening of Frederick the Great's entrance into Dresden in 1745, after the battle of Kesselsdorf, Hasse's opera of "Arminio" was performed by command of the conqueror, who was so charmed with the work and Faustina's singing that he invited the composer and wife to Berlin. During the Prussian King's occupation he made Faustina many magnificent gifts, an exceptional generosity in one who was one of the most penurious of monarchs as well as one of the greatest of soldiers. Faustina continued to sing for eight years longer, when, at the age of fifty-two, she retired from the long art reign which she had enjoyed, having held her position with unchanged success against all comers for nearly forty years.

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