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: 7132

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


One of the great dignitaries of the Papal Court during the middle of the eighteenth century was the celebrated Cardinal Gabrielli. He was one day walking in his garden, when a flood of delicious, untutored notes burst on his ear, resolving itself finally into a brilliant arietta by Ga-luppi. The pretty little nymph who had poured out these wild-wood notes proved to be the daughter of his favorite cook. Catarina's beauty of person and voice had already excited the hopes of her father, and he frequently took her to the Argentina Theatre, where her quick ear caught all the tunes she heard; but the humble cook could not put the child in the way of further instruction and training. When Cardinal Gabrielli heard that enchanting but uncultivated voice, he called the little Catarina and made her sing her whole stock of arias, a mandate she willingly obeyed. He was delighted with her talent, and took on himself the care of her musical education. She was first placed under the charge of Garcia (Lo Spagnoletto), and afterward of Porpora. The Cardinal kept a keen oversight of her instruction, and frequently organized concerts, where her growing talents were shown, to the great delight of the brilliant Roman society. Catarina's training was completed in the conservatory of L'Ospidaletto at Venice, while it was under the direction of Sacchini, who succeeded Galuppi.

"La Cuochettina," as she was called from her father's profession, made her first appearance in Galuppi's "Sofonisba" in Lucca, after five years of severe training. She was beautiful, intelligent, witty, full of liveliness and grace, with an expression full of coquettish charm and espieglerie. Her acting was excellent, and her singing already that of a brilliant and finished vocalist. It is not a marvel that the excitable Italian audience received her with the most passionate plaudits of admiration. Her stature was low, but Dr. Burney describes her in the following terms: "There was such grace and dignity in her gestures and deportment as caught every unprejudiced eye; indeed, she filled the stage, and occupied the attention of the spectators so much, that they could look at nothing else while she was in view." No indication of her mean origin betrayed itself in her face or figure, for she carried herself with all the haughty grandeur of a Roman matron. Her voice, though not powerful, was of exquisite quality and wonderful extent, its compass being nearly two octaves and a half, and perfectly equable throughout. Her facility in vocalization was extraordinary, and her execution is described by Dr. Burney as rapid, but never so excessive as to cease to be agreeable; but in slow movements her pathetic tones, as is often the case with performers renowned for "dexterity," were not sufficiently touching.

The young chevaliers of Lucca were wild over the new operatic star; for her talent, beauty, and fascination made her a paragon of attraction, and her capricious whims and coquetries riveted the chains in which she held her admirers. Catarina, however she may have felt pleased at lordly tributes of devotion, and willing to accept substantial proofs of their sincerity, lavished her friendship for the most part on her own comrades, and became specially devoted to the singer Guardagni, whose rare artistic excellence made him a valuable mentor to the young prima donna. Three years after her début her reputation had become national, and we find her singing at Naples in the San Carlo. The aged poet Metastasio, a name so imperishably connected with the developme

nt of the Italian opera, became one of her bond slaves. Gabrielli was wont to use her admirers for artistic advantage, and she learned certain invaluable lessons in the delivery of recitative and the higher graces of her art from one whose experience and knowledge were infinitely higher and more suggestive than those of a mere singing-master. The courtly poet, the pet of rank and beauty for nearly fifty years, sighed in vain at the feet of this inexorable coquette, and shared his disappointment with a host of other distinguished suitors, who showered costly gifts at the shrine of beauty, and were compelled to content themselves with kissing her hand as a reward.

Metastasio's interest, unchecked by the disdain of the capricious beauty, succeeded in obtaining for her the position of court singer at Vienna, where the Emperor, Francis I., was one of her admirers. She soon created as great a furor among the gallants of the Austrian capital as she had in Italy. Swords were drawn freely in the quarrels which she delighted to foster, and dueling became a mania with those who aspired to her favor. The passions she instigated sometimes took eccentric courses. The French Ambassador, who loved her madly, suspected the Portuguese Minister of being more successful than himself with the lovely Gabrielli. His suspicions being confirmed at one of his visits, he drew his sword in a transport of rage, and all that saved the operatic stage one of its most brilliant lights was the whalebone bodice, which broke the point of the furious Frenchman's rapier. The sight of the bleeding beauty-for she received a slight scratch-brought the diplomat to his senses. Falling on his knees, he poured forth his remorse in passionate self-reproaches, but only received his pardon on the most humiliating terms, namely, that he should present her with the weapon which had so nearly pierced her heart, on which was to be inscribed this memento of the jealous madness of its owner: "Epée de M---, qui osa frapper La Gabrielli." Only Metastasio's persuasions (for Gabrielli prized his friendship and advice as much as she trifled with him in a different r?le) persuaded her to spare the Frenchman the insufferable ridicule which her retention of the telltale sword would have imposed on one whose rank and station could ill afford to be made the laughing-stock of his times.

The siren's infinite caprices furnished the most interesting chronique scandaleuse of Vienna. Brydone in his "Tour" tells us that it was fortunate for humanity that the fair cantatrice had so many faults; for, had she been more perfect, "she must have made dreadful havoc in the world; though, with all her deficiencies," he says, "she was supposed to have achieved more conquests than any one woman breathing." Her caprice was so stubborn, that neither interest, nor threats, nor punishment had the least power over it; she herself declared that she could not command it, but that it for the most part commanded her. The best expedient to induce her to sing when she was in a bad humor was to prevail upon her favorite lover to place himself in the principal seat of the pit, or the front of a box, and, if they were on good terms-which was seldom the case, however-she should address her tender airs to him, and exert herself to the utmost. When Brydone was in Sicily, her lover promised to give him an example of his power over her. "He took his seat accordingly; but Gabrielli, probably suspecting the connivance, would take no notice of him; so even this expedient does not always succeed."

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