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Great Singers, Second Series / Malibran To Titiens By George T. Ferris Characters: 11163

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A quarter of a century is a long reign for any queen, a brilliant one for an opera queen in these modern days, when the "wear and tear" of stage-life is so exacting. For so long a time lasted the supremacy of Mme. Grisi, and it was justified by a remarkable combination of qualities, great physical loveliness, a noble voice, and dramatic impulse, which, if not precisely inventive, was yet large and sympathetic. A celebrated English critic sums up her great qualities and her defects thus: "As an artist calculated to engage, and retain the average public, without trick or affectation, and to satisfy by her balance of charming attributes-by the assurance, moreover, that she was giving the best she knew how to give-she satisfied even those who had received much deeper pleasure and had been impressed with much deeper emotion in the performances of others. I have never tired of Mme. Grisi during five-and-twenty years; but I have never been in her case under one of those spells of intense enjoyment and sensation which make an epoch in life, and which leave a print on memory never to be effaced by any later attraction, never to be forgotten so long as life and power to receive shall endure."

Giulietta Grisi was the younger daughter of M. Gaetano Grisi, an Italian officer of engineers, in the service of Napoleon, and was born at Milan, July 2, 1812. Her mother's sister was the once celebrated Grassini, who, as the contemporary of Mrs. Billington and Mme. Mara, had shared the admiration of Europe with these great singers. Thence probably she and her sister Giuditta, ten years her elder, inherited their gift of song. Giuditta was for a good while regarded as a prodigy by her friends, and acquired an excellent rank on the concert and operatic stage, but she was so far outshone by her more gifted sister, that her name is now only one of the traditions of that throng of talented and hard-working artists who have contributed much to the stability of the lyric stage, without adding to it any resplendent luster. Delicate health prevented the little Giulia from receiving any early musical training, but her own secret ambition caused her to learn the piano-forte, by her own efforts; and her enthusiastic attention, and attempt to imitate, while her sister was practicing solfeggi, clearly indicated the bent of her tastes. She soon astonished her family by the fluency and correctness with which she repeated the most difficult passages; and Giuditta, who appreciated these evidences of vocal and mimetic talent, would listen with delight to the lively efforts of her young sister, and then, clasping her fondly in her arms, prophesy that she would be "the glory of her race." "Thou shalt be more than thy sister, my Giuliettina," she would exclaim. "Thou shalt be more than thy aunt! It is Giuditta tells thee so-believe it." The only defect in Giulia's voice-certainly a serious one-was a chronic hoarseness, which seemed a bar to her advancement as a vocalist.

Her parents resolved that Giulia should have regular lessons in singing; and she entered the Conservatory of her native town, where her sister had also obtained her musical training. The early talent she developed, under the direction of the composer Marliani, was remarkable. That she might continue her studies uninterruptedly, she was sent to Bologna, to her uncle, Colonel Ragani, husband of Grassini, by whom she was put under the care of the learned Giacomo Guglielmi, son of the celebrated composer, who during three years devoted himself entirely to her musical education. Gradually the lovely quality of her voice began to be manifest, and its original blemishes disappeared, her tones acquiring depth, power, and richness.

Giuditta was deeply interested in her young sister's budding talents, and finally took her from the Conservatory, and placed her under the tuition of Fillippo Celli, where she remained for three months, till the maestro was obliged to go to Rome to produce a new opera. Giulia Grisi was remarkably apt and receptive, and gifted with great musical intelligence, and she profited by her masters in an exceptional degree. Industry cooperated with talent to so advance her attainments that her sister Giuditta succeeded in the year 1828 in securing her début in Rossini's "Elmira," at Bologna. The part was a small one, but the youth, loveliness, and freshness of voice displayed by the young singer secured for her a decided triumph. Rossini, who was then at Bologna, was delighted with Giulia Grisi, and predicted a great career for her, and Giuditta shed tears of joy over her beloved protégée. The director of the theatre engaged her immediately for the carnival season, and in 1829 she appeared as prima donna in many operas, among which were "Il Barbiere," "Towaldo e Dorliska," and "La Sposa di Provincia," the latter of which was expressly written for her by Millotatti.

Our young singer, like many another brilliant cantatrice, in the very dawn of her great career fell into the nets of a shrewd and unprincipled operatic speculator. Signor Lanari, an impressario of Florence, recognized the future success of the inexperienced young girl, and decoyed her into an engagement for six years on terms shamefully low, for Giulia's modesty did not appreciate her own remarkable powers. Alone and without competent advisers, she fell an easy prey to the sharp-witted farmer of other people's genius. Among the operas which she sung in at this early period under Lanari's management were Bellini's "I Montecchi ed i Capuletti," which the composer had just

written for her sister Giuditta at Venice; "Il Barbiere," and "Giulietta e Romeo," written by Vaccai. She was pronounced by the Italians the most fascinating Juliet ever seen on the stage. At Bologna her triumph was no less great, and she became the general topic of discussion and admiration. Lanari was so profiting by his stroke of sharp business that he was making a little fortune, and he now transferred his musical property for a large consideration to Signor Crevelli, the director of La Scala at Milan. Here Julia Grisi met Pasta, whom she worshiped as a model of all that was grand and noble in the lyric art. Pasta declared, "I can honestly return to you the compliments paid me by your aunt, and say that I believe you are worthy to succeed us." Here she enjoyed the advantage of studying the great lyric tragedienne, with whom she occasionally performed: not a look, a tone, a gesture of her great model escaped her. She was given the part of Jane Seymour in Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," which she looked and acted to perfection, Pasta personating the unfortunate Queen. Madame Pasta, struck with the genius displayed by her young rival, exclaimed: "Tu iras loin! tu prendras ma place! tu seras Pasta!" Bellini, who was then in Milan, engaged in the composition of his "Norma," overwhelmed her with applause and congratulations, intermingled with allusions to the part he had in contemplation for her-that of Adalgiza.

In November, 1831, there was a strenuous rivalry between the two theatres of Milan, La Scala and the Carcano. The vocal company at the latter comprised Pasta, Lina Koser (now Mme. Balfe), Elisa Orlandi, Eugénie Martinet, and other ladies; Kubini, Mariani, and Galli being the leading male singers. The composers were Bellini, Donizetti, and Majocchi. At the Scala, which was still under the direction of Crivelli, then a very old man, were Giulietta Grisi, Amalia Schütz, and Pisaroni, with Mari, Bonfigli, Pocchini, Anbaldi, etc. To this company Giuditta Grisi was added, and a new opera by Coccia, entitled "Enrico di Montfort," was produced, in which both the sisters appeared. The company at the Scala received an accession from the rival theatre, the great Pasta, and soon afterward Donzelli, who ranked among the foremost tenors of the age.

Bellini had just completed "Norma," and it was to be produced at the Scala. The part of the Druid priestess had been expressly written for Pasta. This Bellini considered his masterpiece. It is related that a beautiful Parisienne attempted to extract from his reluctant lips his preference among his own works. The persistent fair one finally overcame his evasions by asking, "But if you were out at sea, and should be shipwrecked-" "Ah!" said the composer, impulsively, "I would leave all the rest and save 'Norma'"! With Pasta were associated Giulia Grisi in the r?le of Adalgiza, and Donzelli in Pollio. The singers rehearsed their parts con amore, and displayed so much intelligence and enthusiasm that Bellini was quite delighted. The first performance just escaped being a failure in spite of the anxious efforts of the singers. Donzelli's suave and charming execution, even "Casta Diva," delivered by Pasta in her most magnificent style, failed to move the cold audience. Pasta, at the end of the first act, declared the new opera a fiasco. The second act was also coldly received till the great duet between Norma and Adalgiza, which was heartily applauded. This unsealed the pent-up appreciation of the audience, and thenceforward "Norma" was received with thunders of applause for forty nights.

Encouraged by Pasta, Giulia Grisi declared that she, too, would become a great tragedienne. "How I should love to play Norma!" she exclaimed to Bellini one night behind the scenes. "Wait twenty years, and we shall see." "I will play Norma in spite of you, and in less than twenty years!" she retorted. The young man smiled incredulously, and muttered, "A poco! a poco!" But Grisi kept her word.

Her genius was now fully appreciated, and she had obtained one of those triumphs which form the basis of a great renown. With astonishing ease she passed from Semiramide to Anna Bolena, then to Desdemona, to Donna Anna, to Elena in the "Donna del Lago."

The young artiste had learned her true value, and was aware of the injury she was suffering from remaining in the service to which she had foolishly bound herself: she was now twenty-four, and time was passing away. Her father's repeated endeavors to obtain more reasonable terms for his daughter from Lanari proved fruitless. He urged that his daughter, having entered into the contract without his knowledge, and while she was a minor, it was illegal. "Then, if you knew absolutely nothing of the matter, and it was altogether without your cognizance," retorted Lanari, imperturbably, "how did it happen that her salary was always paid to you?"

But the high-spirited Giulietta had now become too conscious of her own value to remain hampered by a contract which in its essence was fraudulent. She determined to break her bonds by flight to Paris, where her sister Giuditta and her aunt Mme. Grassini-Ragani were then domiciled. She confided her proposed escapade to her father and her old teacher Marliani, who assisted her to procure passports for herself and maid. Her journey was long and tedious, but, spurred by fear and eagerness, she disdained fatigue for seven days of post-riding over bad roads and through mountain-gorges choked with snow, till she threw herself into the arms of her loving friends in the French capital.

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