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Great Singers, Second Series / Malibran To Titiens By George T. Ferris Characters: 8639

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Under the Napoleonic régime the Odéon was the leading lyric theatre, and the great star of that company was Nicholas Tacchinardi, a tenor in whom nature had combined the most opposing characteristics. The figure of a dwarf, a head sunk beneath the shoulders, hunchbacked, and repulsive, he was hardly a man fitted by nature for a stage hero. Yet his exquisite voice and irreproachable taste as a musician gave him a long reign in the very front rank of his profession. He was so morbidly conscious of his own stage defects that he would beg composers to write for him with a view to his singing at the side scenes before entering on the stage, that the public might form an impression of him by hearing before his grotesque ugliness could be seen. Another expedient for concealing some portion of his unfortunate figure was often practiced by this musical Caliban, that of coming on the stage standing in a triumphal car. But this only excited the further risibilities of his hearers, and he was forced to be content with the chance of making his vocal fascination condone the impression made by his ugliness.

At his first appearance on the boards of the Odéon, he was saluted with the most insulting outbursts of laughter and smothered ejaculations of "Why, he's a hunchback!" Being accustomed to this kind of greeting, Tacchinardi tranquilly walked to the footlights and bowed. "Gentlemen," he said, addressing the pit, "I am not here to exhibit my person, but to sing. Have the goodness to hear me." They did hear him, and when he ceased the theatre rang with plaudits: there was no more laughter. His personal disadvantages were redeemed by one of the finest and purest tenor voices ever given by nature and refined by art, by his extraordinary intelligence, by an admirable method of singing, an exquisite taste in fioriture, and facility of execution.

Fanny Tacchinardi was the second daughter of the deformed tenor, born at Rome, October 4, 1818, three years after Tacchinardi had returned again to his native land. Fanny's passion for music betrayed itself in her earliest lisps, and it was not ignored by Tacchinardi, who gave her lessons on the piano and in singing. At nine she could play with considerable intelligence and precision, and sing with grace her father's ariettas and duettini with her sister Elisa, who was not only an excellent pianist, but a good general musician and composer. The girl grew apace in her art feeling and capacity, for at eleven she took part in an opera as prima donna at a little theatre which her father had built near his country place, just out of Florence. Tacchinardi was, however, very averse to a professional career for his daughter, in spite of the powerful bent of her tastes and the girl's pleadings. He had been chanteur de chambre since 1822 for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and in the many concerts and other public performances over which he was director his daughter frequently appeared, to the great delight of amateurs. Fanny even at this early age had a voice of immense compass, though somewhat lacking in sweetness and flexibility, defects which she subsequently overcame by study and practice. As the best antidote to the sweet stage poison which already began to run riot in her veins, her father brought about an early marriage for the immature girl, and in 1830 she was united to Joseph Persiani, an operatic composer of some merit, though not of much note. She resided with her husband in her father's house for several years, carefully secluded as far as possible from musical influences, but the hereditary passion and gifts could not be altogether suppressed, and the youthful wife quietly pursued her studies with unbroken perseverance.

The incident which irretrievably committed her energies and fortunes to the stage was a singular one, yet it is not unreasonable to assume that, had not this occurred, her ardent predilections would have found some other outlet to the result to which she aspired. M. Fournier, a rich French merchant, settled at Leghorn, was an excellent musician, and carried this recreation of his leisure hours so far as to compose an opera, "Francesca di Rimini," the subject drawn from the romance of "Silvio Pellico." The wealthy merchant could find no manager who would venture to produce the work of an amateur

. But he was willing and able to become his own impressario, and accordingly he set about forming an operatic troupe and preparing the scenery for a public representation of his dearly beloved musical labor. The first vocalists of Italy, Mmes. Pisaroni and Rasallima Caradori, contralto and soprano, were engaged at lavish salaries, and on the appointed day of the first rehearsal they all appeared except Caradori, whose Florentine manager positively forbade her singing as a violation of his contract. M. Fournier was in despair, but at last some one remembered Mme. Persiani, who was known as a charming dilettante. Her residence was not many miles away from Leghorn, and it was determined to have recourse to this last resort, for it was otherwise almost impossible to secure a vocalist of talent at short notice. A deputation of M. Fournier's friends, among whom were those well acquainted with the Tacchinardi family, formed an embassy to represent the urgent need of the composer and implore the aid of Mme. Persiani. With some difficulty the consent of husband and father was obtained, and the young singer made her début in the opera of the merchant-musician. Mme. Persiani said in after-years that, had her attempt been a successful one, it was very doubtful if she ever would have pursued the profession of the stage. But her performance came very near to being a failure. Her pride was so stung and her vanity humiliated that she would not listen to the commands of husband and father. She would become a great lyric artist, or else satisfy herself that she could not become one. The turning-point of her life had come.

She found an engagement at the La Scala, Milan, and she speedily laid a good foundation for her future renown. She sang at Florence with Duprez, and Donizetti, who was then in the city, composed his "Rosmonda d'Inghilterra" for these artists. For two years there was nothing of specially important note in Mme. Persiani's life except a swift and steady progress. An engagement at Vienna made her the pet of that city, which is fanatical in its musical enthusiasm, and we next find her back again in Italy, singing greatly to the satisfaction of the public in such operas as "Romeo e Giulietta," "Il Pirata," "La Gazza Ladra," and "L'Elisir d'Amore." Mme. Pasta was singing in Venice when Persiani visited that city, and the latter did not hesitate to enter into competition with her illustrious rival. Indeed, the complimentary Venetians called her "la petite Pasta," though the character of her talent was entirely alien to that of the great tragedienne of music. Milan and Rome reechoed the voice of other cities, and during her stay in Rome she appeared in two new operas, "Misantropia e Pentimento" and "I Promessi Sposi." Among the artists associated with her during the Roman engagement was Ronconi, who was then just beginning to establish his great reputation. One of the most important events of her early career was her association, in 1834, at the San Carlo, Naples, with Duprez, Caselli, and La-blache. The composer Donizetti had always been charmed with her voice as suiting the peculiar style of music in which he excelled, and he determined to compose an opera for her. His marvelous facility of composition was happily illustrated in this case. The novel of "The Bride of Lammermoor" was turned into a libretto for him by a Neapolitan poet, Donizetti himself, it is said, having written the last act in his eagerness to save time and get it completed that he might enter on the musical composition. The opera of "Lucia di Lammermoor," one of the most beautiful of the composer's works, was finished in little more than five weeks. The music of Edgardo was designed for the voice of M. Duprez, that of Lucia for Mme. Persiani, and the result was brilliantly successful, not only as suiting the styles of those singers, but in making a powerful impression on the public mind. Mme. Persiani never entered into any rivalry with those singers who were celebrated for their dramatic power, for this talent did not peculiarly stamp her art-work. But her impersonation of Lucia in Donizetti's opera was sentimental, impassioned, and pathetic to a degree which saved her from the reproach which was sometimes directed against her other performances-lack of unction and abandon.

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