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Great Singers, Second Series / Malibran To Titiens By George T. Ferris Characters: 9575

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The personnel of Mme. Persiani could not be considered highly attractive. She was small, thin, with a long, colorless face, and looked older than her years. Her eyes were, however, soft and dreamy, her smile piquant, her hair like gold-colored silk, and exquisitely long. Her manner and carriage both on and off the stage were so refined and charming, that of all the singers of the day she best expressed that thorough-bred look which is independent of all beauty and physical grace. "Never was there woman less vulgar, in physiognomy or in manner, than she," says Mr. Chorley, describing Mme. Persiani; "but never was there one whose appearance on the stage was less distinguished. She was not precisely insignificant to see, so much as pale, plain, and anxious. She gave the impression of one who had left sorrow or sickness at home, and who therefore (unlike those wonderful deluders, the French actresses, who, because they will not be ugly, rarely look so) had resigned every question of personal attraction as a hopeless one. She was singularly tasteless in her dress. Her one good point was her hair, which was splendidly profuse, and of an agreeable color."

As a vocalist, it was agreed that her singing had the volubility, ease, and musical sweetness of a bird: her execution was remarkable for velocity. Her voice was rather thin, but its tones were clear as a silver bell, brilliant and sparkling as a diamond; it embraced a range of two octaves and a half (or about eighteen notes, from B to F in alt), the highest and lowest notes of which she touched with equal ease and sweetness. She had thus an organ of the most extensive compass known in the register of the true soprano. Her facility was extraordinary; her voice was implicitly under her command, and capable not only of executing the greatest difficulties, but also of obeying the most daring caprices-scales, shakes, trills, divisions, fioriture the most dazzling and inconceivable. She only acquired this command by indefatigable labor. Study had enabled her to execute with fluency and correctness the chromatic scales, ascending and descending, and it was by sheer hard practice that she learned to swell and diminish her accents; to emit tones full, large, and free from nasal or guttural sounds, to manage her respiration skillfully, and to seize the delicate shades of vocalization. In fioriture and vocal effects her taste was faultless, and she had an agreeable manner of uniting her tones by the happiest transitions, and diminishing with insensible gradations. She excelled in the effects of vocal embroidery, and her passion for ornamentation tempted her to disregard the dramatic situation in order to give way to a torrent of splendid fioriture, which dazzled the audience without always satisfying them.

The characters expressing placidity, softness, and feminine grace, like Lucia, Amina, and Zerli-na, involving the sentimental rather than the passionate, were best fitted to Mme. Persiani's powers as artist. She belonged to the same school as Sontag, not only in character of voice, but in all her sympathies and affinities; yet she was not incapable of a high order of tragic emotion, as her performance of the mad scene of "Lucia di Lammermoor" gave ample proof, but this form of artistic expression was not spontaneous and unforced. It was only well accomplished under high pressure. Escudin said of her, "It is not only the nature of her voice which limits her-it is also the expression of her acting, we had almost said the ensemble of her physical organization. She knows her own powers perfectly. She is not ambitious, she knows exactly what will suit her, and is aware precisely of the nature of her talent." Although she attained a high reputation in some of Mozart's characters, as, for example, Zerlina, the Mozart music was not well fitted to her voice and tastes. The brilliancy and flexibility of her organ and her airy style were far more suited to the modern Italian than to the severe German school.

A charming compliment was paid by Malibran, who knew how to do such things with infinite taste and delicacy, to Persiani, when the latter lady was singing at Naples in 1835: while the representative of Lucia was changing her costume between the acts, a lady entered her dressing-room, and complimented her in warmest terms on the excellence of her singing. The visitor then took the long golden tresses floating over Persiani's shoulders, and asked, "Is it all your own?" On being laughingly answered in the affirmative, Malibran, for it was she, said, "Allow me, signora, since I have no wreath of flowers to offer you, to twine you one with your own beautiful hair." Mme. Persiani's artistic tour through Italy, in 1835, culminated in Florence with one of those exhibit

ions of popular tyranny and exaction which so often alternate with enthusiasm in the case of audiences naturally ardent and impressible, and consequently capricious. When the singer arrived at the Tuscan capital, she was in such a weak and exhausted state that she did not deem it prudent to sing. Her manager was, however, unbending, and insisted on the exact fulfillment of her contract. After vain remonstrances she yielded to her taskmaster, and appeared in "I Puritani," trusting to the forbearance and kindness of her audience. But a few notes had escaped her pale and quivering lips when the angry audience broke out into loud hisses, marks of disapprobation which were kept up during the performance. Mme. Persiani could not forgive this, and, when she completely recovered her voice and energy a few weeks after, she treated the lavish demonstrations of the public with the most cutting disdain and indifference. At the close of her engagement, she publicly announced her determination never again to sing in Florence, on account of the selfish cruelty to which she had been subjected both by the manager and the public. Persiani's fame grew rapidly in every part of Europe. At Vienna, she was named chamber singer to the Austrian sovereign, and splendid gifts were lavished on her by the imperial family, and in the leading cities of Germany, as in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the highest recognition of her talents was shown alike by court and people.

It was not till 1837 that Mme. Persiani ventured to make her first appearance in Paris, a step which she took with much apprehension, for she had an exaggerated notion of the captious-ness and coldness of the French public. When she stepped on the stage, November 7th, the night of her début in "Sonnambula," she was so violently shaken by her emotions that she could scarcely stand. The other singers were Rubini, Tamburini, and Mlle. Allessandri, and the audience was of the utmost distinction, including the foremost people in the art, literary, and social circles of Paris. The debutante was well received, but it was not until she appeared in Cimarosa's "Il Matrimonio Segreto" that she was fully appreciated. Rubini and Tamburini were with her in the cast, and the same great artists participated also with her in the performance of "Lucia," which set the final seal of her artistic won h in the public estimate. She also appeared in London in the following year in "Sonnambula." "It is no small risk to any vocalist to follow Malibran and Grisi in a part which they both played so well," was the observation of one critic, "and it is no small compliment to Persiani to say that she succeeded in it." She had completely established herself as a favorite with the London public before the end of the season, and thereafter she continued to sing alternately in London and Paris for a succession of years, sharing the applause of audiences with such artists as Grisi, Viardot, Lablache, Tamburini, Rubini, and Mario.

A tour through Belgium and the Rhenish provinces, partly operatic, partly concertizing, which she took with Rubini in the summer and fall of 1841, was highly successful from the artistic point of view, and replete with pleasant incidents, among which may be mentioned their meeting at Wiesbaden with Prince Metternich, who had come with a crowd of princes, ministers, and diplomats from the chateau of Johannisberg to be present at the concert. At the conclusion of the performance, the Prince took Rubini by the arm, and walked up and down the salon with him for some time. They had become acquainted at Vienna. "My dear Rubini," said Metternich, "it is impossible that you can come so near Johannisberg without paying me a visit there. I hope you and your friends will come and dine with me to-morrow." The following day, therefore, Rubini, Mme. Persiani, etc., went to the chateau, so celebrated for the produce of its vineyards, where M. Metternich and his princess did the honors with the utmost affability and cordiality. After dinner, Rubini, unasked, sang two of his most admired airs; and the Prince, to testify his gratification, offered him a basket of Johannisberg, "to drink my health," he laughingly said, "when you reach your chateau of Bergamo." Rubini accepted the friendly offering, and begged permission to bring Mme. Rubini, before quitting the north of Europe, to visit the fine chateau. Metternich immediately summoned his major-domo, and said to him, "Remember that, if ever M. Rubini visits Johannisberg during my absence, he is to be received as if he were its master. You will place the whole of the chateau at his disposal so long as he may please to remain." "And the cellar, also?" asked Rubini. "The cellar, also," added the Prince, smiling: "the cellar at discretion."

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