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Great Singers, Second Series / Malibran To Titiens By George T. Ferris Characters: 8932

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


There was a time early in the century when the voice of Rosamunda Pisaroni was believed to be the most perfect and delightful, not only of all contraltos of the age, but to have reached the absolute ideal of what this voice should be. She even for a time disputed the supremacy of Henrietta Sontag as the idol of the Paris public, though the latter great singer possessed the purest of soprano voices, and won no less by her personal loveliness than by the charm of her singing. Pisaroni excelled as much in her dramatic power as in the beauty of her voice, and up to the advent of Marietta Alboni on the stage was unquestionably without a rival in the estimate of critics as the artist who surpassed all the traditions of the operatic stage in this peculiar line of singing. But her memory was dethroned from its pedestal when the gorgeous Alboni became known to the European public.

Thomas Noon Talfourd applied to a well-known actress of half a century since the expression that she had "corn, wine, and oil" in her looks. A similar characterization would well apply both to the appearance and voice of Mlle. Alboni, when she burst on the European world in the splendid heyday of her youth and charms-the face, with its broad, sunny Italian beauty, incapable of frown; the figure, wrought in lines of voluptuous symmetry, though the embonpoint became finally too pronounced; the voice, a rich, deep, genuine contralto of more than two octaves, as sweet as honey, and "with that tremulous quality which reminds fanciful spectators of the quiver in the air of the calm, blazing summer's noon"; a voice luscious beyond description. To this singer has been accorded without dissent the title of the "greatest contralto of the nineteenth century."

The father of Marietta Alboni was an officer of the customs, who lived at Casena in the Romagna, and possessed enough income to bestow an excellent education on all his family. Marietta, born March 10, 1822, evinced an early passion for music, and a great facility in learning languages. She was accordingly placed with Signor Bagioli, a local music-teacher, under whom she so prospered that at eleven she could read music at sight, and vocalize with considerable fluency. Having studied her solfeggi with Bagioli, she was transferred to the tuition of Mme. Bertoletti, at Bologna. Here she had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Rossini, in whom she excited interest. Rossini gave her some lessons, and expressed a high opinion of her prospects. "At present," he said to some one inquiring about the young girl's talents, "her voice is like that of an itinerant ballad singer, but the town will be at her feet before she is a year older." It was chiefly through Rossini's cordial admiration of her voice that Morelli, one of the great entrepreneurs of Italy, engaged her for the Teatro Communale of Bologna. Here she made her first appearance as Maffeo Orsini, in "Lucrezia Borgia," in 1842, Marietta then having reached the age of twenty. She was then transferred to the La Scala, at Milan, where she performed with marked success in "La Favorita." Rossini himself signed her contract, saying, "I am the subscribing witness to your union with renown. May success and happiness attend the union!" Her engagement was renewed at the La Scala for four successive seasons. A tempting offer from Vienna carried her to that musical capital, and during the three years she remained there she won brilliant laurels and a fame which had swiftly coursed through Europe; for musical connoisseurs visiting Vienna carried away with them the most glowing accounts of the new contralto. Her triumphs were renewed in Russia, Belgium, Holland, and Prussia, where her glorious voice created a genuine furore, not less flattering to her pride than the excitement produced at an earlier date by Pasta, Sontag, and Malibran. An interesting proof of her independence and dignity of character occurred on her first arrival in Berlin, before she had made her début in that city.

She was asked by an officious friend "if she had waited on M---." "No! who is this M---," was the reply. "Oh!" answered her inquisitor, "he is the most influential journalist in Prussia." "Well, how does this concern me?" "Why," rejoined the other, "if you do not contrive to insure his favorable report, you are ruined." The young Italian drew herself up disdainfully. "Indeed!" she said, coldly; "well, let it be as Heaven directs; but I wish

it to be understood that in my breast the woman is superior to the artist, and, though failure were the result, I would never degrade myself by purchasing success at so humiliating a price." The anecdote was repeated in the fashionable saloons of Berlin, and, so far from injuring her, the noble sentiment of the young debutante was appreciated. The king invited her to sing at his court, where she received the well-merited applause of an admiring audience; and afterward his Majesty bestowed more tangible evidences of his approbation.

It was not till 1847 that Marietta Alboni appeared in England. Mr. Beale, the manager of the Royal Italian Opera, the new enterprise which had just been organized in the revolutionized Covent Garden Theatre, heard her at Milan and was charmed with her voice. Rumors had reached England, of course, concerning the beauty of the new singer's voice, but there was little interest felt when her engagement was announced. The "Jenny Lind" mania was at its height, and in the company in which Alboni herself was to sing there were two brilliant stars of the first luster, Grisi and Persiani. So, when she made her bow to the London public as Arsace, in "Semiramide," the audience gazed at her with a sort of languid and unexpectant curiosity. But Alboni found herself the next morning a famous woman. People were astounded by this wonderful voice, combining luscious sweetness with great volume and capacity. It was no timid débutante, but a finished singer whose voice rolled out in a swelling flood of melody such as no English opera-house had heard since the palmiest days of Pisaroni. Musical London was electrified, and Grisi, who sang in "Semiramide," sulked, because in the great duet, "Giorno d'orrore," the thunders of applause evidently concerned themselves with her young rival rather than with herself. Another convincing proof of her power was that she dared to restore the beautiful aria "In si barbara," which had been hitherto suppressed for lack of a contralto of sufficient greatness to give it full effect. In one night she had established herself as a trump card in the manager's hand against the rival house, an accession which he so appreciated that, unsolicited, he raised her salary from five hundred to two thousand pounds.

Mlle. Alboni's voice covered nearly three octaves, from E flat to C sharp, with tones uniformly rich, full, mellow, and liquid. The quality of the voice was perfectly pure and sympathetic, the articulation so clear and fluent, even in the most difficult and rapid passages, that it was like a performance on a well-played instrument. The rapidity and certainty of her execution could only be compared to the dazzling character of Mme. Persiani's vocalization. Her style and method were considered models. Although her facility and taste in ornamentation were of the highest order, Alboni had so much reverence for the intentions of the composer, that she would rarely add anything to the music which she interpreted, and even in the operas of Rossini, where most singers take such extraordinary liberties with the score, it was Alboni's pride neither to add nor omit a note. Perhaps her audiences most wondered at her singular ease. An enchanting smile lit up her face as she ran the most difficult scales, and the extreme feats of musical execution gave the idea of being spontaneous, not the fruit of art or labor. Her whole appearance, when she was singing, as was said by one enthusiastic amateur, conveyed the impression of exquisite music even when the sense of hearing was stopped.

Alboni's figure, although large, was perfect in symmetry, graceful and commanding, and her features regularly beautiful, though better fitted for the expression of comedy than of tragedy. The expression of her countenance was singularly genial, vivacious, and kindly, and her eyes, when animated in conversation or in singing, flashed with great brilliancy. Her smile was bewitching, and her laugh so infectious that no one could resist its influence.

Fresh triumphs marked Mlle. Alboni's London season to its close. In "La Donna del Lago," "Lucrezia Borgia," "Maria de Rohan," and "La Gazza Ladra" she was pronounced inimitable by the London critics. Mme. Persiani's part in "Il Barbiere" was assumed without rehearsal and at a moment's notice, and given in a way which satisfied the most exacting judges. It sparkled from the first to the last note with enchanting gayety and humor.

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