The Opera In England At The End Of The Eighteenth And Beginning Of The Nineteenth Century
Hitherto I have been obliged to trace the origin and progress of the
Opera in various parts of Europe. At present there is one Opera for all
the world, that is to say, the same operatic works are performed every
where, if not,
"De Paris à Pékin, de Japon jusqu'à Rome,"
at least, in a great many other equally distant cities, and which
Boileau never heard of; as, for instance, from St. Petersburgh to
Philadelphia, and from New Orleans to Melbourne. But for the French
Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars, the universality of Opera would
have been attained long since. The directors of the French Opera, after
producing the works of Gluck and Piccinni, found it impossible, as we
shall see in the next chapter, to attract the public by means of the
ancient répertoire, and were obliged to call in the modern Italian
composers to their aid. An Italian troop was engaged to perform at the
Académie Royale, alternately with the French company, and the best opera
buffas of Piccinni, Traetta, Paisiello, and Anfossi were represented,
first in Italian, and afterwards in French. Sacchini and Salieri were
engaged to compose operas on French texts specially for the Académie. In
1787, Salieri's Tarare (libretto by Beaumarchais), was brought out
with immense success; the same year, the same theatre saw the production
of Paisiello's Il re Teodoro, translated into French; and, also the
same year, Paisiello's Marchese di Tulipano was played at Versailles,
by a detachment from the Italian company engaged at our own King's
[Sidenote: OPERA AT VERSAILLES.]
This is said to have been the first instance of an Italian troop
performing alternately in London and in Paris. A proposition had been
made under the Regency of Philip of Orleans, for the engagement of
Handel's celebrated company; but, although the agreement was drawn
up and signed, from various causes, and principally through the jealousy
of the "Academicians," it was never carried out. The London-Italian
company of 1787 performed at Versailles, before the Court and a large
number of aristocratic subscribers, many of whom had been solicited to
support the enterprise by the queen herself. Storace, the prima donna
assoluta of the King's Theatre, would not accompany the other singers
to Paris. Madame Benini, however, the altra prima donna went, and
delighted the French amateurs. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, in his interesting
volume of "Musical Reminiscences," tells us that she "had a voice of
exquisite sweetness, and a finished taste and neatness in her manner of
singing; but that she had so little power, that she could not be heard
to advantage in so large a theatre: her performance in a small one was
perfect." Among the other vocalists who made the journey from London to
Paris, were Mengozzi the tenor, who was Madame Benini's husband, and
Morelli the bass. "The latter had a voice of great power, and good
quality, and he was a very good actor. Having been running footman to
Lord Cowper at Florence," continues Lord Mount Edgcumbe, "he could not
be a great musician." Benini, Mengozzi, and Morelli, again visited Paris
in 1788, but did not make their appearance there in 1789, the year of
the taking of the Bastille. The répertoire of these singers included
operas by Paisiello, Cimarosa, Sarti, and Anfossi, and they were
particularly successful in Paisiello's Gli Schiavi per Amore. When
this opera was produced in London in 1787 (with Storace, not Benini, in
the principal female part), it was so much admired that it ran to the
end of the season without any change. Another Italian company gave
several series of performances in Paris between 1789 and 1792, and then
for nine years France was without any Italian Opera at all.
Storace was by birth and parentage, on her mother's side, English; but
she went early to Italy, "and," says the author from whom I have just
quoted, "was never heard in this country till her reputation as the
first buffa of her time was fully established." Her husband was Fisher,
a violinist (whose portrait has been painted by Reynolds); but she never
bore his name, and the marriage was rapidly followed by a separation.
Mrs. Storace settled entirely in England, and after quitting the King's
Theatre accepted an engagement at Drury Lane. Here English Opera was
raised to a pitch of excellence previously unknown, thanks to her
singing, together with that of Mrs. Crouch, Mrs. Bland, Kelly, and
Bannister. The musical director was Mrs. Storace's brother, Stephen
Storace, the arranger of the pasticcios entitled the Haunted Tower,
and the Siege of Belgrade.
[Sidenote: MADAME MARA.]
Madame Mara made her first appearance at the King's Theatre the year
before Storace's début. She had previously sung in London at the
Pantheon Concerts, and at the second Handel Festival (1785), in
Westminster Abbey. I have already spoken of this vocalist's
performances and adventures at the court of Frederick the Great, at
Vienna, and at Paris, where her worshippers at the Concerts Spirituels
formed themselves into the sect of "Maratistes," as opposed to that of
the "Todistes," or believers in Madame Todi.
Lord Mount Edgcumbe, during a visit to Paris, heard Madame Mara at one
of the Concerts Spirituels, in the old theatre of the Tuileries. She had
just returned from the Handel Commemoration, and sang, among other
things, "I know that my Redeemer liveth," which was announced in the
bills as being "Musique de Handel, paroles de Milton." "The French,"
says Lord Mount Edgcumbe, "had not the taste to like it."
The first opera in which Madame Mara appeared at the King's Theatre was
Didone, a pasticcio, in which four songs of different characters, by
Sacchini, Piccinni, and two other composers, were introduced. She
afterwards sang with Miss Cecilia Davies (L'Inglesina) in Sacchini's
At this period Handel's operas were already so much out of fashion,
though esteemed as highly as ever by musicians and by the more venerable
of connoisseurs, that when Giulio Cesare was revived, with Mara and
Rubinelli (both of whom sang the music incomparably well), in the
principal parts, it had no success with the general public; nor were
any of Handel's operas afterwards performed at the King's Theatre.
Giulio Cesare, in which many of the most favourite songs from Handel's
other operas ("Verdi prati," "Dove sei," "Rendi sereno il ciglio," and
others) were interpolated, answered the purpose for which it was
produced, and attracted George III. two or three times to the theatre.
Moreover (to quote Lord Mount Edgcumbe's words), "it filled the house,
by attracting the exclusive lovers of the old style, who held cheap all
other operatic performances."
[Sidenote: THE PANTHEON.]
In 1789 (the year in which the supposed sexagenarian, Madeleine Guimard,
"still full of grace and gentility," made her appearance) the King's
Theatre was burnt to the ground--not without a suspicion of its having
been maliciously set on fire, which was increased by the suspected
person soon after committing suicide. Arrangements were made for
carrying on the Opera at the little theatre in the Haymarket, where Mara
was engaged as the first woman in serious operas, and Storace in comic.
The company afterwards moved to the Pantheon, "which," says Lord Mount
Edgcumbe, "in its original state was the largest and most beautiful room
in London, and a very model of fine architecture. It was the
chef-d'oeuvre of Wyatt, who himself contrived and executed its
transformation, taking care not to injure any part of the building, and
so concealing the columns and closing its dome, that it might be easily
restored after its temporary purpose was answered, it being then in
contemplation to erect an entirely new and magnificent opera-house
elsewhere, a project which could never be realised. Mr. Wyatt, by this
conversion, produced one of the prettiest, and by far the most genteel
and comfortable theatres I ever saw, of a moderate size and excellent
shape, and admirably adapted both for seeing and hearing. There the
regular Opera was successfully carried on, with two very good companies
and ballets. Pacchierotti, Mara, and Lazzarini, a very pleasing singer
with a sweet tenor voice, being at the head of the serious; and
Casentini, a pretty woman and genteel actress, with Lazzarini, for
tenor, Morelli and Ciprani principal buffos, composing the comic. This
was the first time that Pacchierotti had met with a good prima
donna since Madame Lebrun, and his duettos with Mara were the most
perfect pieces of execution I ever heard. The operas in which they
performed together were Sacchini's Rinaldo and Bertoni's Quinto
Fabio revived, and a charming new one by Sarti, called Idalide, or
La Vergine del Sole. The best comic were La Molinara, and La bella
Pescatrice, by Guglielmi. On the whole I never enjoyed the opera so much
as at this theatre."
The Pantheon enterprise, however, like most operatic speculations in
England, did not pay, and at the end of the first season (1791) the
manager had incurred debts to the amount of thirty thousand pounds. In
the meanwhile the King's Theatre had been rebuilt, but the proprietor,
now that the Opera was established at the Pantheon, found himself unable
to obtain a license for dramatic performances, and had to content
himself with giving concerts at which the principal singer was the
celebrated David. It was proposed that the new Opera house should take
the debts of the Pantheon, and with them its operatic license, but the
offer was not accepted, and in 1792 the Pantheon was destroyed by
fire--in this case the result, clearly, of accident.
At last the schism which had divided the musical world was put an end
to, and an arrangement was made for opening the King's Theatre in the
winter of 1793. There was not time to bring over a new company, but one
was formed out of the singers already in London, with Mara at their head
and with Kelly for the tenor.
[Sidenote: MR. MARA.]
Mara was now beginning to decline in voice and in popularity. When she
was no longer engaged at the Italian Opera, she sang at concerts and for
a short time at Covent Garden, where she appeared as "Polly" in The
Beggars' Opera. She afterwards sang with the Drury Lane company while
they performed at the King's Theatre during the rebuilding of their own
house, which had been pulled down to be succeeded by a much larger one.
She appeared in an English serious opera, called Dido, "in which,"
says Lord Mount Edgcumbe, "she retained one song of her Didone, the
brilliant bravura, Son Regina. It did not greatly succeed, though
the music was good and well sung. This is not surprising," he adds, "the
serious opera being ill suited to our stage, and our language to
recitative. None ever succeeded but Dr. Arne's Artaxerxes, which was,
at first, supported by some Italian singers, Tenducci being the original
Arbaces." It is noticeable that in the aforesaid English Dido Kelly
was the tenor, while Mrs. Crouch took the part of first man, which at
this time in Italy was always given to a sopranist.
Madame Mara's husband, the ex-violinist of the Berlin orchestra, appears
never to have been a good musician, and always an idle drunkard. His
wife at last got disgusted with his habits, and probably, also, with his
performance on the violin, for she went off with a flute-player
named Florio to Russia, where she lived for many years. When she was
about seventy she re-appeared in England and gave a concert at the
King's Theatre, but without any sort of success. Her wonderful powers
were said to have returned, but when she sang her voice was generally
compared to a penny trumpet. Madame Mara then returned to Moscow, where
she suffered greatly by the fire of 1812. She afterwards resided at some
town in the Baltic provinces, and died there at a very advanced age.
The next great vocalist who visited England after Mara's début, was
Banti. She had commenced life as a street singer; but her fine voice
having attracted the attention of De Vismes, the director of the
Académie, he told her to come to him at the Opera, where the future
prima donna, after hearing an air of Sacchini's three times, sang it
perfectly from beginning to end. De Vismes at once engaged her; and soon
afterwards she made her first appearance with the most brilliant
success. Although Banti was now put under the best masters, she was of
such an indolent, careless disposition, that she never could be got to
learn even the first elements of music. Nevertheless, she was so happily
endowed by nature, that it gave her no trouble to perfect herself in the
most difficult parts; and whatever she sang, she rendered with the most
charming expression imaginable. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, who does not
mention the fact of her having sung at the French Opera, says that Banti
was the most delightful singer he ever heard (though, when she appeared
at the King's Theatre in 1799, she must have been forty-two years of
age); and tells us that, "in her, genius supplied the place of
science; and the most correct ear, with the most exquisite taste,
enabled her to sing with more effect, more expression, and more apparent
knowledge of her art, than many much better professors."
It is said of Banti, that when she was singing in Paris, though she
never made the slightest mistake in concerted pieces, she sometimes
executed her airs after a very strange fashion. For instance: in the
allegro of a cavatina, after singing the principal motive, and the
intermediary phrase or "second part," she would, in a fit of absence,
re-commence the air from the very beginning; go on with it until the
turning point at the end of the second part; again re-commence and
continue this proceeding, until at last the conductor warned her that
next time she had better think of terminating the piece. In the
meanwhile the public, delighted with Banti's voice, is said to have been
quite satisfied with this novel mode of performance.
Banti made her début in England in Bianchi's Semiramide, in which
she introduced an air from one of Guglielmi's oratorios, with a violin
obbligato accompaniment, played first by Cramer, afterward by Viotti,
Salomon, and Weichsell, the brother of Mrs. Billington. This song was of
great length, and very fatiguing; but Banti was always encored in it,
and never omitted to repeat it.
At her benefit in the following year (1800) Banti performed in an opera,
founded on the Zenobia of Metastasio, by Lord Mount Edgcumbe, the
author of the interesting "Reminiscences," to which, in the course of
the present chapter I shall frequently have to refer. The "first man's"
part was allotted to Roselli, a sopranist, who, however, had to transfer
it to Viganoni, a tenor. Roselli, whose voice was failing him, soon
afterwards left the country; and no other male soprano made his
appearance at the King's Theatre until the arrival of Velluti, who sang
twenty-five years afterwards in Meyerbeer's Crociato.
Banti's favourite operas were Gluck's Alceste, in which she was called
upon to repeat three of her airs every night; the Iphigénie en
Tauride, by the same author; Paisiello's Elfrida, and Nina or La
Pazza per Amore; Nasolini's Mitridate; and several operas by
Bianchi, composed expressly for her.
Before Banti's departure from England, she prevailed on Mrs. Billington
to perform with her on the night of her benefit, leaving to the latter
the privilege of assuming the principal character in any opera she might
select. Merope was chosen. Mrs. Billington took the part of the
heroine, and Banti that of "Polifonte," though written for a tenor
voice. The curiosity to hear these two celebrated singers in the same
piece was so great, that the theatre was filled with what we so often
read of in the newspapers, but so seldom see in actual life,--"an
overflowing audience;" many ladies being obliged, for want of better
places, to find seats on the stage.
Banti died at Bologna, in 1806, bequeathing her larynx (of extraordinary
size) to the town, the municipality of which caused it to be duly
preserved in a glass bottle. Poor woman! she had by time dissipated the
whole of her fortune, and had nothing else to leave.
[Sidenote: MRS. BILLINGTON.]
Mrs. Billington, Banti's contemporary, after singing not only in
England, but at all the best theatres of Italy, left the stage in 1809.
In 1794, while she was engaged at Naples, at the San Carlo, a violent
eruption of Mount Vesuvius took place, which the Neapolitans attributed
to the presence of an English heretic on their stage. Mrs. Billington's
friends were even alarmed for her personal safety, when, fortunately,
the eruption ceased, and the audience, relieved of their superstitious
fears, applauded the admirable vocalist in all liberty and confidence.
Mrs. Billington was an excellent musician, and before coming out as a
singer had distinguished herself in early life (when Miss Weichsell) as
a pianoforte player. She appears to have been but an indifferent
actress, and, in her singing, to have owed her success less to her
expression than to her "agility," which is said to have been marvellous.
Her execution was distinguished by the utmost neatness and precision.
Her voice was sweet and flexible, but not remarkable for fulness of
tone, which formed the great beauty of Banti's singing. Mrs. Billington
appeared with particular success in Bach's Clemenza di Scipione, in
which the part of the heroine had been originally played in England by
Miss Davies (L'Inglesina); Paisiello's Elfrida; Winter's Armida,
and Castore e Polluce; and Mozart's Clemenza di Tito--the first of
that master's works ever performed in England. At this time, neither the
Nozze di Figaro, nor Mozart's other masterpiece, Don Giovanni
(produced at Prague in 1787), seem to have been at all known either in
England or in France.
After Banti's departure from England, and while Mrs. Billington was
still at the King's Theatre, Grassini was engaged to sing alternately
with the latter vocalist. She made her first appearance in La Vergine
del Sole an opera by Mayer (the future preceptor of Donizetti), but in
this work she succeeded more through her acting and her beauty than by
her singing. Indeed, so equivocal was her reception, that on the
occasion of her benefit, she felt it desirable to ask Mrs. Billington to
appear with her. Mrs. Billington consented; and Winter composed an opera
called Il Ratto di Proserpina, specially for the rival singers, Mrs.
Billington taking the part of "Ceres," and Grassini that of
"Proserpine." Now the tide of favour suddenly turned, and we are told
that Grassini's performance gained all the applause; and that "her
graceful figure, her fine expression of face, together with the sweet
manner in which she sang several simple airs, stamped her at once the
reigning favourite." Indeed, not only was Grassini rapturously applauded
in public, but she was "taken up by the first society, fêted,
caressed, and introduced as a regular guest in most of the fashionable
assemblies." "Of her private claims to that distinction," adds Lord
Mount Edgcumbe, "it is best to be silent; but her manners and exterior
behaviour were proper and genteel."
At this period 1804-5, the tenors at the King's Theatre were Viganoni
and Braham. Respecting the latter, who, in England, France and Italy, in
English and in Italian operas, on the stage and in concert rooms, must
have sung altogether for something like half a century, I must again
quote the author of "Musical Reminiscences," who heard him in his prime.
"All must acknowledge," he says, "that his voice is of the finest
quality, of great power and occasional sweetness. It is equally certain
that he has great knowledge of music, and can sing extremely well. It
is therefore the more to be regretted that he should ever do otherwise;
that he should ever quit the natural register of his voice by raising it
to an unpleasant falsetto, or force it by too violent exertion; that he
should depart from a good style, and correct taste, which he knows and
can follow as well as any man, to adopt at times the over-florid and
frittered Italian manner; at others, to fall into the coarseness and
vulgarity of the English. The fact is, that he can be two distinct
singers, according to the audience before whom he performs, and that to
gain applause he condescends to sing as ill at the playhouse as he has
done well at the Opera. His compositions have the same variety, and he
can equally write a popular noisy song for the one, or its very
opposite, for the other. A duetto of his, introduced into the opera of
Gli Orazj, sung by himself and Grassini, had great beauty, and was in
excellent taste. * * * * Braham has done material injury to English
singing, by producing a host of imitators. What is in itself not good,
but may be endured from a fine performer, becomes insufferable in bad
imitation. Catalani has done less mischief, only because her powers are
unique, and her astonishing execution unattainable. Many men endeavour
to rival Braham, no woman can aspire to being a Catalani."
When both Grassini and Mrs. Billington retired, (1806), the place of
both was supplied by the celebrated Catalani, the vocal queen of her
time. She made her first appearance in Portogallo's Semiramide, (which
is said to have been a very inferior opera to Bianchi's, on the same
subject), and, among other works, had to perform in the Clemenza di
Tito, of Mozart, whose music she is said to have disliked on the ground
that it kept the singer too much under the control of the orchestra.
Nevertheless, she introduced the Nozze di Figaro into England, and
herself played the part of "Susanna" with admirable success.
* * * * *
"Her voice," says Ferrari (Jacques Godefroi, a pupil of Paisiello), "was
sonorous, powerful, and full of charm and suavity. This organ, of so
rare a beauty, might be compared for splendour to the voice of Banti;
for expression, to that of Grassini; for sweet energy, to that of Pasta;
uniting the delicious flexibility of Sontag to the three registers of
Malibran. Madame Catalani had formed her style on that of Pacchierotti,
Marchesi, Crescentini; her groups, roulades, triplets, and
mordenti, were of admirable perfection; her well articulated
execution lost nothing of its purity in the most rapid and most
difficult passages. She animated the singers, the chorus, the orchestra,
even in the finales and concerted pieces. Her beautiful notes rose above
and dominated the ensemble of the voices and instruments; nor could
Beethoven, Rossini or any other musical Lucifer, have covered this
divine voice with the tumult of the orchestra. Our virtuosa was not a
profound musician; but, guided by what she did know, and by her
practised ear, she could learn in a moment the most complicated pieces."
* * * * *
"Her firm, strong, brilliant, voluminous voice was of a most agreeable
timbre," says Castil Blase; "it was an admirable soprano of prodigious
compass, from la to the upper sol, marvellous in point of agility,
and producing a sensation difficult to describe. Madame Catalani's
manner of singing left something to desire in the noble, broad,
sustained style. Mesdames Grassini and Barilli surpassed her on this
point, but with regard to difficulties of execution and brio, Madame
Catalani could ring out one of her favourite airs and exclaim, Son
Regina! She was then without a rival. I never heard anything like it.
She excelled in chromatic passages, ascending and descending, of extreme
rapidity. Her execution, marvellous in audacity, made talents of the
first order pale before it, and instrumentalists no longer dared figure
by her side. When Tulou, however, presented himself, his flute was
applauded with enthusiasm after Madame Catalani's voice. The experiment
was a dangerous one, and the victory was only the more brilliant for the
adventurous young artist. There was no end to the compliments addressed
to him on his success."
* * * * *
On her way to London, in the summer of 1806, Catalani, whose reputation
was then at its height, passed through Paris, and sang before the
Emperor at St. Cloud. Napoleon gave her 5,000 francs for this
performance, besides a pension of 1,200 francs, and the use of the
Opera, with all expences paid, for two concerts, of which the receipts
amounted to 49,000 francs. The French emperor, during his victorious
career, had acquired the habit of carrying off singers as captives, and
enrolling them, in spite of themselves, in his musical service. The same
dictatorial system, however, failed when applied to Catalani.
"Where are you going, that you wish to leave Paris?" said Napoleon.
"To London, Sire," answered the singer.
"You must remain in Paris," replied Napoleon, "you will be well paid and
your talents will be better appreciated here. You will have a hundred
thousand francs a year, and two months' leave of absence. That is
settled. Adieu, Madame."
Catalani went away without daring to say that she did not mean to break
her engagement with the manager of the King's Theatre. In order to keep
it she was obliged to embark secretly at Morlaix.
I have spoken of this celebrated vocalist's first appearance in London,
and, having given an Italian and a French account of her singing, I may
as well complete the description by quoting the remarks made by an
Englishman, Lord Mount Edgcumbe, on her voice and style of execution.
"It is well known," he says, "that her voice is of a most uncommon
quality, and capable of exertions almost supernatural. Her throat seems
endued (as has been remarked by medical men) with a power of expansion
and muscular motion by no means usual, and when she throws out all her
voice to the utmost, it has a volume and strength that are quite
surprising, while its agility in divisions, running up and down the
scale in semi-tones, and its compass in jumping over two octaves at
once, are equally astonishing. It were to be wished she was less lavish
in the display of these wonderful powers, and sought to please more than
to surprise; but her taste is vicious, her excessive love of ornament
spoiling every simple air, and her greatest delight (indeed her chief
merit) being in songs of a bold and spirited character, where much is
left to her discretion (or indiscretion) without being confined by
accompaniment, but in which she can indulge in ad libitum passages
with a luxuriance and redundancy no other singer ever possessed, or if
possessing, ever practised, and which she carries to a fantastical
excess. She is fond of singing variations on some known simple air, and
latterly has pushed this taste to the very height of absurdity, by
singing, even without words, variations composed for the fiddle."
Allusion is here doubtless made to the air varié by Pierre Rode, the
violinist, which, from Catalani to Alboni and our own Louisa Pyne, has
been such a favourite show-piece with all vocalists of brilliant
executive powers, more especially in England. The vocal variations on
Rode's air, however, were written in London, specially for Catalani, by
Drouet the flute-player.
Catalani returned to Paris in October, 1815, when there was no longer
any chance of Napoleon reproaching her for her abrupt departure nine
years before. She solicited and obtained the "privilege" of the Italian
theatre; but here the celebrated system of her husband, M. Valabrèque
(in which the best possible operatic company consisted only of ma femme
et trois ou quatre poupées) quite broke down. Madame Catalani gave up
the theatre, with the subvention of 160,000 francs allowed her by the
government, in 1818, M. Valabrèque having previously enunciated in a
pamphlet the reasons which led to this abandonment. Great expenses had
been incurred in fitting up the theatre, and, moreover, the management
had been forced to pay its rent. The pamphlet concluded with a paragraph
which was scarcely civil on the part of a foreigner who had been most
hospitably received, towards a nation situated as France was just then.
It is sufficiently curious to be quoted.
[Sidenote: M. VALABREQUE.]
"Consider, moreover," said the discomforted director, or rather the
discomforted husband of the directress, "that in the time when several
provinces beyond the mountains belonged to France, twenty thousand
Italians were constantly attracted to the capital and supplied numerous
audiences for the Italian theatre; that, moreover, the artists who were
chiefly remarked at the theatres of Milan, Florence, Venice and Genoa,
could be engaged for Paris by order of the government, and that in such
a case the administration was reimbursed for a portion of the extra
Catalani had left the King's Theatre in 1813, two years before she
assumed the management of the Italian Theatre of Paris. With some brief
intervals she had been singing in London since 1806, and after quitting
England, she was for many years without appearing on any stage, if we
except the short period during which she directed the Théâtre Feydau.
Her terms were so inordinate that managers were naturally afraid of
them, and Catalani found it more to her advantage to travel about
Europe, giving concerts at which she was the sole performer of
importance, than to accept such an engagement as could be offered to her
at a theatre. She gave several concerts of this kind in England, whither
she returned twice after she had ceased to appear at the Opera. She is
said to have obtained more success in England than in any other country,
and least of all in Italy.
When she appeared at the King's Theatre in 1824, and sang in Mayer's
Fanatico per la Musica, the frequenters of the Opera, who remembered
her performance in the same work eighteen years before, were surprised
that so long an interval had produced so little change in the singer.
The success of the first night was prodigious; but Mr. Ebers (in his
"Seven Years of the King's Theatre"), tells us that "repetitions of this
opera, again and again, diminished the audiences most perceptibly,
though some new air was on each performance introduced, to display the
power of the Catalani. * * * In this opera the sweet and soothing voice
of Caradori was an agreeable relief to the bewildering force of the
In one season of four months in London, Madame Catalani, by her system
of concerts, gained upwards of ten thousand pounds, and doubled that sum
during a subsequent tour in the provinces, in Ireland and Scotland. She
sang for the last time in public at Dublin, in 1828.
[Sidenote: CATALANI'S AGREEMENT]
As to the sort of engagement she approved of, some notion may be formed
from the following draft of a contract submitted by her to Mr. Ebers in
"Conditions between Mr. Ebers and M. P. de Valabrèque.
"1. Every box and every admission shall be considered as belonging
to the management. The free admissions shall be given with paper
orders, and differently shaped from the paid tickets. Their number
shall be limited. The manager, as well as Madame Catalani, shall
each have a good box.
"2. Madame Catalani shall choose and direct the operas in which she
is to sing; she shall likewise have the choice of the performers in
them; she will have no orders to receive from any one; she will
find all her own dresses.
"3. Madame Catalani shall have two benefits, to be divided with the
manager; Madame Catalani's share shall be free: she will fix her
"4. Madame Catalani and her husband shall have a right to
superintend the receipts.
"5. Every six weeks Madame Catalani shall receive the payment of
her share of the receipts, and of the subscription.
"6. Madame Catalani shall sing at no other place but the King's
Theatre, during the season; in the concerts or oratorios, where she
may sing, she will be entitled to no other share but that specified
"7. During the season, Madame Catalani shall be at liberty to go to
Bath, Oxford, or Cambridge.
"8. Madame Catalani shall not sing oftener than her health will
allow her. She promises to contribute to the utmost of her power to
the good of the theatre. On his side, Mr. Ebers engages to treat
Madame Catalani with every possible care.
"9. This engagement, and these conditions, will be binding for this
season, which will begin and end and continue during all the
seasons that the theatre shall be under the management of Mr.
Ebers, unless Madame Catalani's health, or state of her voice,
should not allow her to continue.
[Sidenote: CATALANI'S AGREEMENT]
"10. Madame Catalani, in return for the conditions above mentioned,
shall receive the half part of the amount of all the receipts which
shall be made in the course of the season, including the
subscription to the boxes, the amount of those sold separately, the
monies received at the doors of the theatre, and of the
concert-room; in short, the said half part of the general receipts
of the theatre for the season.
"11. It is well understood that Madame Catalani's share shall be
free from every kind of deduction, it being granted her in lieu of
salary. It is likewise well understood, that every expense of the
theatre during the season shall be Mr. Ebers'; such as the rent of
the theatre, the performers' salaries, the tradespeople's bills; in
short, every possible expense; and Madame Catalani shall be
entirely exonerated from any one charge.
"This engagement shall be translated into English, taking care that
the conditions shall remain precisely as in the original, and shall
be so worded as to stipulate that Madame Catalani, on receiving her
share of the receipts of the theatre, shall in no ways whatever be
considered as partner of the manager of the establishment.
"12. The present engagement being made with the full approbation of
both parties, Mr. Ebers and M. Valabrèque pledge their word of
honour to fulfil it in every one of its parts."
* * * * *
I must now add that Madame Catalani, by all accounts, possessed an
excellent disposition, that her private life was irreproachable, and
that while gaining immense sums, she also gave immense sums away in
charity. Indeed, the proceeds of her concerts, for the benefit of the
poor and sick have been estimated at eighty thousand pounds, besides
which she performed numerous acts of generosity towards individuals. Nor
does she appear to have possessed that excessive and exclusive
admiration for Madame Catalani's talent which was certainly entertained
by her husband, M. Valabrèque. Otherwise there can be no truth in the
well known story of her giving, by way of homage, the shawl which had
just been presented to her by the Empress of Russia, to a Moscow
gipsey--one of those singing tsigankie who execute with such
originality and true expression their own characteristic melodies.
After having delighted the world for thirty-five years, Madame Catalani
retired to a charming villa near Florence. The invasion of the cholera
made her leave this retreat and go to Paris; where, in 1849, in her
seventieth year, she fell a victim to the very scourge she had hoped to
[Sidenote: CELEBRATED SINGERS.]
As for the husband, Valabrèque, he appears to have been mean, officious,
conceited (of his wife's talent!) and generally stupid. M. Castil Blaze
solemnly affirms, that when Madame Catalani was rehearsing at the
Italian Opera of Paris an air which she was to sing in the evening to a
pianoforte accompaniment, she found the instrument too high, and told
Valabrèque to see that it was lowered; upon which (declares M. Blase)
Valabrèque called for a carpenter and caused the unfortunate piano's
feet to be amputated!
"Still too high?" cried Madame Catalani's husband, when he was accused
in the evening of having neglected her orders. "Why, how much did you
lower it, Charles?" addressing the carpenter.
"Two inches, Sir," was the reply.
* * * * *
The historian of the above anecdote calls Tamburini, Lablache, and
Tadolini, as well as Rossini and Berryer, the celebrated advocate, to
witness that the mutilated instrument had afterward four knobs of wood
glued to its legs by the same Charles who executed in so faithful a
manner M. Valabrèque's absurd behest. It continued to wear these pattens
until its existence was terminated in the fire of 1838--in which by the
way, the composer of William Tell, who at that time nominally directed
the theatre, and who had apartments on the third floor, would inevitably
have perished had he not left Paris for Italy the day before!
* * * * *
Before concluding this chapter, I will refer once more to the "Musical
Reminiscences" of Lord Mount Edgcumbe, whose opinions on singers seem
to me more valuable than those he has expressed about contemporary
composers, and who had frequent and constant opportunities of hearing
the five great female vocalists engaged at the King's Theatre, between
the years 1786 and 1814.
"They may be divided," he says, "into two classes, of which Madame Mara
and Mrs. Billington form the first; and they were in most respects so
similar, that the same observations will apply equally to both. Both
were excellent musicians, thoroughly skilled in their profession; both
had voices of uncommon sweetness and agility, particularly suited to the
bravura style, and executed to perfection and with good taste, every
thing they sung. But neither was an Italian, and consequently both were
deficient in recitative: neither had much feeling or theatrical talent,
and they were absolutely null as actresses; therefore they were more
calculated to give pleasure in the concert-room than on the stage.
The other three, on the contrary, had great and distinguished dramatic
talents, and seemed born for the theatrical profession. They were all
likewise but indifferently skilled in music, supplying by genius what
they wanted in science, and thereby producing the greatest and most
striking effects on the stage: these are their points of resemblance.
Their distinctive differences, I should say, were these: Grassini was
all grace, Catalani all fire, Banti all feeling."
The composers, in whose music the above singers chiefly excelled, were
Gluck, Piccinni, Guglielmi, Cimarosa, and Paisiello. We have seen that
"Susanna" in the Nozze di Figaro, was one of Catalani's favourite
parts; but as yet Mozart's music was very little known in England, and
it was not until 1817 that his Don Giovanni was produced at the King's
* * * * *
After Gluck and Piccinni, the most admired composers, and the natural
successors of the two great rivals in point of time, were Cimarosa and
Paisiello. Guglielmi was considerably their senior, and on returning to
Naples in 1777, after having spent fifteen years away from his country,
in Vienna, and in London, he found that his two younger competitors had
quite supplanted him in public favour. His works, composed between the
years 1755 and 1762, had become antiquated, and were no longer
performed. All this, instead of discouraging the experienced musician
(Guglielmi was then fifty years of age) only inspired him with fresh
energy. He found, however, a determined and unscrupulous adversary in
Paisiello, who filled the theatre with his partisans the night on which
Guglielmi was to produce his Serva innamorata, and occasioned such a
disturbance, that for some time it was impossible to attend to the
The noise was especially great at the commencement of a certain
quintett, on which, it was said, the success of the work depended.
Guglielmi was celebrated for the ingenuity and beauty of his concerted
pieces, but there did not seem to be much chance, as affairs stood on
this particular evening, of his quintett being heard at all.
Fortunately, while it was being executed, the door of the royal box
opened, and the king appeared. Instantly the most profound silence
reigned throughout the theatre, the piece was recommenced, and Guglielmi
was saved. More than that, the enthusiasm of the audience was raised,
and went on increasing to such a point, that at the end of the
performance the composer was taken from his box, and carried home in
triumph to his hotel.
From this moment Paisiello, with all his jealousy, was obliged to
discontinue his intrigues against a musician, whom Naples had once more
adopted. Cimarosa had taken no part in the plot against Guglielmi; but
he was by no means delighted with Guglielmi's success. Prince San
Severo, who admired the works of all three, invited them to a
magnificent banquet where he made them embrace one another, and swear
eternal friendship. Let us hope that he was not the cause of either
of them committing perjury.
Paisiello seems to have been an intriguer all his life, and to have been
constantly in dread of rivals; though he probably had less reason to
fear them than any other composer of the period. However, at the age of
seventy-five, when he had given up writing altogether, we find him, a
few months before his death, getting up a cabal against the youthful
Rossini, who was indeed destined to eclipse him, and to efface even the
memory of his Barbiere di Siviglia, by his own admirable opera on the
same subject. It is as if, painting on the same canvas, he had simply
painted out the work of his predecessor.
* * * * *
Cimarosa, though he may have possessed a more dignified sense than
Paisiello of what was due to himself, had less vanity. A story is told
of a painter wishing to flatter the composer of Il Matrimonio
Segretto, and saying that he looked upon him as superior to Mozart.
"Superior to Mozart!" exclaimed Cimarosa. "What should you think, Sir,
of a musician, who told you that you were a greater painter than
* * * * *
Among the other composers who adorned the end of the eighteenth and the
beginning of the nineteenth century, may be mentioned Sacchini, the
successor of Piccinni in Paris; Salieri, the envious rival of Mozart,
and (in Paris) the successor of Gluck; Paer, in whose Camilla Rossini
played the child's part at the age of seven (1799); Mayer, the future
master of Donizetti; and Zingarelli, the future master of Bellini, one
of whose operas was founded on the same libretto which afterwards
served the pupil for his Capuletti i Montecchi.
* * * * *
Piccinni is not connected in any direct manner with the present day; but
it is nevertheless to Piccinni that we owe the first idea of those
magnificent finales which, more than half a century afterwards,
contributed so much to the success of Rossini's operas, and of which the
first complete specimens, including several movements with changes of
key and of rhythm, occur in La Cecchina ossia la Buona Figliuola,
produced at Rome in 1760.
Logroscino, who sometimes passes as the inventor of these finales, and
who lived a quarter of a century earlier, wrote them only on one theme.
The composer who introduced dramatic finales into serious opera, was
It may interest the reader to know, that the finale of Don Giovanni
lasts fifteen minutes.
That of the Barber of Seville lasts twenty-one minutes and a-half.
That of Otello lasts twenty-four minutes.
The quintett of Gazza Ladra lasts twenty-seven minutes.
The finale of Semiramide lasts half an hour--or perhaps a minute or
two less, if we allow for the increased velocity at which quick
movements are "taken" by the conductors of the present day.
Next: Opera In France After The Departure Of Gluck
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