Open main menu

Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/332

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

About the age of 12 she was sent to the convent of Santa Lucia at Gubbio, near Rome, where her beautiful voice soon became a great attraction. In its full freshness, according to Fétis and all other authorities, it must have been one of extraordinary purity, force, and compass, going as far as G in altissimo, with a sweet clear tone. This exquisite quality was allied to a marvellous truth and rapidity of execution. No singer has ever surpassed, or perhaps equalled, her in chromatic scales, whether in velocity or precision. On leaving the convent, into which she had been introduced by the Cardinal Onorati, and where the congregation could frequently not be prevented from openly applauding her splendid notes in the services, she found herself, owing to the sudden impoverishment of her parents, compelled to perform in public. Her musical education had been but ill cared for in the convent, where she passed three years; and she had contracted bad tricks of vocalisation, which she never entirely overcame, even after hearing such great models as Marchesi and Crescentini. One of her faults was that she could never execute certain passages without a very perceptible oscillation of the lower jaw, which made them, instead of being even and smooth, sound like a succession of staccato passages on the violin. In spite of this fault, which was indeed more within the criticism of connoisseurs than of the public generally, her voice was so full, powerful, and clear, her intonation so pure and true, and her instinctive execution of difficult and brilliant music so easy and unfaltering, that her singing had a charm which has scarcely ever been equalled, and her very first steps in a theatrical career were marked by the most extraordinary success. When she began, the favourite style was that of expressive and pathetic song, and in this she never produced the effect which she subsequently made in bravura. Thus at Paris she failed comparatively in a tender song of Piccini's, 'Se'l ciel mi divide,' though shortly after, she created the greatest enthusiasm by her 'Son regina,' by an air of Rode's with variations, concerti for the voice, and other pieces of the most florid execution. In 1795, at the age of 16, she obtained her first engagement at the Fenice at Venice, and made her début as Lodoiska in the opera of that name by Mayer. Her face, figure, and voice, assured her success, a success which grew day by day, and lasted for nearly thirty years. In the season of 1798, she sang at Leghorn with Crivelli, Marchesi, and Mrs. Billington; the year after, at La Pergola in Florence, in Nasolini's 'Monima e Mitridate'; and, in 1801, at Milan, in the 'Clitemnestra' of Zingarelli, and Nasolini's 'Baccanali.' In these early efforts her effect was not due to method or skill; it was her superb voice that carried all before her. From Milan she went to Florence, Trieste, Rome, and Naples, exciting everywhere the same astonishment and admiration.

Her reputation now reached the ears of the Prince Regent of Portugal, who engaged her, with Mme. Gafforini and Crescentini, to sing at the Italian Opera there, and she arrived about the end of the year 1804. Her salary was 24,000 cruzados (£3,000).

Some writers have said that she derived very great advantage from the instruction of Crescentini, which, indeed, seems more than likely; but Fétis, on the authority of Crescentini himself, contradicts this statement categorically, affirming that Crescentini told him that he had endeavoured to give her a little advice, which she had seemed incapable of understanding. It was here that she married Valabregue, of the French embassy; but she never quitted her name of Catalani before the public. Her husband, a stupid, ignorant soldier, appears to have had no ideas beyond helping his talented wife to gain the utmost possible amount of money on every occasion, and spending it for her afterwards. From their marriage dates one of the worst of the many speculations that have been based on the capital of a grand voice and great personal charm. They went first to Madrid, and then to Paris, where she sang only in concerts, but where she gained even more fame than before.

On October 26, 1805, Mme. Catalani signed her first engagement (in the possession of the writer) with F. Goold and W. Taylor, manager and proprietors of the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, for the season from September 15, 1806, to August 1807, at a salary of £2,000 sterling, with 'a further sum of £100 sterling to defray the expenses of her journey to London,' and also 'one Benefit Night free of expence in the month of March, at which a new opera shall be performed.' Before crossing, however, she gave concerts at Madrid and Paris, by which she gained large sums of money, and created a deep impression; indeed, Napoleon offered her an engagement from which she had some difficulty in escaping, in order to fulfil that at the King's Theatre. At the moment of her arrival in London, Grassini and Mrs. Billington had just retired; and, as Lord Mount-Edgcumbe says, 'the great, the far-famed Catalani supplied the place of both, and for many years reigned alone, for she would bear no rival, nor any singer sufficiently good to divide the applause.' 'It is well known,' he continues, '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,' says this connoisseur of the old school, 'that 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