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Queens of Song/Chapter V



These famous sirens were the heroines of one of the greatest feuds recorded in the annals of the Italian stage. Little is known of the early career of either; but they had gained sufficient reputation to induce Handel, when at the height of his power as manager of the Opera, to bring, first the one and then the other, to England.

Francesca Cuzzoni, who was a native of Parma, arrived in London about the year 1723, and appeared for the first time that year in Handel's Otho (or Ottone), the most popular of all his operas. Her success was triumphant, and the directors, who gave her two thousand guineas for the season, were enabled, on the very second evening of her performance, to charge four guineas each ticket.

Delighted with her powers, Handel took the utmost pains to compose airs adapted to display her exquisite voice to advantage; but in return she treated him with caprice and insolence; which at last became intolerable. One morning, at rehearsal, she was so refractory that she could not be persuaded to sing "Falsa imagina," in Otho, having raised some frivolous objections to certain passages in it. Handel, after reproaching her with certain former instances of stubbornness, seized her round the waist, and swore, if she persisted in her obstinacy, that he would fling her out of the window; a threat which, for the time being, brought her to her senses. He composed for her, among other airs calculated to show her voice to advantage, "Affanni del pensier," in Otho; an air so beautiful, that Mainwaring, an eminent master, who was not on good terms with Handel, said that "the great bear was certainly inspired when he wrote that song."

Her popularity was unbounded; and, although she was so "ugly and ill-made," she was a special favorite with the gentlemen of her audience, a fact commemorated by sundry pungent epigrams. Her turbulent and obstinate temper, her ingratitude and insolence, are placed on record by the author of the Essai sur la Musique, printed at Paris. He relates that she once begged of an English gentleman a suit of lace, but, not liking it when sent to her, she had the audacity to throw it on the fire.

Having driven Durastanti away, and finding that Anastasia Robinson had quitted the stage immediately after her arrival in England, Cuzzoni fancied that she could do just as she pleased. But she had worn out the patience of the great composer whom it was her special deligt to torture; and wearied with her follies, Handel never rested till he had obtained the services of another singer who was then rising into fame. This was Faustina Bordoni, a Venetian lady of noble family, a pupil of Gasparini and Marcello. She was elegant in figure, and possessed the advantages of a handsome face and agreeable manners. She was now six-and-twenty, and had made her début in her native city at the age of sixteen, in 1716, in an opera called Ariodante.

The directors were in ecstasies; they felt sure that with two such exquisite voices, forming so brilliant a contrast, and yet so harmonious, the Opera was made. Nor was it the first time that these vocalists had appeared together, for they had both been engaged at Venice in 1719, just seven years before. Unfortunately, the directors did not take into consideration Cuzzoni's peculiar disposition. Faustina appeared first in Alexander, May 5th, in which she was ably supported by Senesino as the heroic Alexander.

From the night of her first appearance, Cuzzoni hated Faustina with a bitterness beyond expression. During the season previous, that of 1725, such was the furore for Cuzzoni, that the entire female fashionable world adopted the brown silk dress, embroidered with silver, which she wore in the opera of Rodelinda: "for a year the dress seemed a national uniform of youth and beauty," Burney says. And she was so secure of being able to dictate her own terms, that she disdainfully refused 240,000 livres offered by a director in Italy who desired to engage her for his theatre. But Cuzzoni foresaw, or chose to prophesy, that the beauty and amiability of her rival would eclipse her.

Faustina was in every way a contrast to her rival. She had the advantage in point of person, having a form of perfect , though petite, and a beautiful countenance, full of fire and intelligence; she was pleasant, amiable, and prudent, while Cuzzoni was disagreeable, ill-natured, and recklessly extravagant. As singers, the rivals were nearly on an equality; for Faustina's voice, while surpassing that of Cuzzoni in power of execution and a distinct manner of singing rapid passages, yet fell short of that command of expression which enabled Cuzzoni at will to bathe her audience in tears. Dr. Burney describes Cuzzoni's voice as being "equally clear, sweet, and flexible," and says that it was difficult for the hearer to determine whether she most excelled in slow or rapid airs. "A native warble enabled her to execute divisions with such facility as to conceal every appearance of difficulty; and so soft and touching was the natural tone of her voice, that she rendered pathetic whatever she sang, in which she had leisure to unfold its whole volume. The art of conducting, sustaining, increasing, and diminishing her tones by minute degrees, acquired for her among professors the title of complete mistress of her art. In a cantabile air, though the notes she added were few, she never lost a favorable opportunity of enriching the cantilena with all the refinements and embellishments of the time. Her shake was perfect; she had a creative fanccy, and the power of occasionally accelerating and retarding the measure in the most artificial manner by what the Italians call tempo rubato. Her high notes were unrivaled in clearness and sweetness, and her intonations were so just and fixed that it seemed as if it were not in her power to sing out of tune."

Of Faustina's voice, Quantz, the celebrated instructor of Frederick II., gave Dr. Burney a striking description. He was in London in 1727, and heard her sing. "Faustina," he says, "had a mezzo-soprano voice, that was less clear than penetrating. Her compass now was only from B flat to G in alt; but after this time she extended its limits downward. She possessed what the Italians call un cantar granito; her execution was articulate and brilliant. She had a fluent tongue for pronouncing words rapidly and distinctly, and a flexible throat for divisions, with so beautiful a shake, that she put it in motion upon short notice, just when she would. The passages might be smooth, or by leaps, or consisting of iterations of the same note; their execution was equally easy to her as to any instrument whatever. She was, doubtless, the first who introduced with success a swift repetition of the same note. She sang adagios with great passion and expression, but was not equally successful if such deep sorrow were to be impressed on the hearer as might require dragging, sliding, or notes of syncopation and tempo rubato. She had a very happy memory in arbitray changes and embellishments, and a clear and quick judgment in giving to words their full power and expression. In her action she was very happy; and as her performance possessed that flexibility of muscles and features which constitute face-play, she succeeded equally well in furious, amorous, and tender parts; in short, she was born for singing and acting."

In truth, the rivalry which Cuzzoni chose to organize was all the more absurd as their respective qualities were totally opposed, yet obviously calculated to act advantageously in unison. Tosi, their contemporary, declares, "Their merit is superior to all praise; for with equal strength, though in different styles, they help to keep up the tottering profession from immediately falling into ruins. The one is inimitable for a privileged gift of singing, and enchanting the world with an astonishing facility in executing difficulties with a brilliancy I know not whether derived from nature or art, which pleases to excess. The delightful, soothing cantabile of the other, joined to the sweetness of a fine voice, a perfect intonation, strictness of time, and the rarest productions of genius in her embellishments, are qualifications as peculiar and uncommon as they are difficult to be imitated. The pathos of the one and the rapidity of the other are distinctly characteristic. What a beautiful mixture it would be if the excellencies of these two angelic beings could be united in a single individual!"

Handel took sedulous care to compose for La Faustina, as he had hitherto done for his enemy Cuzzoni; he wrote for her the air "Alia sua gabbia d'oro," in Alexander, in the performance of which she "emulated the liquid articulation of the nightingale, and charmed the unprejudiced part of her hearers into ecstasy."

The public was soon divided into two parties, one maintaining that Cuzzoni was peerless, the other that Faustina was unapproachable. The Cuzzoni party was headed by the Countess of Pembroke; the Countess of Burlington and Lady Delawar led the Faustina squadron. The men generally favored the Venetian beauty, in consequence of her lovely face and figure. To such an extravagant pitch was the spirit of rivalry carried, that Lady Walpole (Horace Walpole tells us), having the sirens at her house to sing at a concert, at which was present an assemblage of the first persons in the kingdom, had the greatest difficulty to settle their precedence: one would not yield to the other. Finding it impossible to induce either to sing while the other was present, she took Faustina to a remote part of the mansion, under the pretext of showing her some curious china; meanwhile the company obtained an aria from Cuzzoni, who rejoiced in the idea that Faustina had fled discomfited. A similar device was practiced in order to decoy Cuzzoni from the room while Faustina sang.

At first they behaved with tolerable civility toward each other, though this very soon wore off. Sir Robert Walpole having declared for Faustina, his lady, in order that Cuzzoni might not be borne down by his indifference to her talents, patronized her; and when Sir Robert was from home she used to invite both to dinner. She was at first perplexed how to arrange the precedence for them at her table, but they relieved her embarrassment by polite mutual concessions. Matters at last came to a climax. On the 20th of June 1727, there was a brilliant assemblage of rank, beauty, and fashion in the Opera House, and the Princess Caroline honored the theatre with her presence that evening. The two prime donne were to appear together, and the partisans of each eagerly awaited the rising of the curtain. On their appearance there was a storm of mingled hisses and clapping of hands, which speedily swelled into a hurricane of catcalls, shrieking, and stamping; the uproar was terrific, and not the slightest deference was paid to the presence of the princess. The following morning an account appeared in the London Journal which must have astonished the loungers in coffee-houses. Epigrams, lampoons, libels, and duels followed each other in rapid succession, and the town was in a ferment.

This riot led to the rival singers abandoning their intrenchment of feigned politeness, and one night they so far forgot themselves as to come to blows, the by-standers being unable to separate them until they had left sanguinary marks of their hostility on each other's faces. A farce called Contretemps; or, the Rival Queens, was performed at Heidegger's private theatre, near the Haymarket, a few days afterward. Faustina, as the Queen of Bologna, and Cuzzoni, as Princess of Modena, exchange high words, seize each other by the hair, and then run off, Cuzzoni pursuing Faustina; while Handel, who has a small part consisting of three lines, advises that the antagonists be "left to fight it out, inasmuch as the only way to calm their fury is to let them satisfy it."

These conflicts proved so injurious to the interests of the Opera, that the directors resolved to end them by a stratagem. Cuzzoni had solemnly sworn never to accept one guinea less salary than Faustina; thus the directors offered Faustina, as the more attractive and more manageable prima donna, one guinea more for the season; and Cuzzoni found herself outwitted. The Count di Kinsky, Austrian embassador, advised her to go to Vienna, and she quitted England for that capital, breathing vengeance on Faustina. The following lines were written by Ambrose Phillips on her departure:

"Little siren of the stage,
Charmer of an idle age,
Empty warbler, breathing lyre,
Wanton gale of fond desire;
Bane of every manly art,
Sweet enfeebler of the heart;
Oh, too pleasing is thy strain,
Hence to southern climes again!
Tuneful mischief, vocal spell,
To this island bid farewell;
Leave us as we ought to be,
Leave the Britons rough and free."

Cuzzoni, while in London, married Pietro Giuseppe Sandoni, of Bologna, a harpischord maker, and a composer. He had settled in England some years before, and made a little reputation, being chiefly remarkable for his skill in improvisation. The Countess of Pembroke was his patroness. At first Cuzzoni had brilliant success at the court of Vienna; but soon her ridiculous pretensions and exaggerated demands (for she wanted to insist on 24,000 florins as her salary) entirely disgusted her patrons. She then left for Italy, saying that she could make as much as she pleased in her own country. She afterward made a tour in Holland, where she lived so extravagantly that she was at last imprisoned for debt.

Seven years after her flight from England she was singing (in 1734) at Lincoln's Inn Fields under peculiar circumstances. Senesino's squabbles with Handel had grown to such a height that the maestro refused any longer to compose for him, and it became impossible that they could remain in the same theatre. The public, however, sided with Senesino, and they subscribed for a new operatic establishment. On the 13th of June, 1733, the following advertisement appeared in the Daily News: "The subscribers to the opera in which Signer Senesino and Signora Cuzzoni are to perform, are desired to meet at Mr. Hickford's great room, in Panton Street, on Friday next, at eleven o'clock, in order to settle proper methods for carrying on the subscription. Such persons as can not be present are desired to send their proxies." Porpora and Arrigoni were engaged to direct the music, under the control of Lord Cooper.

Handel, on his side, entered into an agreement with Heidegger for conducting an opera in partnership for three years, and started for Italy to engage singers. At the opera abroad he heard both the great Farinelli and Carestini, but he made the mistake of engaging the latter. The opposition immediately engaged Farinelli, whose advent they announced with as much parade as if he had come as an envoy on an important mission, and he was engaged to perform fifty nights during the season of 1734–5 for a salary of 1500 guineas and a benefit. From the moment he reached London he created a furore. At the first private rehearsal after his arrival in the metropolis, in Cuzzoni's apartments, Lord Cooper, observing that the band did not accompany the singer, but were all gaping with wonder, desired them to be attentive, when they confessed that they had been so overpowered with admiration and astonishment as to be unable to follow him—an incident vouched for to Dr. Bumey by one of the band.

Farinelli sang with Cuzzoni, Senesino, and the others, at the Duke's Theatre, and became ridiculously popular: from the highest nobles to the meanest citizens and their wives, all seemed to go mad about him. He was looked on as a prodigy, introduced to the king, accompanied on the harpsichord by the Princess of Orange, and invited to companies the most exclusive; those who tried to bungle over compliments to him in bad Italian, esteemed themselves happy if they received from him the condescension of a supercilious answer. At his first benefit, in 1733, the pit was filled at four o'clock, and the stage was covered with beauty and fashion; scenery was therefore dispensed with, the gilt leather hangings used at ridottos being substituted. Many of the songs in the opera were new; and that which preceded the chorus, being composed by Farinelli, was vehemently encored, though the chorus was over, and the musicians had quitted the orchestra.

In October, 1734, Handel changed to Lincoln's Inn Fields, while the opposition came to the Haymarket, and inaugurated the season with the opera of Artaxerxes, cast in a most powerful manner, Arbaces being performed by Farinelli, Artabanes by Senesino, Mandane by Cuzzoni. Until Farinelli arrived in England, Senesino had never had an opportunity of hearing him, and on the first occasion on which they sang together, Senesino filled the part of a furious tyrant, and Farinelli that of an unfortunate hero in chains; but in the course of the very first song, the latter so softened the heart of the enraged despot, that Senesino, forgetting his assumed character, ran to Farinelli and embraced him. According to Dibdin, Farinelli, now about thirty years old, was "as tall as a giant and as thin as a shadow; therefore, if he had grace, it could be only of a sort to be envied by a penguin or a spider." At the end of this season, Senesino, probably irritated at being thrown into the shade by the splendor of Farinelli's celebrity, retired to Sienna, his native place; and, having acquired a sum of £15,000, built a house, which he afterward bequeathed, with his fortune, to his relations.

After lingering some time, the rival Operas, from various causes, were broken up, and the singers were dispersed. Cuzzoni went again on the Continent.[1] In the London Daily Post of September 7, 1741, there appeared a startling piece of intelligence: "We hear from Italy that the famous singer, Mrs. C-z-ni, is under sentence of death, to be beheaded for poisoning her husband." The sentence, if ever pronounced, was never put into execution. Seven years after this, in 1749, she appeared for the third and last time in England, when she took a benefit concert, on the 18th of May, at the little theatre in the Haymarket, at which Felice Giardini, who afterward became manager of the Opera, made his first appearance in this country. She issued a preliminary advertisement, avouching her "pressing debts" and her "desire to pay them" as the reason for her asking the benefit, which, she declared, should be the last she would ever trouble the public with. Old, poor, and almost deprived of her voice by her infirmities, her attempt to revive the interest of the public in her favor was a miserable failure; her star was set forever, and she was obliged to return to Holland more wretched than she came. She had scarcely reappeared there when she was again thrown into prison for debt; but, by entering into an agreement to sing at the theatre every night, under surveillance, she was enabled to obtain her release. Her recklessness and improvidence had brought her to a pitiable condition; and in her latter days, after a career of splendor, caprice, and extravagance, she was obliged to subsist, it is said, by button-making. She died in frightful indigence, the recipient of charity at a hospital at Bologna, in 1770.

A far different fate awaited Faustina. In 1726 she left England for Vienna, where she obtained an appointment of 15,000 florins. The next season she was singing in Venice, in the bloom of her beauty, the object of universal admiration. It happened that Adolfo Hasse was director of the orchestra at the same time, and in the flush of his celebrity; the Italian theatres intrigued for the honor of his services, and he was called Il caro Sassone. Faustina saw him for the first time. "Having once heard Hasse play upon the harpsichord, she immediately fell in love with him," says one biographer. He was appointed chapel-master in the conservatorio degli incurabili; but his increasing reputation attracted the attention of the King of Poland, and his majesty offered him the place of chapel-master at Dresden. Faustina was singing there, for the first time, in 1731, and they consequently met again; they were mutually pleased; they were nearly of the same age (Hasse being one year older than Faustina), and they were married in 1736. The king, desiring to retain both, offered them 12,000 dollars to stay at Dresden, and Hasse accepted the offer; but, being pressed to remain in Italy, he divided his time between the two countries. The couple remained seven years in the service of the court of Dresden. King Augustus, who squandered immense sums on pictures and musicians, gave Hasse unlimited power and ample resources, of which he availed himself to place the Dresden opera on the most complete and splendid footing. At length, however, the weak, proud, and extravagant royal amateur was compelled to dismiss numbers from his service; among others, Hasse and his wife, who were obliged to be satisfied with a small pension. They came to England in 1740, where they were received most flatteringly.

In December, 1747, Faustina sang before Frederick the Great in the opera of Arminio; the monarch was so charmed with the freshness of her voice, although she was then forty-six, that he sent the composer a present of 1000 dollars and a diamond ring, as tokens of the pleasure he had received from the performance. Eight years after she was still able to sing, but her voice had lost its flexibility, and her intonation was uncertain. She finally quitted the stage in the winter of 1753.

In 1760, Hasse suffered much from the bombardment of Dresden by the Prussians, losing, among other property, all his manuscripts. This was a heavy loss, as he was about to publish a complete collection of his works, the expense of which the king had promised to defray. He resided with Faustina in Vienna till about 1776, when they retired to Venice, the birthplace of Faustina. Dr. Burney visited them in 1773, when they were living in a handsome house in the Landstrass, Berlin, and were rather a humdrum couple; Hasse suffering from the gout, and the lovely Faustina of former years changed into a jolly, chatty matron of seventy-two, with a couple of pretty daughters. As the doctor approached their residence with the Abate Taruffi, he perceived Faustina at the window, who, seeing them stop at the door, came to meet her visitors. "I was presented to her by my conductor," says the doctor. "She is a short, brown, sensible, and lively old woman, and said she was much pleased to see a cavaliere Inglese, as she had been honored with great marks of favor in England. Signor Hasse soon entered the room. He is tall and rather large in size, but it is easy to imagine that in his younger days he must have been a robust and fine figure: great gentleness and goodness appear in his countenance and manners."

Going to see them a second time, the doctor found all the family at home, and enjoyed a "cheerful and social visit." He was delighted with Faustina, who, he says, was "very conversable, and still possessed of much curiosity concerning what is transacting in the world." She had a wonderful store of musical reminiscences; and he observes that "she has likewise good remains, for seventy-two, of that beauty for which she was so much celebrated in her youth, but none of her fine voice. I asked her to sing. 'Ah! non posso; ho perduto tutte le mie facolà.' 'Alas! I am no longer able,' said she; 'I have lost all my faculties.'" "I was extremely captivated," adds the doctor, "with the conversation of Signor Hasse. He was easy, communicative, and rational, equally free from pedantry, pride, and prejudice. He spoke ill of no one, but, on the contrary, did justice to the talents of several composers that were occasionally named, even to those of Porpora, who, though his first master, was ever after his greatest rival." He played on the piano for Burney on this occasion, in spite of the gout, which had attacked his fingers; and then his daughters, two agreeable young ladies, sang for the doctor to his great gratification. One was a "sweet soprano," the other a "rich and powerful contralto, fit for any church or theatre in Europe;" both girls "having good shakes," and "such an expression, taste, and steadiness as it is natural to expect in the daughters and scholars of Signor Hasse and Signora Faustina."

Faustina and her husband both died in 1788, she eighty-three, be eighty-four.

  1. It is not quite certain whether it was during her first or second visit that she married Sandoni.