University Musical Encyclopedia/Vocal Music and Musicians: The Vocal Art; Great Vocalists; Famous Songs/Giuditta Pasta
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Giuditta Negri, a Jewess, was born in 1798; according to some at Saronno, near Milan, to others at Como. Her first publicity as a vocalist of eminence was attained after her marriage to Signor Pasta, a tenor, which took place about the year 1816. She was first instructed at the cathedral of Como, and later at the Milan Conservatorio. In 1813, having left the Conservatorio, she appeared in the minor theaters of Leghorn, Parma, and Brescia; an in the following year at Paris in the train of Catalani. Without bursting into sudden splendor, she played subordinate parts, and matured her voice by incessant practice and care. It was said of her that she left nothing to chance, and proved the truth of the axiom that genius is the art of taking pains.
She made her first appearance at the King's Theater, London, January 11, 1817, in the part of Arsinoë in Cimarosa's "Penelope," the title rôle being played by Madame Camporesi. This was followed by Cherubino in "Le Nozze di Figaro," and subordinate parts in several other operas. She failed to excite general notice. Her voice was lacking in clearness and purity, and she had not yet attained complete command of it. But her style was expressive, and her acting was characterized by ability such as indicated a reserve of histrionic power of the highest order.
Pasta returned to Italy, withdrew temporarily from the stage, and for over a year applied herself to a rigorous course of study. The reward of patience and assiduity was won on her reappearance in Venice, where she created a profound sensation in 1819, and at once asserted the claims of genius developed by conscientious study. A season in Rome during the same year was attended by the most gratifying success, which was followed by triumphs at Triest and Milan in the following year. In 1821, at Paris, she succeeded in making a complete conquest of the public, which, after a flattering reception at Verona, was ratified in March of the next year, when in the opera of "Romeo e Giulietta" she was received with enthusiastic homage.
By perseverance she had conquered defects of tone, and the surprising beauty of her voice was now the theme of universal admiration. Its range and power were remarkable. The critics found that she had extended it to two octaves and a half, from A above the bass clef to C flat, and even to D in alt. Its quality was marked by a rare sweetness which permeated its volume, and her exquisite taste was reinforced by deep feeling and accurate judgment. Her trill was exceptionally beautiful and artistic.
A writer who met her in retirement many years afterward gives an interesting account n her own words of her achievement of the trill. "I had no natural shake or trill," she says, "and as the music of forty years ago was very elaborate, this was a great drawback to me. For five years I struggled to obtain the power of trilling; one day it came to me as by inspiration, and I could shake perfectly. I kept the secret at rehearsal. I was then at Bergamo, acting in "Niobe," an opera containing an aria, 'Il soave e bel contento,' which suited my voice in every respect, but which I had hitherto been obliged to partly omit, as a long trill obbligato opens the quick movement. I simply told the conductor of the orchestra to suspend the instruments at this passage, as I wished to introduce a long cadenza. When I came to the passage in question I stood in the middle of the stage, and commenced a shake in a low key, gradually increasing in power, finally diminishing, and ending in a cadenza which perfectly linked it to the aria. For a moment or two there was a dead silence, then the musicians laid down their instruments, while both orchestra and public applauded me to the echo."
Pasta's fame speedily attained the zenith. Her rare powers, ripened by time and developed and refined by study, burst upon an astonished world with the splendor and brilliancy of a constellation. Whatever defects still lingered in her voice were concealed by her intellectual refinement, her marvelous pathos, her transforming energy in heroic situations, her profound but restrained tragic power. She was among the greatest actresses of all her time—of all time. Her lower notes had tears in them, and thus her command of pathetic emotions was heightened and intensified; her movements and gestures were indescribably graceful, deepening into grandeur or tragic abruptness as the situation required. Passion and fire, held in artistic restraint, like hounds in the leash, gave to supreme moments inimitable and decisive touches. A perfect grace in pause or movement, added to facial charm, made every pose, accentuated by true art, but never artificial, a study for a painter or sculptor. Niobe, Tancredi, Romeo, Desdemona, Medea, Semiramide—each character was infused with life and individuality, and borrowed distinction and grandeur from real emotion. "Here is a woman," exclaimed Talma, "of whom I can still learn!"
Pasta reappeared in London, April 24, 1824, as the reigning queen of the stage which, only seven years before, she had left almost unnoted. She took the town by storm. In 1825–26 she appeared alternately in London and Paris. Owing to a disagreement with Rossini, at that time director of the Italian Opera, she quitted Paris and went to Naples. In 1827, however, she returned to London for a season of twenty-three nights, for which she received three thousand guineas, and a free benefit which realized fifteen hundred guineas. During this season she played Desdemona, and elicited a comparison with Malibran, who also essayed the Malibran's superiority in vocalization was admitted, but she failed to wrest the palm from Pasta, whose conception of the part and finished acting were beyond her rival's scope. Pasta's impersonation of Queen Mary in Coccia's "Maria Stuarda," first produced that season, still further increased her fame and popularity. The farewell in the last scene is said to have been a crowning triumph of queenly grandeur and pathos. She felt the situation deeply, and when she appeared before the curtain in response to a tumultuous call she was still suffering from extreme agitation. After a triumphal season at Dublin she went to Triest.
The story is told that either at Dublin or Triest she one day met a child of three, who in artless tones solicited alms for her blind mother. Pasta, bursting into tears, gave the child all the money in her purse. To the friends who began praising her bounty she said: "I will not accept your compliments. This child demanded charity in a sublime manner. I have seen at one glance all the miseries of the mother, the wretchedness of their home, and all that they suffer. I should indeed be a great actress if at any time I could find a gesture expressing profound misery with such truth.
In 1828 Pasta was again in England, and during a most brilliant series of successes, including "Tancredi," Mayer's "La Rosa bianca e Rosa rossa," and "Zelmira," she achieved a great triumph in the part of Armando in "Il Crociato in Egitto," an opera originally composed for the celebrated male soprano Velluti. She had already taken in the rôle in Paris. There a spirit of partisanship was maintained, rising at times to serious outbreaks during the performance. The palm, however, was awarded to Pasta. Her tempo was faultless, her conception of the part was strikingly original, and Velluti could not hope to compete with Pasta in histrionic power. On the night of the first performance in London a humorous incident occurred. At the conclusion of a scene, Pasta hastened to her dressing-room to change, but the audience clamored for an encore, and amid laughter, she hurried on to the stage again, half Crusader and half Mameluke.
For her benefit she selected "Otello," appearing herself as the jealous Moor, Sontag being the Desdemona. The experiment was a daring one. The transposition of the music marred the effect of some of the concerted pieces. But the tragic intensity of the great actress conquered prejudice, and carried away the audience. In this year (1828) Pasta excelled herself as an actress; doubtless stimulated to the expression of her highest powers by the presence of her "two young and glorious rivals," Malibran and Sontag.
In 1829 the Emperor of Austria created her the first court singer. During this year she purchased a charming villa on the Lake of Como, and at Bologna performed in twelve operas by Rossini, the master himself conducting. A medal was struck in her honor by the Societa del Casino. In the following year she was at Milan, singing with Rubini and Lablache. Donizetti in that year wrote and produced "Anna Bolena," with Pasta, Galli, and Rubini specially in mind. In 1831 Pasta and Rubini surpassed themselves as Amina and Elvino in Bellini's "Somnambula," written for Pasta.
Pasta, Lablache, and Rubini appeared together (1831) in London in "Medea." If possible, Pasta's tragic acting was grander than ever; she was said to have revived the memory of the great Siddons, and the tragedienne, who witnessed one of her performances, is stated to have exclaimed: "I am thankful that she lived not in my time." Her versatility was remarkable, and her genius for comedy was shown in "Prova d'un Opera Seria," a burlesque of the rehearsals of grand opera. She evoked roars of laughter by her droll singing, which was free from the slightest taste of vulgarity. The quarrel between the prima donna and the composer (Lablache) was rendered irresistibly amusing by the superb comic power displayed by Pasta. In that year she bade farewell to the Parisian stage.
In 1832 Bellini's "Norma" was produced at La Scala. Pasta, as the druid priestess, achieved the crowning triumph of her career; she was supported by Donzelli (Pollione) and Giulia Grisi (Adalgisa). When "Norma" was produced during the next season in London for Pasta's benefit, it did not create enthusiasm, although it was conducted by the composer; indeed, the superb acting of Pasta and the singing of Grisi, then rising into fame, alone saved it from failure—its great beauties not being readily discriminated by the English public, with whom it shortly afterward became a prime favorite. After 1841 Pasta lived in retirement at her Lake Como villa and in Milan, devoting herself to advanced vocal instruction, which was eminently fit to impart. She died at the villa, April 1, 1865.