A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Senesino, Francesco

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SENESINO, Francesco Bernardi detto, i.e. 'F. B. called the Sienese,' one of the most famous of the sopranist singers who flourished in the last century. He was born about 1680, at Siena (whence he derived his name), and received his musical education from Bernacchi, at Bologna. Little or nothing is heard of his career previous to 1719. At that time he was singing at the Court theatre of Saxony, and when Handel came to Dresden in quest of singers, was engaged by him for London.

Senesino's first appearance in this country (Nov. 1720) was in Buononcini's opera 'Astarto,' which at once established him in public favour as a singer of the first rank. He sang next in a revival of Handel's 'Floridante,' and in the celebrated 'Muzio Scævola'; afterwards in Handel's 'Ottone,' 'Flavio,' and 'Giulio Cesare' (1723), 'Tamerlano' (1724), 'Rodelinda' (1725), 'Scipio' and 'Alessandro' (1726), and in various operas and pasticcios by other composers. In 'Giulio Cesare' his declamation of the famous accompanied recitative 'Alma del gran Pom peo' created a special sensation. A writer in the London Magazine (Feb. 1733) relates an amusing anecdote of Senesino in this opera: 'When I was last at the opera of Julius Caesar, a piece of the machinery tumbled down from the roof of the theatre upon the stage, just as Senesino had chanted forth these words "Cesare non seppe mai che sia timore"—Caesar never knew fear. The poor hero was so frightened that he trembled, lost his voice, and fell crying. Every tyrant or tyrannical minister is just such a Caesar as Senesino.' In the opera 'Alessandro' it is said that when, in the part of Alexander, he led his soldiers to the assault of Ossidraca, he so far forgot himself in the heat of combat as to stick his sword into one of the pasteboard stones of the wall of the town, and bear it in triumph before him as he entered the breach! This opera had a run of two months, and its last performance, advertised for June 7, was prevented by the sudden illness of Senesino, who, as soon as he was able to travel, set off for Italy, for the recovery of his health, promising to return the next winter. This promise, however, was not kept in time to enable the Opera-house to open till after Christmas, a fact alluded to in the following prologue, spoken by Mrs. Younger at the revival of 'Camilla' (performed entirely in English), Nov. 26, 1726:

Ye British fair, vouchsafe us your applause,
And smile, propitious, on our English cause;
While Senesino you expect in vain,
And see your favours treated with disdain:
While, 'twixt his rival queens, such mutual hate
Threats hourly ruin to your tuneful state,
Permit your country's voices to repair,
In some degree, your disappointment there:
Here may that charming circle nightly shine,
'Tis time, when that deserts us, to resign.

Senesino reappeared in Handel's 'Admeto,' early in 1727. This was followed in the same year by 'Riccardo 1mo,' and in 1728 by 'Siroe' and 'Tolomeo,' in which a great effect was made by the echo song, 'Dite che fa,' sung by Cuzzoni, with many of the passages repeated behind the scenes by Senesino. But now, after several unprosperous seasons, the society called the Royal Academy, for which Handel had directed the operas at the Haymarket, was dissolved; the theatre was forced to close its doors for lack of support, and the Italian singers dispersed over the Continent. Hawkins attributes to this time the quarrel which ended in a final rupture between Senesino and the great composer. But this is disproved by the fact that Senesino returned to sing for Handel in 1730. That there was however much discord in the company before it separated is true enough. The quarrels between the two 'rival queens' dated from the beginning of their engagement, and Senesino, whose temper was arrogant and imperious, and who was the spoiled child of the fashionable world and of the public, exerted no appeasing influence. Quantz relates in his memoirs, that Senesino's quarrels brought about the dissolution of the Dresden company in 1719. It is said by Burney (who quotes it from Walpole) that once, at a rehearsal in London, he offended Mrs. Anastasia Robinson (afterwards Countess of Peterborough) so grievously, that Lord Peterborough 'publicly and violently' caned him behind the scenes. Handel's own disposition was not conciliatory, and 'he suspected that Senesino's example had given encouragement to that refractory spirit which he found rising in the two contending females' (Hawkins).

After an absence of nearly three years, however, Senesino rejoined the Haymarket company, under Handel's management, at a salary of 1400 guineas, and appeared on Feb. 2, 1731, in 'Poro,' then considered a great success. In the same year were revived 'Rodelinda' and 'Rinaldo.' 'Ezio' and 'Sosarme' were produced in 1732. Besides singing in all these, Senesino took part (May 2, 1732) in 'Esther,' Handel's first oratorio, described as 'a new species of exhibition at the Opera-house,' and on June 10, in a curious performance, under the composer's own direction, of 'Acis and Galatea.' Several airs and three choruses were interpolated on this occasion, from Handel's early Neapolitan Serenata on the same subject, and the piece was sung partly in English and partly in Italian.

The last of Handel's operas in which Senesino appeared, was 'Orlando' (Jan. 1733), but he took part later in the same season in 'Deborah,' described then as an opera, and performed (as was 'Esther') on opera nights. The long impending quarrel now came to a crisis. Handel could not brook the opposition to his will of a singer, however eminent or idolized by the public, and, in the end, their engagement was broken off. The composer was regarded with no very friendly eye by the English aristocracy, many of whom were alienated by his rough independence and want of respect of persons. 'All these wealthy adversaries of Handel naturally espoused the cause of Senesino from the outset … and ended by demanding that Senesino should be retained … Handel replied that Senesino should never reappear in his theatre.' (Schoelcher.) Accordingly, says Burney, 'the nobility and gentry opened a subscription for Italian operas at Lincoln's Inn Fields, inviting Porpora thither to compose and conduct, and engaging Senesino, Cuzzoni, Montagnana, Segatti, Bertolli, and afterwards Farinelli, to perform there.' There Senesino remained till 1735, when he returned to Siena, with a fortune of £15,000, and built himself a house.

Senesino's voice was a mezzo soprano, or, according to some, a contralto. Although limited in compass it was considered by many good judges to be superior in quality even to that of Farinelli. It was clear, penetrating, and flexible, his intonation faultless, his shake perfect. Purity, simplicity, and expressiveness were the characteristics of his style, while for the delivery of recitative 'he had not his fellow in Europe.' To judge from his portraits, the expression of his countenance is both arrogant and coarse. Hawkins says that he was a graceful actor, but one would hardly suppose it, judging from his representation in Bickham's Musical Entertainer (1737), entitled 'The Ladies' Lament for the loss of Senesino.' The engraving represents him as a giant, clothed like a Roman emperor, with women kissing the hem of his coat of mail, and some weeping. On the other side are heaps of bags of gold, being carried by porters towards the frigate on which he is about to embark.

In 1739 Senesino was living at Florence, and sang a duet with the Archduchess Maria Theresa there. He died about 1750.

[ F. A. M. ]