Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/A prima donna

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The old King’s Theatre in the Haymarket was destroyed by fire on the 17th of June, 1789. The singers were engaged in a night rehearsal: for the performances of the following evening were intended to be devoted to the benefit of Signor Ravelli, the acting manager of the then proprietor, Mr. William Taylor. The fire began a few minutes before ten o’clock, and spread almost instantaneously throughout the building. In a few hours the roof had fallen in, and the theatre was totally destroyed. Madame Ravelli, a chief singer, was saved by the daring of the firemen at the risk of their own lives. Pietro Carnivalli, an Italian, dying at Bristol a year afterwards, confessed on his death-bed that he had set the building on fire in revenge for some neglect on the part of Ravelli, who was said to have been a monk in Spain, and was known by the name of Don Antonio. Carnivalli was leader of the band, and his wife had been a singer at the King’s Theatre.

A new theatre—the present edifice now known as Her Majesty’s Theatre—was built during 1790, the first stone being laid by the Earl of Buckingham, Michael Novosielski being the architect. The internal arrangements, however, received their present form in 1799, when much remodelling and many improvements were made under the auspices of Signor Marinari, an ingenious architect and scene painter. The new opera house opened on the 26th of March, 1791; but the entertainments consisted in the first instance of music and dancing simply, as no licence for performances of a dramatic character could be obtained on the ground that the theatre at the Pantheon in Oxford Street already held such a privilege, and that one Italian opera-house was sufficient. The history of Italian opera in England is a catalogue of rival managements, insolvencies, and fires. Each theatre was styled the “King’s,” and both struggled on in a ruinous opposition, one with a licence and the other without. In 1792, however, the antagonism ended. The Pantheon was burnt to the ground on the 14th of January in that year, and the fire was attributed to the act of an incendiary. The King’s Theatre in the Haymarket obtained its licence under certain conditions, one of these being that a sum of 30,000l. should be paid to the lessee of the Pantheon to compensate in a measure for his losses; and for a long time Italian opera in England could be heard nowhere but at Michael Novosielski’s house in the Haymarket.

It was at this theatre, on Tuesday, the 8th of April, 1834, that a young lady made her first appearance in England in the character of Ninetta, the heroine of Rossini’s opera “La Gazza Ladra.” Her name was Giulia Grisi. Two years before, a sister of the singer, Giudetta Grisi, had made a successful début, on the same boards, in the opera of “La Cenerentola.” For her Bellini had composed the music of Romeo, in his opera “I Capuletti.” She possessed a mezzo-soprano voice of great beauty, which death was destined too soon to silence. A few years and the name of Guidetta Grisi passes out of opera annals—but the name of Giulia Grisi remains.

She was born at Milan on the 22nd of May, the fête of Santa Giulia, 1812. She was the niece of Josephine Grassini, an Italian singer of the grand old world school, a contemporary of Marchesi, Crescentini, and other great vocalists. The father of Giulia Grisi was an officer of engineers in the army of Napoleon. He had placed his child at a convent at Gorizia for her education. But the example of Giudetta prima donna at the theatre of Bologna tempted Giulia. She had been noted in childhood for a strange hoarseness of voice: this cleared away, however, in time, and left unveiled an organ of singular power and purity, but it was of a low register, the piercing soprano notes with which audiences were subsequently to be charmed were not yet acquired. Giulia Grisi first appeared on any stage in the contralto part of Emma, in Rossini’s opera of “Zelmira.” For Rossini ruled in musical Italy in those days. The singer was then seventeen, with a face and figure of extreme beauty. She appeared afterwards at Florence, as Juliet to the Romeo of her sister. Was it wonderful that she created an extraordinary sensation? At least Shakspeare’s heroine can never have been so well looked as by Giulia Grisi at seventeen. At Milan she first met and took for her model the great Pasta, and when Bellini composed Norma for Pasta, he also composed Adalgisa for Grisi. Such a Norma and such an Adalgisa can never since have been seen together on the boards of an opera-house.

The new Ninetta had a great success in London. Certainly she did not shine from the dulness of her fellow-labourers, for the cast of “La Gazza Ladra” in 1834 included the names of Rubini, Zuchelli, Tamburini, and Miss Bartolozzi. It was a genuine triumph. Ninetta thoroughly won her audience, and from 1834 down to 1861 inclusively (with the exception of one year, 1842, when there was some difficulty with the impresario, and the lady tore up her contract and declined to sing in England that season) the prima donna par excellence of Italian opera has been Giulia Grisi. Nor was her first public a public to be so very easily pleased. It had still the tones of Pasta, Cinti-Damoureau, Henrietta Sontag, De Meric and Malibran-Garcia ringing in its ears when it first applauded the new singer. But her merits were undeniable, and the chief characters in the répertoire were ceded to her as a matter of course.

During the month of April, 1834, Giulia Grisi appeared (in addition to the character of Ninetta) in the operas of “Anna Bolena,” the ugly Russian tenor with the beautiful voice, Ivanoff, making his first appearance in England as Percy, “Otello” and “Don Giovanni,” (Madame Caradori being the Zerlina). During May she added to the list Elena in “La Donna del Lago,” and Rosina in “Il Barbiere.” In June she first appeared as Semiramide, and as Palmira in Rossini’s “L’Assedio di Corinto,” played for the first time in England. On the occasion of her benefit on the 10th July she appeared as Amina in “La Sonnambula.” In the season of 1835 she appeared as Elena in “Donizetti’s Marino Faliero,” and Elvira in “I Puritani,” both operas being then produced for the first time in England, and the last-named being played for her benefit. She undertook also the new parts of Fiorilla in Gnecco’s “Prova d’un Opera Seria,” and of Norma, which character she first assumed on the 25th June. The triumphant representations of the preceding season were of course repeated. In 1836 the lady’s only new part was that of Amelia in Mercadante’s opera “I Briganti,” played for the first time in England. The season of 1837 presents too or three noteworthy facts. The King’s Theatre became Her Majesty’s Theatre. William the Fourth died on Tuesday, the 20th June—of course there was no performance at the Opera House in the evening. Queen Victoria visited the opera for the first time on the 18th of July, when “Ildegonda,” by Marliani, was produced, Madame Grisi performing the heroine. The opera gave no great satisfaction, and has not been repeated since the season of 1837. On the 18th of May Signor Costa’s opera of “Malek Adel” was first played, Madame Grisi being the Mathilde, assisted by Madame Albertazzi (who this season made her début in England in “La Cenerentola,”) Ivanoff, Rubini, Lablache, and Tamburini. The opera was repeated the following year, and portions of it were given in 1842, during our prima donna’s absence from England, when Madame Persiani undertook the rôle of heroine. In 1837 Madame Grisi also added to her répertoire the part of Carolina in Cimarosa’s “Matrimonio Segreto.” Her new characters in 1838 were Parisina, in Donizetti’s opera of that name; Susanna, in Mozart’s opera “Nozze di Figaro;” and Mrs. Ford in Balfe’s “Falstaff.” In this year Madame Persiani first appeared in England. The following year gave Madame Grisi only one new part, but it was one that has done more to enhance her reputation than almost any other. On the occasion of her benefit on the 6th of June, 1839, Donizetti’s opera of “Lucrezia Borgia” was played for the first time in England, Madame Grisi, of course, being the Lucrezia, and Signor Mario making his first appearance before an English audience as Gennaro. Among the other events of the season may be noted the début in this country of Madame Viardot, as Desdemona; and the first appearance of Madlle. Ernesta Grisi, who played the contralto part of Smeaton to the Anna Bolena of her cousin. Opera goers will recollect the season of 1840 as being the season of the “Tamburini Row,” when the indignant pit compelled the impresario to re-engage their favourite baritone at any price, and refused to accept the very good singer who had been secured as a substitute—Signor Coletti, who made his first appearance in Donizetti’s “Torquato Tasso.” Our prima donna this year played for the first time Lisetta, in “Il Matrimonio Segreto,” and Eloisa on the production of Mercadante’s “Il Giuramento.” In 1841 Madame Grisi undertook two new characters in operas, both played for the first time in England, and both by Donizetti: Fausta and Roberto Devereux. During the whole of the next season Madame Grisi did not appear. The chief parts in her répertoire were shared amongst Mesdames Poggi-Frezzolini, Moltini, Persiani, and Ronconi—Signor Georgio Ronconi appearing in England for the first time. 1843 is noticeable in operatic annals for the production of “Don Pasquale” (Donizetti), in which Madame Grisi played Norina, and, assisted by Mario, Fornasari, and Lablache, achieved an extraordinary success. Fornasari this year made his first appearance in England, the opera chosen for his début being Donizetti’s “Belisario.” Towards the close of the season, Madame Grisi appeared as the heroine of the “Cenerentola.” In 1844 her new rôles were Isabella in Signor Costa’s “Don Carlos,” and Delizia in Ricci’s “Corado d’Altamura,” both operas being new. Her only new part in 1845 was Imogene, in Bellini’s “Il Pirata;” in 1846, Griselda, in Verdi’s “I Lombardi.” Our singer’s connection with Italian opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre was then finally closed.

The old opposition between the Pantheon and the King’s Theatre was now to be revived in the rivalry of Her Majesty’s and Covent Garden Theatres. With few exceptions the whole of the troupe, orchestra, and chorus, quitted the old theatre for the new. It was not an insurrection, it was a revolution. John Kemble’s Covent Garden was altered into an Opera House—so new-shaped that its identity seemed quite lost. A new era opened for Italian opera in England. Under the old system operas had been “pitch-forked” on to the stage—a star system had prevailed—ensemble had been completely neglected. Dingy scenery, shabby and anachronistic costumes, an inefficient chorus, and a scanty orchestra had aided a small constellation of eminent singers to maintain Italian Opera at the King’s Theatre for the entertainment of a clique, not for the pleasure of a public. This was to be changed. The new undertaking promised perfection in every thing. Art was to be considered as well as the artist—the composer as well as the singer. A catholicity of appreciation was to rule the choice of operas. The music of all nations was to be included in the répertoire, while Italian was retained as the special language of song. Upon the whole the managers of the new undertaking acted up to the spirit of their promises, although success did not very immediately crown their exertions. An enormous expenditure was required for the firm planting of the opposition project. But it was founded on sound principles, and triumphed in the end. Even the fate of the Pantheon could not crush the enterprise. Covent Garden burnt to the ground in 1856, the manager carried his troupe to the smaller Lyceum Theatre. In 1858 the Royal Italian Opera was thriving in a new and splendid theatre—New Covent Garden. At this moment we are probably justified in saying that Italian Opera is remunerative to those concerned in its production, even on a scale of magnificence without precedent, in theatrical history. This success has been dearly bought, but it has been certainly deserved. One of its consequences has been the ruin of the elder undertaking. There would seem now to be almost as little chance of hearing Italian music again in the King’s Theatre, in the Haymarket, as in the Pantheon in Oxford Street.

Madame Grisi appeared on the first night of Italian Opera at Covent Garden. Her Semiramide was supported by the Assur of her old colleague—Tamburini, and Madame Alboni, a singer who, for beauty of voice and executive ability can hardly have been equalled, made her début in England as Arsace. The season of 1847 may be remembered also as the “Jenny Lind” year. It is not unfair to say now that the merits of the Swedish Nightingale hardly justified the popular excitement that followed her performances. She was a great singer of small parts,—her ventures out of a limited line of characters were distinct failures. An admirable vocalist, but without versatility; still the most charming Alice and nearly the best Amina (for is not Malibran remembered? and Patti now singing?) that have ever been heard. The Lind mania supported Her Majesty’s Theatre under an opposition that must otherwise have crushed it. Madame Grisi’s only new part in 1847, was Lucrezia, in Verdi’s “I due Foscari.” In 1848 she played, for the first time, Leonora in Donizetti’s “Favorita,” and succeeded in obtaining public approval of an opera that had, until then, been rather undervalued. This work, composed for the Grand Opera at Paris led the way to the performance of other fine works, more especially associated with the French lyric stage. Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots” was produced for the first time on the occasion of the Queen’s state visit in 1848, Madame Viardot being the Valentine. In the following year Madame Grisi assumed the part, and equalled in power and sentiment, while she surpassed in beauty, the delineation of her formidable rival. The character has since remained one of the most admired of Madame Grisi’s list. The season was also memorable for the retirement of Madame Persiani. In 1850 our singer appeared for the first time, and with singular success, in the part of Alice, in Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable,” the opera being produced with extraordinary splendour. In 1851 her new character was Pamina in “Il Flauto Magico.” The following season was notable as being one of extreme antagonism between the rival houses. A contest between the managers, in regard to a singer, famed throughout Germany for her representation of Fides in Meyerbeer’s “Prophète,” was determined in the Court of Chancery, and the lady was forbidden to appear on the stage of Covent Garden Theatre. A subsequent season demonstrated that the merits of the German Fides hardly warranted the hostility that had risen on her account. To meet the popular demand for the performance of the opera in 1852, notwithstanding the loss of the proposed Fides, Madame Grisi courageously offered to undertake the part. Though much of the music was of an exceptional character, and hardly came fairly within the means of the singer, the poetry and passion with which the part was invested, joined to the good feeling towards the management and the public which had prompted its assumption, secured an enthusiastic reception of the representation. The performance, indeed, may be regarded altogether as a surprising tour de force on the part of our prima donna, and says much for that perpetual youth of true genius, always willing to learn and to venture, to make new effort and to acknowledge no finality. Madame Grisi’s successes in French opera, a very distinct field of art to the music of the Italian stage, considering the period of her career at which they were achieved, are as remarkable as anything in her history. The season of 1853 saw merely a repetition of some of her most favourite performances. In 1854 was committed one of those mistakes which great artists are so constantly making. They begin by saying “Good-bye” too soon, and the danger is that they end by saying the last words of parting a little too late. Farewell performances were announced, and at a farewell benefit—on which a divided performance was given, and the singer sustained one Italian part and one French, the first act of “Norma” being played, followed by three acts of “Les Huguenots”—Madame Grisi took leave of her English public midst a scene of extraordinary excitement: the prices were doubled, the house crowded to excess, the applause was as enthusiastic as it was prolonged. But in 1855 the lady was singing again! The pangs of parting might have been spared. In 1856—the Royal Italian Opera, the scene of her greatest triumphs, destroyed by fire—she was singing at the Lyceum, and again in 1857, where, it may be mentioned, she appeared in yet another new part, that of Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” The years 1858-9-60 have each seen the lady’s successes won over again. In the former year she opened New Covent Garden Theatre with her performance of Valentine, as in 1847 she had opened John Kemble’s altered house with her Semiramide. The facts of the farewell season of 1861 are freshly before the reader.

Glance now at a list of the operas in which Madame Grisi has sustained characters, with the number of times she has played in each in London. “La Gazza Ladra,” 47; “Anna Bolena,” 38; “Otello,” 36; “Il Don Giovanni,” 82; “La Donna del Lago,” 21; “L’Assedio di Corinto,” ll; “Semiramide,” 41; “Il Barbiere,” 38; “La Sonnambula,” 18; “Marino Faliero,” 8; “I Puritani,” 92; “Prova d’un Opera,” 21; “Norma,” 79; “I Briganti,” 5; “Il Matrimonio Segreto” (Caroline), 10; “Malek Adel,” 7; “Ildegonda,” 2; “Parasina,” 6; “Nozze di Figaro,” 22; “Falstaff,” 4;“Lucrezia Borgia,” 97; “Il Giuramento,” 9; “Il Matrimonio Segreto” (Lisetta), 9; “Fausta,” 2; “Roberto Devereux,” 6; “Don Pasquale,” 29; “Cenerentola,” 3; “Don Carlos,” 5; “Corado d’Altamura,” l; “Il Pirata,” 6; “I Lombardi,” ll; “I due Foscari,” 3; “La Favorita,” 26; “Les Huguenots,” 78; “Roberto il Diavolo,” 12; “Il Flauto Magico,” 3; “Le Prophete,” 9; “Il Trovatore,” 13.

Some 900 and odd nights are thus accounted for, spread over twenty-seven operatic seasons! For so many years has Madame Grisi been singing in London, on an average of about thirty nights a year. There may well be some pain at parting with an artist who represents so large a share in the entertainment of a generation! There need be a fond leave-taking of one, who, apart from being a beautiful woman and a great singer, has toiled so honestly and zealously for her public. Whenever Madame Grisi trod the stage, her audience might be sure of heart-and-soul work for their entertainment. There was no apathy, no caprice, no sluggishness that sometimes seems to weigh down other singers like a heavy cloak. No sparing of self when our prima donna was upon the scene. There has never been a more conscientious public servant. And look over her long list of parts. Is it possible to point to any one living singer as capable of sustaining these as our prima donna sustained them? Some of them, it would seem, must even leave the lyric stage with her. Examine the names of those who have ventured upon, or been forced into her répertoire, during the last ten years, say. Norma has been played by Jenny Lind, Parodi, Fiorentini, Cruvelli. Lucrezia Borgia, by Cruvelli, Parodi, Frezzolini, Barbieri Nini, Albertini, Johanna Wagner, Titiens. Donna Anna has had for representatives, Castellan, Viardot, Parodi, Fiorentini, Medori, Cruvelli, Rudersdorff, Rosa Devries, Spezia, Titiens. As Elvira in “I Puritani,” Castellan, Lind, Frezzolini, Sontag, Bosio, La Grange, Parepa, Ortolani, Penco, have appeared. Which of these vocalists has torn a leaf from Madame Grisi’s laurels? Which has in any way diminished her identity in the public mind with these characters? No, at her theatrical demise her mantle must be divided amongst many; there is no one entitled to it in its integrity. Some characters will fall as of right to Viardot, some to Titiens, to Penco, to Carvalho; much of her younger répertoire to Patti; but there is no one who can establish a claim to all of them.

The habitués of the opera must seek what consolation they may. They will look a long while for a successor to their prima donna who will cause her to be forgotten. For few can hope to unite her gifts from nature and art. London knows no living singer who can so possess her audience as Madame Grisi possessed them. Who can so awe and win, who can so startle by her passion, and charm by her espiéglerie; can be so great in tragedy, so graceful in comedy. And she has sung for twenty-seven seasons in London! Is she to be blamed that she was loth to part from her patrons? And on the whole Time has been kind. They who took leave of a great artist in 1854, found they were still saying good-bye to a great artist in 1861. It was the same Giulia Grisi, of the beautiful face, of the silver voice, of the perfect art.

Dutton Cook.