At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Francesca Cuzzoni - operatic soprano

Diva who came to blows with rival on stage


Francesca Cuzzoni, depicted in an 18th century engraving by the English artist James Caldwall
Francesca Cuzzoni, depicted in an 18th century engraving
by the English artist James Caldwall
Francesca Cuzzoni, an 18th century star whose fiery temper earned her a reputation as one of opera’s great divas, was born on this day in 1696 in Parma.

Described rather unkindly by one opera historian of the era as “short and squat, with a doughy face” she was nonetheless possessed of a beautiful soprano voice, which became her passport to stardom.

However, she was also notoriously temperamental and jealous of rival singers, as was illustrated by several incidents that took place while she was in the employment of George Frederick Handel, the German composer who spent much of his working life in London.

Already established as one of the finest sopranos in Europe, Cuzzoni was hired by Handel in 1722.

Handel at that time was Master of the Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music, the company set up by a group of English aristocrats to stage Baroque opera, partly for their own entertainment but also as a commercial enterprise.  One of his responsibilities was to engage the soloists for the company’s productions.

He ran into immediate trouble with Cuzzoni, who was due to make her debut in Handel’s own Italian language opera Ottone at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket.  On discovering that her part had been written originally with another singer in mind, one whose services the composer had been unable to secure, she is reputed to have refused to perform, coming into line only when Handel allegedly picked her up by the waist and threatened to throw her out of a window.

Cuzzoni (right) and Faustina Bordoni (left) were fierce rivals notoriously involved in an on-stage fight
Cuzzoni (right) and Faustina Bordoni (left) were fierce
rivals notoriously involved in an on-stage fight
In the event, her interpretation of the role was hailed as a triumph and she soon became a star, her performances winning her an army of fans and enabling her to demand a handsome salary of £2,000 a season, which in today’s money would be the equivalent of about £250,000.

Opera’s popularity soared, despite the company jacking up ticket prices eightfold, and Handel was instructed to recruit more stars to satisfy demand.

Cuzzoni, though, was said to be furious, particularly when she learned that one of the new arrivals was Faustina Bordoni, a Venetian soprano who was much more attractive than she and who had been a rival in Italy.

Fanned by the press, their rivalry extended to the stalls and boxes, where opera-goers raucously supported their favourite and sometimes openly booed the other singer. Matters came to a head when they were cast to appear alongside one another in a performance of Giovanni Bononcini’s opera Astianatte.

Despite the presence in the audience of the Princess of Wales, rival factions took turns to jeer and catcall whenever one or the other began to sing and when the two singers appeared on the stage together a fight broke out in the stalls.

On stage, Cuzzoni is alleged to have turned on Bordoni, sparking an exchange of insults. Soon they were said to have begun pulling at each other’s hair and tearing pieces from their costumes. After they were separated, the performance was abandoned.

George Frederick Handel engaged Cuzzoni to sing with the Royal Academy of Music
George Frederick Handel engaged Cuzzoni
to sing with the Royal Academy of Music
In fact, the remainder of the season was cancelled and Cuzzoni was told to leave, only to be reinstated following the direct intervention of the King. An uneasy truth allowed the next season to go ahead but the company wanted rid of Cuzzoni. Eventually it was decided that Bordoni would be offered more money, at which Cuzzoni resigned in a fit of pique and left first for Vienna and then Italy.

She returned to London in 1734, this time at the invitation of a rival company to Handel’s, although she did not make the same impact, her thunder stolen to an extent by the presence in the company of the superstar castrato, Farinelli.

Nonetheless, Cuzzoni continued to prosper until the 1740s, when the quality of her voice began to decline and her extravagant lifestyle found her increasingly in debt. At one point she was arrested in London over a debt of £30 and released from prison after the Prince of Wales paid her bail.

After a final concert in 1751, which was prefaced by a rather sad appeal for support published in her name by the General Advertiser, she returned to Italy for a final time.  She is said to have then eked out a living of sorts by making buttons. She died in virtual poverty in Bologna in 1778.

The Palazzo di Riserva in Parma, where Cuzzoni is  thought to have made her opera debut in 1714
The Palazzo di Riserva in Parma, where Cuzzoni is
thought to have made her opera debut in 1714
Travel tip:

Cuzzoni, whose father was a professsional violinist,  made her stage debut in Parma in 1714, probably at the Teatro Ducale inside the Palazzo di Riserva, a neoclassical palace in what is now the Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi.  The theatre was replaced in the 19th century by the Nuovo Teatro Ducale, which was built on the site of a former monastery next to the Ducal Palace. Subsequently renamed the Teatro Regio di Parma, the house grew in prominence thanks to the fame of Giuseppe Verdi, who was born in nearby Busseto, and is nowadays regarded as one of Italy’s great opera houses, less well known but on a par with La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice.

Parma's pink marble Baptistery is one of  many attractive buildings in the city
Parma's pink marble Baptistery is one of
many attractive buildings in the city
Travel tip:

A university city in the Emilia-Romagna region, with a population of almost 200,000, Parma is famous for Grana Parmigiana (Parmesan) cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham, as well as a wealth of Romanesque architecture, including a cathedral containing acclaimed frescoes by Antonio da Correggio, and a pink marble Baptistery next door. More works by Correggio - and by Canaletto - are displayed at the Galleria Nazionale inside Palazzo della Pilotta.

More reading:

Why Farinelli, the 18th century castrato, was music's first superstar

How Francesco Gemianini, a Tuscan violinist, came to accompany Handel in playing for the English court

Pietro Metastasio, the most celebrated librettist of the 18th century

Also on this day:

1725: The birth of 18th century playboy Giacomo Casanova

1959: The birth of Olympic marathon champion Gelindo Borodin


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