November 4, 1781 Divas

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

George III King of Great Britain and Ireland ascended to the throne in 1760 declaring that, “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain”. It was his reassurance that, unlike his father and grandfather before him, George III would rule, as an English King.

Kings George I and II were in fact Hanoverian and as such, did not speak English. At least not, fluently. Queen Victoria, that most quintessentially British of monarchs was in fact of German ancestry and spoke German, as a first language. George I, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg ascended to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland in August 1714, the first of the British Kings, from the House of Hanover.

The German composer George Frideric Händel was well known by this time, in German and Italian opera. He became Kapellmeister to the German prince in 1710, “Master of the Chapel Choir”. Chorale works Händel composed around this time for Queen Anne and the young and wealthy “Apollo of the Arts” Richard Boyle made it almost natural, that Händel would settle in England.

George I enjoys the River Thames with George Frideric Händel, in 1717

In Italian opera, a prima donna is the leading female singer in the company, the “first lady” opposite the male lead or primo uomo. Usually (but not always) a soprano, prima donne could be demanding of their colleagues with grand and sometime insufferable personae both on- and off-stage. Opera enthusiasts would divide into opposing “clubs” supporting or opposing one singer, over the other. The 19th century rivalry between fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi is an infamous example despite a personal friendship, between the two singers. When prima donne detest one another pandemonium, is sure to follow.

Händel’s work was popular in Georgian era society, so much so he was given free reign to hire his own performers. One such was Francesca Cuzzoni, a fiery soprano with the reputation as being among the greatest, of 18th century divas. Unkindly described by one opera historian as “doughy” and plain, a “short, squat” performer she nevertheless sang, with the voice of the angels. Widely regarded as one of the finest Sopranos in all Europe Händel hired Cuzzoni, in 1722.

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

On rehearsal for her London debut, Cuzzoni became furious over one aria claiming the role was written, for someone else. She refused even to perform when Händel, a great bear of a man physically picked the woman off the ground by her waist, and threatened to throw her out a window.

Problem solved.

Francesca Cuzzoni, by James Caldwall

Francesca Cuzzoni went on to become a smashing success, for four years the undisputed Queen, of the London opera. In 1726, Händel sought to capitalize on this success and reached out to his Italian agents, for a second Star. So it was the mezo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was hired, for the following season.

Younger and considerably more attractive than the older Cuzzoni the pair had been rivals, back in Italy. Notwithstanding, Händel and other composers wrote a series of operas featuring a two-female lead taking great care to give the two, equal prominence.

You know where this is going, right?

Faustina Bordoni pastel, in 1724

Baroque opera loved nothing more than a love triangle and the two were often cast, as rivals for the affections of one man. The degree to which the two divas’ professional rivalry bled into their personal lives is a matter of some discussion but the behavior of their fans, is not.

The “clash” between the two soon became public knowledge. Opera-going aristocrats began to take up sides enthusiastically egged on, by the press. Society ladies would dress in the respective fashion of their particular heroine and hiss and catcall, at the appearance of the other.

Things got out of hand during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte. Fights broke out among the audience when Cuzzoni turned and unleashed a torrent of Italian invective, at her rival. The pair hurled insults at one another. You know the words. These two, knew ALL of them them. Verbal combat soon became physical the performance, be damned. The scene beggars the imagination. A wild west bar fight in stalls and stage alike as two divas tore at each other’s costumes, and pulled each other’s hair.

In the end, the two were physically dragged from the stage their performance, abandoned.

Theater management canceled Cuzzoni’s contract. King George would have none of that and threatened to withdraw their allowance, and that was the end of that. The two divas kept an uneasy truce for the following season, but something had to give.

In the end, Faustina Bordoni was offered a guinea more for the 1728 season. One schilling, one pence. Predictably, Francesca Cuzzoni threw a tantrum and immediately resigned, and returned to Italy.

Faustina Bordoni lived on to a happy and prosperous old age and died on November 4, 1781. No so Francesca Cuzzoni who faded into poverty and obscurity eking out a living it is said, making and selling, buttons.

Back in 1728, theater management dearly wished the whole sorry mess would just go away. No such luck. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was a smash hit that season, “the most popular play of the eighteenth century” satirizing Italian opera with its perpetually feuding heroines Polly Peachum, and Lucy Lockit.

Hat tip “Rival Queens” featuring Simone Kermes, and Vivica Genaux
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