One of the first among the queens of song, Angelica Catalani presents a figure of striking interest. In her case marvelous vocal powers were allied with personal beauty. She was born along a tide of success that carried her to fortune and splendor, and yet left her a pure-minded and amiable woman, unspoiled by the world’s flatteries, full of charities and good works.
Angelica Catalani was born in October, 1779, at Sinigaglia, near Rome, where her father was a tradesman, and from about her twelfth year was educated at the convent of Santa Lucia, at Gubbio, to which she had gained admittance through the influence of Cardinal Onorati.
At the convent the extreme beauty of her voice attracted great attention, and the abbess, a woman of ability and culture, did all in her power to develop the rare gift.
Catalani sang solos in the choir, and the flexibility, compass, and beauty of her voice became famous in the district, attracting large congregations.
On fete days the chapel was thronged by a wondering and delighted crowd, and numbers were unable to obtain admission or to catch a glimpse of ‘la maravigliosa’ Angelica.
The pleasure of the congregations frequently expressed itself in applause, and the abbess was at last enjoined by the bishop to discontinue the solos. An ingenious compromise was thereupon affected.
The pieces previously given as solos were sung in concert, and the brilliancy of Angelica’s soul moving notes was tempered by the voices of the novices, among a group of whom she was veiled from the eyes of mere secular curiosity.
Angelica remained three years at the convent, receiving such musical tuition as it afforded – an imperfect tuition, under which she contracted meretricious tricks of execution, never afterward wholly overcome.
Catalani later received instruction from Marchesi, who was much struck by the phenomenal beauty of her voice, and taught her to control its luxuriance. While pursuing her studies at Florence under Marchesi, she heard a distinguished prima donna at the theater. The skillful execution of the vocalist moved her to tears, and she exclaimed, “Alas! I shall never attain such perfection.” Subsequently she was introduced to the artist, who, after hearing her sing, embraced her with great tenderness, saying, “Be assured, my child, in a few years you will surpass me, and it is I who shall weep at your success.”
In 1795, Catalani obtained her first engagement. The pro9prietor of the theater of La Fenice at Venice was in a dilemma. A new opera had been prepared with great care, and arrangements were complete for its production on a magnificent scale, when the prima donna suddenly died. Zamboni, the prompter, suggested to the despairing manager that the young Catalani should have a trial. The suggestion was adopted, and the youthful singer, trembling with emotion, yet sustained by the ardor of genius just kindled to ambition, made her debut in the title role of Mayer’s opera of ‘Lodoiska.’
Her success was instantaneous; nothing was wanting to insure triumph. Her face and figure constituted a vision of loveliness, and the rare quality of her voice added to these an angelic charm. Such a combination had never before been witnessed, even in Venice. Histrionic power was deficient; but this defect was lost or ignored among so many perfections crowned by such a gift of song. The impression left upon the audience was expressed in loud cries of admiration culminating in the wildest enthusiasm.
The critics vied with each other in praise. Catalani’s voice, a soprano of the purest quality, embracing a compass of three octaves from G to F, and so powerful that no band could drown it, was described as “full, rich, and magnificent beyond any other voice ever heard,” and could only be compared to the tones of musical glasses when magnified to equal volume.
Without the experience and training of other artists, and, indeed, being only imperfectly studious of the rules of art, she could ascend at will from the least audible sound to the most magnificent crescendo. This power constituted an original charm which raised her above all minute criticisms, and astonished and delighted her audiences.
“One of her favorite ornamental caprices was to imitate the swell and fall of the sound of a bell, making her tones sweep through the air with the most delicious undulations, and showering her graces in wasteful profusion.”
In 1798, Catalani, having greatly extended her powers as a vocalist, sang at Leghorn with Crivelli, Marchesi, and Mrs. Billington, and subsequently appeared at La Pergola in Florence.
In 1801 she was received with enthusiasm at Milan, where she appeared in Zingarelli’s ‘Clitennestra’ and Nasolini’s ‘Baccanali’; thence she proceeded to Florence, Triest, Rome, and Naples, adding to her triumphs at each city.
In 1804 she was engaged by the Prince Regent of Portugal for the Italian opera at Lisbon, with Gafforini an dCrescentini, at a salary of 24,000 cruzados (about $15,000).
It was while at Lisbon that Catalani was introduced to Captain Valabregue, a handsome young officer of noble family, and attached to the French Embassy. A mutual attachment sprang up, and, in spite of the opposition of Signor Catalani, they were married at Lisbon.
Catalani was devoted to her husband, who repaid her by his constancy, and by absorbing his identity in the public character and fame of his wife, whose enormous gains he drew upon without stint, and dissipated at the gambling table. This failing, it appears, constituted no barrier to her affection and unselfish generosity.
An anecdote – related, also, of Barbaja, impresario of La Scala – is told of Valabreque to the effect that once, when at rehearsal his wife complained that the piano was ‘too high,’ he had a carpenter saw six inches off the legs of the instrument.
Having entered into an agreement to appear in London at the King’s Theater, Haymarket, Catalani left Lisbon to appear at Madrid and Paris before crossing the channel.
Her concerts at Madrid, under the patronage of the Queen, created a great sensation, and the rush for seats was often the occasion of tumult. She obtained for the best seats as much as four ounces of gold, equal in value to twenty one guineas, per seat; and for three concerts in Paris she realized 72,000 francs.
She sang twice at St. Cloud; and Napoleon, who desired to retain her services for the French capital, summoned her to the Tuileries. The world conqueror was unusually gracious to the conqueror of hearts; but his manner was still sufficiently awful. When informed that she was about to visit London, he said, “You must remain here. I will pay you well, and your talent will be better appreciated. You shall have 100,000 francs per annum, and two months for conge. Come! That is settled. Adieu, Madame.”
The fair songstress, who had hitherto bowed before kinds and queens with conscious indifference, trembled in the presence of the Emperor; but she left the palace without acquiescence. Determined to fulfill her London engagement, and being denied a passport, she disguised herself as a nun and took passage for England, where her contract with the proprietors of the King’s Theater provided for a salary of 2000 pounds, 100 pounds extra for traveling expenses, and a clear benefit.
The London debut took place December 15, 1806. She appeared in ‘Semiramide,’ expressly composed for her by Portogallo. She took London by storm; she was caressed, feted, adored. He subsequent concerts and operatic engagements throughout the United Kingdom were equally successful.
Exorbitant demands in Catalani’s money contracts were all traveable to Valabregue. On one occasion he named a sum so preposterous that the manager declared it would disable him in the engagement of additional talent for the opera. “Talent!” exclaimed Valabregue, “have you not Madame Catalani? My wife, with four or five puppets, is quite sufficient.”
These tactics were tacitly admitted by Catalani, who grew at length to regard them as both wise and desirable. Her operas were one part operas; the music was hacked and hewed to suit her exact vocal requirements, and subsidiary party were dispensed with; a few puppets to fill in the tableaus seems sufficient for her.
Catalani left the King’s Theater at the close of the season 1813 – the last of her regular operatic engagement. Having returned to Paris, she obtained the management of the Italian opera, with a subvention of 160,000 francs. After an unfortunate period, she left Paris at the return of Napoleon (1815) and went on tour, visiting Hamburg, Denmark, and Sweden, and exciting wild enthusiasm in the principal citiies.
After the Restoration she reappeared in Paris, and resumed the direction of the opera. The system which had temporarily ruined opera in London was established. All expenses were cut down; scenery, orchestra, and chorus were diminished; operas were rearranged and variations by Rode introduced, until little more than the names of the original works remained.
In May, 1816, Catalani went to give concerts in Munich, and then went to Italy, returning to Paris in August of the following year.
In April 1818, she abandoned opera management and entered upon a concert tour that lasted nearly ten years.
In 1824 she was in London, performing a certain number of nights, but with no regular engagement. Lord Mount Edgcumbe stated that “her powers were undiminished, her taste unimproved.” An attempt to engage her for the opera stage in London in 1826 was frustrated by the exorbitant terms proposed by Valabregue. She visited Germany, reappearing in England for the York Festival in 1828.
Lord Mount Edgcumbe, who heard her at Plymouth, describes her as having “lost, perhaps, a little in voice, but gained more in expression,” as “electrifying an audience with her ‘Rule Britannia,’” and as “still handsome, though somewhat stout.”
Eventually Catalani retired to her beautiful villa in the neighborhood of Florence, where she founded a school of singing for young girls. She was attached by cholera while on a visit in Paris, and died there June 12, 1849.
She had achieved the supremest heights of popularity, and the honors showered upon her were justly due. The King of Prussia sent her a complimentary autograph letter, and the medal of the Academy. From the Emperor of Austria she received a superb ornament as a token of admiration. By the Emperor and Empress of Austria she was laden with rich presents and high distinctions. The magistracy of Vienna struck a medal in her honor. In England she realized more than 50,000 pounds in a few years.
And while kinds, potentates, and peoples rained honors upon her, Catalani remained unspoiled by fortune, preserving to the stage an ideal of pure womanhood in art, and retaining a virginal charm of domestic truth and deep religious simplicity. Her charities were boundless. The amount earned by public concerts for various institutions is estimated at 2,000,000 francs, and her private purse supplied the most exquisite gratification of the noble heart which overbrimmed with benevolence.
Of the great prima donna’s style of singing there is much conflict of opinion. Her voice, for clearness and purity, for richness, for height and depth of grandeur and vocal power, was allowed on all sides to be transcendent; but her style, it was said, was artificial, lacking both artistic method and intellectual breadth, and being especially deficient in artists restraint.
To arrive at some degree of sureness on this point, it would be necessary to examine the critical estimates of her contemporaries, the majority of whom agreed, in the main, that though she lacked the essential qualifications of the highest artistic expression, the charm of her vocal power was unrivaled. Her singing instinct was true – even equal to her vocal range and power; but her taste was false; and her mind – still limited by imperfect culture – was not equal to her artistic sense and enjoyment.
In an interesting passage, quoted by H. Sutherland Edwards in his “History of the Opera,” Jacques Godefroi Ferrari, a pupil of Paisiello, unconsciously suggests that distinction, possibly without being aware of its entire significance. “Her voice,” said Ferrari, “was sonorous, powerful, and full of charm and suavity. This organ, of so rare a beauty, might be copared for splendor to the voice of Banti; for expression, to that of Grassini; for sweet energy, to that of Pasta; uniting the delicious flexibility of Sontag to the three registers of Malibran. Madame Catalani had formed her style on that of Pacchierotti, Marchesi, Crescentini; her groups, roulades, triplets, and mordent were of admirable perfection; her well articulated execution lost nothing of its purity in the most rapid and most difficult passages. She animated singers, the chorus, the orchestra even, in the finales and concerted pieces. Here beautiful notes rose above and dominated the ensemble of the voices and instruments; nor could Beethoven, Rossini, or any other musical Lucifer, have covered this divine voice with the tumult of the orchestra. Our vocal virtuosa was not a profound musician; but, guided by what she did know, and by her practiced ear, she could learn in a moment the most complicated of pieces.”
Here the critic hints at a limited musical knowledge on the part of Catalani. But it is clear that her chief defect was in taste and not in knowledge, and in understanding even more than in taste. Castil-Blaze, another authority quoted by Edwards, accentuates this view, with the same unconscious naivete as Ferrari, and amidst a similar blaze of panegyric.
“Her firm, strong, brilliant, voluminous voice,” he said, “was of a most agreeable timbre; it was an admirable soprano of prodigious compass, from la to the upper sol, marvelous in point of agility, and producing a sensation difficult to describe. Madame Catalani’s manner of singing left something to desire in the noble, broad, sustained style. Mesdames Grassini and Barilli surpassed her on this point, but with regard to difficulties of execution and brio, Madame Catalani could sing out one of her favorite airs and exclaim Son Regina! She was there without a rival. I never heard anything like it. She excelled in chromatic passages, ascending and descending, of extreme rapidity. Her execution, marvelous in audacity, made talents of the first order pale before it, and instrumentalists no longer dared figure by her side.”
Tulou, the flautist, once performed after the great singer and achieved signal success, but the experiment was regarded as a very dangerous one to undertake. We have ventured to italicize the sentence in which the writer, to adopt a colloquialism, unconsciously “gives away” the artist.
Lord Mount Edgcumbe, the severest critic of Catalani’s faults of style, also confirms the view here suggested, and his remarks were worth quoting on account of their testimony to the phenomenal powers of the vocalist. “Her voice,” he said, “is of a most uncommon quality, and capable of exertions almost supernatural. Her throat seems endued (as has been remarked by medical men) with a power of expansion and muscular motion by no means usual, and when she throws out all her voice to the utmost, it has a volume and strength that are quite surprising, while its agility in divisions, running up and down the scale in semitones, and its compass in jumping over two octaves at once, are equally astonishing. It were to be wished she was less lavish in the display of these wonderful powers, and sought to please more than surprise; but her taste is vicious, her excessive love of ornament spoiling every simple air, and her great delight (indeed her chief merit) being in songs of a bold and spirited character where much is left to her discretion (or indiscretion) confined by accompaniment, but in which she can indulge in ad libitum passages with a luxuriance and redundancy no other singer ever possessed, or if possessing, ever practiced, and which she carries to a fantastical excess. She is fond of singing variations on some known simple air, and latterly has pushed this taste to the very height of absurdity, by singing, even without words, variations composed for the fiddle.”
Catalani’s knowledge and culture did not embrace the high things of the intellect, and her mental range was limited in the extreme. A lovely creature, endowed with many graces, and gifted beyond measure in one phase of her art, she was the idol of society; but her strange ignorance of general subjects was often the cause of unfriendly remark, and sometimes led her into ludicrous mistakes.
Once at the court of Saxe-Weimar she noticed the majestic presence of the illustrious Goethe, and, observing the marked attention paid to him, she inquired who he was. “That, madame, is the celebrated Goethe,” was the reply. “Goethe-Goethe?” she asked, with a puzzled air. “On what instrument does he play?” “He is the renowned author of ‘The Sorrows of Werther,’ madame.” “Oh, yes, I remember,” she said: then, addressing the great man with abrupt vivacity, added, “Ah, sir, what an admirer I am of ‘Werther.’” Goethe, always amenable to feminine charm, bowed profoundly. “I never,” she continued, “saw anything so laughable in my life. What a capital farce it is!” “’The Sorrows of Werther’ a farce, madame?” the poet murmured icily. “Oh, yes,” said Catalani, with a burst of laughter, “never was there anything so exquisitely ridiculous.” The great prima donna was innocently referring to a stage burlesque travesty of the famous book. Goethe did not recover himself the whole evening.