Maria Felicita Malibran
This great singer was born at Paris, March 24, 1808, where her father, Manuel Garcia, had arrived only two months before.
When three years old she was taken to Italy, and at the age of five played a child’s part in Paer’s “Angese,” at the Fiorentini, Naples.
So precocious was she that, after a few nights of this opera, she actually began to sing the part of Agnese in the duet of the second act,. A piece of audacity which was applauded by the public.
Two years later, she studied solfeggio with Panseron, at Naples; and Herold, happening to arrive about the same time, gave her her first instruction on the piano.
In 1816 Garcia took her to Paris with the rest of his family, and in the autumn of 1817 to London.
Already speaking fluently Spanish, Italian, and French, Maria picked up a tolerable knowledge of English in the two and a half years she spent in London. Not long after, she learned German with the same facility. Here too, she had good teaching on the piano, and made such rapid progress that on her return to Paris in 1819 she was able to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s clavier works, which were great favorites with her father. In this way she acquired sound taste in music.
At the age of fifteen she was made by her father to learn singing under his own direction; and, in spite of the fear which his violent temper inspired, she soon showed the individuality and originality of her genius.
Two years had barely elapsed when (1824) Garcia allowed her to appear for the first time before a musical club he had just established. There she produced a great sensation, and her future success was confidently predicted.
Two months later Garcia returned to London, where he was engaged as principal tenor; and here he set on foot a singing class, in which the education of Maria was continued, if not completed.
It is not quite certain whether an illness of Pasta, prima donna at the King’s Theater, was the occasion of Maria’s first public appearance, or whether it was due to Ronzi’s not fulfilling an engagement; but there is no doubt she was the means of helping the management out of a very awkward situation, while making for herself a name.
Her debut was in “Il Barbiere di Seviglia,” and her performance of Rosina made her at once a favorite with the London public. Lord Mount Edgcumbe said that “she was too highly extolled and injudiciously put forward as a prima donna, when she was only a promising debutante”; but this was not the opinion of the public, nor of the ruling powers, who forthwith engaged her for the remaining six weeks of the season for $2500, the playbills including a premiere of Meyerbeer’s “Il Corciato in Egitto.”
The stay in London, was however, predestined to be short. Garcia had engaged himself and family to perform in New York, and they consequently left England for that destination.
Although the company, with the exception of Garcia, was made up of the poorest material, the performances were fairly sustained, Maria, of course, taking the principal parts. This tour was of the greatest possible benefit to her in her later career, for she acquired that experience and confidence without which the best of artists fail to impress an audience.
Her voice, also, which needed constant practice, improved as time went on. She appeared in a great number of operas, of which we may mention “Otello,” “Don Giovanni,” “Tancredi,” “La Cenerentola,” besides two operas specially composed for her by her father, “L’Amante astuto” and “La figlia dell’ aria.” The American public treated the company with cordiality; yet the venture was, for a pecuniary point of view, a failure.
We come now to a period in Madame Mailbran’s life which various biographers have treated in different ways – that of her marriage to Francois Malibran, a merchant. The fact is to be recorded that the marriage settlement contained a clause by which Garcia was to receive $25,000 as a solatium for the loss of his daughter’s services; also the further fact that Malibran’s financial position, already seriously compromised, drove him into the bankruptcy court before the first year of married life was over.
There could be no question as to the future career of Madame Malibran; she had nothing but her voice, and to exercise it in New York was out of the question, as all the money she made would have been seized by her husband’s creditors.
The parting was as much a l’ amiable as it could be under the circumstances. The terms have remained secret, but there is reason to believe that a portion of the wife’s earnings in Europe were to be sent to her husband.
Madame Malibran arrived in Paris in December, 1827. Her first operatic appearance occurred in January, 1828, and the occasion was the performance of “Semiramide” at the Grand Opera for the benefit of Galli.
She was laboring under many disadvantages; for the first time in her life she felt nervous, nor was the part one she would have chosen; nevertheless she scored an immediate and striking success. Henceforth there was never any want of engagements; the difficult was rather to choose among a surfeit.
Her debut at the Theatre des Italiens was in “Otello,” an opera to which she remained partial all her life. The novelty and originality that distinguished her style from that of all other prima donna earned her great applause.
So far her receipts had been moderate, averaging little more than sixty pounds per night, both in London and Paris, while twenty five pounds was her fee for singing at concerts.
When Sontag retired, it was felt that the remuneration was not adequate. The next offer, from Alfred Bunn of Drury Lane, was made at the respectable figure of 125 pounds per night for nineteen nights. At this time Malibran made two notable additions to her repertoire, “La Gazza ladra” and “La Benerentola,” in boht of which operas her success was prodigious; the combination of singing and acting was on all hands admitted to be unequaled.
It was remarked that thought not the first to act in “La Gazza ladra,” she was yet the first to bring out hidden beauties of the prison scene which nobody had suggested before.
Her representation of the neglected heroine in “La Cenerentola” was also true to life, and may have awakened reminiscences of her own by no means too happy childhood.
In 1830 an attachment sprang up between her and Charles de Beriot, the celebrated violinist; and this ended only with her life. They built in 1831, a handsome villa in a suburb of Brussels, to which they returned after every operatic campaign. (In 1836 they were married at Paris.)
During the next few years her time was fully taken up between London and Paris.
In 1832, Lablache, passing through Brussels on his way to Italy, suggested more in joke than in earnest that she should accompany him. The clock had barely struck five on the next morning when a traveling carriage containing Malibran drew up at his door, ready to start for Italy.
Lablache could scarcely credit his eyes; but those who knew this creature of impulse hardly wondered at her adopting a course which commended itself to her mind by its originality and caprice. During this tour, Milan, Rome, Naples, and Bologna were visited with equal success.
In the spring of 1833 she went to London, and sang at Drury Lane, in English opera, receiving 80,000 francs for forty representations, with two benefits which produced not less than 50,000 francs. The prices offered to her increased each year to an unprecedented extent. She received at the Opera in London, during May and June 1835, 2775 pounds for 24 appearances. Sums, the like of which had not been heard of before in such cases, were paid to her at the provincial festivals in England.
Having played in English versions of “Sonnambula” and “Fidelio,” Malibran returned to Naples, where she remained until May, 1834, going then to Bologna, and then on to Milan.
She soon returned to London for a flying visit; and was singing at Sinigaglia in July.
On August 11 she went to Lucca, where her horses were taken from her carriage, which was drawn to her hotel by enthusiastic admirers after her last appearance.
She next went to Milan, and then to Naples, where she sang during the carnival. Here she met with an accident, her carriage being upset at the corner of a street; and she suffered injuries which prevented her form appearing in public for a month.
Even then, she made her first appearance with her arm in a sling, which added to the interest of the occasion.
From Naples she went, in the same triumphant manner, to Venice, her arrival being announced by fanfares of trumpets. There she was besieged with fresh enthusiasm, which followed her in her return to Paris and London.
Early in April 1836, she arrived in London. Prospects looked bright for the young prima donna. Her reputation showed no signs of decrease; every performance added vigor and subtlety to her voice; there was hardly a rival to challenge her.
It was during this visit that while riding an unmanageable horse she was thrown and dragged for some distance before the stirrup gave way and left her on the road, unconscious and bedraggled with mud and blood.
Even then matters might have mended had she listened to rational advice; but her only object was to keep the affair secret from her husband. She would see no physician, neither would she take that repose of which she stood in the greatest need.
On the same evening she performed as usual, her hair being so arranged as to conceal the heavy injuries to her head; and it cannot be doubted that this accident, aggravated by her obstinacy, led to her premature death.
About the end of July she left England for Brussels, where, unheeding severe pain, she gave a concert on August 12, following it by a performance of “La Sonnambula” at Aix-la-Chapelle.
In September she again came to England for the Manchester Festival, during which her short, brilliant life ended.
She had arrived, with her husband, after a rapid journey from Paris, on Sunday, September 11, 1836. On the following evening she sang in no less than fourteen pieces.
On Tuesday, though weak and ill, she insisted on signing both morning and evening.
On Wednesday, the 14th, her state was still more critical, but she contrived to sing with thrilling effect the last sacred music in which she ever took part, “Sing ye to the Lord.” That same evening her last notes in public were heard with Mme. Caradori Allan, in the duet “Vanne se alberghi in petto,” from “tito Andronico.”
This was received with immense enthusiasm, the last movement was encored, and Malibran actually accomplished the task of repeating it. It was her last effort.
While the concert room still rang with applause, she was fainting in the arms of her friends; and, a few moments later, she was conveyed to her hotel. There she died, after nine days of nervous fever, September 23, 1836. She was buried on October 1, in the south aisle of the collegiate church, Manchester. Her remains were soon moved to Brussels and there reinterred in the cemetery of Lacken, where a mausoleum was erected by Beriot, containing a bust of the great singer by the celebrated sculptor Geefs.