FAUSTINA BORDONI – Faces of a Prima Donna

The thousand faces of a Prima Donna

In the recent explosion of interest in baroque opera, much has been made – understandably – of the great castrati of the 18th-century. Those sensational voices, lost forever, combined with the equally sensational mutilation that made them possible, not to mention the thrilling music written for them, have made the castrati a marketer’s dream, in our own time as well as Handel’s.

The fuss over Farinelli and his colleagues might well lead one to assume that there were no female opera stars in the 18th century. But there were, of course – and here Arion pays tribute to one such woman: Faustina Bordoni.

“Universally ranked among the greatest singers of her age,” as musicologist Winton Dean has written, mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was born in Venice on March 30, 1697; she died there Nov. 4, 1781. Between those symmetrical poles, Faustina enjoyed enormous success throughout Europe.

Faustina was already a celebrity when she arrived in London in 1726. Chroniclers raved about the flexibility and brilliance of her voice; Charles Burney emphasized her perfect intonation, outstanding breath control, and her musical intelligence. But it is perhaps to the German flutist and composer Johann Quantz (1697-1773) that we owe the most revealing description of Faustina’s artistry:

[…] She had a very happy memory, in arbitrary changes and embellishments, and a clear and quick judgement in giving to words their full power and expression. In her action she was very happy; and as she perfectly possessed that flexibility of muscles and features, which constitutes face-playing, she succeeded equally well in furious, amorous, and tender parts; in short, she was born for singing and for acting.

In London, Faustina joined two other stars — soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and the castrato Senesino – as a “dream team” that Handel assembled for his opera company, the Royal Academy of Music. Between 1726 and 1728, Handel wrote five roles for Faustina, tailoring them, as was the custom, to her vocal and artistic qualities: Roxana in Alessandro; Alcestis in Admeto, Pulcheria in Riccardo Primo, Emira in Siroe, and Elisa in Tolomeo.

But London was not big enough for two prime donne, and rivalry between Faustina and Cuzzoni – or rather, between their fans — reached surreal proportions. The singers’ respective partisans became the 18th-century equivalent of today’s soccer hoodlums, shouting down the rival of their favourite with catcalls and boos. Satirists penned acid portraits of both singers; race horses named Cuzzoni and Faustina ran against one another; society members who championed one prima donna refused to visit those who favoured the other. The affair culminated with an infamous performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte in 1727, where Faustina and Cuzzoni, unable to sing over the tumult in the audience, actually came to blows on stage.

The controversy, and the singers’ high salaries, did nothing to help the Royal Academy’s shaky finances; the following year the company folded. Faustina returned to Italy, and in 1730 she married the German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) in Venice. The following year the couple moved to Dresden, where Hasse would serve as maestro di cappella for the electoral court for over 30 years. Faustina too was engaged by the Saxon court — at twice the salary of her husband — but continued to tour until retiring from the stage in 1751.

Today Hasse’s music is rarely performed. But during much of his career, he was the pre-eminent composer of opera seria in Italy and in German-speaking Europe. The modern authority Sven Hansell writes of a “gentle sensuality, proud resolve and many other nuances of feeling to be teased out of Hasse’s music” by singers of character, for which we have Faustina as a model. Burney, meanwhile, described Hasse as “the most natural, elegant, and judicious composer of vocal music, as well as the most voluminous now alive; equally a friend to poetry and the voice, he discovers as much judgment as genius, in expressing words, as well as in accompanying those sweet and tender melodies, which he gives to the singer. Always regarding the voice, as the first object of attention in a theatre, he never suffocates it, by the learned jargon of a multiplicity of instruments and subjects; but is as careful of preserving its importance as a painter, of throwing the strongest light upon the capital figure of his piece.” A worthy husband indeed for our Faustina!

In 1772 Burney visited Hasse and Faustina in Vienna, and was utterly charmed by the celebrity couple. Faustina, now in her mid-70’s, he found “very conversable,” with a lively curiosity, and “good remains… of that beauty for which she was so much celebrated in her youth.” In 1744, Metastasio described Hasse and Faustina as “truly an exquisite couple.” They had two daughters, both of whom were trained singers, and a son.

When I read Quantz’s description of Faustina as someone “born for singing and for acting,” I immediately thought of Kimberly Barber. The Canadian mezzo-soprano is already known for her brilliant and touching performances of Handel’s major castrato roles: Torontonians still talk about her luminous 1999 performances of Xerxes at the Canadian Opera Company, and her noble yet vulnerable Ariodante – a role she later sang at the Paris Opera. But like Faustina, Ms. Barber is a true singer-actor – one for whom coloratura is never mere display, but comes from the purest emotional source. Here, in short, were the ingredients for a program that would introduce two outstanding singers to Arion’s audience: one from the 18th-century; the other from the distant land of Ontario.

The operas

The program opens with music from Handel’s Riccardo Primo, Re D’Inghilterra (Richard I, King of England), which premiered on November 11, 1727. The action takes place during Richard the Lion-Hearted’s conquest of Cyprus, with Faustina playing Pulcheria, daughter of the corrupt governor of the island. In the accompanied recitative, Ah, padre! and the aria Quel gelsomino, Pulcheria is torn between filial duty and her own moral compass – her father having commanded her to impersonate the princess who’s betrothed to the English king.

Admeto, re di Tessaglia (Admeto, King of Thessaly), also from 1727, is considered the finest of Handel’s Faustina-Senesino-Cuzzoni operas. (And what a diplomat Handel had to be, providing two prime donnes with arias that showed them to equal advantage!)

Faustina played Alceste, a royal wife who makes the ultimate sacrifice. In Luci care, her first aria, she sings a tender farewell to her ailing husband, Admeto — and to life itself, for Alceste has resolved to save the King by dying in his place. Incidentally, the flute solo in the middle section of this aria is the only appearance of that instrument in the entire opera.

We return briefly to Riccardo Primo, to find that Pulcheria’s noble character has prevailed. She sings the strongly striding aria L’aquila altera as she unites Richard the Lion-Hearted with his true betrothed.

Cleofide was Hasse’s first opera for the Saxon court; its lavish premiere in 1731 was the high point of the Dresden season — J.S. Bach, accompanied by his eldest son, traveled from Leipzig to hear it. Set during Alexander the Great’s conquest of India, Cleofide explores the themes of jealousy, possessiveness (of women as well as kingdoms), and the clemency of wise rulers. Its title character — an Indian queen – is the faithful lover of Poros, the chronically jealous king of another region of India. Cleofide “uses feminine weapons to defend her country against Alexander, and masculine heroism to break the grip of [her lover’s] jealousy” (Reinhard Strom) – a plum role for Faustina.

Countless 18th-century composers set a version of this libretto, which derives from Metastasio’s Alessandro nell’Indie. But only Hasse made Cleofide the title role. And indeed, Cleofide furnished Faustina with one of her greatest successes. Stylistically, it ushers tonight’s concert — and Faustina — into the galant, early classical style.

© Tamara Bernstein, 2003