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Handel's Queens

London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2019
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Andrew Mellor
Release date: July 2019
Total duration: 127 minutes 55 seconds

With no fewer than fifteen premiere recordings, and featuring works by many of Handel's lesser known contemporaries—Pollarolo, Orlandini, Torri and Ariosti among them—this album is a glorious showcase of the soprano's art.


‘This soundly made programme is both pleasing and intriguing: Vivaldi’s ‘Nelle mie selve natie’ leaves the voice bravely unaccompanied between ritornellos; Leo’s ‘Quel nome se ascolto’ makes muscular use of syncopation and chromatic slides; and Bononcini’s ‘Deh! lascia o core’ is truly touching. We can’t ever know what these two great singers actually sounded like, of course, but Lucy Crowe plays Cuzzoni as a bright soprano whose technical precision and agile upward-leaping ornaments combine with musicality to impress and move, while Mary Bevan offers a Bordoni with a lower centre of gravity, generally darker and more directly theatrical’ (Gramophone)

‘Cunningham and London Early Opera offer optimal accompaniment: breathless silences into which Crowe drops her shining notes, a crisp stride underneath Bevan's perorations, fragile siciliano accompaniment as a foil to Crowe's swelling assurance and, in duets, a respectful retreat … Handel has never sounded better’ (BBC Music Magazine)
Handel’s Queens includes some of the most exquisite music written by George Frideric Handel, and such glorious and in their day eminent contemporaries—as Carlo Francesco Pollarolo, Antonio Vivaldi and Giovanni Bononcini for two of the finest singers of the early 18th century—Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni.

This album contains many world premiere recordings as well as highlights from the repertory of the Royal Academy of Music (the Academy), the most ambitious opera company of the baroque era. It explores the virtuosic and diverse styles of composition that Handel created for each singer, dispelling myths and shedding light behind the scenes on the lives of these two extraordinary prime donne.

As in today’s world of ‘up to the minute’ reporting on the phenomenon of celebrities, these two singers were not wholly the authors of their own identities and reputations, and had little control over behaviour of the press and factions within their audience. Even though Cuzzoni was described as excelling in pathos-laden slower arias of the older fashion whilst Faustina reportedly excelled in virtuosic allegros in the new style, these recordings and the substantial underlying research reveal the wide range of the dazzling vocal pieces each singer performed, showing their talent to be not only distinctive but also versatile.

Public fascination has added to a continuing misperception that these two uniquely gifted singers became rivals by their own choice. However it was in fact the press and factions among opera-goers that were really to blame for this situation by spreading false rumours that conjured up the image and epithet of Rival Queens. Audiences enjoyed the fun of going to the opera where they could ‘hiss and catcall’ much to the dismay of both the Academy and the two singers themselves, who had already worked perfectly successfully together as a pair of prime donne in Italy.

The soprano Francesca Cuzzoni was born in Parma in 1696 and owed her musical education to her father Angelo, a professional violinist at the local Court and to her singing teacher Francesco Lanzi. Following her debut in her home city in 1714, she performed in Bologna, and in 1717 was taken on as a virtuoso da camera by Grand Princess Violante Beatrice of Tuscany. This privilege extended her performance opportunities, allowing her to appear on the stages of Florence, Reggio Emilia and Siena in operas by Gasparini and Orlandini—and notably in Antonio Vivaldi’s Scanderbeg. Her Venetian debut in Carlo Pollarolo’s Ariodante (1718) saw her appear for the first time on the same stage as the very slightly younger soprano Faustina Bordoni. Cuzzoni achieved international stardom with an invitation to sing for Emperor Charles VI in Vienna and took part in many more performances before returning to Venice for the season of 1721/22, when she sang in five operas, including Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s Nerone, which once again placed her alongside Faustina Bordoni. In her prime Cuzzoni had a compass stretching two octaves above middle C.

The Academy was established as an opera company in London in 1719. In 1722 it engaged Cuzzoni to sing in London on a salary of 1,500 guineas (the same as the famous castrato Senesino). Her arrival to the English capital was keenly anticipated in the press ‘the finest performer that ever Italy produced’ wrote the London Journal in 1723 and she made her London debut on 12 January 1723, creating the role of Teofane in Handel’s Ottone at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, performance seat of the Academy.

Notwithstanding the huge demands by the public for Italian singers, Handel was only too aware of their potentially exacting demands and rebellious natures. According to the historian John Mainwaring, whose Memoirs of the Late George Frederic Handel were published in 1760—Cuzzoni initially refused to sing her first aria in Ottone, ‘Falsa immagine’. This challenge provoked a quick-witted response from Handel, who threatened to throw her out of the window, (one of the legally sanctioned modes of executing prisoners in some parts of Germany) exclaiming ‘Oh! Madame I know very well that you are a veritable she-devil, but I will show you that I am Beelzebub, the chief of the Devils.’

According to the historian Charles Burney, Cuzzoni’s singing of 'Falsa immagine' ‘fixed her reputation as an expressive and pathetic singer’, (‘pathetic’ here meaning ‘expressive of pathos’). Her success was such that the price of half-guinea opera tickets reportedly shot up to two or three guineas.

During her period of engagement by Handel’s Academy, which lasted until 1728, Cuzzoni’s roles included those of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, Berenice in Scipione, the eponymous title heroine in Rodelinda and Costanza in Riccardo primo; she appeared as well in numerous operas by Ariosti, Bononcini plus two pasticcios. During the summer of 1724 she travelled to Paris performing in concert versions of Ottone and Cesare and sacred repertoire written for King Louis XV and the French Court. In 1725 Cuzzoni married the composer and harpsichordist Pietro Giuseppe Sandoni as it was still incredibly difficult for the majority of female singers to be allowed to perform on stage in public unless they had the support of a musical family and patrons.

Faustina Bordoni (popularly known simply as Faustina) was born in 1697 in Venice, where she had already started to make a name for herself even before Cuzzoni arrived. She was brought up under the protection of the aristocratic brothers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello, both composers and taught singing by another composer, Michelangelo Gasparini. Although her early career was troubled—in 1714 at the age of seventeen, following her release from imprisonment (for unknown reasons), she was briefly the object of a tussle over custody by two competing noble female patrons and was abducted by Isabella Renier Lombria, she made her operatic debut in Pollarolo’s opera, Ariodante in 1716. She performed Ariodante again in 1718 alongside Cuzzoni illustrating the Venetian practice of employing two equal or nearly equal leading women in a cast—both having an equal number of arias but with additional recitatives and a duet for Faustina. As the Venetian prima donna of choice, and possibly even preferred for her distinctive technical virtuosity, ‘modo Faustinaire’, Faustina was used to having a slightly larger share of music shown also earlier when she was paired with Maria Anna Benti-Bulgarelli.

Aware of how Faustina’s career was flourishing across Europe, the Academy took the decision to engage not one but two stellar female singers in line with practice at the leading continental theatres. Accordingly, between March 1726 and May 1728 they played host to Faustina, ‘the Fine songstress of Venice’, in addition to Cuzzoni. The celebrated Faustina came to London with a male companion in tow—this was not a husband but a reputed lover, Mauro D’Alay a violinist and minor composer who at her insistence was made leader of the opera orchestra.

Although Cuzzoni and Faustina had appeared together without incident in six operas given in Venice and Milan between 1718 and 1721, and beforehand Faustina had been paired successfully with Anna Benti-Bulgarelli, the recruitment of the second singer by the Academy gave rise to a noisy battle between the supporters of each singer. This bizarre occurrence was aided and abetted by the London press, which from the very start actively promoted rivalry between the two singers. ‘Faustina a famous Italian Lady, is coming over this Winter to rival Signiora Cuzzoni’ wrote the London Journal September 1725. This stirring of the pot echoed what had earlier been said about Cuzzoni’s engagement in relation to the previous leading female singer in London: ‘Cuzzoni is expected with much impatience, for the improvement of our opera performances, and as ‘tis said, she far excells Sigra Durastante (Margherita Durastante).

The enthusiasm of Cuzzoni’s supporters led to quarrels with the devotees of Senesino and later with those of Faustina, whose London debut alongside Cuzzoni occurred in Handel’s opera Alessandro (1726) based on the popular tragedy by Nathaniel Lee entitled The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great (1677). Although the musical roles of the two leading ladies are very balanced and they share a duet, the storyline of Alessandro entails their competition for the affections of the hero Alessandro. Interestingly, the two singers’ roles, considered in purely dramatic terms, have little impact on the plot, which in fact chooses to empathise their ‘meta-dramatic’ presence as rivals Cuzzoni and Faustina rather than to follow the relationship of the characters Lisaura and Rossane (this point was made in 2013 by Suzanne Aspden in her book The Rival Sirens). Perceptions of identity relating to the characters on stage and the actual singers came to overlap, leading many members of the London audience to become fiercely partisan in favouring either Faustina or Cuzzoni at the expense of the other. Satirical pamphlets (one entitled An Epistle from Signor Senesino to Faustina) began to circulate.

Factionalism even caused the performance to be halted, and the press to explode with tales of scandal and rivalry, on one night of Bononcini’s Astianatte (6 June 1727), when Cuzzoni was portraying the character of Andromaca, the distressed mother, whilst Faustina depicted the evil Ermione who was plotting against her. Despite the presence in the house of Caroline, Princess of Wales, trouble—not caused by the singers—erupted in the auditorium. There were reports of hissing by one side answered by clapping on the other, of catcalls, of pulling of head-dresses and of other great indecencies on the part of the audience—all leading to an interruption of the performance.

Cuzzoni and Faustina were subsequently blamed unjustly for the fracas and the misogynistic archetype of professional female jealousy was inflamed by images of two fighting prime donne in new fictional pamphlets and satires that included The Devil to pay at St James’s; or a full and true account of a most horrible and bloody battle between Madam Faustina and Madam Cuzzoni, while the Rival Queans motif from Lee’s drama resurfaced in a farce entitled The Contre Temps that heightened suspicions about the Italian singers being papists and a danger to the realm. Even before the singing pair had appeared together in public, membership of opposing factions was taking shape: Cuzzoni’s supporters included the King, the Duke of Rutland, Lady Pembroke and most of the Italian community, whilst London’s aristocratic gentlemen mostly supported the more alluring newcomer Faustina. This was, one must remember, a society that feasted on binary oppositions: Catholic versus Protestant; Whig versus Tory; Handel versus Bononcini; King George versus the Prince of Wales; English versus Italian.

Although both singers were upset threatening to leave the Academy in response to this unwelcome press and factionalism of the audience, they remained in London on account of the high fees offered and continued to appear together onstage, a fact that helped to keep attendances reasonably buoyant. This scandal was certainly not the type of press reaction that the Academy’s directors had invested such large sums in: the institution’s financial health depended heavily on long term subscriptions and, it was important to preserve the image of being one of the best, most sophisticated companies in the world.

Following the death of George I on 11 June 1727 all the theatres were closed for the summer, causing the premiere of Riccardo Primo to be postponed until the next season. The singers were further lampooned in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, premiered on 29 January 1728. This work owed much of its success to its employment of shorter arias and, unsurprisingly, sung in English.

So after the Academy’s auspicious start, cumulative effect of illnesses, absences, audience and press disruptions, dwindling audience numbers (partly due, ironically, to the restored decorum) the instability of the stock market, competition of rival forms of theatrical entertainment, and largely the inflated fees demanded by the best singers (‘costly canaries’, as Mainwaring called them), led to the financial collapse of the Academy which closed its doors after the 1727 -8 season. It had lasted for only nine seasons instead of the twenty-one originally envisaged.

After their customary farewell concerts, several singers including Cuzzoni and Faustina left London for engagements in continental Europe. Cuzzoni worked in Vienna, Venice and other stages with her husband whilst Faustina, who was never to return to London, made a mutually beneficial marriage in 1730 to the famed composer Johann Adolf Hasse, Kapellmeister at Dresden. This allegiance sustained her professional activity and reputation for many years. She remained as prima donna in Hasse’s operas written for the Saxon-Polish court, continuing to perform internationally to great acclaim. She retired from the stage in 1751 but lived on until 1781, first in Vienna and then in her native Venice.

In the spring of 1728, Academy subscribers handed over the management of Italian opera in London to the impresario John Jacob Heidegger and Handel who formed a ‘second’ Royal Academy. Although Heidegger wished to re-engage Cuzzoni and Bordoni, Handel, insisting on the need for variety, demanded a change of singers so he could write new works for new performers. After making trips to Italy, Handel finally had at his disposal a brand new cast of singers that included the soprano, Anna Strada del Pó. The Academy’s long-serving librettist Paolo Rolli wistfully reflected: ‘(Handel) says that she sings better than the two who have left us, because one of them (Faustina) never pleased him at all and he would like to forget the other (Cuzzoni)’.

Cuzzoni’s career continued to flourish amidst challenges of illnesses, debts and pregnancies and little is known of whether her two children survived. She returned to London in April 1734 joining the cast of the rival opera company the Opera of the Nobility, which introduced itself with works by Nicola Porpora, Sandoni, Hasse and a version of Handel’s Ottone. After the collapse of that company, she continued to sing across Europe commanding huge salaries, such as in Il ciro riconosciuto by Leonardo Leo in Turin, before entering a slow melancholy decline. In 1751, after attending Cuzzoni’s final benefit concert, Burney wrote that her voice had become a thin, cracked sound. Circumstantial evidence indicates that she was imprisoned more than once for debt, amidst widespread false rumours of her having poisoned her husband in Venice, earning for this a death sentence. She lived on in Bologna until 1778 and there is currently no evidence to support the tradition that she sold buttons to make a humble living.

In 1723 the famous singing teacher Pier Tosi wrote that at the height of their fame ‘The Pathetick of the one (Cuzzoni) and the Allegro of the other, are the Qualities the most to be admired respectively in each of them. What a beautiful Mixture would it be if the excellence of these two angelick Creatures would be united in one single Person!’ (Tosi wisely went on, however to make the point that neither of the identified singers would have achieve her degree of eminence if she has attempted to imitate the other).

The theorist Friedrick William Marpurg stated that the flautist Johann Joachim Quantz, who had heard Cuzzoni in 1727 found that ‘her style of singing was innocent and affecting ‘ and that she ‘took possession of the soul of every auditor, by her tender and touching expression’. In contrast, Charles Burney noted, ‘Damn her: she has got a nest of nightingales in her belly’. The singing teacher Giovanni Battista Mancini praised what he described as her ‘native warble’, pathos, natural tone, excellent messa di voce, perfect trills, phrasing and accuracy and sweetness of high notes. As well as excelling in the older style, Cuzzoni performed a wide range of florid compositions employing coloratura, where she displayed a high level of virtuosity.

Faustina was the paragon of the newer style, where her slightly lower voice, running from b flat to a”, displayed coloratura passages, martellati, sudden changes of register, wide leaps, rhythmic variations, sequences of trills, good breath control and secure intonation. Many arias written for her by Handel and others are in E or A major or minor, for which Burney provides a good explanation by observing in a footnote that her rendition of the note e”—naturally prominent in all four named keys—was particularly powerful. Her penetrating and articulate tone ‘ben granito’ (diamantine) was revered. Nevertheless, she was able to extend her scope by performing slower, expressive airs in addition to the ‘technical’ coloratura passages on which her reputation rested.

Despite being sharply defined in the public’s mind by their contrasting vocal qualities, both Cuzzoni and Faustina were fully equipped to do justice to the complete range of affetti (moods) demanded of singers taking major roles within eighteenth-century opera seria. They were necessarily versatile, even though composers writing for them would naturally take the opportunity where possible to play to their known strengths. How accurately, in terms of direct imitation, this blend of uniqueness and universality can be recaptured in a modern performance is unknowable. But what is unquestionable is that these stellar artists inspired through their art some brilliant music, both familiar and unfamiliar.

Bridget Cunningham © 2019

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