08 Dec 2005
A Fresh Look at Giulia Grisi
Giulia Grisi must be, by whatever standard is applied, regarded as one of the greatest and most important soprano singers who ever graced the operatic stage,
Giulia Grisi must be, by whatever standard is applied, regarded as one of the greatest and most important soprano singers who ever graced the operatic stage,
Giulia Grisi's contributions to operatic history, ie in the form of enduring roles written for or created by her, were confined to the early years of her career, overlooking, of course, the hardly epochal role of Norina in Don Pasquale. She sang the first Adalgisa to Pasta's Norma in Milan in 1831, and she was in the premiere casts of I puritani and I Capuleti ed i Montecchi 4 . For the rest, her best parts were those forever identified with Pasta: Semiramis and Ann Boleyn - from whom she took them over, and upon whose interpretations she modelled her own. She was a memorable Lucrezia Borgia , and she excelled in lighter roles — Rosina, Norina, Susanna, Pamina and Elisetta (in Il matrimonio segreto) — but so also, surprisingly, had Pasta.Pleasants was by no means the first person to suggest that Grisi was little more than an imitator of Pasta. This accusation was made as early as 1850 by Pauline Viardot, who can be regarded as Grisi's bitter enemy. Viardot's hostility towards Grisi was probably due to the fact that Grisi's early success in London in 1834 had driven her older sister, Maria Malibran, out of King's Theatre that year. To quote Cox 6 : "That Grisi, therefore, for the time being, crushed Malibran, there can be no doubt; but that the 'Garcia' would have had her revenge is more than probable, since she was rapidly recovering her diminished position, when she was untowardly smitten by the hand of death at the Manchester Musical Festival of the year 1836." The accusation was repeated by Chorley in 1862 7 . It, too, is worthy of examination since he contradicts himself in his discussion of Grisi. He starts out by saying:
Her genius — if that is not too strong a word — was imitative rather than creative. When it was expended in areas compatible with her voice and dramatic temperament, she approached and may have matched the achievements of her models. Her endowment of voice and personal beauty was superior to that of either Pasta or Malibran and her performances less likely to be blemished by effort or mishap. Simply because of the absence of any sense of hazard, they may also have been less exciting 5 .
Madame Grisi has been remarkable for her cleverness in adopting the ideas of others more thoughtful and originally inventive than herself. With two exceptions, her most popular personations have followed those of other actresses. Her Norma, doubtless her grandest performance, was modelled on that of Madame Pasta - perhaps in some points was an improvement on the model 8 ....This can only be interpreted as saying that all her roles except two were modelled on earlier interpreters. But is Norma an exception, or an example? It would seem to be an example, if not for the fact that Chorley later says:
On a level with her Norma was Madame Grisi's Lucretia Borgia, Lucrezia even more original as a conception, ripened and coloured into a superb and glowing picture as years went on 9 ...This would imply that her Norma was also an original conception. If that were the case, then Chorley would be saying that all her major roles. with the exception of Norma and Lucrezia Borgia are copies. An impossibility, since she herself created Norina in Don Pasquale and Elvira in I puritani, and heard neither Pasta nor Malibran as Semiramide. Also, Anna Bolena was practically her only other major role, so that would make the imitation the exception rather than the rule.
When Mdme Viardot heard Pasta for the first time in her life, in her decay, she uttered a most forcible truth, saying "Now I know where Grisi got all her greatness." It was from Pasta that the original Adalgisa obtained the impression how the Norma and Anna Bolena should be rendered , as it was from Malibran that she gained an insight into the requirements necessary for the truthful delineation of the unhappy girl (this refers to Desdemona in Rossini's Otello) and as it likewise was many years afterwards that she learned what was to be made of Valentine in Meyerbeer's Les huguenots by having witnessed Mme. Viardot's perfect version of that interesting character 11 .Chorley actually provides more details 12 , stating that Grisi appropriated the part, and with it, took as tradition some of her predecessor's inventions — especially those of listening terror, in the striking conspiracy scene 13 . On first reading both Cox and Chorley's descriptions of this incident, one is left with the impression that what we have here is a blatant case of Grisi's imitating Viardot. And this might have been true had the role of Valentine been an old favorite of Grisi's, which was already part of her repertory, and that she only learned what to make of, after hearing Viardot. But that does not jibe with the known facts. The truth is that Grisi never sang the role until May 1849, a year after hearing Viardot in it, at a time when Viardot was most probably singing in Paris 14 . For any actress of Grisi's proven ability not to have shown terror during this horrifying but highly dramatic scene strikes this writer as straining credulity. I might add that any number of prima donnas, including some famous actresses had sung Valentine in Paris before Viardot sang it in London 15 , and we have no way of knowing whether or not the "listening terror" had not already been invented by some other singer, perhaps Cornelie Falcon, who created the role, or Rosine Stoltz, who replaced her in it, before Viardot got around to it. While Grisi probably only heard Viardot sing the part in London, she had been engaged for many years at the Théâtre Italien in Paris while Huguenots was sung by others at the Opéra. Nor do we know what improvements Grisi later made to her interpretation of the role of Valentine.
"While the deep and thrilling tones of Pasta were wanting to give its full expression to particular passages of the music, the freshness of Grisi's voice, and the purity of her intonation enabled us to enjoy portions of the opera, which we have formerly listened to almost with pain. Her wild and broken-hearted "Giudici! Ad Anna! carried the audience away with her, and was a genuine burst of inspiration, and her acting and singing, in the last scene, finished the performance triumphantly." 17On the other hand Pleasants' statement could not possibly be true in regard to Semiramide, which Pasta only sang when Grisi was known to be performing somewhere else. So Grisi could not possibly have seen her in the role. Still, it would not have been an artistic crime for Grisi to have modelled two of her interpretations — Norma and Anna Bolena — on Pasta's, had she indeed done so: an assumption by no means sufficiently proven. On the contrary, it would have been unwise of her not to recognise the many qualities Pasta had brought to these roles and to ignore her contribution to the performing tradition in the making. It would be comparable to a composer's learning from his predecessors. To cite just one example, Verdi learned a great deal from Donizetti and Mercadante yet no one would call Verdi an imitator or consider him a lesser composer because he had anchored his creative genius in the artistic inheritance of the past.
Norma was revived this week, with Grisi as the priestess of Irminsul, Lablache. taking the part of Oroveso, and a Signora Assandri making her debut on an English stage in the part of Adalgisa. To criticise the composition of this Opera is unnecessary ... in offering an account of it is sufficient to speak of the acting and singing of the prima donna. In both, Grisi did more than justify our highest expectations; if she was not equal to Pasta in majesty of demeanor - if some of her attitudes were angular, and some of her motions a little too much hurried for the dignity which tragedy demands, she approached nearer to her predecessor than any other actress of the day could do — with the superior advantage, a voice altogether unrivalled in force, clearness and abandon of execution. Nothing could exceed her delivery of the trio in the finale of the first Act, or the alternate energy and delicacy with which she gave the duo in the second "Si fino all'ore estreme", in both she was most satisfactorily supported by the seconda donna ...Now let us look at what the April 18, 1836 issue of The Times of London has to say about this performance:
Bellini's tragic opera of Norma was performed Saturday evening. The public is familiar with the great power displayed by Grisi in the representati of the principal character, which is the more striking from the close comparison with her Ninetta, in La gazza ladra, the opposite extreme of style. Yet she excels in both so wonderfully, that it requires a nice judgement to which of them the preference ought to be given. It would resolve itself, after all into a judgement of the music or the or the character, not of the performer, so closely does she identify herself with both. The music of Rossini is far better than that of Bellini, and the character of Ninetta dramatically more agreeable than than of Norma. It would be correct to say, therefore, that we prefer one to the other but not that Grisi displays greater talent in either. From her magnificent opening,. the invocation to the moon, the "Casta Diva" in the fourth scene, to the finale of the second act, in which she ascends the fatal pile, she bore up the composition as if it were by her own efforts, if efforts they could be called which evidently cost her nothing, and in some of the more striking passages communicated an effect on the audience almost electrical. One instance which occurred in the first scene where an ordinary performer would have thrown in a mere roulade, or flourish, but where Grisi merely sustained a long note diminished from her utmost force to its finest point, was one of the greatest refinements in her art ever exhibited. The simplicity and purity of the effect amounted almost to the sublime. It is needless to say, after this that her reception was of the most distinguished kind.Grisi was to sing Norma again in London in the 1837, '38, ‘39, '41, '43, '44, '45 and '46 seasons, and actually made her re-entry in that role in two of these seasons 18 . In 1846, the Musical World was just as warm about her Norma as it had been previously:
On Tuesday, Norma was performed for the first time. Her Majesty and the Prince were present. The music of Bellini, like that of.Donizetti, though pale by the side of the dashing Rossini, is perfectly refreshing after the stale insipidities and heavy common-places of "young Verdi". We felt this in the Sonnambula, an opera profuse of melody and grace, albeit somewhat monotonous in character; felt it again in Norma, which, though scarcely as melodious as La sonnambula, is higher in attempt and involves many bursts of true passion; witness the trio in the last act, the melancholy opening of which is so delicious, and the climax so exciting. Grisi surpassed herself. She was beautiful, sublime, even terrible. No Siddons ever exceeded the dignity and passion of the last act. No Malibran ever went beyond the heart-rending pathos with which she sang the agitato in the mirror, when on her knees before Oroveso. No Rachel ever excelled the withering contempt which she threw into her acting in the duet with her profligate betrayer. The whole conception and execution of the part was perfection.It was not until 1847 that she had a serious challenger in a role that had been her own for so many years. The challenge came from none less than Jenny Lind, and while it was easily shunted aside by Grisi, it does provide an opportunity to examine her conception of Norma more closely, and would provide further evidence that, in this role at least she was anything but an imitator of her predecessors, except that this review is too long to be quoted here. However, this review of Grisi's 1847 Norma, originally published in the Musical World, is also available in Donizetti Society Journal 4. 19
"A more cruel method of treatment than that resorted to towards that lady has rarely been adopted. The fact was that Grisi had been influenced by a sudden fit of jealousy and fear lest Malibran's only sister should achieve a success. Mario was to have been the lover; but at the last moment that wretched "stick" who answered to the name of Flavio, was thrust into the part, as if on purpose to mar everything by means of his incompetency. When the time came for Madame Viardot to dress, nothing was ready for her, and each of the costumes she had to wear was actually pinned upon her by the dresser allotted to her. It was no wonder that the audience was cold throughout the performance. Disappointed at the absence of Mario, and feeling that an insult had been offered to themselves, rather than to the lady who had been placed in so trying a position, they seemed inclined to vent their mortification upon her, and nearly. accomplished that which, without doubt, was intended to be of set purpose-a dead failure. Again and again Madame Viardot rose to the occasion, especially in the chamber-scene, and moved the icy coldness of the house into something akin to warmth; but she bided her time, and when the moment came for the finale to be sung, "went in" with such pluck and determination "to win", that she produced a furore that never before had been witnessed in the new Covent Garden Opera-house entirely defeating her opponents, but not thereby rendering them less malicious or vindictive. From that moment a spirit of rivalry was introduced into the new venture, out of which disastrous consequences afterwards arose; nor was Grisi satisfied until she had appropriated nearly all Mdme. Viardot's parts, in not one of which did she come within "a shadow of a shade" of the excellence of a lady, who was only her inferior with respect to voice, but who, as an artiste and a genius, towered above the more popular favourite with transcendent superiority..We will never know for sure whether or not Mario was really ill that night. The rumours of his faking it were widely circulated, and rigorously denied in the press. But we do know that Cox's claim to the effect that Grisi appropriated nearly all of Viardot's parts at Covent Garden was a gross exaggeration, which casts doubt on many of the negative comments that Cox had made about her 21 . This point can be clearly made by examining Viardot's repertory in London, and seeing how many of these roles were "appropriated" by Grisi: In her debut season (1848), Viardot sang La Sonnambula, Bellini's Romeo, Donna Anna (which Grisi had already sung that year, and which both sang from time to time afterwards) Valentine, and an unidentified role in La prova d'un opera seria. In 1849 she added Fides, then, in 1850, Adina and , in 1851 she sang Papagena and Gounod's Sapho, which Viardot had created earlier in Paris. She did not return in 1852 or 1853, so Grisi sang Fides in the first of these two seasons. In 1854 she added Desdemona, while in 1855 she added Rosina and Azucena. Covent Garden was closed due to a fire in 1856 and 1857. Viardot did not return until years later, while Grisi left at the end of the 1861 season. Of all these parts, the only ones which Viardot's adherents could claim Grisi "appropriated" were Valentine and Fides, a far cry from Cox's claim of "nearly all" of her parts. Both of these were first sung by Grisi when Viardot was engaged elsewhere, which makes one wonder whether Viardot was so little of a team player that she expected operas to be dropped when she was not present to sing roles that she evidently considered her private property. If either of these two prima donnas had an attitude problem, it would seem to me that it was Viardot rather than Grisi, which makes it difficult for me to understand why Cox would go out of his way to take her side. Still, that is exactly what he did, doing untold harm to the reputation of a great singer, since his book on opera in mid-nineteenth century London has served as one of the prime reference works on the period for later writers.