The Rival Queens

Rival Queens

★★★★

(24 April 2019, St John’s Smith Square; part of the London Handel Festival)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two women who work together can’t possibly be friends. In fact, they’re bound to be bitter rivals. Probably over a man. This is the story of two such women: Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, brilliant sopranos who starred in Handel’s operas during the years 1723-1728. They became notorious for the supposed feud between them, although recent research suggests that the fault lay with their passionate partisans, who thought nothing of hissing and catcalling when the ‘other’ was singing. Over the years, attention has been diverted from these two ladies as singers (rather than as rivals), and this London Handel Festival concert, with the Early Opera Company directed by Christian Curnyn, redressed the balance. With readings from the 18th-century press performed by the excellent Lindsey Duncan, and arias written for Cuzzoni and Bordoni sung by Mary Bevan and Mhairi Lawson, we were invited to get up close and personal with these queens regnant of the Handelian stage.

Take a look at the print I’ve used to illustrate this entry. Two women wrangle in an ungainly fashion over a man: the castrato Senesino, who has returned to London after an absence singing on the Continent. He’s been accosted by Cuzzoni and Faustina, one tugging on his arm, the other leaning forward ingratiatingly. The inscription on the print helpfully tells us that both are ‘contending for this Charming DemiMan’. It’s true that Cuzzoni and Faustina were usually cast as romantic rivals on the stage, because a Baroque opera without a love triangle is a rare thing – and Handel played up to that. But it’s bizarre to think that such rivalry extended into their personal lives.

Cuzzoni arrived first, making her debut in London on 12 January 1723 in Handel’s Ottone. She enjoyed her role as (solo) prima donna for three years, creating such roles as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare on 20 February 1724, and the eponymous Rodelinda in February 1725. Much later, her admirer Giovanni Battista Mancini tried to describe the appeal of her voice. In a piece effulgent with praise, he notes her extraordinary ‘facility’ and that ‘her trill was perfect’. She was clearly an expressive and technically gifted singer, although some critics found it hard to get over the fact that her physical beauty failed to match their expectations. In the Universal Journal on 8 August 1724, one snide writer observed that, until seeing Madame Cuzzoni, he’d never understood the old saying that music was founded on disharmony, but now he did: the disconnect between her vocal beauty and facial plainness made him think she was ‘of Lucifer’s apostate train… who did her angelic voice retain’. Swine. 

Mary Bevan

Mary Bevan. Photo: Victoria Cadisch

Then came Faustina Bordoni, who had already distinguished herself in Vienna and Italy. She was so famous that, like Madonna, she was known simply by her first name. Some critics in the London press sniped at the ghastly sums being lavished on these overpaid songbirds, but Faustina brought a slightly different skill-set to Cuzzoni. The composer Johann Quantz described her ‘canta granita’ – that is, her crisp and articulate enunciation – and observed that she was ‘born for acting and singing’. She made her debut on 5 May 1726 in Handel’s Alessandro, written especially to accommodate two strong female roles, and described rather ungraciously by Owen Swiny as ‘the weakest Handel ever made yet’. (I’m not sure how we can trust the word of a man who’d worked with Handel as impresario when the German first arrived in London, only to become bankrupt in 1713 and to flee the country with all the proceeds of the theatre.) Besides, I’ve seen Alessandro and it’s rather fun. But it did start that trend of Cuzzoni and Faustina being perceived as rivals off-stage as well as on. Interestingly, they had worked together in Venice some years earlier, with no hint of trouble, so one begins to suspect this is a case of the British press gleefully fanning a non-existent spark into a roaring blaze.

All three – the ladies and Senesino – were powerful personalities and evoked strong feelings among their fans. And it was those fans who were the problem, as Lord Hervey wearily related to his friend Stephen Fox in a letter of 13 June 1727. He’d spent a very boring season in which all the talk was either of one diva or the other, with each camp committed to the unassailable superiority of their idol. ‘The whole world is gone mad,’ he reported, and claimed that Senesino was offended by the lack of catcalls made at him, as if this somehow reflected his lesser significance. Yes, there was bad behaviour, but only in the audience; not that the gutter press paid attention to tiny details like truth. A gleeful pamphlet was published in June 1727 titled ‘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‘. This satirical account of tempestuous, egotistical Italians has done much to colour later accounts of both singers.

Mhairi Lawson

Mhairi Lawson

In such a situation, it was very hard not to start directly comparing the voices of the two singers who were ’embodying’ Cuzzoni and Faustina for us. The striking thing was that, just like Cuzzoni and Faustina, their voices and strengths complemented one another. Bevan perfectly represented the emotional, ‘pathetic’ quality of Cuzzoni’s singing, as described by Tosi in 1723 in his ‘Art of the Florid Song’, while Lawson captured the ‘allegro’ of Faustina’s charming lightness. Either through judicious selection for this concert, or Handel’s care in apportioning the original arias, these qualities came to the fore throughout the evening. Bevan performed Cleopatra’s Che sento? … Se pietà di me non senti with heartbreaking raw intensity, using her voice to draw out all the dramatic potential of the aria. With a warm, spicy undercurrent to her soprano, she was equally capable of ringing power, as we heard in her performance of Che tirannia d’Amor, Cuzzoni’s aria from Alessandro. Lawson, for her part, was better at lighter, more bubbling arias, such as ‘Lusinghe più care‘, Faustina’s piece from Alessandro, with quick coloratura and crisp switching between notes. She didn’t have the same expressive force or power as Bevan, but experience gave her the ability to tackle that tight ornamentation with slightly more success, whereas Bevan’s richer voice wasn’t always quite as precise. The result – rather like Cuzzoni and Faustina, I suspect – was that we had two excellent sopranos who, if blended together, would make one nonpareil.

For me, though, the star of the evening was Lindsey Duncan. I love HBO’s Rome, in which she played Servilia, and was very excited to see her in the flesh. Her voice is extremely beautiful: smooth, measured and mellifluous; and she has fantastic comic timing. She was at her best when reading out some of the bitchier letters and critiques of our two singers, always in absolutely deadpan tones. Whoever engaged her should be applauded. She was absolutely perfect and, moreover, startlingly modest, standing off to the side of the final bow as though she didn’t really deserve applause for being the narrator. But it was she who brought this disparate collection of arias together, and who gave the concert its heart. (I long to hear her do Shakespeare.) Please let’s have more concerts like this, which give context to the arias and the singers who first sang them – even if – especially if – that context is the stuff of scurrilous 18th-century gossip-columns!

Find out more about the London Handel Festival

Lindsey Duncan

Lindsey Duncan in a still from The Honourable Woman (2014)

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