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Cuzzoni and Handel

When picking my repertoire for my lunchtime recital, I didn’t exactly try to come up with a creative theme. I made a list of arias I was interested in doing, and hoped that the keys related enough that the transitions between each aria wasn’t too awkward. As time was approaching, I was told that I needed to give short spoken introductions before each set. As I was doing more research on each piece and gathering some ‘fun facts’, I noticed that I inadvertently created a programme that was a quasi-homage to Francesca Cuzzoni, a soprano who created about 10 roles for Handel.

Francesca Cuzzoni was born in Parma, Italy on the 2nd of April, 1696. She made her operatic debut in 1714 and quickly garnered great success performing all through Italy. She moved to London in 1722 where she was to sing the main soprano role in Handel’s new opera Ottone. Her arrival was greatly anticipated and she was hailed as the best virtuosic singer of her age. Upon rehearsing the role of Teofane in Ottone, Cuzzoni was horrified by one of Teofane’s arias ‘Falsa immagine’; although it was incredibly beautiful, it was very exposed with only basso continuo accompanying the voice. When she saw the music, she flatly refused to sing it. What ensued has become quite a famous story in portraying Handel’s temperament. His biographer John Mainwaring wrote that upon her refusal to sing the aria Handel spat “’Oh! I know well that you are a veritable she-devil but I hereby give you notice, me, that I am Beelzebub, the Chief of Devils.’ With this, he took her up by the waist, and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window.”

Cuzzoni was a member of Handel’s Royal Academy of Music from 1719 until it’s end. She continued to create many roles for Handel, including Rodelinda and Cleopatra. According to the English music historian Charles Burney, Cuzzoni’s success could be seen in the rise in ticket prices of her performances. What used to be a ticket price of half-guinnea, by the end of the run of Ottone ticket prices were four guinneas. As she garnered more success, her salary raised to £2000 a season. Burney continued to say that despite her vocal prowess, her appearance left much to be desired: She was "short and squat, with a doughy cross face, but fine complexion; ... not a good actress; dressed ill; and was silly and fantastical."

Giovanni Battista Mancini wrote of her voice:

"It is difficult to decide whether she excels more in slow or in rapid airs. A "native warble" enabled her to execute divisions with such facility as to conceal their difficulty. So grateful and touching was her natural tone that she rendered pathetic whatever she sang, when she had the opportunity to unfold the whole volume of her voice. Her power of conducting, sustaining, increasing, and diminishing her notes by minute degrees acquired for her the credit of being a complete mistress of her art. Her trill was perfect: she had a creative fancy, and a command of tempo rubato. Her high notes were unrivaled in clearness and sweetness, and her intonation was so absolutely true that she seemed incapable of singing out of tune. She had a compass of two octaves, C to C in alt. Her style was unaffected, simple, and sympathetic."

Pier Leone Ghezzi [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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