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- Chapters of Opera - 10/70 -

have been extravagant. One critic, "balancing her beauties against her defects," pronounced her the best operatic singer that the writer had yet heard on this side of the Atlantic. This remark leads Mr. White to surmise that the critic had not been five years in America, for, says he, Signora Borghese was not worthy to tie the shoes of Malibran, Pedrotti, Fanti, Garadori, or Mrs. Wood, the last two of whom had sung in English opera. Her chief defect seems to have been the tremolo--that vice toward which the American critics of to-day are more intolerant than those of any other people, as they are toward the sister vice of a faulty intonation. Mr. White talks sensibly on the subject in his estimate of Borghese.

She had a fine voice, although not a great one; her vocalization, regarded from a merely musical point of view, was of the corresponding grade, but as stage vocalization it had great power and deserved higher commendation. Her musical declamation was always effective and musico-rhetorically in good taste. She had a fine person, an expressive face, and much grace of manner. One might be content never to hear a better prima donna if one were secured against never hearing a worse. In her was first remarked here, among vocalists of distinction, that trembling of the voice when it is pressed in a crescendo, which has since become so common as greatly to mar our enjoyment of vocal music. This great fault, unknown before the appearance of Verdi, is attributed by some musical critics to the influence of his vociferous and strident style. It may be so; but that which follows is not always a consequence of that after which it comes. Certain it is, however, that from this time forward very few of the principal singers who have been heard in New York--only the very greatest and those whose style was formed before Verdi domineered the Italian lyric stage--were without this tremble. Grisi, Mario, Sontag, Jenny Lind, Alboni, and Salvi were entirely without it; their voices came from the chest pure, free and firm.

I can scarcely believe that the distressful vocal wabble either came in with Verdi's music or was greatly promoted by it. In the lofty quality of style Mme. Sembrich is the most perfect exemplar whom it is the privilege of New Yorkers to hear to-day; and she is the best singer we have of Verdi's music. Did anyone ever hear a tone come out of her throat that was not pure, free, and firm? Frequently the tremolo is an affectation like the excessive vibrato of a sentimental fiddler; sometimes it is the product of weakness due to abuse of the vocal organ. In all cases it is the sign of bad taste or vicious training, or both, and is an abomination. On the opera stage to-day Italian prima donnas are most afflicted with it. In turn Verdi, Meyerbeer, and Wagner have been accused of having caused it, but anyone who has listened intelligently to the opera singers of the last forty years will testify with me that the truly great singers of their music have been as free from the vicious habit as have been those whose artistic horizons have been confined by the music of Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti.

The tenor of the Palmo company was Antognini, who effected his entrance on the American stage five weeks after the opening of the season. In the opinion of Mr. White, he was the greatest tenor ever heard here, not excepting Mario and Salvi, and Mr. White's opinion is so judiciously expressed that one is fain to give it credence. Whether or not it can be extended over the period which he has covered, which is that reaching from the last days of the Academy of Music, when Campanini was still in his vocal prime but had not developed the dramatic powers which he put into play with the decay of his voice, I shall not undertake to say; taste in tenor voices has changed within the last generation in favor of the robust quality so magnificently exemplified in Signor Caruso. To judge from Mr. White's description Antognini, as a singer merely, was a Bonci of a manlier mould. His fame seems to have died with those who heard him, and perhaps this is a good reason for reprinting what Mr. White said about him in full:

He (Antognini) was an artist of the first class, both by natural gifts and by culture. His voice, although not of notable compass, was an absolute tenor of a delicious quality and great power. His vocalization was unexceptionably pure, and his style was manly and noble. As a dramatic singer I never heard his equal except Ronconi; as an actor, I never saw his equal, except Ronconi, Rachel, and Salvini. He had in perfection that power which Hamlet speaks of in his soliloquy, after he dismisses the players, when the speech about Pyrrhus is ended:

Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion Could force his soul so to his own conceit That from her working all his visage wann'd; Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms to his conceit!

I have seen the blood fade not only from Antognini's cheeks, but from his very lips, as he strode slowly forward to interrupt the nuptials in "Lucia di Lammermoor," and then flame back again as he broke into defiance of his foes. The inflections of his voice in passages of tenderness were ravishing, and his utterance of anger and despair was terrible. Nor was any tenor that has been heard here, not even Mario in his prime, his superior in that great test of fine vocalization, a sustained cantabile passage. He was one of those blond Italians who are found on the northern border of the peninsula. Being all this he nevertheless soon disappeared, and was forgotten except by a few of the most exacting and cultivated among his hearers; the reason of which was that his voice could not be depended upon for two nights together--not, indeed, for one alone. On Monday he would thrill the house; on Wednesday he would go about the stage depressed, almost silent, huskily making mouths at his fellow actors and the audience. His voice would even desert him in the middle of an evening, thus producing an impression that he was trifling with his audience. No judgment could have been more unjust, for he was a conscientious artist, but the effect of this defect, as Polonius might say, was therefore no less disastrous, and he soon gave place to artists less admirable but more to be relied upon.

In this season there appeared a prima donna of the French school in the person of Laura Cinthe Montalant, known in the annals of opera as Cinti-Damoreau, who had come to America to sing in concerts with Artôt, the violinist. In the eyes of Fétis she was one of the greatest singers the world had known. Damoreau was the name of her husband, an unsuccessful French actor. When she came to America she had made her career in Paris and London, a great triumph coming to her in the French capital, where Rossini composed the principal female rôles in "Le Siège de Corinth" and "Moïse," and Auber those in "Domino Noir," "L'Ambassadrice," and "Zanetta."

[Repertory of the first season at Palmo's Opera House: "I Puritani" (Bellini), "Belisario" (Donizetti), "Beatrice di Tenda" (Bellini), "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" (Rossini), "La Sonnambula" (Bellini), "L'Elisir d'Amore" (Donizetti), "L'Italiani in Algeria" (Rossini). Repertory of the second season, 1844-1845: "Lucia di Lammermoor" (Donizetti), "II Pirata" (Bellini), "Chiara de Rosemberg" (Luigi Ricci), "Lucrezia Borgia" (Donizetti), "Belisario" (Donizetti), "La Cenerentola" (Rossini), "Semiramide" (Rossini).]

It is not surprising that ill fortune became the companion of Palmo at the outset of his enterprise and dragged him down to the lowest depths before the end of his second season (according to the calendar).

The first season ran its course and a second one began in November, 1844. Amidst the usual vicissitudes it continued until January 25, 1845. On this momentous date Borghese was before the footlights and about to open her mouth in song when suddenly the orchestra ceased playing. Not a soft complaining note from the flute, not a whimper from the fiddles. Borghese raved and Palmo came upon the stage to learn the cause of the direful silence. A colloquy with the musicians, if not exactly in these words, was to this effect:

"What's the meaning of this? Is it a strike? Why?"

"No pay."

"I'll pay you to-morrow."

"To-night's the time"--the musicians packing up their instruments.

Palmo rushed to the box office to get the night's receipts. Alas! they were already in the hands of the deputy sheriff. Another opera manager had gone down into the vortex which had swallowed up Ebers, and Taylor, and Delafield, and others of their tribe in London, and Montressor and Rivafinoli in New York. Palmo, it is said, had literally to return to his pots and kettles; after serving as cook and barkeeper in the hotels of others the once enterprising manager of the Café of a Thousand Columns became a dependent upon the charity of his friends. There was another season of opera at Palmo's, among the managers of which were Sanquirico, a buffo singer, Salvatore Patti, and an Italian named Pogliagno. In the company were Catarina Barili and her two children, Clotilde and Antonio. Patti was a tenor singer. He was the husband of the prima donna, Catarina Barili, who was looked upon as a fine representative of the old school of singing, and from the pair sprang Carlotta and Adelina, who gave a luster to the name of Patti which the father would never have given it by his exertions as singer and manager. Both were born before their parents came to New York; Carlotta in Florence, in 1840, and Adelina in Madrid, in 1843. The childhood and youth of both were spent in New York, and here both received their musical training. Their artistic history belongs to the world, and since I am, with difficulty, trying just now to talk more about opera houses and those who built them to their own ruin, than about those who sang in them, I will not pursue it. The summer of 1847 saw Palmo's little opera house deserted. In 1848 it became Burton's Theater, where, as Mr. White observes, that most humorous of comedians made for himself in a few years a handsome fortune.

Who shall deny that Signor Palmo, though his fortunes went down in disaster, made a valuable contribution to that movement--which must still be looked upon as in an experimental stage--which has for its aim the permanent establishment of opera in the United States? Experimental in its nature the movement must remain until the vernacular becomes the language of the performances and native talent provides both works and interpreters. The day is still far distant, but it will come. The opera of Germany was still Italian more than a century and a half after the invention of the art form, though in the meanwhile the country had produced a Bach and a Handel. The Palmo venture (at the bottom of which there seems to have been a desire to popularize or democratize a form of entertainment which has ever been the possession of wealth and fashion) revived the social sentiment upon which Da Ponte had built his hopes. In the opinion of the upper classes's it was not Italian opera that had succumbed, but only the building which housed it. This certainly presented an aspect of incongruity. Fine talent came from England for the English companies, whose career continued without interruption, and the moment which saw the downfall of Palmo's enterprise saw also the influx of a company of Italian artists under the management of Don Francesco Marty y Torrens, of Havana, who deserves to be kept in the minds of opera lovers which go back to the days of the Academy of Music, if for no other reason than that he brought Signor Arditi to New York--the hawk-billed conductor whose shining pate used to

Chapters of Opera - 10/70

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