Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: When Opera Singers Misbehave

Francesca Cuzzoni
Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778)

On June 7, 1727 – 294 years ago today – a long-running feud between the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni broke out into open warfare – a screaming, hair-pulling, dress-ripping physical altercation on stage, in London – during a performance of Giovanni Bonancini’s opera Astianatte (of 1725). After pulling the “ladies” apart and dragging them from the stage, not only was the remainder of the performance cancelled but the remainder of George Frederick Handel’s Royal Academy of Music opera season as well!

(FYI: Sources are in disagreement as to whether this brouhaha took place on Tuesday, June 6 or Wednesday, June 7, 1727. Obviously, I’ve chosen to run with the latter date.)

Here’s what happened.

The Italian operatic soprano Francesca Cuzzoni was born in Parma on April 2, 1696, and died on June 19, 1778 in Bologna. In 1718, at the age of 22, she made her Venetian operatic debut: the equivalent today of making a La Scala or Metropolitan Opera debut. 

By 1723 – the year she made her London debut – Cuzzoni was one of the most celebrated singers in all of Europe. Then as now, star singers ruled the operatic roost, and London’s greatest opera impresario – none-other-than George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) – wanted her as his prima donna. Her arrival in London was anticipated with great excitement; on October 27, 1722, the London Journal reported that:

“Mrs. Cotsona [sic], an extraordinary Italian Lady, is expected daily.”

Perhaps even more “extraordinary” than Cuzzoni’s voice was her rotten temper (euphemistically called “fiery” in the literature) and epically bad attitude (which, to coin a word, we will now refer to as “divatude”). … continue reading, only on Patreon!

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