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Giuseppina Grassini in the title role of Peter von Winter's Zaïra (1804)

Giuseppina Maria Camilla (also Josephina) Grassini (b. April 18, 1773 in Varese, Italy – January 3, 1850 in Milan) was a noted Italian contralto, and a singing teacher. She was also one of Napoleon lovers as well as lover to the Duke of Wellington.

Contents

Biography

After growing up under the musical guidance of her mother, an amateur violinist, and Domenico Zucchinetti in Varese, and Antonio Secchi in Milan, Grassini made her stage début in 1789 in Parma singing in Guglielmi’s La pastorella nobile, and the following year at Milan’s La Scala in three opere buffe among which included Guglielmi’s La bella pescatrice. These first comic performances were not a great success, and Grassini was driven to resume the study of singing and to turn to drama.

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Beginnings and career apex

From 1792 she went fully back to being on stage in the theatres of Vicenza, Venice, Milan again, Naples and Ferrara. She sang in, among others, in first performances of Zingarelli’s Artaserse, of Portugal’s Demofoonte, of Mayr’s Apelle e Camaspe and Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso, of Cimarosa’s Artemisia regina di Caria and of Nasolini’s La morte di Semiramide, as well as in Bertoni’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Her year of glory, however, was 1796 , when she created two roles which would remain in repertoire for some decades and now famous, in both cases by the side of the sopranista Girolamo Crescentini, who was also Grassini's master and whose teachings she would faithfully follow throughout her life. Nicola Zingarelli wrote the part of Giulietta for her in his opera Giulietta e Romeo, staged at Milan’s La Scala on January 30, while Domenico Cimarosa composed the role of Horatia (Orazia) in Gli Orazi e i Curiazi, staged instead in northern Italy’s second greater theatre, Venice’s La Fenice, on December 26. In that same year, Grassini took part moreover in a third première of Gaetano Marinelli's Issipile, which was by no means as successful as the others.

Napoleonic period and retirement

On June 4, 1800, shortly before Marengo’s victory, at Milan’s La Scala, while interpreting Andreozzi’s La vergine del sole, Grassini who was, by this time, already well known for her unruly love affairs made a strong hit with Napoleon Bonaparte, who enrolled her among his lovers and brought her to Paris[1], where she sang in several concerts. Grassini’s relationship with the First Consul was probably not convenient, but it was a sign of her modern, free attitude, so that, when she in the meanwhile took a liking to the violinist Pierre Rode, she did not hesitate to embark upon a new love affair with him, practically under the future Emperor of the French’s nose, and to quit Paris for a 1801 concert tour in Holland and Germany, to return finally to Italy.

Grassini, in the years 1804 and 1805, was in London, where, at the King's Theatre, sang in some revivals of Andreozzi’s La vergine del sole, Nasolini’s La morte di Cleopatra and Fioravanti’s Camilla, as well as in the premières of von Winter’s Il ratto di Proserpina and Zaira. In “Il ratto” there appeared Elizabeth Billington, too, and the two prima-donnas confronted each other in a singing contest whence the Italian singer came out as the triumphant winner.

In 1806 Grassini returned to Paris together with her former master Crescentini, where she was appointed first chamber virtuosa of Emperor Napoleon. At the Tuileries Palace Grassini was on stage as the protagonist in the première of Paër’s La Didone and in Cherubini’s Pimmalione. After settling in Rome during Napoleon’s exile at the Isle of Elba, she went back to Paris during the Hundred Days. Having stayed there after the Restoration, she had become the lover of Wellington, too, at that time appointed British ambassador in France, but was soon forced to leave the French territory because of Louis XVIII’s unwillingness to tolerate the former lover of Napoleon’s great popularity.[2]

After a further stay in London, where she had been engaged by the Haymarket Theatre, and where she took part to the première of Pucitta’s Aristodemo, she got eventually back to Italy and there she carried on her singing activity in operatic theatres: she sang in Brescia, Padua, Trieste, Florence and, in 1817, again at La Scala, without, anyway, scoring such great successes as she was previously used to. She retired from the stage in 1823 and definitively settled in Milan, giving herself up also to teaching, among other pupils, Giuditta Pasta and her own nieces Giulia and Giuditta Grisi. She died at the ripe old age of 76 in 1850.

Artistic style

Although critics were as usual at variance, Giuseppina Grassini is undoubtedly among the greatest singers on stage between the 18th and 19th centuries. Commonly classed as a contralto, Grassini sang, in fact, in tessiture which would later be ascribed to mezzo-sopranos [3] and had a rather narrow vocal range. She could however rely upon a voice of great power and volume and, at the same time, of considerable pliability, to which she could add excellent interpretative capability and, moreover, extraordinary physical beauty which made her, besides an object of so many love affairs, the ideal model for many coeval painters, including Andrea Appiani. Faithful to her "old" [4] master and partner Crescentini's musical ideals, Grassini would always stand by the side of such singers as the castrato Gaspare Pacchiarotti, the tenors Matteo Babini, Giovanni Ansani and Giacomo David, the prima-donnas Brigida Banti and Luísa Todi de Agujar), who opposed the second half of the 18th century’s belcanto drift, with its break-neck run after above high notes and after an aimlessly pyrotechnic, inexpressive, and therefore absurd, coloratura, and who endeavoured, instead, to recover “the passion and vigour” that had permeated the golden season of singing in the first half of the century. A qualified party of leading singers that contributed, thus, to lay the basis of a new artistic trend which was to evolve, within a short while, into “the Rossini grand finale” [5] of a whole musical era. Being the youngest of all the mentioned singers, Grassini could herself play the role of aliving link between them and the following generation.[6] As acute as usual when writing about opera, Stendhal chanced to observe, apropos of his favourite singer of the new generation, Giuditta Pasta: she

“is too young for being likely to have seen on stage Todi, Pacchierotti, Marchesi, Crescentini; she has never had the chance of listening to them on the piano; still, the melomanes that heard them say she sounds like a pupil of theirs. As for singing, she is indebted to nobody but Mrs. Grassini, who she sang with during a season in Brescia” [7]

and by whose side, Stendhal could have added, she has been an ideal Curiatius [8] in many a revival of Cimarosa’s opera.

Main roles created

The list below although not exhaustive is representative of Grassini’ Italian career.

role opera genre composer theatre première’s date
Polissena Pirro opera seria-pasticcio (dramma per musica, 2nd version) Francesco Gardi, Francesco Bianchi, Sebastiano Nasolini and Nicola Antonio Zingarelli, Venice, Teatro (Venier) San Benedetto 8 May 1793
Giulietta Giulietta e Romeo tragedia per musica (opera seria) Nicola Antonio Zingarelli Milan, Teatro alla Scala 30 January 1796
Issipile L'Issipile dramma per musica (opera seria) Gaetano Marinelli Venice, Teatro alla Fenice 12 November 1796
Orazia Gli Orazi e i Curiazi tragedia per musica (1st version) Domenico Cimarosa Venice, Teatro alla Fenice 26 December 1796
Calipso Telemaco nell'isola di Calipso dramma per musica Giovanni Simone Mayr Venice, Teatro Sant'Angelo 16 January 1797
Artemisia Artemisia regina di Caria dramma serio per musica Domenico Cimarosa Naples, Real Teatro San Carlo 12 June 1797
=== Consalvo di Cordova opera seria Giuseppe Maria Curcio (Curci) Naples, Real Teatro San Carlo 13 August 1797
Alceste Alceste tragedia per musica Marcos Antônio Portugal Venice, Teatro alla Fenice 26 December 1798
mother Chant national du 14 juillet 1800 operatic-patriotic hymn-scene Étienne-Nicolas Méhul Paris, Hôtel des Invalides (Temple de Mars) 14 July 1800
Venere Pimmalione dramma lirico Luigi Cherubini Paris, Théâtre des Tuileries 30 November 1809

Sources

  • Max Gallo, Napoléon, Paris, Edition Robert Laffont, 1997, ISBN 2-221-09796-3 (quoted from the Italian translation, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Biblioteca Storica del quotidiano Il Giornale)
  • André Gavoty, La Grassini, Paris, 1947
  • Rodolfo Celletti, Storia del belcanto, Discanto Edizioni, Fiesole, 1983
  • Salvatore Caruselli (ed), Grande enciclopedia della musica lirica, vol 4, Longanesi &C. Periodici S.p.A., Roma
  • Sadie,Stanley (ed), The new Grove Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, 1992, vol 4, ad nomen
  • Giovanni Morelli, “«E voi pupille tenere», uno sguardo furtivo, errante, agli «Orazi» di Domenico Cimarosa e altri”, essay included in Teatro dell’Opera’s Programme for the performances of Gli Orazi e i Curiazi, Rome, 1989.
  • Stendhal, Vie de Rossini (quoted from the Italian translation: Vita di Rossini, Passigli Editori, ISBN 368-0013-0)
  • This article is a substantial translation from Giuseppina Grassini in the Italian Wikipedia.

Notes

  1. ^ Gallo, M, op cit, p 273)
  2. ^ Gavoty, A., op cit
  3. ^ Caruselli, S. (ed.), op cit, I, p 296, III, p 818 .
  4. ^ Crescentini was, in actual fact, only seven years older than Grassini, but, considering castrati's extremely precocious training, the virtual difference of age can be regarded as wider.
  5. ^ Rodolfo Celletti, op cit, p 112.
  6. ^ Quite a like role was also played by Giacomo David, not surely owing, in his case, to his younger age, but to his exceptionally long career and to his teaching activity.
  7. ^ Stendhal., op cit, chap XXXV, p 258
  8. ^[curiazzeggiò] più volte con lei ” (that is: “she Curiatiused several times with her”), jests Morelli in his mentioned essay (p 27)

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