Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A mysterious prima donna

I’ve just walked in after a morning trek to Mont à l’Abbé Cemetery, St Helier. And I’m a happy man, for there – with a little bit of help from my friends -- I put the finishing touch to the solving of a ‘Victorian Vocalist’ mystery that no-one else has ever succeeded in unravelling.
I should save this story of ‘teckery’, I suppose, for the book. For my forthcoming encyclopaedia of 19th century singers. But it’s such good fun, that I’m going to spill it while it’s hot.
Once upon a time, 1853 to be exact, a new young singer burst upon the London concert scene. Her name, she said, was Giulia Amadei, she was ‘prima donna contralto of La Scala, Milan’ and she was such an impressive performer (and such a very large lady) that the press immediately offered comparisons with the great (and large) Marietta Alboni. Madame Amadei remained a much appreciated feature of the British musical scene for half a dozen seasons but, at the end of the 1850s, she vanished, without comment, never to be heard of again.
Where did she go? But that was only half the puzzle. The other half was ‘where did she come from?’ Who was this lady, whose name was not Giulia nor Amadei, who had never sung at La Scala and, for all that the press slyly confided that she was not Italian but English, actually wasn’t English either! I needed to know, but where do you start looking when simply everything that might be a clue is a fib?
My first-found fact came in the shape of a clipping from a Jersey paper of 1861. There was Madame, two years after her disappearance from London, singing in a concert in St Helier! 1861? I hastened to that year’s census, turned up ‘Jersey’ and there she was, living at 20 David Place, Isabella J Amadei, born Rome, with a 12 year-old son named Thomas Fry, born Sussex.
Well, some of that was true. The Mrs Isabella Fry bit was true. But how to know that? And to know the rest wasn’t?
I hastened to the Free BDM website, and dug around for any Isabella marrying any Mr Fry around the right date. There wasn’t one. Dead end. And so, for many months, my quest stalled, until this week, when I arrived in Jersey. I hastened to the library and scoured the Jersey directories of the 1860s. There she was: ‘Madame Amadei, teacher of singing’ in 1863, 1864 … and then no more. So had she died? Remarried? Left the island? On to the splendid Jersey Archive for an afternoon of digging. Starting with a quick check of the death registers for 1864. I had my answer in five minutes: died, St Helier, Giulia Isabella Smith Fry. And someone had inked in Amadei between the Smith and the Fry.

I was packing up triumphantly to leave when I noticed the cemetery records on a shelf, and – as one does – automatically and idly turned up F for Fry: and there was the record of the purchase by Mr George Fry of a numbered burial plot for his wife!
So that is how and why this morning, after breakfast, I hit the road towards the pretty hilltop cemetery on the other side of town. The Parks Department man who was mowing the grass joined me enthusiastically in my gravestone hunt and, when we got nowhere, picked up his mobile phone and telephoned cemetery HQ in town. Ten minutes later a man from HQ drove up with a map, and together the three of us tracked down plot 201. Alas, the stone thereupon was so weathered that, even using Braille, it was impossible to read more of the inscription than the ‘In’ of ‘In memoriam’. So no date of death for my encyclopaedia.
But I was on a roll. On the way back, I popped into the Jersey Registrar’s Office to see if could lay hands on a death certificate, and within two minutes I held in my hands not a certificate but the original register in which is inscribed the death at 26 Midvale Rd, St Helier, on 13 February 1864 of Mrs Giulia Isabella Smith Amadei Fry, nee Lamonte, wife of Dr George Fry MRCS, at the age of 34.
Well, some of that was true.
Isabella Hume Fry, born Lamont in Edinburgh, Scotland, and married there to her doctor (which was why I couldn’t find her in the English records!) was actually 37. But, hey, what’s one more fib amongst so many?
So, give or take the Smith bit, ‘Madame Giulia Amadei’ is no longer a mystery – thanks to one little concert review in an ancient paper, a bit of intuition, and the grand and friendly Jersey Archive. And whether that actually is her gravestone or not, I’m saying it is, and thus tying up a case history that had so long seemed to be impossible to decipher.
Very satisfying!

No comments: