Sunday, August 8, 2021

Berthe Ferrucci, opera singer

 

Revelling through a particularly nice (and large) bunch of operatic and theatrical cdv photos in the e-bay shop of Photo Discovery France, I came upon this lady. She was inscribed as being Ferrucci or Ferruchi of the Théâtre des Italiens. Who? Why had I not heard of her ...? 


And, goodness, she seemed to have been photographed quite a bit ..



The first dip seemingly told me a lot of what I wanted to know. A book entitled Le Nouvel Opéra by one Mons Faucon, and published in the year 1875, devoted several pages to her in her quality as a current member of the company at the 'new opera'. Her real name was Berthe Merson, she was born in Nantes in 1846, her father (who died in 1870) was a cavalry officer, she had a well-off early life, studied singing with Corsi and Duprez ... there follows a selection a great notices, from "Spain, Italy, Belgium, Eygpt" ..  as our 'chronicler' continues,  telling us she made her debut in Ernani in Milan in 1865 ...  before going on to give the highlights of her subsequent career.

Merson is not a common name, and yes it does/did flourish around Nantes -- the writer Charles Olivier Merson (b 24 December 1822), his son, the painter Luc Olivier Merson -- but also around Fontenay-le-Comte, an hour or so south of Nantes, where was born (4 November 1819) Charles's brother, the writer Ernest Merson. Sons of Pierre François Casimir Merson, printer, publisher and writer and his wife Marie-Jeanne née Vatelet. A book I have come across refers to 'les frères Merson dont l'histoire familiale est d'une telle complexité ..', but I think that an Esprit Victor Merson born Fontenay le Comte 15 January 1789 is very likely indeed to be part of the 'complexité'. Lt-Col Victor Merson of the cavalry died 21 December 1870?  I think we have our link. 
So suffice it to say that if not born in Nantes, Berthe indeed belonged to a family with Nantaise roots. She also, if I take it that Jeanne-Marie Berthe Merson, daughter of Lt-Col V Merson of Fontenay and Jeanne Nymphe née Pernet (d 5 September 1895), is our lady, was born in Villers-Semeuse, Ardennes, not in 1846, but in 1843. But soldiers move with postings, and three years of fib is pretty standard for an operatic soprano of the 1800s.
So I'm taking the step of presuming this is she. With a slight reservation ...




Now the career. Studied with Duprez, yes. I see, very early on, that she is listed as a pupil. The début in Milan? So far, I see no sign. But there were lots of theatres in Milan where a talented vocalist (particulary a well-off one) might take her first steps. 

In 1864 she was engaged by Louis Avette for his season at the Grand Theatre of Nice, supporting prima donna Mme German[n]i. However, the audience would have none of the prima donna, and she was suffered to appear only once. And Berthe, who was apparently expecting to play Oscar, was sent on as Amelia in Ballo in maschera. The history of the theatre says she was hissed, but I think they are getting muddled up with the unfortunate prima donna. Berthe stayed for the season, and unless someone else was brought in, she and Benedettina Grosso shared the soprano roles. One Falcon and one Dugazon!  The operas played were La Cenerentola, Otello, Il Birraio di Preston, Stradella and Cristofo Colombo. I wonder which she played! However, I see that on 31 March 1865, when the season closed with a performance of the Rossini Stabat Mater, Teresa Morandini was there to sing soprano. Berthe sang the mezzo music. She clearly had a good time at the seaside: Fervaques recalled, years later, her driving her poney-cart rather expertly along the Promenade des Anglais ...

Louis Avette had run the theatre in the new en-France-ised city of Nice for five seasons with considerable skill and struggle. Now he threw it in and shifted his company to Marseille where they opened in June with Berthe billed as première chanteuse Falcon. And she scored splendidly 'Nous avons rarement entendu une voix aussi sure, aussi etendue, et aussi sonore' mis il reste encore a cette jeune personne il est indisensable qu'elle modère, egalise  at assouplisse le magnifique organe .. Elle est belle, a beaucoup de chaleur et entrain, elle parait avoir la passion et l'intelligence de sont art ...  The season included  Rossini's Moïse ('éblouissant en Amenaïde'), Otello as Desdemona to the Moor of Villani, La Traviata, Ernani ...

I don't know what, if anything, happened next. When she appeared next, she was said to have 'appeared in several Italian Theatres'. I have only found this one (Ferrara 1866) ... 



Come mid-1867 she was engaged for an Italian troupe run by the Signore Pollini and Beretta to play Berlin. It proved financially unsound, and instead she went to Campocasso at the San Carlo at Lisbon to replace the withdrawing Maria Pascal Damiani. She would be no prima donna at Lisbon, where the Marchisio sisters were assoluta, with Léontine de Maesen in reinforcement, but she gave performances of Il Trovatore ('une grande victoire pour l'eminente artiste .. une fort jolie voix, elle chante admirablement et est excellente comedienne'), Ballo in maschera, Ernani and Donna Anna, and was very much liked. As much, it appears, for her glamorous looks as for her 'soprano estensa e muita bonita'.



Her Lisbon performances earned her a contract with the far-reaching Merelli team, for Moscow and Warsaw. Tracking down performances in Moscow in these years is (until someone writes the much-needed book) a little difficult, but the season began 9 September and the repertoire apparently included La Favorita, Guillaume Tell, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto and Faust, and I have found mentions of Berthe as a 'superbe' Mathilde Tell, and as Countess Almaviva to the Susanna of Desirée Artôt. I would assume she repeated her Donna Anna to Artôt's Zerlina ... 'Mme Ferrucci a fait applaudir sa voix charmante et son style correct ...' 'Mme Ferrucci a été rappelée sept fois ; on la rappelait encore qu ' elle avait depuis longtemps déjà quitté le théâtre, pour rentrer à son hôtel'.  In Warsaw, she played Lady Pamela to the Fra Diavolo of Carríon and the Zerlina of Artôt and was voted 'une délicieuse Anglaise'.  She would return to Russia for a decided triumph when called upon to play Gertrude ('Mlle Ferrucci a été une reine irréprochable, action et chant', 'éloges sans reserve sont dus a Mlle Ferrucci') to the Hamlet of Cotogni and the Ophelia of Christine Nilsson.

In the meanwhile, the Suez Canal had opened, and Berthe was there, as part of the company -- Sarolta, Ferrucci, Giuseppina Vitali, Eleonora Grossi, Soboleska -- engaged for the Khedive's season 1869-70 which looked like being a vast undertaking. So far, I have only unearthed her as Leonora in Il Trovatore with Bulterini, Bartolini and Grossi, and Sarolta and Naudin in La Traviata. But Berthe seemingly did well, even with Sarolta to deal with in the beauty stakes: the gossip press reported 'A son bataillon féminin, à la tête duquel brille la Sessi, M Strakosh vient d'ajouter Mlle Ferrucci vient d'ajouter Mlle Ferrucci, une cantatrice dont la beauté a fait sensation au Théâtre-Italien du Caire'. 

I see the Strakosh Concert Party at Rotterdam on 2 December 1870 with Berthe in the company of Marie Marimon, Fernandez, Tombesi and Agnesi. After which, there was war. During which I spot Berthe and her mother in Vienna: not working, just passing through.

Then, in June 1873 the news came that Mlle Ferrucci had been engaged by Halanzier for the Paris Opéra. 'She is French' gasped the press 'she will keep the name that she took on in Russia'. Yeh. And at Nice, and Marseille ...

6 October 1873 came that day which could make or break a singer's career. At the Opéra, one performance, one night .. that famous 'first début' ... could mean acceptance into the Parisian fold, or rejection for ever, without even getting a second or third chance. And those in charge seemed to make success as difficult as possible. Berthe was given a mighty role in which to make her début, one which the press said -- seemingly correctly -- she had never sung before, and less likely, never had a stage rehearsal of. The well-known role of Valentine in Les Huguenots, which, with the Rachel of La Juive and the Fidès of Le Prophète was a centrepiece of the dramatic soprano French repertoire.

7 October 1873, the music world couldn't make up its collective mind. La Presse said 'Elle a réussi' but when it tried the analyse ...


OK. She didn't fit into one of the French opera world's tidy boxes? Why not? Falcon was a pretty good fit. Was it the wrong role? No. She would sing Valentine till she sang no more. The English-language press summarised the Paris reviews: 'The new debutante at the Grand Opera  ... has been fairly successful only as Valentine in Les Huguenots. Her voice is resonant but deficient in power, and somewhat dull and wanting in timbre as to the middle notes. Her singing is better in dramatic than pathetic passages, and her acting is extremely fine throughout the opera'. So, was it a pass or a fail?

Neither. The announced second debut in La Juive didn't take place, but neither was Berthe sent away. She remained as a member of the Opéra for several seasons, appearing periodically in her role when Gabrielle Krauss couldn't or didn't. When the Opéra was burned, and the company moved to Salle Ventadour she was cast as Donna Anna, alongside the Don Giovanni of Faure, Gailhard (Leporello) and Pauline Gueymard (Elvira). And, as far as I know, those two great roles were the only ones that she sang, time and again, seemingly mostly when someone else wouldn't or couldn't, during her time in Paris. 

I see her appearing in other theatres 'of the Opéra' now and then -- notably, giving her Valentine to the Raoul of Warot at Brussels, and also in Bordeaux ('grand succès') and in October 1877, back in Marseille.  And in Marseille she, as she had been a dozen years ago, she was hugely appreciated: as Valentine, as Rachel, as Leonora (Trovatore) and, as Jules Prével, no less, wrotre in the Figaro: 'Mais c'est surtout dans L'Africaine un role nouveau pour elle qu'elle a revele ses precieuses qualites: ampleur de voix, surete de methode, jeu dramatique, parfaire intelligence des nuances et, pour completer tout cela un physique qui fait d'elle une Selika accomplie. Depuis Mlle Meillet les Marseillaises n'ont pas eu de Falcon pouvant lui etre comparée'.  Strange. So why did not he say that when she played in Paris. Was it all part of the game the was Parisian theatre and journalism..?

In 1878, she is still in Marseille, giving Mons Campocasso her Valentine, her Gertrude in Hamlet and this time, Aida ...

And then it stopped. Thirty-five years of age? With a voice of her type -- always praised as perfectly produced -- surely, she had years and years left ...

I am pretty sure she married. And, yes, if she were the Berthe 'from Nantes' I know whom. Louis Jean Baptiste Fontaine was in the same business as grandfather Merson. He was a printer and publisher, who became editor of the Republican leftist paper Le Petit Provençal.

And if she were the veuve Fontaine, she died in Paris, at 55 Boulevard Haussman, on 30 March 1903. Aged 60. Nobody from operatic days, seemingly, noticed. But Le Petit Provençal gave her a half column, praising her attributes as a woman but ... with no mention of Mlle Ferrucci!  



Donzenac?  Corrèze? Ah, phew. It's the Fontaine family vault ...

Well, I'll throw this one out for improvement. Maybe, as I did once before, I've soldered together two different ladies. But I don't think so.  Final wee bit of proof needed ...
 










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