I'm used to finding inaccurate, uninformed twaddle copied mindlessly from website to website on the world wide web. Mostly, when it is 'my' subject that's concerned, I just sigh and wonder why the posters of such stuff do their pinching from such feeble, amateurish and corrupt sources, and why, in any case, they wanted to write about the person and persons concerned, when they have no knowledge of them, nor wish actively to gain any.
Yes, normally, I just sigh. But today I was exceeded beyond the limits. Madame Emma Albertazzi was a famous singer. She also had a sadly short life, so there's not all that much work to do, to extrude her life and career from nineteenth-century sources, weaning the theatrical and legal lies from the provable truth, as you go. If I can do it, why can't these other lazy folk?
So, today, I present to you the whole story of Miss Emma Howson (Mrs Albertazzi) with the most egregious falsehoods removed. Oh, I don't mean that I've listed every role in every opera, and every song in every concert, that she ever sang. That's for someone writing a book, not a little article like mine. But I'm 99% sure that what is written here is fact. At last!
Wish me luck
ALBERTAZZI, Emma (née HOWSON) (b Lower Road, Streatham, London, 1 May 1815; d St John’s Wood, London, 25 Sep 1847)
A beautiful, pale, English girl with the voice – so it was agreed, many a time, in her youngest days -- of a Malibran, Emma Howson would never make herself the place in the operatic world that her extravagantly famous peer had done. Instead, she lived a career devastated by illness, multiple childbirth, a useless husband, greedy parasites, oversized expectations from a press which turned vicious when not assuaged, and by a passive, wan, and non-public-pleasing stage presence, up to an exhausted death at the age of thirty-two.
Emma Howson was born in London on 1 May 1815. Not 1814, not 1813, not 1822. The fact is easily verifiable, for the responsible person at the church of St John the Evangelist, Smith Square, who recorded her baptism there, on 31 March 1822, had the good idea to record in margin, the date of the child’s actual birth.
Emma’s parents were Francis Howson (d Parramatta, NSW, Australia, 12 April 1863), a musician, and his wife Sarah, née Tanner (d 5 Belmont Terrace, Wandsworth Road, Kennington, Surrey 5 November 1839). In spite of what was later retailed by the continental press, father was definitely not ‘Sir Francis Howson’. Three brothers, Francis, recorded as being born 20 September 1818 (d Omaha, 16 September 1869), John (b 9 October 1819; Melbourne, Australia, 4 September 1871) and Henry (b 6 March 1822) were christened alongside her, and their father listed as ‘music master, of Regent Street’, but the family had – as witnesses the birth and quick death of an early child – earlier been residents of Streatham, and there, it seems, the future ‘Madame Albertazzi’ was born.
Emma’s misfortunes began early. In 1827 (or 1828), when she was 11 or 12 years and nine months old, and already adept on the piano, her father was persuaded to apprentice her to a music master. The reason for this fuzziness of dates is that, years later, when Mme Albertazzi, a married woman and a star, was coining operatic monies, this original (after her father) teacher, a certain Andrea Costa (NOT Sir Michael Costa, as so hilariously claimed by some!), dragged her to court, waving some Shylockian documentation, demanding a decade of 50%-of-the-gross payment and, as a result, Emma’s early years (and the documents) were aired in detail.
At this stage so the documents recorded ‘Her voice promised favourably, but never having received any instruction or practice, except in singing little German songs, she was entirely ignorant of the formation of sounds, of the management of the breath, and of the pronunciation of singing, particularly of the Italian style.’
Oddly enough, Signor Costa also related that he had became interested in Miss Howson when hearing her singing ‘at the house of a lady named Strong in Croydon’ and ‘being captivated by the extraordinary quality of her voice, purposed to give her some gratuitous instruction in singing’. Gratuitous. So she was, evidently, not quite so ignorant as all that. But most of Signor Costa’s ‘evidence’ was self-contradictory.
What is not disputed is that, ‘in 1827’, Emma went to live in with Costa, that the Howson parents signed the professor’s long (French-language) document, and that she continued her musical education with him for something like two years. During that time, on 30 May 1828, the young girl made a first public venture, singing at the New Argyll Rooms in a concert given by Madame Augusta Cittadini, wife of Gaetano Pinchiori Cittadini, a small-time professor of music and pianist. I can find no review of this concert, but there is an announcement … and there she is: ‘two young ladies Miss Mecovino and Miss Howson will make their first appearance ..’ alongside Sontag, Curioni, de Begnis, Zuchelli, a Brambilla … wow!
In fact, there exists a long, circumstantial account of this otherwise eventually unmemorable concert, written by a certain medical man, which was (re)issued in a paper named The Penny Satirist around the time – oddly enough – when his ‘old friend Costa was pursuing his legal ambitions’. It had, the author (satirical or not?) explained, originally appeared under the title Two Hours at the Argyll Rooms in the Weekly Review. According to this story, most of the intended stars, including Sontag, didn’t turn up. But Signor Costa ‘discovered among the crowd’ his thirteen-year-old pupil, who went on and displayed ‘a voice perfectly developed, a power of intonation that reminds us of Pasta and Pisaroni, a pronunciation strictly Tuscan…’. Of course, Sontag arrived, was enchanted… and Madame Cittadini (née Miss Perfect from Bow) of 52 Poland Street, whose name would otherwise have vanished utterly from musical history, turned into an internettable name.
Why? Because most of the internetted ‘biographies’ of Emma Albertazzi are taken from the same single source – the Costa version, as retailed in the Paris and Londonjournals in 1837-8 (Musical World, Times, Le Monde dramatique) and subsequently chewed up, remodelled and spat out into a piece beginning ‘the daughter of a music master named Howson, [Emma] was born May 1, 1814…’. Gone wrong in the first line, it gets steadily more alarming, having her even appearing at the King’s Theatre, as Pippo in La gazza ladra in 1830. Alas, this is the ‘biography’ of Emma made current on the world wide web. And much of it is evidently rubbish. As, I fear, may be the medical man’s tale.
In 1829, Costa took on another pupil, one François or Francesco Albertazzi, ‘an Italian refugee residing in England, his father having been a banker in Italy’ and who was, so it is said, earning his living by singing in the chorus at the Italian Opera House. Signor Albertazzi is, of course, about to become part of our story.
According to Costa, Miss Howson made a second appearance under his guidance at Graziani’s concert at the King’s Theatre Concert Room 9 June 1829. On this occasion she is, so second-hand sources say, supposed to have sung Nicolini’s ‘Il braccio mio conquise’. Well, the review I have says simply that Misses [Mary] Mecovino and Howson ‘made their debuts’ (again!) singing a duet by Mayer. The concert was actually a fiasco. This time the orchestra didn’t turn up. Nor the conductor. But Emma came out all right. ‘The latter has a fine contralto voice which she manages scientifically’ commented the disgusted critic.
This isn’t, anyhow, quite the same as (which he doesn’t claim) her playing Pippo on the opera house stage. I raked the records of the time, searching, and I found … nothing.
La gazza ladra was indeed produced at the King’s Theatre in 1830. Mlle Blasis was Ninetta, and Pippo was played, ‘as debut’, by a certain Miss Dix. ‘The lady overacted and has not one good note in her voice’ retorted The Age, ‘or at least, if she has, we had not the benefit of it, for we were more than once tempted to call out ‘Murder’ while she was executing some of her airs. She did not appear to labour under the wonted trepidation of debutantes, and we might attribute her failure to that case. She was quite out of tune and time and lamentably inefficient.’
If I were ever tempted to believe that ‘Miss Dix’ were Emma Albertazzi in disguise, I would be easily able to disprove it. Miss Dix ‘a pupil of Mr Lejeune’ turns up the following year at the Queen’s Theatre in comic operetta entitled Peccadilloes, so she lived on after her blooper at the Italian opera. Presumably she was not allowed to give a second performance, but as the Times lists no performances at all for the following nights at the King’s Theatre … well, could there really have been a substitution with a fourteen year-old pupil of… of a nobody?
Back at Signor Costa’s house, things had moved quickly. On 25 November 1829, with the permission of her father (who seemed to be a dab hand at dubiously organising his daughter’s life), Emma Howson, aged fourteen and a half (and not, pace Costa, ‘less than thirteen’) married Francesco C Albertazzi at St John Evangelist, Westminster. From here on, it would be Francesco’s privilege to mismanage his wife’s affairs. Which he apparently did by signing a whole lot more papers with the eager Signor Costa who had, strangely enough, already made him sign an apprenticeship agreement which included a warning clause ‘if he married one of the Signor’s pupils…’.
However, one source says that Emma was now no longer a pupil of Costa, but of the well-known tenor Alberico Curioni of the King’s Theatre, and that she also later approached Crivelli, who refused to take her because of her ‘previous commitments’. Maybe. Another report says that, in August 1830, she performed in Brighton in concert and yet another has her on 8 June 1831 at Signor Peter Rolandi’s foreign bookshop, circulating library, 20 Berner’s Street ... before, the following day, leaving for Italy. With her husband. And/or with her father.
Each and every one of these ‘facts’ is reported years later. And not one of them can I verify in the press of the actual time. So they are all to be taken with at least one pinch of salt until documentary evidence comes to light.
What happened next is as confused, contradictory and unsupported by evidence as what has passed. Our main source is that article in The Musical World and The Times of 1837, and Le Monde dramatique of Paris, dated 1838, from which much of our more probable and reliable bits on Emma Albertazzi’s early career have been taken by other folk ... and then fiddled with. But I like even my reasonably contemporary reports a bit more proven than some of these.
One source (Fétis!) says she went to Piacenza, and debuted there in L’Inganno felice. But since he also says she met and wed her Italian husband there (and also that she debuted in England in Norma), he is scarcely to be trusted. A more popular and provable version has her going to Milan, where she can veritably be seen, singing in Signor Iwan Müller’s concert at the Teatro Re, 27 September 1831, and where she studied with … some say Micheroux, some say Celli. On past form, it could have been both or either, but I think the Celli episode may be a little later. More convincing is a report that she appeared, first, on the Milan stage in July of 1832, playing the part of the heroine in a production of Generali’s Adelina at Milan’s secondary Teatro Canobbiana, alongside the tenor Benetti. And here I do have a contemporary report: The Harmonicon magazine writes: ‘At the Canobbiana, Generali’s somewhat old but still beautiful operetta Adelina has been reproduced with Emma Albertazzi, an English lady, as Adelina: her voice is agreeable and her style of singing not bad: her pronunciation and acting however, are but indifferent’. No mention of it being any kind of a debut. But the Italian papers speak of it as such.
The Monde dramatique follows its mention of the Canobbiana by saying that the young singer went, thence, to La Scala and appeared with Carlo Zuchelli, Francesco Pedrazzi and Matilda Palazzesi in Il nuovo Figaro (Ricci) ‘and other pieces’. Well, this is definitely provable. And there it is. On 2 February 1833, during the Carnevale season Emma Albertazzi did indeed appear at La Scala alongside Zuchelli and Pedrazzi, Matilde Savinelli et al in Il nuovo Figaro. It was played four times. But the ‘and other pieces’? That is more problematic. The Scala season of 1832-3 opened 26 December, with Donizetti’s Faustastarring Adelaide Tosi, after which Frezzolini and Lina Balfe appeared in Ricci’s Fernando Cortez. Coccia’s successful Caterina di Guisa (14 February) was created by Adelaide Tosi and the contralto-travesti Isabella Fabbrica, Il conte d’Essex (10 March) was sung by Palazzesi and Tosi, So, I don’t see what the little guest player was have supposed to have sung in the way of ‘other pieces’.
Something else did happen, however, between Emma’s appearances at the Cannobiana and the Scala (or since the Cannobiana performance is undated, maybe immediately before) and that was the birth of her first child. Maria Caroline Clelia Albertazzi was born in Milan on 6 December 1832, and as a grown woman she would go on to add her bit to the far-flung history of the musical Howson family.
From Milan, it appears, Emma was engaged (‘contract of 22 May 1833’) to go to Madrid to sing at that city’s twin operatic houses, the Principe and the de la Cruz. I pick her up there in July 1833, singing Adina in Donizetti’s few-months-old L’Elisir d’amore at the Principe: ‘Se esta ensayando para ejecutarse á la mayor brevedad la opera bufa en dos actos titulada L’Elisir d’amore, musica del celebre maestro Donnizetti (sic) en la que se presentaran la Sra Emma Albertazzi, prima donna, y el Sr José Rossi Gallieno, primer bufe comico …’ along wth Sra Lavigne and Signores Panini, Bottelli and Rossi. She also appeared in Pacini’s Gli Arabi nelle Gallie (at the Cruz, with Valencia, Rodrigues, Salas, and Mlles Brigida Lorenzani and Serrano), and apparently in I Capuleti e i Montecchi with Almerinda Manzocchi, as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algieri, in Don Giovanni with Mmes Claudina Edwige and Antonia Campos, as Adalgisa in Norma (16 January `1834) and in Mercadante’sI due Figari. The prima donna of the moment was again Palazzesi whom I spot giving Chiara de Rosemberg, but Emma was listed equal with her as ‘1a donna tiple’ and ‘piacque generalmente’. Later, I spot her as Jemmy in Guglielmo Tell.
It is said to have been in Madrid that she had her first contact with Filippo Celli, who would become her final singing teacher. Which is as may be. She stayed in Madrid into 1835, and in February of that year she can be seen singing Adalgisa to the Norma of Guiditta Grisi and the Pollio of Giovanni Battista Genero at the Teatro de la Cruz, when, a review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung says, ‘she sang with more feeling than in previous seasons’. If she did, it was by accident, for through the entirety of her career, whilst critics went to ecstasies over her voice and her singing, Emma Albertazzi would be criticised and ultimately crucified for her ‘coldness’, her lack of stage emotion.
From Madrid, Mme Albertazzi proceeded to Paris, and a contract at the Théâtre des Italiens where, in one of the strange pieces of casting which would feature too often in her career, she made her first appearance in the soprano role of Jane Seymour in Anna Bolena, previously played by Giulia Grisi, alongside the Anna of Grisi, Ivanoff and Lablache. ‘Une fort belle personne de 19 ans’, she ‘made a great impression’, in spite of an apparent nervousness and an evidently less than suitable role and was ‘vivement applaudie’ and ‘fort bien acceuillie, et promet une artiste distinguée’, but the Parisian press didn’t help the already blossoming Albertazzi mythology by claming that this was her first appearance on any stage and that she was straight out of the Naples Conservatory! Another paper, more sagely, confirmed that she was ‘from Madrid’.
She was better cast, the following month, as Rossini’s Cenerentola.‘[Elle] a beaucoup mieux chanté le role de Cenerentola que celui de Seymour …’ confirmed the critic, ‘Les notes de contralto de la voix de cette chanteuse sont magnifiques. Mais les cordes élevées manquent quelquefois d’ampleur. Mlle Albertazzi a surtout bien chanté la cavatine finale dont les variations sont si difficiles et exigent tant d'agilité.’ ‘Mme Albertazzi a déployé une belle voix de mezzo soprano et une manière de chanter qui ne manque ni de goût ni d’intonation sûre’…
However, when Il Pirata was produced, Emma was again hoisted into a soprano role, as Imogene, alongside Rubini and Tamburini (‘elle a souvent mérité la faveur du public dans une partie qui n'est pas toujours en rapport avec le genre de sa voix’). In February 1836 she played in I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
On the other side of the channel, the press jubilated ‘Grisi has met a rival … a little Englishwoman, Miss Howson, now Madame Albertazzi’.
In April 1836, Mme Albertazzi was summoned to the Carignano in Turin, there to replace one Mme Carlotta Griffini as Adalgisa to the Norma of Mme Lalande. She went on to play in Ricci’s Nuovo Figaro, Cenerentola and then create the role of Fiorina Tregalanti in Concone’s Un Episodio di San Michele. Undercast (the stars of the company were preparing Coccia’s Caterina di Guisa), the piece was a failure. She, however, was the saving grace of the evening, and the British press reported ‘She is still not more than 21, but with a voice and manner that elicit the most rapturous applause. She attracted great notice at Paris and also at Madrid where she was the prima donna a season or two past. Her performance at the Carignano has won for her the praise of all the dilettanti here …’. It also, apparently, won her a different kind of attentions, and the gossip press were happy to retail a snippet about the Prince of Carignan and another nobleman whose rival attentions to the young prima donna resulted in the Prince being packed off to his regiment.
Her season in Turin done, Mme Albertazzi returned to Paris on a new nine-month contract. She repeated her Cenerentola (‘displayed the same extent of compass and general capabilities we noticed last season and her execution of the opening air and the last movement of the finale well merited the plaudits with which they were received on Saturday night. The voice of this lady is splendid and when her style receives the finish which experience will doubtless soon bestow, it will place her among the most eminent of her profession’), took part [as Fidalma] in a memorable Il matrimonio segreto (‘The theatre des Italiens is now at its zenith and is quite the rage. Il Matrimonio segreto has been got up with a cast such as can be hardly excelled in Europe. What with Lablache, Tamburini, Rubini and the Signoras Taccani and Albertazzi the music is most admirably executed. The Parisians exhaust themselves with cries of ‘charmant, superbe and délicieux’ and are absolutely raving with delight. Il matrimonio segreto was never before so popular with them. Albertazzi is a favourite…’), sang Elcia in Moïse and created the role of Josselin de Montmorency in Costa’s new Malek-Adel (14 January 1837). ‘Elle a beaucoup plu dans ce rôle’ reported the Paris press.
During the season she also appeared in the Paris concerts, and more than one critic was heard to murmur that the young vocalist was singing too much.
But Mme Albertazzi was the fashion, and on the wings of her Parisian fame, and of extravagant expectations, she crossed to London, and a debut at the King’s Theatre.
The Musical World doubted that she could live up to the puff, ‘however she passed the London ordeal and with an éclat that enables her us to congratulate her heartily and honestly … ‘,‘a superb contralto with great range of compass upwards and though rather deficient in the descending scale, great flexibility, lightness and volume, correct intonation and polished execution, Her upper notes are equable steady and as full as those of a soprano; her great deficiencies are in power and in that animation which distinguishes the children of the south. Her transition to falsetto was without a break, and could she but throw her heart into her singing, we could have nothing against her. Her acting is miserably tame but ladylike and self possessed.To see her Cenerentola, after the nauseous affectation of Mrs Wood was a rich treat, especially in ‘Naqui all’ affano’ …’. Mrs Wood was playing the same role in an English ‘adaptation’ at Drury Lane.
The Times concurred ‘it may be safely pronounced, on this her first appearance before a London audience, that fame has not said too much. Her talent and qualifications are great, and they are also of a peculiar order. So much ease and self-possession is passing through an ordeal of this kind has never before fallen under our notice. Not only was there no embarrassment about it, but, what is still more rare, there was no artifice, no ambitious display, no effort to entrap an audience into applause, or draw herself into prominent notice. … Her voice is absolutely beautiful – a deep contralto intensely passionate in its expression amidst the very repose in which she veils it and yet with a compass in the higher notes which is very rare in a voice of that description. Between her falsetto and her natural voice there was none of the break perceptible which is a defect some of the greatest singers have not been able to overcome. The connexion was always well preserved. The flexibility of her voice is as remarkable as its purity and compass; the divisions steal, as it were, upon the ear – seem to come of themselves and cost her no effort… Her acting was of the same character with her singing – always judicious amidst its quiet; modest and well conceived...’
The praise came in chorus: ‘Mme Albertazzi possesses a voice of great power and purity and its compass is one of the most extensive and perfect that we have ever heard or heard of, It has a range fully equal in extent to Malibran’s and as a voice, taken simply as an organ, it may be pronounced superior even to that very gifted one…’ (Blackwood’s)
‘The advent of a new star’ ‘we never heard finer effect given to the music of Rossini’.
‘Mme Albertazzi appeared in the Cenerentola on Tuesday and more than realised our highest expectations. She possesses indeed an extraordinary voice – combining the depth fullness and power of a rich contralto with the compass and brilliancy of the pure soprano. Malibran’s voice alone can be compared with Albertazzi ... she sang delightfully throughout and her acting was on a par with her singing. Her style is easy and natural and as free from stage affectation as could be desired. Brambilla was good in her way, but Albertazzi is infinitely superior to her…’
‘A new star has arisen in the operatic firmament .. Her singing and acting are very nearly if not quite on a par with that of poor Malibran and it will not be surprising to us if in the course of two or three seasons she completely supplies the place of that great artiste’ (Figaro)
The Age reported ‘her reception was one of the most flattering and cheering description and she went through her part in a style that stamped her at once a vocalist of the first order. Her voice reminded us much of poor Malibran’s and the lady in question bids to become as great a favourite as her predecessor’.
Her fame would ultimately never approach that of Malibran, but she would share that lady’s sad fate of a far too youthful death.
The initial wonderment past, the press – comparing her ever with Malibran or with Grisi – began to find fault. When she appeared as Zerlina in Don Giovanni (‘the cast was perhaps the strongest this theatre has seen’) The Times asserted ‘Madame Albertazzi’s pure taste and unpretending style told beautifully in Zerlina and the acting of the character was in excellent keeping..’ but elsewhere she was found too ladylike. Malibran had played the girl as a peasant.
The Age went even further: ‘Albertazzi is a delightful singer, a finished musician, a highly gifted genius, but as far as acting is concerned she is a positive stick’.
The reaction was similar when Il matrimonio segreto was given. Malibran had uglied up as Aunt Fidalma, Emma did not. Some preferred it that way ‘[she] did not like Malibran attempt to render the character grotesque and ludicrous but acted it sensibly and quietly...’, but the late Mme Malibran could rarely do wrong in the eyes of most of the press.
However, when she and Grisi performed ‘Ebben a te ferisci’ together in concert even The Musical World could not give Malibran best.
On 18 May 1837, Malek-Adel was given its first English performance and once again Emma scored in a pants part which suited her particularly well: ‘she has won a great success in this piece’ wrote a correspondent back to Paris ‘truly the talent of the young and interesting singer grows daily. In the second act she gave with some much soul and emotion the scene ‘Io l’adorai’ that she aroused the admiration and the enthusiasm of the public which likes her immensely...’
Well, not all the public. ‘Albertazzi sang (Zerlina) with taste but acted with a coldness which the warmth of her reception ought to have dissipated. After the reprehension of Rubini, we shall not need to say that we admire the chill of chastity in Mozart’s music but Albertazzi is phlegmatic even beyond the inertia solita Germanorum: perhaps this may be excusable when we that that De Angeli was her Masetto…’
When Semiramide was mounted (6 June) the jury went out. On one hand she was dubbed ‘a great singer in every respect’ and the famous duet ‘sung by Grisi and Albertazzi in a manner that mocks description’ lauded ‘every accent went to the heart. We would walk forty miles on the hottest summer day to hear it...’ ‘The singing of our own vocalist … was indeed, most exquisite and we drank in the mellow tones of her rich voice with rapturous delight’….’
But the same critic had to note: ‘until Albertazzi can lose herself in the fiction of the moment, she will remain a splendid vocalist sed nihil supra… Grisi seemed inspired beyond herself, and if Albertazzi could but have caught a spark of her fire, there would have been nothing left to be desired in the representation of the opera.’
Outside the theatre, Emma Albertazzi was seen in a vast number of concerts – almost any musical event that was the biggest, the best, the most fashionable, included the new young singer on its bill. And she did not hesitate to put herself into a position to be compared with Malibran, even to the point of duetting ‘When we keep a little farm’ with John Parry. He had previously sung it with Malibran.
She sang Amenaide in Tancredi, Jane Seymour to Grisi’s Anna Bolena and on the occasion of her Benefit, Pietro l’Eremita, while the gossip press did its best to find stories about her to print. The favourite one was that there was a cabal against her, mounted by the Italian vocalists… who were, very largely, the same vocalists with whom she had been singing, and would again sing with, at the Paris Italiens.
At the end of the season, she made a British concert tour with Mori and Thalberg, and took part in the Birmingham and Hereford Festivals, before returning for the new season in Paris. La Cenerentola, Semiramide (‘in which she had much success in England’), Il Matrimonio segreto, and Don Giovanni were included in the repertoire of a Paris season marked by the destruction by fire of the opera house, and the removal of the Italiens company to the Salle Ventadour.
With the seasons, the stars of the company exchanged Paris for London, but ill health detained Emma somewhat, and when she arrived in town it seemed that the press had now thoroughly labelled her. When she played Adalgisa to Grisi’s Norma ‘she was in excellent voice and was highly and deservedly applauded’, but the gentlemen of the press rivalled with each other in ways to criticise her acting and stage presence: ‘the soul of acting is as distant as ever’, ‘it is as an iceberg compared with a vineyard of the luxurious and sunny south’. ‘Even Albertazzi, perfect artiste that she is, acts like a cold abstraction’.
She switched to playing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, but was cast as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro (‘Albertazzi was, of course, a pretty page as Cherubino and sang with all the grace which consummate art, without compulsive feeling, can give...’ ‘bien chanté et mal joué’) and repeated her Aunt Fidalma to predictable reviews. A French paper compared her to a Murillo madonna, proffered that ‘she makes her a nice young person in a black bonnet’ before going on to rave about Malibran…’ Malek-Adel was repeated, and on 19 July Balfe’s Falstaff was premiered, with Emma Albertazzi playing Ann Page.
This year, the press was not short of off-stage gossip on Mme Albertazzi, for Signor Costa had started his lawsuits, and his friends in the press were swift to take sides. When he published a book of singing instruction, The Penny Satirist spent most of its review on Emma: ‘her fame is not in the ascendant. What is the cause of it? Her voice is sweet, her intonation as perfect as ever, she is in the bloom of youth, and pretty. The fault of Albertazzi is the want of mental energy and feeling. She has talent – but not a spark of genius. Who wishes to know what musical genius is, he must go and hear Madame Persiani and hear her sing the same pieces that Albertazzi was allotted last season. Emma, who is her superior in youth, beauty and natural sweetness of voice, and her equal in musical instruction, did leave the audience cold. Her voice pleased but vanished in the air, like meteors…’.
After the opera season, she again went on tour with Mori, but more trouble brewed – allegedly over payment – and she ended by withdrawing ‘ill’ from an engagement to sing in the Gloucester Festival. That upset more journalists, and drew more sniping reviews and paragraphs.
On 20 August, Emma took a Benefit at Drury Lane, and made what was described as her ‘debut in English opera’ playing one act of Balfe’s Catherine Grey. The occasion proved the opportunity for more gossip. The Duke of Wellington attended, but the Queen did not, and the partisan press got as rude as they dared in claiming that their monarch was shunning ‘English artists’ and patronising only the Italian opera. Mme Albertazzi, they claimed, had been forced to take her Benefit at Drury Lane, instead of Her Majesty’s Theatre …
The occasion, however, was sufficiently successful for Alfred Bunn to engage Mme Albertazzi to do a month of performances in English opera, and she opened on 1 October playing Zerlina in Don Giovanni with Balfe as her Don. The Times was delighted: ‘a prettier or more naïve Contadina we have very rarely seen. Her arch playfulness reminded us not a little of Fodor, who originally delighted the town in this part ... delightfully natural … There is something exceedingly delicate and touching in her tones which amply compensate for any apparent want of power. Her taste appears to be of the purest kind admitting just so much ornament as is necessary to illustrate the air she is warbling but nothing beyond it …’ but the anti-Albertazzi press mumbled that she was ‘stagnant as a fish pond’, and the puzzled press simply wondered that ‘the most charming English singer now known to the world … did not create that sensation which the absolute perfection of her style of singing the music merited in consequence of that coldness of manner which was not thawed by a southern education’.
She followed up as Annetta in The Maid of Palaiseau with decidedly more general success. Edward Fitzball would remember in his memoirs ‘her voice was unsurpassable’ and the French press described ‘une de ces triomphes qui ramènent des grands souvenirs, un triomphe qui rapelle celles de Malibran’, ‘elle a excité des transports universels’.
Emma duly returned to Paris and a new season at the Italiens. She opened singing Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Rubini and Tamburini, and scored a fine success. Some papers even found that her acting had improved: ‘Elle a donné au role de Rosine un physiognomie toute nouvelle, nous aimons la coquetterie décente de ses manières et la douceur passionnée de son regard. Ces progress font éspèrer que tout anglaise qu’elle est, Mme A parviendra a italianiser son jeu et sortir des limites de la dignité brittanique. Elle a du reste chanté avec une grace toute française la cavatine du premier acte ‘Una voce poco fa…’ Otherwise, it was more of the same: ‘Mme Albertazzi est une belle femme mais elle n’a ni légèreté dans les mouvements ni finesse dans le jeu’.
The event of the season was the production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux (27 December 1838) under the hand of the composer himself. Emma played Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham, and, in duets with Grisi and with Rubini, caused a frank ‘sensation’.
In 1839, Mme Albertazzi did not return to Her Majesty’s Theatre. Instead she was engaged by Bunn to give more opera in English at Drury Lane. She opened on 8 April in The Maid of Palaiseau, and moved on to Don Giovanni, as all manner of announcements were floated: she would appear in Auber’s new The Fairy Lake, she would do Catherine Grey with Mme Balfe, she would play Frank Romer’s new The Seneschal, she loved her part in it … but she did none of them. It was suggested that poor houses at the Lane were responsible, but Bunn would – in his memoirs – blame the lady. She announced that she was pregnant, and retreated to the concert platform for the remainder of the season. In fact, she was, but as yet only very slightly, and it certainly didn’t prevent her from fulfilling an enormously heavy concert programme, including the Ancient Concerts and, on 26 June, a concert of her own in which she combined her voice in duet with Julie Dorus-Gras and Mme Stockhausen, and in ensemble with Ivanoff and Rubini, through into the month of July.
At the end of June, on the occasion of Mrs W H Seguin and Mrs Hullah’s concert, she was judged to have given her ‘Non piu mesta’ ‘more brilliantly than we ever heard her’ a fortnight later ‘she was not in good voice and appeared in ill health’. Yet it had been announced that she was going to visit New York, to sing at the Park Theatre!
Emma Albertazzi did not go to America. Nor did she go to London’s St James’s Theatre, where rumour and announcement would also place her. She went back to Paris where, on 9 November, she gave birth to her second daughter, Marianna Emma Clotilde Lucrecia Albertazzi. And a month later she was back on stage at the Italiens, replacing Mme Mathey – who had gone blind from nerves! – in the role of Blanche de Castille in Inez de Castro. During the season she sang also in Norma, Don Giovanni, La Donna del lago, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Le Nozze di Figaro, La Gazza ladra and Tancredi.’‘Froide, élégante, brillante’ chanted the press of her operatic performances, but in concert ‘la voix si tranquillement belle’, ‘la voix réelle, positive, la voix large et bien posée..’ of Mme Albertazzi won many votes.
In mid-1840, Emma took a tour through France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, appearing at the Aachen Music Festival (7 June), before visiting England once more for concerts with Puzzi, Balfe and Coletti, and an appearance at the Hull Festival. ‘Albertazzi’s song had the freshness and clearness and purity of a morning dewdrop’ proffered the Hull critic à propos of her ‘Tanti affetti’. However, a couple of weeks later Emma pulled the plug on the concert tour, pleading ‘affliction’ and, turning down an offer to become prima donna at London’s Princess’s Theatre, returned to Paris. There, in December, she sang at Napoléon’s funeral, and once more took up her place at the Italiens.
Paris, too, had its anti-Albertazzi critics: ‘(elle est) revenue de Londres plus terne et monotone que jamais’ wrote one Mons Bonnaire, criticising now even her singing – for its lack of vibrato! ‘Mme Albertazzi n’a en fait de voix et de manière de chanter qu’un équivalent a Paris, c’est Mme Thillon; ces deux dames qui represente en France l’art musical anglais donne une triste et facheuse idée des dispositions harmoniques de nos voisines d’outre mer’. To compare the cool Albertazzi and the vibrantly saucy Anna Thillon took some imagination: but the gentleman was perhaps simply bewailing the two ladies’ ‘English’ lack of continental wobble.
Once again, Emma appeared in Cenerentola, in Semiramide, in Il Matrimonio segreto, as Elvira in Don Giovanni, in Moïse and with Mario, in a soprano role, in Beatrice di Tenda, whilst fulfilling in parallel the concert season. The feature of that season was the introduction of her young sister, Sarah Howson, as a vocalist. Sarah, possessed of a fine soprano, would go on to play supporting roles in opera in both France and England. Emma did not go back to England, where the Costa case dragged on and on. She visited Italy, she sang in concert in Marseilles and at Madrid, and she seems to have sung in Cenerentola in Padua, until it was time to return to the Italiens.
The 1841-2 season included the production of Mercadante’s La vestale with Emma cast, once more, alongside Grisi, Tamburini and Mario. ‘Mme Albertazzi a chanté avec une grande pureté tout son rôle et surtout le morceau triste et si distinguée qui orne le deuxieme acte...’ reported the music press but ‘il faudrait quelque vivacité’. Another paper detected a spark, ‘elle s’anime, s’échauffe, et on l’applaudit’, but evidently it was a mirage. Fioravanti’s Le cantatrice villane gave her a second new role in which, alongside Fanny Persiani, she acquitted herself well, and on 15 March she took the part of Climène in Pacini’s Saffo.
The other grand première of the season was the first performance (7 January 1842) of Rossini’s Stabat Mater. The star quartet of the Italiens took the solo roles, and Emma and Grisi introduced the soon to be famous ‘Quis est homo’.
However, at the end of this season, Mme Albertazzi was not re-signed for the next: ‘peu regreattable sous la rapport du talent’ sniffed an unfavourable paper, ‘à tort ou à raison, les habitués de l'Opéra-Italien ne l'aimaient pas, et il fallait leur complaire, car ils paient’ explained another. Whatever the reason, the management of the Italiens wanted no more of Mme Albertazzi, and once she was gone, of course, she was loved again, and her successors (including the Cenerentola of Pauline Garcia) were often unfavourably compared with her and her past performances.
Rumours of a return to La Scala, and again of New York, were fluttered around, but in fact Emma Albertazzi went off to Trieste, in replacement for Frezzolini, until Christmas, then visited Venice, and when she did appear at La Scala (20 January 1843) it was in concert. She gave her ‘Una voce poco fa’ and a ‘tribute to Malibran’ and won rave reviews. I spot her in Genoa and in Marseille, at some stage, a third daughter, Fanny, was born, and in early 1843 it was announced that she would be visiting London, for concerts only.
On 1 May 1843, Emma Albertazzi opened at London’s Princess Theatre playing the role of Adina in L’Elisir d’amore. London welcomed her back: ‘A very accomplished cantatrice and much in favour with the public’ but found Adina ‘a character far too lively for this lady’s style of acting. She sang, however, very beautifully’ ‘she sustained the part with great talent and was deservedly applauded’.
She sang in The Siege of Rochellefor Balfe’s Benefit, and took another turn in La gazza ladra (17 July), while simultaneously appearing in a heavy roster of concerts in London, and with the end of her engagement at the Princess’s, around Britain. However, in September came the report from Liverpool that she was again ill and reference was made to ‘growing languor and repugnance to exertion’.
For something like a year, I lose Emma Albertazzi. There is a Mdlle Albertazzi at Drury Lane, but it is Sarah. There is a Signor F Albertazzi and Madame touring in opera in America, but it isn’t them. They are called Filippo and Matilda. Emma must have been rather more ill this time. But she returned. In October 1844 she can be seen singing in concert in Brighton, with Sarah, and the rumours are once more alive. Mr Bunn wants to hire her. Mr Maddox wants her back at the Princess’s Theatre where a new opera by Loder is awaiting. The composer does not want Helen Condell, he is willing to wait… But Emma did not accept any operatic offers, if they were made. On 18 January 1845, Emma Victorine Sarah Violet Albertazzi was born. A fourth daughter.
Instead she took to the 1845 concert season, and when she appeared at the Philharmonic Society on 31 March, giving ‘Non piu di fiori’ and joining Miss Rainforth and Fred Lablache in ‘Soave contento’, the response was staggering ‘magnificent .. [she] bids fair to outshine all competitors during the coming season. She was never in such fine voice and her style is perfecting by experience. Once more let us ask why she is not at the Italian opera? What contralto have we or are we likely to have to equal her on the boards of Her Majesty’s Theatre?’ Once more, reference was made to Malibran.
In the winter months, I spot Emma singing in concert in Vienna (Otto Nicolai’s concert 30 October), by March 1846 she is back in London, and once again featured on the concert platform, until 29 June when she returned to the stage, singing Cinderella at the Surrey Theatre. ‘[She] delighted the audience by her purity of style and delicacy of her execution of the music, and considering the dearth of good stage vocalists we cannot help regretting that for so many years so fine a singer has been so seldom heard…’ She played in Fra Diavolo and in L’Elisir d’amore during the Surrey season, and then she moved on to the Princess’s, where Loder’s opera was sill awaiting. In the interim, the role of Giselle in The Night Dancers had been (re)written to suit the talents of Mlle Nau. It was florid and now decidedly soprano. But Emma Albertazzi took it on, and although it ‘taxed her powers’ the role was undoubtedly suited to her talents. ‘Though she seemed to labour under physical weakness, [she] acted with feeling and sung with purity and finish’ ‘although her voice is of a very different quality and register from the French vocalist, yet her performance has been very satisfactory’ ‘most rapturous applause from all parts of the house’.
During the course of the first performance, Emma’s dress caught fire. She stood, sensibly, quite still whilst the tenor Allen and the bass Walton extinguished the flames, and clad in just the skeleton of the dress, she finished the performance. She seemed, reported the press, slightly frightened but more concerned at the disorder of her dress.
The success, or not, of The Night Dancers was debated by the critics. The grateful Albertazzi flinging her arms around the neck of Mr Allen, claimed one writer, had saved the show, and turned it into a popular success. Another murmured that the opera was in need of a prima donna of ‘more vocal talent than Mme Albertazzi can now command’… The Night Dancers would go on to be one of the most popular of all Victorian English operas. However, it would go without Emma Albertazzi. Part way into the run, she withdrew to give birth to Sarah Henrietta Mary Albertazzi. The fifth daughter. The press didn’t seem to realise what had occurred, and one spoke of ‘in the event of her recovering’. ‘She had ‘abandoned the stage’, reported another.
But it seems she was indeed ill. In January 1847, Emma again took to the concert stage. Her appearances, however, were few. On 30 March she sang at one of Mr Allcroft’s oversized concerts and on 12 April she was due to sing at Mr Cooper’s concert at Bristol. But she cancelled. Emma had sung for the last time in public. Five months later, she died at her home in St John’s Wood, London. Aged thirty-two.
Her husband, forced to fend for himself at last, took a job as a box keeper at Covent Garden. A Benefit was staged for the five motherless girls. The Queen dowager sent 10 guineas, the Queen followed suit. Then Giulia Grisi sent fifty. And the making of fiction (?) could start. One book I have read suggests that Emma Albertazzi died … from the consequences of an abortion! Stendahl refers to her as ‘the mistress of the Duc d’Ossuna’
Much had been written, during her lifetime, about Emma Albertazzi’s voice. One writer, analysing after her death, averred that she had had three distinct registers, soprano, mezzo and contralto. The middle, he assured, was the best. But the combination was exceptional. Another gave her range as low E to top C ‘very full and rich in quality … we hardly know any singer whose tones are so touching’. As for her much criticised ‘coolness’ on the stage, there were those who found it ‘a more than acceptable substitute for the rant and exaggeration of many singers who possess more anima and less voice’. But others wanted ‘theatricality’. When Annie Romer, a much-liked young vocalist, followed where Emma had led, singing The Night Dancers at the Princess’s Theatre, a critic wrote ‘she falls short of her predecessor Mme Albertazzi in all the requisites which constitute a vocalist of superior class’ …
But people had ceased, years earlier, to describe the Albertazzi voice. You had to go back to her early days to find a real descriptive passage, like this one, from Le Monde dramatique:
‘une jolie taille, des contours délicats, des mouvements nobles et gracieux, les traits de son visage son purs et empreints d’une expression tender et naïve; sa chevelure est assez brune, ses yeux forts beaux et du couleur bleu-de-mer . Sa voix de mezzo-soprane a un timbre doux et argentin qui flatte agréablement l’oreille, elle émet les sons avec clarté et netteté toutes les fois que cette intéressante cantatrice ne fait pas d’efforts, et que le rôle qu’elle remplit se trouve proportionné à la puissance de ses moyens…’
Francesco Albertazzi died in London in 1857.
Sarah Howson (b Croydon c 1824; d Croydon 1895) continued her career in the opera houses of Europe, including the Paris Italiens, until she wed, 8 May 1850, Charles Egg.
Clelia Albertazzi (Mrs Jean-Baptiste Valckeneare, b Milan 6 December 1832; d Stockton-on-Tees 24 November 1887) went on to a fine career in opéra-bouffe, and her two daughters both took to the musical stage.
Andrea Costa tried to capitalise on his ‘notoriety’ by publishing a four-part singing treatise, and is said, eventually, to have won his lawsuit. But, apparently, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Fétis recounts (on I know not what authority) that thereafter he could find no pupils.
Mary Mecovino (b Ireland 1805; d 12 Pembridge Villas, Bayswater 20 March 1885), who was actually Irish and almost certainly née McAvaney, apparently ‘married’ a Mr Malone and, widowed, settled down as a ‘teacher of music and singing’ in Marylebone with her mother and her daughter, Kate. She, and her pupils appeared occasionally in Home Counties concerts in the ‘fifties.
And over in Australia, the Howson family established a whole dynasty of vocalists of whom the best-remembered, today, is another Emma Howson, who went down in history as the creator of the role of Josephine in HMS Pinafore. And as ‘the niece of Madame Albertazzi’.
Postscriptum. I notice on ebay and abebooks a series of letters written by Emma ... just the sort of thing I'd have snapped up greedily half a century ago. They really ought to be in a theatre museum ... but the vendor has kindly transliterated them so I will append them here
About this Item: Couverture rigide. Condition: Bon. L.A.S., Birmingham, 22 septembre 1839, 1p in-8 (15 lignes), en italien. Elle écrit à Carlo Severini (1793-1838), régisseur du Théâtre Italien, car elle aura deux ou trois jours de retard pour revenir à Paris et elle espère que le baryton Antonio Tamburini (1800-1876) ne sera pas en colère contre elle. Il semble donc qu'ils devaient se produire ensemble dans un opéra, probablement pour Don Juan de Mozart qu'ils ont chanté ensemble à Londres en 1838. Par une autre lettre de 1836, on apprend que ce rôle avait été repoussé, et il ne semble pas qu¿elle joua Donna Elvira avant la tournée à Londres en 1838. Belle lettre, peu commun. Seller Inventory # 002922
About this Item: Couverture rigide. Condition: Bon. L.A.S., [paris ?], 30 octobre 1836, ½p in-8 (7 lignes), en italien. Elle écrit à Carlo Severini (1793-1838), régisseur du Théâtre Italien à propos d'un remède qui coûte 4.60 francs et elle lui demande la somme. Peu commun. Seller Inventory # 002921
About this Item: Couverture rigide. Condition: Bon. L.S. (lettre de son mari, contresignée avec 2 lignes autographes), sd [ca.1836], 1p in-4 (17 lignes), en italien. La lettre est écrite et signée par Francesco Albertazzi (L.A.S.) et contresignée par Emma Albertazzi et est adressée à Carlo Severini (1793-1838), régisseur du Théâtre italien. Il est question de Filippo Celli (1782-1856), ancien chanteur d'opéra bouffe, devenu professeur de chant à Munich puis Londres et compositeur d'opéras. En tant que professeur, il eut notamment pour élèves Emma Albertazzi et la soprano Giulia Grisi (1811-1869). Albertazzi demande, au nom de lui et de son épouse, que Severini accepte de donner à Celli la somme de 1000 francs, de la part d'Emma. Emma Albertazzi ajoute une petite formule polie de 2 lignes pour pousser Severini a accepter. On joint la L.A.S. de Filippo Celli, Mardi 13 décembre, 2p in-8 (35 lignes), en italien. Il parle de son besoin urgent de trouver 1000 francs, dans la semaine, et demande à Francesco Albertazzi de contacter Severini pour lui. On joint 2 L.A.S. & 1 C.A. de Francesco Albertazzi à Severini, principalement à propos de sa femme. Bon ensemble, peu commun. Seller Inventory # 002923
About this Item: Couverture rigide. Condition: Bon. L.A.S., 13 janvier 1836, 1p in-4 (10 lignes), en italien. Elle écrit à Carlo Severini (1793-1838), régisseur du Théâtre Italien, qui lui a fait une offre d'embauche pour décliner celle-ci qu'
elle ne peut accepter, en raison, semble-t-il, du salaire proposé qui devait être insuffisant. L'avenir montre qu'ils trouvèrent un terrain d'entente puisqu¿'lbertazzi travailla pour le théâtre italien fin 1836. On joint la L.A.S. de Carlo Severini, 12 janvier 1836, 2p in-8 (21lignes), en italien. Dans cette lettre, il semble que Severini propose une somme de 4000 francs pour qu'Albertazzi soit au Théâtre Italien du 1er Octobre 1836 au 31 mars 1837 quand elle en demandait 10000. Il indique aussi les modalités de paiement. Beau document, peu commun. Seller Inventory # 002920
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