Monday, May 17, 2021

Emily Sutton: the castigated diva

The trouble with publishing a book, or an article, on an untouched subject, a piece over which you have laboured for a decade and more, is that, as soon as the thing is set in cold, black type, and has set off around the world, you discover the ONE piece of information that you were lacking ... Well, it is over three years since my Victorian Vocalists came out and, yes, today that happened.

One of the hundred biographies in the book is that of Mrs Emily Sutton, one of the earliest of 'American' international sopranos. American with quotes, because nobody really knows for sure. In fact, until Victorian Vocalists, nobody had carefully investigated Mrs Sutton and attempted a sizeable biographical notice. And although my effort was what you might call 'the best so far', it still had a distressing number of ?s and perhapses and whatever happeneds in it.  Today, I was able to remove a few of those. So I'm going to reprint the amended article here ...

SUTTON, Mrs Emily [ka Fantoni] [née MANNERS, Emily] (b ?New Orleans ?15 March 1814; d unknown, Italy)


What Mrs Sutton was or wasn’t will probably never be known. Neither whether she had talent or not, nor just exactly who she was. Because so much puff, rubbish, burlesque and pure fiction was written about her in her few years on the American musical scene that it is almost impossible to winnow much undoubted truth therefrom. Mrs Sutton was, undoubtedly, one of the ‘first American prime donne’. A fact which, normally, one would expect would win her lavishings of praise in the native press. But it didn’t. She became the subject of a newspaper war: one editor favouring her extravagantly, the other responding by damning her and ridiculing her. One of those Complete Encyclopaedia of Music booksissuing from one John Weeks Moore of Boston, in 1854, purported to tell her real story: taking her from debuts in Paris and Italy via the court of Louis Philippe to France, New York and Havana … In 1854 the lady was certainly alive, though long departed from America. She would have, doubtless, been delighted that Mr Moore chopped five years off her age. Is the rest of his recital any more trustworthy?


I don’t see why she should say she was born in New Orleans if she weren’t. It would have helped had someone divulged her maiden name (which I didn't discover for years), but that always seemed to slip out of the stories: she was, for all public purposes, seemingly born as a married woman. Her fans just said she was of a distinguished English family and her mother was Italian. She certainly became a married woman at a young age. Our first verifiable fact comes from a shipping list of 15 August 1833 for the brig Agnes, sailing from Marseille to New York and bearing Captain Henry Edward Sutton (29), his wife Emily (19) and daughter Emily (6 months). So, presumably, Emily became Mrs Sutton at 17 or 18. In France?

No one ever says what Captain Sutton was a Captain of, and when and where he met and wed his Emily. Just that they were supposed to have had lots of money and Emily only sang for pleasure, although Bordogni, Rossini, Donizetti (haha! We’re talking Paris here!) et al tried to persuade her otherwise, until the United States Bank collapsed and they lost all their money.


My next piece of Mrs Sutton ephemera is an advertisement for a concert by the New York Sacred Music Society, 8 March 1838, for the Benefit of the local poor. Mrs Sutton is billed as making ‘her first appearance’. Hmmm. They probably mean her first American appearance. First New York? Or not. Her first public appearance? Things apparently went well, and on 28 March the lady gave a concert of her own at City Hall. Apparently she caused ‘quite a sensation’. So she gave another, this time allied with Henry Russell, before a Farewell do on 23 April, after which the Suttons sailed back to England and thence to Italy.


Perhaps to Paris, too, for a bust in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, allegedly from this date, represents ‘Madame Sutton, artiste Américaine’.


I can only find her, on the platform, in Europe, in Bologna on 7 June 1839 in concert for the ‘cellist Bohrer singing her ‘Casta Diva’ and duets with Manfredini and Statuti. There were doubtless more such.


On 19 October 1840, the Suttons arrived back in New York once more, on the good ship Emerald out of Le Havre. Mrs Sutton came back with a certain amount of puff, which was mostly overblown by the New York Herald. And hereupon Mrs Sutton came to grief. Her concert of 9 December, her ‘Casta Diva’ and Niobe and her own ‘Columbia, Best Loved Land’ (music by Proch) did not live up to the ‘ballyhoo’, the reviews were affrontedly lukewarm, and the Herald’s Mr Bennett took it as a personal insult. And all the press silly business started.

The lady went to Boston, where she received a more measured hearing while, back in New York, the Herald raved about a clique against the American vocalist from the ‘English singers’ in town – the Woods, the Seguins and co. Yet when the St George’s Society gave its concert at the National Theatre (2 January 1841), Mrs Sutton, alone, represented America on the bill … alongside the Woods, the Seguins, the Horns, Miss Poole, Miss Inverarity, Braham, Manvers, Giubilei, Horncastle and the lone Italian, de Begnis. It was a bill to equal a fashionable London concert, and I can’t find anyone to say Mrs (always Mrs in America, never Madame) Sutton was hideously outclassed. In fact, when Mrs Wood gave a concert in Boston a week later, the local press opined that although she had a better natural voice than Mrs Sutton they preferred listening to Mrs Sutton singing Italian music. Since there were few, if any, English-singing sopranos at the time to equal Mrs Wood, that was saying something.


Mrs Sutton sang Mandane to the Artabanes of Braham on 5th January at the Park Theatre, and a week later, the two ladies came face to face. On 11 January 1841, both appeared in Philadelphia as Norma. Mrs Wood sang Bellini’s opera in the translation made for her by Joseph R Fry, Mrs Sutton had a new translation written by her husband. The Sutton version played Philadelphia’s so-called National Theatre (a former horse circus), and for the occasion the prima donna was supported by the Inverarity sisters: Barbara as a delightful Adalgisa and Mrs Martyn – with a moustache – as Pollio!

Press ink immediately splattered everywhere. The only thing most people agreed upon was that Sutton’s adaptation was vile. So vile, in fact, that his wife sang her music in the original Italian. How well did she sing it? No one I can find tells us. Mrs Wood was reported to have triumphed. ‘The great American vocalist’ (do I detect sarcasm?) was said to have ‘done for Norma’. The same journalist printed the box office takings – grim – before going on to say that the local press, which had given good notices, had been suborned by Mrs Sutton’s manager and the piece had been taken off. Actually, it played a week, after which the team tried a couple of nights of Artaxerxes, after which they were supposed to restart Norma …

But 17 February Mrs Sutton and her two operas were back at New York’s Park Theatre, and in spite of all the naysaying (and the replacement of the female Pollio by Braham as tenor), Norma stayed on the bills until the end of March.

One paper which seemed not to be part of the wordy war commented ‘in spite of absurd puffing [she] won her way to a high place in public estimation’.

Next, Mrs Sutton went on the concert trail. She sang in performances with the violinist Leopold Herwig, with the tenor Carlo Antognini, and the result was the same. In some places she was acclaimed the greatest singer and the best voice America had, and elsewhere she was accused of all evils. When she returned to New York’s Apollo Rooms in concert (22 September), The New World, her chief hater, accused her of singing out of tune, dropping her ‘h’s and generally being ridiculous.


Boston, however, continued to have other ideas and other critics. When she gave a concert with violinist John Nagel, the press spoke of her ‘great merits as a vocalist’ and told how she was ‘received with extravagant enthusiasm’. ‘We do not hesitate to rank Mrs Sutton among the best singers we have heard here, not so much on account of her pre-eminent natural talents as on account of the most excellent cultivation that she has given her voice. The lower and middle rang of her tones are exquisitely beautiful whilst the highest notes are somewhat sharp and thin. Her style of singing is in the richest Italian style, yet she does not overload with ornaments and they are always in good taste and succeed in execution.  Her intonation is of a bold and spotless purity and her crescendo and decrescendo, her swelling of the voice in its evenness, in preserving the purity of the tone all the time (a most rare beauty), is perfect.’

The Dramatic Mirror wrote of her as ‘a lady of commanding talent, her vocal powers are unquestionable and her science of the highest order’.

The Music Magazine proffered in a measured way: ‘Mrs Sutton, with many fine vocal qualities, is incessant in her study and practice and frequently produces the most startling and fine effects from her reading and delivery of the composers whose work she executes. There is much taste in her singing and she always sings in tune, although some of her upper notes are thin. The thing to be most deprecated in this lady is her action, which is deficient in grace... (and) cannot but detract from her effectiveness as a public artist.’ ‘The Seguins are a bar to her engagement at the Park’, gossiped the chatty press. And, effectively, it seems that Edward Seguin was, not unreasonably, refusing to allow his wife to play second roles to Mrs Sutton’s prima donna.


And so Mrs Sutton went briefly off to Havana for an Italian Opera Company run by Don Francisco Marti y Torrens, which in February 1842 returned to New Orleans for a two month run. Isabella Ober-Rossi was the leading lady, and the only role which Mrs Sutton seems to have played was Amina in La Sonnambula (2 April 1842). She was now billed as Signora E F de Sutton, or Mrs Fantoni Sutton, allegedly in reference to her Italian ancestry.

The New World continued its campy persecution through the pen of journalist W Whitman: ‘The fact is, La Signora Fat-oni is only a second rate singer, and about a third rate musician … Next week we shall have Forrest and Clifton here, so that we do hope our fair, fat, and forty friend La Signora, as she loves to be called, will stay away until we send for her, and that will be a long while first’, worrying his bone ‘Nobody but Bennett ever tried to persuade the people that Mrs Sutton could sing, but heaven spare us from ever seeing her attempt to act’. She was twenty-eight. The same paper (and probably the same writer) published a piece suggesting that she was not American, but Irish, and the columns followed one upon the other.


Mrs Sutton played concerts around the country, introducing her little daughter ‘little Emelina Sutton, not yet seven years old’ (she was nine) in a Fanny Elssler-style Cracovienne (‘The Young Cracovian Maid’) while the Captain joined his wife in duet and announced his intention to translate and direct more operas. I see her 6 June 1843 top-billed at Vincent Wallace’s concert at the Apollo Saloon, and advertising lessons from 77 Chambers Street. Then it was announced that, at the beginning of August, they were going again to Italy ‘perhaps never to return’ ...  And after a ‘Farewell Concert’ at the Tabernacle ('Perche non ho', 'Casta Diva', 'Regnava nel silenzio', 'she never sang better than on this occasion') they apparently did exactly that, and the Mrs Sutton episode and its surrounding circus came pretty much to an end.


Report came back to America that La signora Sutton-Fantoni was singing at Naples, and then at the Teatro Carolino in Palermo, but 12 June 1845 the Cabot, out of Palermo, touched in at New York, carrying the three Suttons. The usual sort of gossip ensued half-heartedly: there would be a Mrs Sutton opera company in New York….  But there wasn’t. The Herald excused: ‘Mrs Sutton, we understand, has returned in very impaired health, and will probably never sing again before any audience in this country.’


The Sutton family next appear to me in 1852-3, when Emily junior [‘Emelina Luisa Sutton’], ‘a pupil of Michele Ruta’, is singing in Betly and Valenza’s Paquita at the Teatro Nuovo, Naples. Emelina became the wife of the respected teacher, critic and composer, Ruta (1827-1873), and, in 1854 (23 March), when his opera, Leonilda, was produced at Naples’s unfashionable Teatro San Ferdinando, both mother (in the title-role) and daughter were featured in the cast, alongside a young America tenor, who would achieve more success than any of them: Henry Squires. 

But the Neapolitan State Archives records of Emelina’s marriage (18 August 1853) hold, perhaps the most convincing pieces of evidence on this ‘mysterious’ family. The bride’s parents are listed as Errico Eduardo Sutton and his wife Emelina Fantoni. And Emelina junior is said to be 17 years old, and born in … Tours, France! Do we believe this certificate? We know that Miss Sutton wasn’t 17, but 20 (b February 1833) … but the rest? 


Three years later, the Rutas had a daughter (they had five or six other children, too), and it was she who would bring the family some real musical celebrity, which lasted until the twentieth century. [Teresa Emelina] Gilda Ruta (Countess Raffaele Cagnazzi, b Naples 13 October 1856; d St Vincent’s Hospital, New York 27 October 1932) made a noteworthy career as a pianist and composer. Her son, Thomas or Tomasso (b Naples 23 August 1878), was a violinist and music teacher, and her daughter, Anna, also practised music.


The Naples Archives also hold the record of Henry Edward Sutton's death at Strada Santa Lucia 21 on 18 January 1857, 'aged 60'. He was listed as having been born in London, father Henry Sutton, and he was married to one Emily Manners ... well, here we are at last. Hello Mrs S! Phoney Fantoni.


So, was Mrs Sutton (whoever and whatever she was) a good singer? Well, if we excise the trumpetings of Bennett and the camp posturings of Whitman, we seem to be left with a residue in line with Ireland’s: ‘Mrs Sutton possessed a fine voice and a thorough musical education. Her style was florid and her execution frequently brilliant, but she lacked the impassioned manner and the practiced skill that were required’.


And the verdict seems to be that, any chance she might have had of making a career of any sort in America was certainly damaged by the two egotistical journalists and perhaps by her own, and her husband’s, clumsy reaction to them.


Well, the piece of evidence, which contained Mrs Sutton's real name came to me from Naples. I was able to help Neapolitan scholar Marielva Torini with some bits of information, and laughingly added 'now find me Emily Fantoni Sutton's grave'. Well, she hasn't yet, but she promptly came back with Henry Sutton's death certificate, which held the unhoped for information that his wife was ... Emilia née Manners ...  So one more operatic Mystery bites the dust ...

Although there is much more to discover about the lady, at least we now know for whom we are looking!

So I'm having a big plate of rather bad store-bought mezzalune (Signor Giovanni di Sebastiano who 

'crafted' them was probably Joe Sebastian from New Orleans) and a vast Bloody Gina to celebrate.  I wonder what will turn up tomorrow.

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