Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Anna Belocca: the missing mezzo .. no more?


Found this nice photo today, so thought Anna deserved a blog ...

BELOCCA, Anna De [BEL(L)OKH] (b St Petersburg 4 January ?1854; d Paris 27 January 1919)


The mezzo-soprano known as Anna de Belocca was hailed by some as a ‘great’ of the operatic world during the 1870s. Quite how much of the hailing was genuine, and how much the result of influence, beauty and charm we cannot know; suffice it that, after an early career of much interest, she settled into a place as rather a secondary star before suddenly vanishing from the world of music.


‘Mdlle de Belocca’ appeared in Paris in early 1873. The story – which may well have been true – was that she was the daughter of a gentleman named de Bèllokh, ‘savant distingué, [qui] est aujourd'hui Conseiller d'État près la cour de Russie’. Those words were thereafter (in whichever language) used to describe her parent in the many biographical notes of the lady which appeared around the world. Sometimes he was Count [de] Bel(l)okh as well. The only independent snippet which I can find which mentions him, refers to him as a ‘conseiller de l’instruction publique’ which, I presume, is something like an advisor on education. Which seems reasonable, if he were a ‘savant’, but not perhaps as grand as generally hinted.


After the usual ‘don’t let your daughter on the stage’ bit, she was apparently put to study at the St Petersburg conservatoire, under Henriette Nissen-Saloman, and placed at some stage into the sphere or hands of Moritz Strakosch. One fanciful bit of journalism has her confided by father to Strakosch’s care, to run her whole career, from the beginning. Strakosch was, of course, the impresario-musician who claimed Adelina Patti (his sister-in-law) as his original pupil, but who was also responsible in his time for the risible débâcles of such black holes as Louise Nicholson (Nikita) and Mary Brown (Stella Faustina). 


Anyhow, from Russia, Anna went to Paris, where, under the patronage of the well-and-later-royally-connected Madame la Baronne de Caters (née Lablache) she continued her studies under Nicolas Lablache. Madame de Caters, who was a prized vocalist in the best Parisian churches, introduced her protégée quietly at the Église de Saint-Pierre de Chaillot, l’Église Saint-Eugène and the Chapelle de Versailles, before she was brought out publicly, at the Holy Week concerts at the Odéon. The programme included Saint-Saëns’s ‘Cantique des Cantiques’, César Franck’s Redemption, and an ‘Ave Maria’ ‘chanté par madame de Katers et madame Belocca, une comtesse russe, engagée à l'Opéra de Moscou à raison de vingt-cinq mille francs par mois pour six mois’. Tiens, really? Strakosch and his ‘merde de taureau’ have clearly arrived. Quite what Anna sang is not clear, but one writer mentioned that ‘she was applauded in a phrase of ten bars’. But the Paris society and music press had spotted the pretty new singer: ‘La voix de Mlle Belocca est un contralto du plus pur métal, ne descendant pas caverneux à la cave, ne montant point essoufflé au grenier’. In other words, mezzo-soprano.

Strakosch was, in spite of his publicity gaffes, to prove his worth. The Italian Opera of Paris was due to re-open, and the manager was to be -- Strakosch. So, 15 October 1873, he launched Anna at the Salle Ventadour as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Delle Sedie was Figaro, Zuchelli was Bartolo, and Brignoli, Almaviva. She was young, she was pretty, she was unembarrassed (‘self possession astonishing’), she acted delightfully, and her voice was completely suited, as was her person, to the role. To the delight of the cognoscenti, she sang the music in its original mezzo-soprano key, skipped easily through the frills of ‘Una voce’ and was a ‘success from first to last … indiscutable’. Her modest selection of the Russian song ‘Solové’, from Alexander Seroff’s opera Rogneda, for the lesson scene was varied by ‘Il segreto’ and later by pieces of Mignon, Grandval’s Piccolino and by Mme Willy Rothschild’s setting of ‘Si vous n’avez rien à me dire’. 

While the music press quibbled over what was to come next, Anna waited till the new year before, on 6 January 1874, coming out in a second role: La Cenerentola. The notices were good, but something of a let down after the reaction to her Rosina, and when, 3 March, she teamed with Marie Belval in Semiramide, there was a division of opinion. Some praised her to the skies (‘already the most engaging of all living Arsaces’), some found her too inexperienced and young to play the role, but all agreed ‘nature has gifted her with a voice so pure and sympathetic …’ and with an ‘absence of all violence or obvious effort in her singing’. Cenerentola would not become a regular in Anna’s repertoire, Semiramide, a little more.


This year, come Holy Week, she sang the Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle, not in a church but on the stage of the Ventadour, 3 May she took a Benefit in Barbiere and the 3rd act of Vaccai’s Romeo e Giulietta with Bianca Donadio, which act the two ladies repeated for charity (3 June) as the season tolled to its end. 

‘The only real success of the season is Madlle Belocca, a Russian lady with personal attractions (a supreme necessity in these days) and a most magnificent contralto voice’ reported a Paris correspondent to Britain. And Britain reacted with plenty of column space for the new star who was soon coming their way. Only, in a manner that would characterise her career, she didn’t come. Not yet, anyhow. She went home to Russia, returning to France in September. But not to the Ventadour. This year, there was another manager at the Italiens, so Mlle de Belocca gave her Masses at the Salle Herz, and then whisked off to the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels to give them her Rosina (with the brindisi and Mme Rothschild’s song), then to The Hague and to Lille, and in January 1875 to Marseille, Nice and Monte Carlo, later to Bordeaux and Pau, all under the management of … M Strakosch.

It wasn’t until 24 April 1875 that she made it to London’s Italian opera. She opened in Il Barbiere with Brignoli, again, as her Almaviva and ‘her success was unquestionable’. A month later it was Le Nozze di Figaro with Titiens as the Countess and the Belgian soprano Pernini as Susanna. London was used to Zélie Trebelli’s interpretation of Cherubino, but, though Anna played it differently, she scored again. During the season, she sang in several concerts – at Brighton, with Christine Nilsson, at Buckingham Palace giving ‘Si la stanchezza’ with Nicolini – and, in September, appeared at the Norwich Festival, where she took part in the Stabat Mater (with Lemmens Sherrington, Lloyd, Guy and Foli) and gave ‘Di tanti palpiti’, Glinka’s Lullaby, Cherubini’s ‘Ave Maria’, ‘Connais-tu le pays’, ‘Ah! quel giorno’ and ‘Voi che sapete’ in the concerts. She was decidedly well liked, but the Festival experience would not be one that she would repeat.

In the latter part of 1875 and the early months of 1876, she toured. I see her at Stuttgart (‘Die sterne ernsterer Grösse’), at Colmar, Paris, Nantes, singing in Mignon at Lille, and guesting at the theatres at Basle and Strasbourg, before she boarded the ship Germanic, in the company of her protector and a certain Russian Madame Saltarelli, and headed, as a Strakosch ‘pupil’ might, for America, for a New York season under Strakosch and his brother, Max.

The venture was not entirely successful. They opened at the Academy of Music 17 April 1876 with Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Anna scored largely. The press were delighted: ‘a grand success’, ‘Youth, beauty and voice combined to make a grand operatic impersonation’,  ‘a consummate actress and an accomplished singer’, ‘We have rarely seen better acting on the lyric stage’, and, after listing the great Rosinas New York had previously seen -- Bosio, Sontag, Alboni, Lagrange, Patti, Gassier, Parepa – concluded in her favour: ‘She acted and sang as if the part were written for her’. Well, it certainly was, more than for the six soprano ladies on the list! The New York press, however, was not to be schemozzled by Strakosch’s claims of ‘great’. She was delightful, she was perfect in the role but from there to ‘greatness’… Large articles on the new prima donna appeared in the press, it was announced that she would next appear in Mignon, but she didn’t. The blame went largely upon the managers: they had surrounded their star with an underpar cast, including a ‘nearly voiceless’ Ferranti as Figaro and Anna was carrying the whole affair on her back. The season collapsed, while Strakosch supplied columns about sick tenors and a re-start … by which time impresario and star were already on their way to the West Coast, with tenor Tom Karl and the useful Tagliapietra in tow.

They opened at San Francisco’s Baldwin Theatre 7 June 1876 for a series of concerts in which Anna displayed a large, ever-changing repertoire of pieces (‘in seven languages’), including both her standards, such as ‘Una voce’, ‘Di Tanti palpiti’, or ‘Connais-tu le pays’, as well as a wider selection: Glinka’s Cradle Song, Wallace’s ‘Good night and pleasant dreams’, ‘Si vous n’avez rien à me dire’, ‘La Mandolinata’, ‘Voi che sapete’, ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’, Faure’s ‘Hallelujah d’Amour’, ‘Adelaide’, the Butterfly song from La Contessa d’Amalfi, the goatherd’s song from Dinorah, Malibran’s Rataplan, Gounod’s ‘Maid of Athens’, ‘A Mile from Edinboro Town’, a Spanish song by Orlanova, ‘Der Wanderer’, the Salutaris and trio from the Petite Messe Solennelle, Godard’s ‘Dites-moi’, a Ricci Valse, and duets with each of the men. 

San Francisco proved extremely receptive, the press noticed her ‘increasing popularity’, and Strakosch scheduled performances of both Il Barbiere and La Favorita, for which the aid of the now local Karl Formes was co-opted. And then it was back eastwards for more opera and more concerts (‘Belocca captured Baltimore’). Strakosch had freshened his company with soprano Maria Palmieri and tenor Brignoli, with whom La Favorita, Il Barbiere and Semiramide were given in Philadelphia and New York, before they headed for Boston and Europe.


The press reported that Anna was headed for Madrid, but she escapes my gaze through most of 1877, save for a sighting in Yonkers in April and a few Parisian concerts, until she turns up in Ireland with the Mapleson company from Her Majesty’s Theatre, alongside Caroline Salla, Mila Rodani, Marie Roze, Alwina Valleria and Émilie Deméric Lablache. She appeared first as Nancy in Marta and then as Rosina, to the usual response -- ‘in a manner we have never seen surpassed for intelligence ...’, ‘her voice was marvellously pure and sympathetic … the ringing clearness of its very highest note proved of what it is capable’, ‘a character to be remembered’. She sang Urbano in Les Huguenots, Siebel in Faust, Cherubino and Zerlina in Don Giovanni as the company headed on to London where, beyond those roles, she played the part of Casilda in Ruy Blas. 

After another brief trip to Madrid, she returned for the next London season, but not to Mapleson. In the prospectus for Her Majesty’s she had been listed only for a couple of roles, so it was perhaps no surprise when she turned up, instead, at the rival establishment, at Covent Garden, 14 June 1878, alongside Mlle Cepeda and Gayarre in Les Huguenots (‘young and prepossessing artist … charm of voice and unaffected elegance of style’), following up as Siebel and in Flotow’s Alma l’Incantrice. Marietta Alboni had made a personal success in this unremarkable piece in Paris, and she came to London to repeat her role. Anna was cast as Zingaretta. Thus the two choicest real-register Rosinas of the era ended up, if not for long, playing opposite each other.


Back in Europe, she toured in concert, appeared at the Russian concerts of Nicolas Rubinstein in Paris, in La Favorita at Reims (‘Succès complète’), and in concert at Orléans, Tours, Angers and points beyond, returning to Covent Garden for the 1879 season. Covent Garden had now discovered Sofia Scalchi, who was cast in such roles as Arsace, Siebel and Urbano, while Rosina was taken by … Adelina Patti. Anna was little seen (‘on some few occasions Mlle Belocca has sung’), as Nancy to the Marta of Zare Thalberg or in the comic role of Lady Allcash in Fra Diavolo. She sang in the associated concerts at the Floral Hall, the Alexandra Palace, the Crystal Palace but it was pale stuff for a girl who had been hailed a ‘great’ a few seasons earlier.

 She spent the 1879-80 period in America, touring with a Strakosch company of limited appeal, and at the end of year with a more substantial Mapleson troupe headed by Campanini and Etelka Gerster. Now, she played Carmen, Pierotto in Linda di Chamounix, Maddalena in Rigoletto, Leonora in La Favorita, a surprising Ortrud in Lohengrin and, in the tradition of Trebelli, the 3rd geni in Zauberflöte. When the Mapleson troupe returned to London for the season, she remained with them and, 7 May 1881, appeared as Rosina, with del Puente and Ravelli, at Her Majesty’s Theatre. She repeated her Frédéric to the Mignon of Nilsson, and took the role of Martha/Pantalis in Mefistofele, before finally returning to France – ‘De retour d'une brillante et laborieuse saison en Amérique et en Angleterre, Mlle de Bellocca vient d'arriver à Paris, se préparant à partir pour Cauterets…’


Over the next few seasons she appeared in concert in Paris and the provinces, especially at Nice and Monte Carlo, with periodic visits to Russia, but, effectively, the major part of her career was over. My last glimpse of her on the operatic stage is in 1885, playing Martha in Faust at Monte Carlo. After 1887 she is gone from the world of music. In her early thirties.


Most biographies of Anna Bellokh end here. In a dead end. But mine doesn’t. 1887 was a crucial year for Anna. Moritz Strakosch died. 


Their son, Jacques Maurice de Belocca, was born on 12 April 1877, in Yonkers. I only tracked his existence down because – years later -- he started calling himself Mons Strakosch de Belocca. So the ‘Madame Strakosch and child’ travelling from America to Europe is not the legal Madame Strakosch – Amalia Patti -- and her daughters, but our Anna and little Jacques Maurice. Anyway, he and his mother can be seen at Paris’s rue Galvani 8 in the early years of the 20th century. Anna made the news one last time, (16 May 1910) when her car was run into at a Parisian crossroad and she was wounded to her face to the extent of 3,000 francs damages. A sum, seemingly, less than she had donated, not many years previously, to a charity for wounded Russian soldiers.


Paris remained ‘home’ for Maurice jr, so I would imagine it did so for his mother, too. And I imagine that she was dead by 1929, when he started sporting his double-barrelled surname. Ah!  I see a reference that she died in Paris in 1919. I wonder where that was discovered. Amalia Strakosch had died in Paris in 1915.


Maurice jr himself died in the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, at the age of 70, 5 July 1947. He was unmarried.


Unknown said...

the Revista de Espana (undecimo ano, tomo LXII) (1878) says "La Belocca, a Russian singer who made her debut in the Barber of Seville, made such a fiasco that she had to terminate her contract" so it looks like she got to Spain, if not with great success

Unknown said...

that was me (greg ralph) not unknown....