Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Adelina Patti (1843-1919) - Famed C19 Opera Star and Larger-Than-Life Character

Adelina Patti in 1863 (aged 20) by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Adelina Patti was one of the most famous opera singers of the C19, with an extraordinary bel canto technique.

Born in Madrid, she moved to America with her family as a child.

She made her operatic debut in the title role of Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the age of 16 at the Academy of Music in New York.

Following this with the technically difficult role of Amina in Bellini's 'La Somnambula' at 17 ...

Adelina Patti as Amina in Bellini's 'La Somnambula' at 17

... then many other major roles ...

Adelina Patti as Marguerite in Gounod's 'Faust'

Adelina Patti as Violetta in Verdi's 'La Traviata'

Adelina Patti as Esmeralda c1870

Adelina Patti as Marie in Donizetti's 'Daughter of the Regiment'

Apart from the great legend of her voice, Adelina Patti was a very much larger-than-life character ... and a very astute business woman.

As Anna Pavlova was later to do, she traveled the global for her work. But such travel then had it's hazards - not the least being the assurance of payment of a fee after a performance. For Patti, $5000 a night at the height of her powers.

The diva's solution was was novel and affective - that was to insist on her salary in gold before going on stage. Once, when offered only half before a performance, Patti put on one shoe and one foot on stage ... and declared she'd don on the other and begin the performance when the rest arrived. It did.

It was not uncommon in the C19 for singers to adapt their arias to best display their voices, particular techniques and individual sensibilities. After singing Rosita in Bellini's 'The Barber of Seville' with many of her own embellishments, the composer congratulated Patti with 'That was wonderful - who wrote it?'.

In what I imagine is a great urban myth about the singer, she is claimed to have trained a parrot to squawk 'Cash Cash' at particular points when negotiating an engagement.

Certainly Adelina Patti became very wealthy, purchasing Craig y Nos Castle in Wales in her mid 40s ...

Patti on a boat on the lake at Craig y Nos Castle

... where she had her very own opera house built ...

The diva often traveled in great, almost royal, style - in her own Pullman train carriage ...

Though this legend seems just out of our reach, there are some recordings of her singing.

The earliest was recently identified on a privately made brown wax cylinder of 1895 in which the diva is introduced as 'Patti' - with the aria following being 'The Laughing Song' from Auber's comic opera 'Manon' ...

The cylinder was discovered in the 1940's and transferred to an acetate 78 rpm disc by William Seltsam (1897-1968) of Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA.

The official canon has Patti first making recordings at her home Craig y Nos in 1905 with Landon Ronald at the piano ...

Adelina Patti 'Ah! non credea mirarti' from 'La Sonnambula' (1905)

Though the voice is much diminished, there's is still a thrill - particularly towards the end of the aria in the delicate pianissimo, the long even controlled trills, the attack and the florid almost wild coloratura runs.

There is also a record of Adelina Patti's speaking voice, made in 1905 but only issued in 1973 with her complete recordings. It is a message for her husband ...

... which is tender and heart-felt.

And which makes the legend real in a way that the singing voice does not.


  1. I've always treasured some of George Bernard Shaw's music criticism of Patti, the most famous being "Time has transposed Madame Patti down a third."

  2. hey paul

    shaw's wit certainly could be acerbic

    thought of you as i was posting this - just glossed over the surface of things

    did you think the brown wax cylinder (doesn't a 'brown cylinder' sound the equivalent of wholemeal bread!) is correctly ascribed? there seems some evidence but on purely vocal grounds? hard to tell given the quality and that the only other recordings are ten years later with patti then in her 60s



  3. Again, I thank you for uncovering another wonderful bit of cultural history. I had never heard of Patti but look forward to knowing more about her.

  4. hey AJ

    from your comment, you made me think how transitory fame can be - this most famous of C19 singers has now slipped into history and oblivion to the general public, as will those pounding round centre stage today

    but amazing to have any record of Patti to be able to sense her phenomenon