Maria Malibran - Fame and Tragedy August 06 2021
Daughter of the celebrated singer and voice teacher Manuel García, Maria Malibran was to become one of the most revered and influential singers of the first half of the 19th century.
Born in Paris in 1808, Maria Malibran started her journey from Paris. She was taken to Italy at the age of three, and made her stage debut was given at the age of just five, singing the role of a child in Paer's opera Agnese.
Like many musically precocious children, she absorbed the music going on around her naturally, and within days was delighting the audience by singing the music of the title character in the second act instead of her own. Before Malibran was vocally mature, she had an early career performing opera roles where a child was required. Shown on the right: Original 19th century hand-colored lithograph of Maria Malibran.
WHERE WAS MARIA MALIBRAN FROM?
Maria Felicia Malibran or Maria Felicitas García Sitches was born in a famous Spanish musical family in Paris on March 24th, 1808. Her mother Joaquina Sitches was an operatic singer and actress. Her father, Manuel García, was a great composer and an influential vocal instructor. Maria learned her first lessons from her father.
The older sister of the equally celebrated Pauline Viardot, Maria studied with her father. A volatile and exacting man, he was extremely unforgiving in her lessons, often reducing her to tears. There were even suggestions - and rumors in contemporary gossip columns - that her father sexually assaulted her; his behavior was certainly consistent with a controlling relationship.
Her father Manuel García wasn't her only teacher; she was just seven when she began studying solfeggi with Panseron in Naples.
Panseron had himself been a student of Salieri in Vienna, and had been recommended to him by Cherubini.
He was teaching singing at the Paris Conservatoire by 1824, and also contributed four operas to the Opéra Comique in the 1820s - La Grille du parc, Les deux cousines, Le Marriage Difficile, and L'Ecole de Rome.
His real achievement as a composer was the 200 or so popular songs he created, and his seven masses and other religious works. His reputation as a teacher was cemented by his writings on the subject, and his exercises and Méthode complete de vocalisation are still used today. Maria Malibran's piano teacher was Hérold, perhaps best known as the composer of the ballet La fille mal gardée.
Hérold was also tasked with finding singers for the Theatre Italien in Paris - he visited Italy for a period of four months, and became a great fan of Rossini's operas. The Garcia family went to London in 1817. Only nine years old, Maria already spoke fluent Italian, Spanish and French, but she quickly picked up a reasonable standard of English over the next two years, as well as working hard on her piano skills.
Additional vocal training took place with the great Giuditta Pasta. Born in Saronno in 1797, Pasta was from a Jewish family, and was known as a great role creator in the first half of the 19th century.
Donizetti's Anna Bolena was first performed in 1830, with Bellini's La Sonnambula and Norma the following year. She had an excellent reputation as a teacher, with English soprano Adelaide Kemble and contralto Emma Albertazzi amongst her noticeable successes.
Her soprano sfogato - a mezzo soprano voice with an extension achieved by hard work and solid technique - enabled her to sing in the mezzo soprano and contralto registers with equal ease.
Maria Malibran in La Sonnambula - Original drawing by John Herbert Rogers.
As for Malibran's own instrument, her initial vocal raw materials were considered to be unpromising. However, her father had decided that she was to be a singer, no matter what the cost might be to his daughter.
Pasta managed to extend the teenage Maria's upper and lower registers, presumably using the same techniques which allowed her to sing outside her own natural compass. This also gave Maria access to a greater dramatic vocal range than most of her contemporaries.
Maria's father continued to be brutal, and treated her as a money making machine rather than his own daughter. She learned to 'sing through her tears', as she later remarked.
THE DEBUT OF MARIA MALIBRAN
Garcia was engaged as a principal tenor in London when there was a crisis in the cast of the Rossini opera being staged at the King's Theatre. Pasta had been booked for a few nights only, and the other billed Rosina, Giuseppina Ronzi di Begnis, was undergoing some vocal issues following the collapse of her marriage.
By now, Malibran's vocal technique was reasonably secure, and considered good enough not only for her to sing in the chorus, but to take over Rosina in The Barber of Seville. She had at that point never appeared on a public stage as an adult singer, but her talent, youth, and appealing looks won the audience over, and 17 year old Maria was a huge hit, continuing in the role to the end of the season.
Malibran´s voice was vibrant, full of brightness and vigor. Without ever losing her flattering timbre, this velvet tone gave her much power of seduction in tender and passionate arias. Garcia asked for an incredibly high fee, which was readily accepted. Her season's salary was £500 - the equivalent of just under £25,000 today.
Maria Malibran - Oil painting.
Maria was, however, still learning her trade. The following year, Garcia put together an opera company comprised of the family plus a few others, and took Italian opera to America.
The performances took place at the Park Theatre in New York City - a building which boasted Marc Isambard Brunel as one of its architects, and which stood for 50 years. Built in 1798, the theatre was demolished after a fire in 1848.
The audiences were significantly less critical than the more knowledgeable European ones, and Maria quickly became lauded whilst still managing to develop as a singer and artist. Her appearances included Desdemona in Rossini's Otello, roles in Don Giovanni, Tancredi and Cenerentola, and also two operas written by her father - L'amante astuto and La Figlia dell'aria.
Maria´s father aggressively tried to control her and her career was something she wished to escape as quickly as possible, however, and a brief marriage provided her with the perfect exit. Her first husband was Francois Eugene Malibran, who was an apparently wealthy banker some 28 years her senior.
Her father bitterly objected to the match, realizing that Maria was looking for an escape, but Malibran provided Maria with the excuse she was looking for not to sing with her father's company any longer.
Unfortunately, the marriage was to be an unhappy one. Maria took the opportunity to retire from stage work when she first married, but her husband's failed business ventures meant he was bankrupt. She returned to Paris alone in September 1827 in order to earn money, and was introduced to Paris musical life by Countess Merlin as well as support and recommendations from Rossini.
In January of the following year, she made an amazingly successful appearance in the title role of Semiramide at the Académie Royale de Musique, leading to an eight year career in which she was largely unrivalled, and commanding fees which have rarely been equaled.
A trip to Italy in 1832 for two Bellini debuts - I Capuleti e i Montecchi and La Sonnambula - combined with her creating the title role in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at La Scala. Rossini was so taken with the abilities of the mezzo soprano that he continued to promote her vigorously, leading to her extremely successful Parisian career.
Actually, Malibran performed in most of the other major opera houses in Paris. However, she found herself in unwanted proximity to her father once again - Manuel Garcia was frequently cast opposite her, particularly in The Barber of Seville and Otello, something that was extremely uncomfortable for her personally and professionally.
6 sopranos and mezzo-sopranos of the first half of the 19th Century.
ARTISTRY AND VOICE
Contemporary descriptions of Malibran's voice might seem to contradict the esteem in which she was held - it was not considered beautiful in itself, and in the middle range it would appear to have been hollow and unfocussed.
However, her voice was quite unique and had tremendous range. She would regularly use a compass of three octaves in performance. and would seem to have switched between a sweet and girlish soprano, and a rich contralto. Her vocal agility was considerable, and she avoided her weak middle register by leaping across it, using her impressive technical ability to cover her shortcomings.
She was also described as a fine actress, something which wasn't necessarily looked for by audiences at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There was still a tendency by singers to hang onto the stock baroque gestures of the eighteenth century to depict emotion, but Malibran's acting was raw and naturalistic, and the impact was real.
Malibran seemed to suffer from extreme mood swings offstage, and brought these to her acting technique to reinterpret roles and make them her own - something which wouldn't have worked in the hands of a lesser artist.
SECOND MARRIAGE AND FINAL YEARS
There's no doubt Malibran burned the candle at both ends - she
would often sing three performances in a day; two operas back to back, then a private, well-paying booking at a private salon to increase her earnings even further.
However, in 1829 she fell in love again, to the Belgian violinist Charles de Bériot. Unfortunately, Maria was still married and unless she could obtain permission to divorce him, she would not be able to marry again.
She asked the Marquis de Lafayette - a French military leader who had fought against the English on the side of the American rebels - to push a law through parliament to enable her to divorce Eugene as quickly as possible, but with no luck.
María Malibran turned to her lawyers to help her, but nineteenth century divorce law moved slowly; it would take until 1836 for her to be successful, and she didn't marry Charles until 26th March 1836. In the seven years she had to wait, she gave birth to two children - Charles Wilfred in 1830, and a daughter in November 1832 who sadly did not survive.
Charles Wilfred would, in due course, become a piano professor at the Paris Conservatoire, with students including Maurice Ravel, and a reasonably successful composer with output including four piano concertos and a flute sonata. Society wasn't very forgiving to a couple living together outside of marriage, especially as Maria was technically still married, and even more unforgiving of a child born outside marriage.
The couple would return to their villa in a suburb of Brussels in between Maria's engagements to escape polite society. Maria's second marriage wasn't to last long. A few months after finally marrying Charles de Bériot, she was out riding with friends in a London park in July 1936. She fell from her horse, and hit her head on the ground sustaining an injury which left her insensible for a period.
She appeared to - mostly - recover, or at least well enough to continue performing, but suffered from a continuous headache and what were described as "nervous attacks". Concerts with de Bériot in Aix-la-Chapelle were successful, and she returned to England to perform at the Manchester Festival in September.
THE TRAGIC DEATH OF MARIA MALIBRAN
The journey back from Paris with de Bériot had been a quick one, as her schedule was busy. In a concert on 12th September - just a day after arriving - she sang a concert of 14 technically demanding pieces.
The following day, the 13th, and although clearly unwell, she sang again, both during the morning and in the evening.
Her concert on Wednesday 14th September was to be her last - she performed a thrilling "Sing Ye To The Lord", and a duet from Andronico with Rosalbina Caradori-Allan, a French operatic soprano. They even managed to give an encore of the duet, but during the applause Malibran fainted and was taken to her hotel room.
She never regained full consciousness and died nine days later, on Friday 23rd September, possibly from a rebleed of a subdural haematoma sustained during her July horse riding accident. De Bériot was so distraught that he left the country immediately, leaving Malibran's sister, Pauline, in charge of funeral arrangements.
She was initially buried in the collegiate church in Manchester, in the south aisle, but was re-buried in Lacken, in Brussels, soon after.
MARIA MALIBRAN´S INFLUENCE AND FAME
Maria Malibran was a famous singer through Europe and the USA
during the first third of the nineteenth century as any modern opera singer, and like Maria Callas a century later, she "set the world on fire".
Her appearances frequently induced mass hysteria and sell-out houses wherever and whenever she sang, and fans were known to faint when they met her.
Her 'rock star' status led to traffic being stopped in Venice, and to one theatre bearing a different name - hers - when she left to the one it had when she had arrived.
Malibran´s early death turned her into a legendary figure with writers and poets during the later 19th century. A film based on her life was made in 1943 (The Life and Loves of Maria Malibran), starring soprano Maria Cebotari, who also died young, at age 39. In the words of the impresario Alfred Bunn, "the mind was far too great for the body".
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