A recent soprano-and harp concert on 19 July 2018 at Menezes Braganza showcased, as the performers titled it, “A Musical Marriage”, the compositional output of a husband and wife.
Many of us will have heard of the husband-and-wife composer pair Robert and Clara Schumann; equally many will know of the Italian operatic composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), probably one of the most popular opera composers in history. But few will have heard of his first wife Isabella Angela Colbran (1785-1845), opera singer and composer of four collections of songs.
As her name might suggest, she was Spanishby origin, born in Madrid. She studied with voice teacher Girolamo Crescenti in Paris, and by the age of twenty had caught the attention of most of Europe with her singing.
Some accounts describe her as a dramatic coloratura soprano, while others peg her as a mezzo-soprano with a high extension, a soprano sfogato.
Her career spanned the Teatro della Scala Milan, the Teatro Comunale Bologna, and the Fenice Venice, before arriving in 1811 at Naples.
Naples then was the centre of the opera world, and Colbran quickly established herself as prima donna of the Bourbon monarchy’s Real Teatro di San Carlo, home to all the famous singers of her generation, including the celebrated castrato Farinelli.
Her fan base included the King of Naples, Charles VI himself; she was believed to be his mistress as well of the theatre’s impresario Domenico Barbaia. Her romantic dalliance with the latter was her introduction to, and her fatal attraction for gambling, as Barbaia was also in the gaming parlour business.
Her addiction to gambling would eventually see her squander off not just her enormous professional income, but her sizeable family inheritance as well.
Perhaps it is a good thing she never got into a time machine and teleported herself into 21st century Goa; she would probably have spent all her time literally ‘out at sea’ at gaming tables in offshore casinos rather than actually hitting the high Cs on land for us. Which would have been unfortunate, as her vocal range in her prime is documented as extending from F-sharp below the treble staff to the E above the staff, sometimes extending to the high F as well. Some accounts even credit her with a range of three octaves at the height of her powers.
It was with Colbran’s prowess in mind that Barbaia signed Rossini onto a seven-year contract in 1815, to compose operas for his company. The position would make him musical director of two Neapolitan theatres, the Teatro di San Carlo and Teatro del Fondo, with the proviso that he would write an opera each year, for each of them. Oddly enough, in addition to his salary of 200 ducats each month, he was also to receive “a share” from the gambling tables set in the Teatro di San Carlos’ ‘ridotto’ (private room), amounting to an impressive 1000 ducats each year. If Rossini too fell prey to the temptations of chance, posterity hasn’t recorded it well.
But the composer certainly was taken by Colbran, who was seven years his senior. In 1815, he wrote the title role of ‘Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra’ (Elizabeth, Queen of England) especially for her. She sang the role of Desdemona in his next opera, ‘Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia’ (Othello, Moor of Venice, 1816), which turned out to be particularly popular.
Other roles written by Rossini in his Neapolitan operas with Colbran in mind: Armida (in the eponymous opera, 1817); Elcia (Mosè in Egitto; Moses in Egypt); Zoraide (Ricciardo e Zoraide); Ermione (Ermione); Elena (La donna del Lago); Anna (Maometto II); and Zelmira (Zelmira). The lines that he wrote for her hint at the vocal acrobatics she was capable of: trills, half-trills, staccato, legato, ascending and descending scales, octave leaps.
Somewhere along the way, the two got romantically involved, and were married in 1822 after their move to Bologna. Colbran’s voice was beginning to show signs of strain and decline; in Venice the following year, Rossini created the title role of his opera Semiramide for her, writing her part so as to camouflage the deficiencies in her capabilities. Nevertheless, although the opera itself was a success, the audience could hear that Colbran was past her prime. Rossini wrote a total of ten operas for her voice.
Her reprise as Zelmira in the eponymous opera in 1824 was also a disappointment, and Colbran perhaps prudently retired from the stage aged just 42.
The couple separated in 1837. Around the same time, Rossini began seeing Olympe Pélissier, an artist’s model, in Paris. She had sat for the painter Émile Jean-Horace Vernet for his picture of ‘Judith and Holofernes’. Was she the cause of the separation? Some accounts indicate that they became close after Rossini and Colbran separated, not before.
Whether it was out of consideration for Colbran’s feelings, or for appearances, Rossini and Pélissier were only wed in 1846, a year after Colbran had died in Bologna, aged 60.
That Rossini genuinely respected Colbran is indisputable. All his life, he maintained that she was the greatest interpreter of his music. Indeed, one of Rossini’s nicknames was ‘Signor Colbran’. In their heyday, they were the ‘power couple’ of opera.
When she was devastated by the death of her father, he commissioned an elaborate sculpture for the Colbran family mausoleum, depicting a woman weeping at the foot of her father’s tomb.
In her final years, Colbran’s health declined (some speculate that this was almost certainly due to pelvic inflammatory disease contracted from venereal diseases from her flagrantly unfaithful spouse) and her finances dwindled, compelling her to sell off parts of her family estate. Rossini sent her monetary support to the end.
Although Colbran’s compositional output seems to have been four song collections (with text by the librettist Pietro Metastasio and scored for voice and piano or harp, and dedicated one each to the Empress of Russia; her teacher Crescenti; the Queen of Spain; and the Prince Eugène de Beauharnais), elements of her style were emulated by the likes of Vincenzo Bellini.
Although the actual marriage between Colbran and Rossini could perhaps itself constitute the plotline of a tragic opera, their “musical marriage” left us an enduring legacy, with some of the greatest operas in the repertory that might never have seen light of day had it not been for the inspiration embodied in Isabella Colbran, perhaps one of the most ‘unsung’-about singers in music history. Her story deserves to be better known.
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 July 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)