Faustina Bordoni

Faustina Bordoni (30 March 1697 – 4 November 1781) was undoubtedly the most famous female singer of her era. Born in Venice, she was brought up under the protection of the Marcello brothers, both of whom were composers. She studied with Michelangelo Gasparini, who was himself a composer. Her operatic debut was in Venice in 1716, in Pollarolo’s Ariodante. From that year through 1723, she sang throughout Italy; subsequently she was enjoyed success in Vienna (1725), Vienna (1725-1726) and London (beginning in 1726). She was commonly known simply as “Faustina”.

A big turning point in her career occurred when she was discovered by Handel. Her debut in London, on May 5, 1726, was in that composer’s Alessandro. She created Alceste in Admeto, Pulcheria in Riccardo Primo (both 1727), Emira in Siroe and Elisa in Tolomeo (both in 1728). She sang a revival of the Bononcinis’ Radamisto.

It was on June 6, 1727 that a famous fight between Faustina and her rival, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, erupted on stage of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, during a performance given in front of Caroline, the Princess of Wales. The pamphleteers went wild and there was a great deal of journalistic exaggeration, describing how the two ladies traded blows on stage.

Unlike Cuzzoni, Faustina never returned to England. From 1728-1732, she continued to sing in the great Italian cities. In 1730, she married Johann Adolf Hasse, the German composer. The pair worked successfully for many years at the Dresden court of Augustus the Strong. Hasse remained at the Dresden court for more than 30 years, and Faustina, who had a resounding success in her husband’s Cleofide, sang in 15 or more of the operas he composed. Although she retired from the stage in 1751, she kept her title, virtuosa da cameraand salary at the Dresden Court until the death of Augustus’ successor, Frederick Augustus II in 1763. The Hasses moved to Vienna and thence to Venice. Unlike her rival Cuzzoni, who died poor, Faustina had a “happy and prosperous” life and old age.

Faustina’s artistic qualities have been described in the literature by Charles Burney:

Faustina had a mezzo-soprano voice, that was less clear than penetrating. Her compass now was only from B flat to G in alt; but after this time she extended its limits downward. She possessed what the Italians call un cantar granito; her execution was articulate and brilliant. She had a fluent tongue for pronouncing words rapidly and distinctly, and a flexible throat for divisions, with so beautiful a shake that she put it in motion upon short notice, just when she would. The passages might be smooth, or by leaps, or consisting of iterations of the same note; their execution was equally easy to her as to any instrument whatever. She was, doubtless, the first who introduced with success a swift repetition of the same note. She sang adagios with great passion and expression, but was not equally successful if such deep sorrow were to be impressed on the hearer as might require dragging, sliding, or notes of syncopation and tempo rubato. She had a very happy memory in arbitrary changes and embellishments, and a clear and quick judgment in giving to words their full value and expression. In her action she was very happy; and as her performance possessed that flexibility of muscles and face-play which constitute expression, she succeeded equally well in furious, tender, and amorous parts. In short, she was born for singing and acting.

Burney himself remarked on the strength of the note E (E5) in her voice; half of the arias written for her by Handel are in E or A (minor or major), keys which could give these notes particular prominence.

Further reading:

J. Arbuthnot, The Miscellaneous Works of the Late Dr. Arbuthnot (London, 1751), pp 213–214

C. Burney, The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands and United Provinces (1773)

C. Burney, A General History of Music (London, 1789), Vol. 4

S. Ograjenšek, "Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni: the Rival Queens?" 'Handel and the Divas' exhibition catalogue, Handel House Museum, (London, 2008), pp 3–7

D. M. Randel, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music”. (Cambridge MA and London, UK, 1996), p. 94

F. Rogers, "Handel and Five Prima Donnas" in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (April 1943), pp 214–224

W. Dean. "Bordoni, Faustina". In Deane L. Root. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.

S. Ograjenšek, "Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni: the Rival Queens?" 'Handel and the Divas' exhibition catalogue, Handel House Museum, (London, 2008), pp 3–7

Saskia Maria Woyke, Faustina Bordoni: Biographie – Vokalprofil – Rezeption, (Frankfurt 2009)