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  • Writer's pictureLaStrega

Brazen and Clamorous Disorder: Pacini's Medea at Niblo's Garden [1]

Manhattan newspapers in September, 1860 covered Lincoln’s candidacy for president and rumblings of Southern secession. Sensational local interest stories rivaled those of today’s most lurid tabloids: a Flushing man breathed his last in a drunk tank and was found by police the next morning with his hand and half his face eaten by rats. [2] Classified ads ranged from the mundane to the amusing: the Elliptic Bed-Spring Company announced its relocation sale, at which its new and improved springs could be bought for $5,[3] and an anonymous subscriber to the New York Times offered a $25 reward for the capture of his fugitive clerk, Samuel Lockwood, who had ‘absconded from his employ with his employer’s funds.’[4] And tickets to see the famed soprano Madame Adelaide Cortesi portray the title role in Giovanni Pacini’s “splendid tragic opera Medea” at Niblo’s Garden ranged from two bits for a ticket in ‘Family Circle’ to $10 for an exclusive private box.[5] The first performance was promised for the evening of Thursday, September 27 at eight o’clock, with a “farewell performance” at the one o’clock matinee on the following Saturday.

Niblo’s Garden Theater and Saloon was situated on the Northeast corner of Prince Street and Broadway. William Niblo purchased the Columbian Garden in 1828, building a theater, hotel, and saloon there, and opened for business in 1829. Niblo’s burned to the ground in the wee hours of the morning on September 18, 1846, but rose from its ashes three years later to resume its place of importance in New York’s entertainment industry.

In addition to operas, Niblo’s featured musicals, plays, concerts, ballets, and burlesques; there were evening performances and one o’clock matinees. At matinees, ladies and gentlemen of leisure co-mingled with tourists and people from surrounding areas, who would have been unable to attend evening performances due to lengthy horse-and-buggy commutes. But when it was finally demolished in 1895, Niblo’s importance as an opera house was negligible. It had been superceded by a series of newer, bigger, and better opera companies, including Castle Garden, the Academy of Music, and finally the Metropolitan Opera.

Attending operas at Niblo’s - particularly the matinees - was not as respectable as a performance at the Met enjoys today. Whether rightly or not, some saw Niblo’s as a pickup joint - presenting a moral slippery slope for women bold enough to go there unaccompanied. On October 1, 1860 the Times ran an editorial column grimly warning them of the dangers:

Even our wealthiest ladies, unless they wish openly to repudiate all suspicion of paying any heed to domestic duties, will not allow themselves to be seen attending such an entertainment as was given last Saturday at Niblo’s Garden.

The author vividly contrasted a fine, sunny day on pristine, beautiful Broadway with the sinister dinginess and dilapidation of Niblo’s interior:

“Suddenly turning out of daylight and the main thoroughfare into Niblo’s Garden, where a matinee is in progress, the contrast does not strike one as agreeable.The main hallway seems dusty and deserted, certain gold-fish in a muddy aquarium looking as if they were only porgies gilt, and half-a-dozen drooping geraniums displaying all the signs of consumption…It is a dangerous resort…for ladies who are not under the protection of legitimate guardians.Even when they enter innocently, they may meet or make acquaintances there on a footing of familiarity not consistent with maturity or maidenly reserve…These matinees are not wholesome for innocence, while destructive to those who totter on the brink of vice.” [6]

One matinee regular, an independent-minded woman who identified herself only as “A Mother,” responded indignantly:

“Having been a constant attendant since the matinees were first introduced in New York…I feel it is an invasion against the rights of the female portion of society in our City, to wish to deprive them of these legitimate and high-toned amusements…It has always been the boast of American women that their independence and self-respect was all sufficient to protect them from impertinence, at least during the day time.Is the order of things to be changed so that it will not be thought respectable to walk in the streets without a brother, father, or husband accompanies his lady relative?”[7]

A chastised editor replied unconvincingly that the article was only intended to raise awareness, and not to dissuade matinee attendance [8].

The Niblo’s production of Medea by Madame Cortesi’s Italian opera troupe was the United States premiere of Pacini’s opera. Pacini’s music, however - while not as popular as Verdi’s, Donizetti’s, or Bellini’s - was not unfamiliar to New Yorkers, who heard his most popular work – his 1840 tragedy Saffo - sung by such celebrated divas as Cortesi, Fortunata Tedesco and Marietta Gazzaniga[9] at various theaters, including the Park, Castle Garden, and the Academy of Music.In the more distant past, his 1827 hit with the tongue-twisting title Gli Arabi Nelle Gallie [10], had played to great acclaim at the doomed Italian Opera House in 1834; and singers included such items as the cavatina from his Niobe in their recital fare.

Over the previous year, Cortesi had taken the opera scene in New York by storm; she was a versatile singer and actress, first reported in New York papers to be a mezzo-soprano.[11] From descriptions of her voice and from the roles she assumed, however, she was more likely what would today be called a dramatic coloratura, perhaps along the lines of a Gencer or Callas. Daughter of a choreographer and sister to an opera composer. She debuted in 1847 at La Scala in the title role in Donizetti’s Gemma di Vergy, rising to prominence as the lead soprano of that house.[12] She became known for such roles as Norma, Lucrezia Borgia, Poliuto, and Il Trovatore. She sang all over the world, creating a furor wherever Italian opera was popular, though in London and Paris she was not as successful. She was especially liked in Havana, Mexico City, and South America; indeed, it was glowing reports from such far-flung locales that led to her first engagement to sing in New York.

Cortesi was also no stranger to the music of Pacini, for she not only sang Saffo and Medea frequently, but also created the title role in his lurid gothic melodrama Malvina di Scozia in 1851. Her New York debut was, in fact, as Saffo at the Academy of Music. She drove her audience wild, and is said to have had to wade through flowers to reach the footlights when taking her curtain call at the end of that performance.[13] The announcement of Medea on the September 27 New York Herald’s front page trumpeted Cortesi’s previous triumphs in Pacini’s “grandest tragic opera”, in which she had, we are told, “invariably created so startling a sensation”.

She was nothing if not a true diva, and became something of a controversial figure: before Medea, her reviews were always mixed, and there did not seem to be any middle ground: critics either loved or hated her. Her acting skills and vocal technique were both bones of contention. Some thought her a brilliant actress, calling her the greatest lyric tragedienne in living memory; others strongly criticized or even ridiculed what they saw as her tendency to overact to an almost parodic degree. One such critic, writing around the time of Cortesi’s New York debut a year earlier, had opined

“A dramatic singer is not the one who screams the most, who embraces with the greatest vehemence, who sobs as if she had the hiccoughs, and runs about the stage as if she wanted to play catch-me-not with the public.”[14]

The comparatively recent shift in focus from technical perfection and vocal beauty to dramatic realism had engendered in some a certain resentment for the new breed of “Verdi singers, ” of which Cortesi was one.Perhaps most damning of all, an 1859 review in Dwight’s Journal of Music had said of her:

“Opening her mouth to a very inartistic extent, she screams out her notes with a degree of effort which is really painful to witness.One is in constant fear of her injuring her chest, or even breaking a blood-vessel…On the whole, I think her merits are perfectly expressed in the answer of one of our musicians, who, when asked his opinion of her, replied: ‘She screams well!’”[15]

Her facial contortions while singing seem to have been a lifelong peccadillo, for even her early reviews from Italian theatres mention them. But no-one could accuse her of being dull, and she certainly knew how to bring an audience to its feet.

Next to her, as Giasone (Jason) was tenor Giuseppe Musiani – who also had a significant international career before coming to New York, singing lead tenor roles in such Verdi operas as La Traviata, I Masnadieri, and Giovanna d’Arco. Among the operas from Pacini’s oeuvre that were in his repertoire were Il Saltimbanco, Ester d’Engaddi and Lorenzino de’ Medici. Musiani had of late been driving New York audiences wild with his high C, which he delivered – in modern style - from the chest rather than in voix mixte. The cast was rounded out by bass Cesare Nanni and baritone Achille Ardavani; each was making his New York debut. Nanni had been the principal bass-baritone at La Scala during the 1855-1856 season. In addition to the orchestra, two military stage bands had been specially engaged for the occasion. Madame Cortesi’s husband, Signor Servadio, conducted.

In a torrent of hyperbole fit for a P.T. Barnum poster, the Herald ad went on to quote rapturous reviews from Cortesi’s performances of the same opera in Havana:

“We would form a very bad idea of the heart that could stand unmoved at the accents of despair so faithfully depicted by the artist which Pacini calls his Medea...This most celebrated opera, which has been performed with the most brilliant results on the most renowned stages of Europe, was played on Saturday and Sunday nights before a crowded and really enraptured audience. This great work of Pacini, which will certainly continue to create enthusiasm among our people by that flood of original melodies, and with such a great profusion of harmony in connection with the true philosophic spirit of the whole composition...Madame Cortesi was so great, so sublime in all her movements, looks, and notes, that one breath was not to be heard in the spacious and crowded house, which at the end of the performance, gave to the accomplished prima donna such a round of vivas and applause, as has never been witnessed before in our theater.”[16]

Theater managers at the time were prone to exaggerating – and sometimes outright lying – in their PR. Yet there was clearly more to this effusive praise for the opera than mere sensationalism to drum up ticket sales. Medea had premiered at the Teatro Carolino in Palermo on November 28, 1843, with Geltrude Bortolotti in the title role. The success was complete and clamorous, and the opera soon swept the Italian peninsula and enjoyed international fame. In all, Thomas Kaufman has traced around 50 different 19th-century productions of the opera. The title role was interpreted by such great divas as Marianna Barbieri-Nini, Sophia Loewe, Carolina Briol, Carolina Alaimo, Teresa de Giuli–Borsi, and of course, Cortesi herself[17].

Despite its undeniable triumph, Pacini continued to revise the score of Medea for the next decade, and by the 1853 revival in Naples, almost every number in the opera had been extensively revised, cut, or replaced.[18] While it is not known which version was performed at Niblo’s, Cortesi had first essayed the role of Medea in March of 1850 at La Fenice; she had sung in no less than ten productions of Medea, and it had become one of her favorites. It is very likely the 1850 Venice version of the opera which was presented in New York.

Musiani would likewise have been comfortable with the role of Giasone, having just sung it with Cortesi in Havana nine months earlier; Nanni had appeared as the high priest Chalcante in 1856, and he too had appeared with Cortesi on a number of occasions since. Of the principals, only Ardavani as Creonte was new to the opera.

It looked like a sure-fire hit – and in some respects it was, for by all accounts the audience on that first night went practically berserk with delight. The New York Daily News reported that “We have seldom, if ever, seen an opera performed for the first time more effectively, or one that gave more exquisite pleasure…” and that the performance was “received with the overpowering approbation and marked demonstrations which unmistakably evinces (sic) the feeling of an audience.” The New York Albion’s critic ‘Robin’ reported “…the enthusiasm aroused on Thursday evening ran higher than on any previous occasion this season, and has been surpassed only in a few instances.”[19] And according to the Herald, Cortesi’s performance had brought the audience “to an unwonted pitch of enthusiasm.”

In spite of Medea’s popular success, it fell just short of being a critical fiasco. And, at least on this occasion, the critics seemed to speak with as close to a single voice as they ever did or have since. Cortesi and Musiani were almost universally praised. In fact, Cortesi had seldom garnered such unanimous critical approval for a role. But Cortesi’s and Musiani’s performances were seen as the only thing keeping the wheels from falling off a very rickety cart. The New York Dispatch called to task the composer, the orchestra, and most of the principals, but nonetheless proclaimed Medea the “operatic event of the week”:

“Indeed, we are unable to determine to which we ought to award the warmest praise – her singing or her acting. As a vocalist, she possesses more of the tragic power than most soprani, and there are moments in which she may lay claim to rank with the greatest of tragediennes.” [20]

Wilkes Spirit of the Times also credited the success of the performance to Cortesi,[21] and the Herald critic deemed her performance ‘very fine throughout,’ reporting that she was called out three times after the first act finale, and that after her duet with Musiani she was greeted with such applause that the whole number had to be repeated. The Daily News was even more effusive: “Love, hate, revenge, and desperation are wonderfully depicted…displaying a keen and intimate knowledge of the human passions, and she gives to them that full scope and play which a true genius only can give.”[22] Yet even Cortesi did not entirely avoid censure: ‘Robin’ was silent about her singing, and accused her of insisting on the role “because it gives her an opportunity of rolling her eyes in a fine frenzy”. While he conceded her innate talent for histrionics, he charged that she “often takes that easy step from [sublimity] to the ridiculous, and after weaving her passion is apt to tear it in tatters”. [23]

The male principals were not so well liked, though everyone agreed that Musiani’s heroic tenor voice had been an asset. The Herald and Wilkes Spirit expressed high regard for Musiani’s singing, and the New York Dispatch even went so far as to suggest that – though he could not match her acting prowess – he outsang the diva herself.[24]

The same three critics were, however, just as unanimous in their condemnation of Nanni and Ardavani. The Dispatch was the least severe, merely stating that “Signori Ardavani and Nanni did not display any superior vocal or tragic powers.” However, Wilkes Spirit went further, charging that the two singers had not bothered to learn their parts. In Ardavani’s case this makes sense, for as noted previously he was singing Creonte for the first time. Nanni’s awkwardness , in light of his substantial experience singing his role, stands in need of further explanation; it should have been old hat to him. ‘Robin’ does not discuss the male principals at all.

Another point about which there was virtual unanimity was the slipshod nature of the production itself. Wilkes Spirit reported that the chorus and orchestra were both under-rehearsed.[25] The Herald complained that “the fact that the opera had been gotten up in a hurry was frequently and painfully apparent.” ‘Robin’ called the performance “ragged and shabby”; the orchestra and chorus, he reported, “went hopelessly astray in brazen and clamorous disorder.” Worst of all, the military bands must have turned in a particularly embarrassing performance, for the Dispatch lambasted them as ‘proof positive that enough of repetition had not been given [the opera]”; ‘Robin’ was even more cutting, calling them ‘pathetically imbecile.’ A more vivid description of the state of things at Niblo’s can be found in the aforementioned Times editorial criticizing the Niblo’s matinees. There, the editor tells us that

“The orchestra is not full, nor does it play with any special care; the singers are in a state of proper rebellion against having to exert themselves for so small an audience; the chorus girls wink and make faces at the chorus men on the other side of the stage; and even the scene-shifters make no effort to conceal their legs and elbows while lazily shoving off the walls of an immense palace, to reveal the “superb forest view” in the following act.” [26]

Pacini himself was by no means spared criticism. Interestingly, the Times did not offer a full review, but one writer’s opinion of Pacini was tacitly implied in this brief announcement of the ‘farewell’ performance on September 29:

“At Niblo’s to-day we have the repetition of Pacini’s “Medea,” a genuine prima-donna’s opera, in which everything is sacrificed to the soprano. When that soprano, however, is Madame Cortesi, a tragic actress of a calibre now rare on the lyric stage, who can object to Pacini?”[27]

Other critics were more direct in their disapproval or indifference toward Pacini. Wilkes Spirit began its discussion of the opera by proclaiming “Now Pacini, although good, is by no means a great operatic writer…” The Dispatch, as if on cue, began its review by stating that Pacini was far from a great composer, and that Medea was far from his best opera. Robin - also clearly unimpressed with the opera - stopped short of a wholesale condemnation of Pacini:

Of the music what can be written, after hearing it so badly performed? It is said of Pacini that he copies Rossini[28], and that, as with all imitators, he reproduces the faults of his model without emulating his excellencies. This may be so; but very little resemblance between the two composers was shown by Thursday’s performance. I admire the “Saffo” of Pacini, and I find even in this opera…some bits of genuine melody and an opportunity for great effects; yet the music is not great, nor does it come from inspiration. Unless its rendering did it hopeless injustice, it was written for the sake of making an opera, and not because there were ideas in the composer’s brain which must have expression. I should be sorry, however, to pass an irrevocable judgment upon any work after hearing it but once, especially under such embarrassing circumstances as attended the first production of ‘Medea’.

The Herald’s critic was perhaps harshest to the composer. He gave Pacini’s gifts as a melodist but a passing nod, grudgingly praising the duet for Medea and Giasone and the sextet in Act II[29]. But he judged the remainder of the opera as “hardly equal to the subject which it is presumed to illustrate,” “deficient in salient airs,” and with “no solos worth remembering.”

There were dissenting voices who considered Pacini’s opera a success. Calling it “a new operatic sensation,” the Daily News reported that ‘Pancini’ (sic) had written music “of a very high order, and full of those grand combinations which, properly rendered, become most effective.” The duet between Giasone and Medea, and the concertato ending Act II are singled out as “among the grandest tragic scenes on the lyric stage we have witnessed…There is a very general desire that the opera may be repeated…”[30]

Yet if there were hopes that kinks in the first performance might have been worked out by the second, they were soon dashed. In the short time she had been performing in Manhattan, Madame Cortesi had become notorious for last-minute cancellations due to sudden illness. This frustrated audiences and fueled gossip from the press, who slung accusations of malingering on the part of the diva and outright lying by management. Her first cancellation had occurred within weeks after her New York debut. In a more recent debacle, her physician sent a note excusing her from her much-anticipated Norma at the Academy of Music, but the disgruntled audience was not informed of her indisposition and replacement until the night of the performance.[31] Just two weeks before Medea played at Niblo’s, it was announced that Cortesi would sing La Traviata. Instead the audience was informed at the last minute that Il Trovatore would be given, because - bafflingly and with no little irony- Cortesi was too sick to sing Violetta, but not to sing Leonora.[32]

At any rate, she claimed to suffer a further relapse on the night of the second performance of Medea, and the opera had to be cut short before the second act could begin. During the delay between the end of the act and the announcement of the cancellation, Musiani sang an aria to entertain the audience. To “Robin” Cortesi’s sudden indisposition did not pass the sniff test, and in his October 6 column he suggested that it was anything but an unforeseen calamity:

“A knowledge of two facts complicates this mystery; first, the music of the song with which Musiani kindly consented to fill the gap was laid out on the stands of the orchestra from the very commencement of the performance; in the second place, the boat for Boston, whither the troupe has gone, left at an hour which would have given Cortesi very little time to prepare for her voyage, had she concluded the programme she advertised.”[33]

To further complicate matters, the supposedly ill Cortesi apparently did not just hastily depart the City as we might think from reading Robin’s account; according to the Daily News, she was among the famous figures[34] sighted in Central Park enjoying an open-air concert at 3 p.m. the same afternoon, ‘warmly wrapped up.’[35]

Like a comet, Cortesi had flashed briefly and brilliantly across the firmament of the New York stage, and just as abruptly vanished. She sang the role of Medea twice more in her career – in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in December 1860 and in Caracas, Venezuela the following October. In 1861 she re- married a bank executive and quit the stage altogether in favor of a life of leisure. [36] And what of the opera itself? Medea was never given in the United States again; sadly, it went the way of almost all of Pacini’s works, hanging on in the repertory until 1869 before disappearing from the world’s stages for the next 130 years.

[1] This article is a revision of an earlier article by the author from 2005.

[2] New York Times, September 29, 1860, p.7.

[3] New York Times Supplement, September 29, 1860, p.4.

[4] New York Times, September 29, 1860, p.7.

[5] New York Herald, September 27, 1860, p.1.

[6] New York Times, October 1, 1860, p.5.

[7] New York Times, October 3, 1860, p.4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Verdi’s first Luisa Miller, and the creator of Beatrice in Pacini’s most widely performed and enduring operas, his 1845 tragedy Bondelmonte.

[10] Comparison of the libretto from that performance shows that one of the duets for Ezilda and Leodato was replaced with “Serbami ognor si fido” from Rossini’s Semiramide, while others were later substitutions written by Pacini for later productions; in addition, the conductor had spliced on the overture from Anna Bolena after a press review complained of the lack of an overture.

[11] Vera Brodsky Lawrence’s Strong on Music, The New York Music Scene in the Days of George Templeton Strong, v.3, p. 242, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1999. All references to Strong herein are to Volume 3.

[12] See Thomas G. Kaufman’s appendix in Strong p. 551.

[13] Strong, p. 242. Brodsky notes, however, that according to the June 4, 1859 Evening Post the flowers appeared to have all been thrown from the same private box.

[14] Review and Gazette, June 25, 1859, p. 195 (quoted in Strong, p. 243).

[15] Dwight’s Journal of Music, July 2, 1859, p. 109

[16] New York Herald, September 27, 1860, p.1

[17] Thomas G. Kaufman, Verdi and his Major Contemporaries, pp. 131-133. New York, Garland Publications, 1990.

[18] Weatherson, Alexander. “Il Maestro delle Cabalette” (Liner notes to the Agora recoring of Medea, 1993, p. 11-12)

[19] New York Albion, September 29, 1860, p.463.

[20] New York Dispatch, September 29, 1860, v. XV, No. 46, p.5.

[21] Wilkes Spirit of the Times, Vol. III, October 6, 1860, p.80.

[22] New York Daily News, September 28, 1860. p. 4.

[23] New York Albion, September 29, 1860, p.463.

[24] New York Dispatch, September 29, 1860, p.5.

[25] Wilkes’ Spirit, p.80.

[26] New York Times, October 1, 1860. The article refers to the matinee “last Saturday,” – however, the scene changes referred to do not match those of Act I of Medea. Whether this refers to Medea or the previous Saturday’s matinee, however, this account is revealing in that it pertains to the overall professionalism of the stage crew and chorus at Niblo’s. The September 16 issue of the New York Albion reports that the supernumeraries’ pay was only $0.25 per night. Quoted in Strong on Music, p. 352. By contrast, Cortesi could command an exorbitant $2500 per month. Strong on Music, p. 251.

[27] New York Times, September 29, 1860, p.4.

[28] This comment is mysterious and intriguing – by 1860 who would still have said that Pacini copied Rossini? His mature style, which, though it has many individual touches, resembles Donizetti or early Verdi, had been in evidence for two decades. Pacini’s autobiography, Le Mie Memorie Artistiche, - in which he admitted that he copied Rossini early in his career - was not published until five years after this review. Saffo (1840) had been performed numerous times in New York, and would have been the only example of Pacini most were familiar with, for few New Yorkers would have still remembered the only early Pacini opera to be performed in there – Gli Arabi Nelle Gallie (1827) – which at any rate had as much in common with Bellini as with the Pesarese maestro.

[29] Incorrectly identified in the review as ending Act III.

[30] New York Daily News, Vol. VI, no. 141, September 28, 1860, p.4.

[31] New York Dispatch, September 22, 1860 p. 5.

[32] Strong, pp. 350-351.

[33] New York Albion, October 6, 1860 p. 475.

[34] Including the famous Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest, who had been playing Hamlet at Niblo’s.

[35] New York Daily News, October 1, 1860, p.1.

[36] Strong, Appendix by Thomas G. Kaufman. p. 551. I have been unable to discover what ended Cortesi’s marriage to Servadio.

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