Whine, women and song: the bitter rivalry of Handel's divas

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Their rows, love affairs and rivalries filled the gossip pages of newspapers in the first half of the 18th century and now, almost three hundred years later, Francesca Cuzzoni, Faustina Bordoni and Kitty Clive are set once again to be the talk of London.

A new exhibition, Handel and the Divas, is to celebrate the colourful lives of the composer's leading ladies, who were selected from Europe's most prestigious opera houses to perform in George Frideric Handel's baroque productions for the high society of Britain.

Opening this week at the Handel House Museum, in London, the show investigates the successes, strops and scandalous episodes which meant that while life backstage with Handel's female stars was never dull, it was often exasperating for the composer.

Key figures among Handel's "original divas" included his favourite soprano, Susannah Cibber, who was sued for damages by her cuckolded husband after a court case revealed the sordid details of her affair with a young man.

Then there were Cuzzoni, Bordoni and Clive, who spent much of their careers battling each other for the lion's share of the audience's applause.

During the course of their professional lives, Cuzzoni and Bordoni, who were both from Italy, became the best of enemies.

Known as the "rival queens", the mutual antipathy occasionally sparked opera house riots involving their respective supporters in the audience.

During one steamy night in June 1727, their personal and professional rivalry exploded into a fight on the stage of the King's Theatre, in Haymarket, in front of the Princess of Wales. The two women reportedly tore off each other's 'coiffs' and hurled abusive insults in Italian before being escorted from the stage.

The entire opera season at the theatre was brought to a close by that incident. Nevertheless, maybe mindful that all publicity is good publicity, Handel kept both singers in his company.

The exhibition will also tell the tale of another bust-up involving the hot-tempered Cuzzoni, who reportedly refused to sing one of Handel's arias because he had originally written it for someone else. Her refusal so incensed him that he threatened to dangle her from a window unless she changed her mind.

It is said that the aria was originally written for the singer Maddalena Salvai.

According to the historian John Mainwaring, Handel responded to Cuzzoni's refusal to sing at rehearsal with a threat of his own, announcing: "Oh! Madame, I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I hereby give you notice that I am Beelzebub, the chief of devils."

He is then believed to have taken her "up by the waist and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window", according to Mr Mainwaring.

Cuzzoni eventually gave up singing and moved back to Italy. Her last years, far removed from the glamour of the London stage, were spent in poverty and apparently making buttons to earn a living.

Martin Wyatt, deputy director of the museum, said the remarkable tales of the women's lives "filled the gossip pages" of 18th century London newspapers. "At that time, opera was the most popular public entertainment," he said. "We show the birth of the female opera singer, who coupled show-stopping performances of Handel's work, with the demanding behaviour familiar to followers of the modern-day diva."

Difficult as they sometimes were to deal with, Handel never forgot his early divas. Although their behaviour inflamed Handel's anger at times, the women are also believed to have made a strong contribution to the development of his musical style.

The German-born composer, who spent much of his adult life in England, continued to travel widely throughout his career to seek out particular female singers, first in Italy and later in Britain, seeking the perfect match for the fiery spirit of the women in his operas and oratorios.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us