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

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.