In this group of artists belongs the eminent French operatic actress whose real surname was Clavel. She was born at Toul, about 1756. Her father, who had previously served in the army, became stage manager to a French opera company at Mlannheim, and afterward at Warsaw, where she studied for four years with Lemoyne, conductor of the orchestra. Her first public appearance was in art opera of his, “Le Bouquet de Colette.” She then went to Berlin, and subsequently for three years sang at Strasburg, as Mlle. Clavel. Thence she went to Paris, and made her debut at the Academie in the first performance of Gluck’s “Armide” (September 23, 1777).
For a considerable time she played only in subordinate parts. Her appearance was not striking; she was fair, thin, and below middle height, with a face expressive but not beautiful. Her voice was produced badly and with effort, her stage action was spasmodic and exaggerated, and she had a strong German accent. But Gluck found in this ill-trained actress qualities he may vainly have sought for in more finished singers. She appeared one morning at rehearsal in an old black gown m the last stage of patched decrepitude. “Here comes Madame la Ressource,” remarked some gay rival (alluding to the character of that name in “Le Joueur”). “Well said,” answered Gluck; “that woman will some day be the resource of the opera.” She labored to improve herself, and on the retirement of two leading singers succeeded to their parts.
Her first great success was as Angelique in Piccinni’s “Roland,” and was followed by others in Floquet’s “Le seigneur bienfaisant,” Gossec’s “Thesee” (March I, 1782), and Edelmann’s “Ariane” (September 24, 1782), all tragic roles. As Rosette in Gretry’s “L’embarras des richesses” (November 26, 1782), she showed all the versatility and vivacity necessary for comedy. As Armide (in Sacchini’s “Renaud”), in “Didon,” “Chimene,” “Les Danaides,” “Alceste,” and “Phedre,” she had a succession of triumphs. “Didon,” Piccinni’s masterpiece, made no impression till she undertook the title role, and the composer declared that without her his opera was “without Dido.” On her first appearance in that part (January 16, 1784) she was crowned upon the stage.
She was never a perfect vocalist; “less violent and extravagant in her singing than the generality of French singers, but still with too much of the national style,” says Lord Mount Edgcumbe, who admits, however, that she was an excellent musician. But her power lay in her extreme sensibility. In truth and force of expression she was unequaled; her declamation was impassioned, her byplay “terrible,” her silence “eloquent.” Having studied the Greek and Roman statues, she abandoned the hoops and powder previously used in the costume of ancient characters, and adopted appropriate robes.
In 1785 she made a journey to Marseilles, which resembled a royal progress. The excitement she created amounted to frenzy, and when she left Provence she carried away more than a hundred crowns, many of them of great value. But on her return to Paris she found new rivals to dispute her sway. She failed, too, as Clytemnestra, a part altogether unsuited to her. It ended four years later by her marrying the Count d’Entraigues of strong royalist sympathies, in which she participated warmly. In 1790 he had emigrated to Lausanne, and there their marriage took place, at the end of that year. It was not acknowledged, however, till 1797, after the Count, imprisoned at Milan by Bonaparte, had been released by his wife, who found means of enabling him to escape, and of preserving his portfolio, which was filled with political papers.
The Count afterward entered the Russian diplomatic service, and was employed on secret missions. After the peace of Tilsit, he possessed himself in some manner of a copy of the secret articles of the treaty, and hastened with them to England to communicate them to the government. He established himself, with his wife, at Barnes, near Richmond, where, July 22, 1812, they were assassinated by their servant, who stabbed them as they were getting into their carriage, and blew out his own brains afterward. This man had been bribed by emissaries of Fouche’s, sent to watch the proceedings of the Count d’Entraigues, had allowed them to take copies of correspondence with the Foreign Office, intrusted to his care by his master, and had reason to think that his treachery was being discovered.