Great Opera Vocalists – Catterina Gabrielli

Daughter of Prince Gabrielli’s cook, Catterina was born at Rome, November 12, 1730. She became one of the most beautiful, accomplished, and capricious singers that ever lived. When she was fourteen the Prince, walking in his garden, heard her singing a difficult song of Galuppi’s, sent for her, and after listening to her performance promised her his protection and a musical education. She was placed first under Garcia, lo Spagnoletto, and afterward under Porpora. A great success attended her debut (1747) as prima donna, at Lucca, in Galuppi’s “Sofonisba.” Guadagni gave her some valuable instruction in the style in which he himself excelled -the pure and correct cantabile. This she was therefore now enabled to add to her own, which was the perfection of brilliant bravura, with a marvelous power of rapid execution and an exquisitely delicate quality of tone. At other theaters in Italy she met with equal success, singing in 1750, at Naples, in Jommelli’s “Didone,” after which she went to Vienna. Here she finished her declamatory style under the teaching of Metastasio, and fascinated Francis I, who went to the opera only on her nights. Metastasio is said to have been not indifferent to the charms of this extraordinary singer, still known as la Cochetta or Cochettina, in memory of her origin; but she did not respond. Her capricious treatment of her numerous adorers gave rise to hundreds of stories.

In 1765 she quitted Vienna, laden with wealth, and went to Sicily, where she excited the same furor, and exhibited the same caprices. She was imprisoned by the King because she would not sing her part in the opera above a whisper. During the twelve days of her imprisonment she gave sumptuous entertamments, paid the debts of poor prisoners, and distributed alms in profusion. Each evening she assembled the other inmates of the jail, to whom she sang her favorite songs. The King was obliged to set her free, and her reputation with the public stood higher than ever. In 1768 she went to Russia, where she astonished Catharine II by demanding 500o ducats as salary, a sum, as the Empress objected, larger than the pay of a fieldmarshal; to which Gabrielli simply replied, “Then let your field-marshals sing for you”-as Caffarelli once replied in similar circumstances.

She appeared in London in the season of 1775-76. Burney says of her that “she had no indications of low birth in her countenance or deportment, which had all the grace and dignity of a Roman matron.” The public was prejudiced against her by the stories current of her caprice; and she remained during only one season. Burney extols the precision and accuracy of her execution and intonation, and the thrilling quality of her voice. She appeared to him “the most intelligent and best-bred virtuosa with whom he had ever conversed, not only on the subject of music, but on every subject concerning which a well-educated female, who had seen the world, might be expected to have information.” She sang with Pacchierotti at Venice in 1777, and at Milan in 1780 with Marchesi, with whom she divided the public into two parties. After this, Gabrielli retired to Rome with her sister Francesca, who had followed her everywhere as seconda donna. She died in April, 1796, of a neglected cold.