This great contralto was born at Parma (or, according to others, at Modena) about 1700, received her first instruction from Lanzi, a noted master, and became one of the most famous singers of the eighteenth century. She made her debut at Venice with Faustina Bordoni in 1719 in Gasparini’s “Lamano,” being described as “virtuosa di camera” of the Grand Duchess of Tuscany; and she appeared again, with Bordoni and Bernacchi, in the “Pentimento Generoso,” in the same year and at the same place. After singing on most of the principal stages of Italy she went to England. On her first arrival there she married Sandoni, a harpsichord-master and composer of some eminence. Her first appearance in London was on January 12, 1722, as Teofane in Handel’s “Otho.” Her singing of her first air, a slow one, “Falsa immagine,” fixed her reputation. A story is told about this song which illustrates her character as well as that of Handel. At rehearsal she took a dislike to the air, and refused to sing it; whereupon Handel seized her by the waist, and swore he would throw her out of the window if she persisted. She gave way, and in that very song achieved one of her greatest triumphs. Success followed her in “Coriolano,” in “Flavio,” and in “Farnace”; and she became a popular favorite.
In the following year she sang in “Vespasiano” and “Giulio Cesare,” and her triumphal career was continned in “Calfurnia,” “Tamerlane,” and “Artaserse”; and in “Rodelinda” (1725) she created one of her most successful parts, gaining great reputation by her tender singing of the song “Ho perduto il caro sposo.” French applause met her in “Dario,” “Elpidia,” “Elisa,” “Scipio,” and finally “Alessandro” (Handel) when she first encountered, on the English stage, the redoubtable Bordoni. In this opera her style and that of her rival were skillfully contrasted by the composer; but the contest was the first of a series which did the Italian opera much harm.
In 1727 she created a great effect in the song “Sen vola” (“Admeto”), which displayed her warbling style. Her next part was in “Astyanax.” The violence of party feeling had now become so great that, when the admirers of Cuzzoni applauded, those of Bordoni hissed; and vice versa. This culminated during the performance of “Astyanax,” when shrill and discordant noises were added to the uproar, in spite of the presence of the Princess Caroline. Lady Pembroke headed the Cuzzonists, and was lampooned in the following epigram:
UPON LADY PEMBROKE’S PROMOTING THE CAT-CALLS OF FAUSTINA. Old poets sing that beasts did dance Whenever Orpheus play’d, So to Faustina’s charming voice Wise Pembroke’s asses bray’d.
At the close of the season, the directors, troubled by the endless disputes of the rivals, decided to offer Faustina one guinea a year more than the salary of Cuzzoni. The latter had been persuaded to take a solemn oath that she would not accept less than her enemy, and so found herself unengaged. About this time she yielded to the invitation of Count Kinsky, and went to Vienna. She sang at court with great eclat; but her arrogant demands prevented her from getting an engagement at the theater.
At Venice she next sang at one theater, while Faustina performed at another. In London again, a few years later (1734), she appeared in Porpora’s “Ariadne”; and, with Farinelli, Senesino, and Montagnana, in “Artaserse” as Mandane, and also in other operas. Hawkins says that she returned again in 1748, and sang in “Mitridate”; but this is not recorded by Burney, who puts her third visit in 1750, when she had a benefit concert (May 18). The concert was a failure, and she disappeared again. She then passed some time in Holland, where she soon fell into debt, and was thrown into prison. Gradually she paid her debts by occasional performances given by the permission of the governor of the prison, and returned to Bologna, where she was obliged to support herself by making buttons. She died there in poverty in 1770.
It was difficult to decide whether she excelled more in slow or in rapid airs. A “native warble” enabled her to execute divisions with such facility as to conceal their difficulty. So grateful and touching was her natural. tone that she rendered pathetic whatever she sang, when she had the opportunity to unfold the whole volume of her voice. Her power of conducting, sustaining, increasing, and diminishing her notes by minute degrees acquired for her, among professors, the credit of being a complete mistress of her art. Her trill was perfect: she had a creative fancy, and a command of tempo rubato. Her high notes were unrivaled in clearness and sweetness, and her intonation was so absolutely true that she seemed incapable of singing out of tune. She had a compass of two octaves, C to C in alt. Her style was unaffected, simple, and sympathetic. As an actress she was cold, dressed badly, and her figure was short and ungraceful. Yet the fine ladies imitated the costume (brown silk, embroidered with silver) which she wore in “Rodelinda,” and it became the rage. There are no good portraits of her; but she figures in several of the caricatures of the time, and notably in Hogarth’s “Masquerades and Operas,” where she is the singer to whom the Earl of Peterborough is presenting 1000.