Great Opera Vocalists – Gasparo Pacchierotti

Perhaps this artist was the greatest singer of the second half of the eighteenth century. He was born in 1744 at Fabriano, near Ancona.

Having been prepared for the career of a sopranist, he studied long and carefully before he began, at the age of sixteen, to sing secondary parts at Venice, Vienna, and Milan. Endowed with a vivid imagination, uncommon intelligence, and profound sensibility, but having, on the other hand, a tall and lean figure, and a voice which, though strong in the lowest register and rising easily to the high C, was often uncertain and nasal, Pacchierotti required much determination and strength of character to overcome the defects, and take advantage of the qualities, with which he found himself provided by nature. This he accomplished only by painful and laborious study, retiring to a garret in Venice, where he practised the most difficult exercises which the masters of those days prescribed as necessary to the education of the voice. Success at last crowned his endeavors.

Milan was the last place in which he sang a secondary role. Having returned to Venice in 1769, he took the place of Guarducci primo musico at the San Benedetto, then the chief theater in that city. Successful here, he was immediately invited by the impresario of the opera at Palermo for the season of 1771. On the way thither he visited Naples, where he was informed that the celebrated prima donna De Amicis had protested against the proposition that she should sing with him, “a player of second parts.” The Venetian minister, to whom he was recommended, comforted him in this juncture, but only with the humiliating permission to show his powers by singing two pieces, with full orchestra, at the San Carlo, before Lacillo, Piccinni, and Caffarelli, as judges. Here he was brilliantly successful, and was immediately offered his choice between the theaters of Palermo and Naples. He proudly chose the former, where he met the great De Amicis, and had to submit to another ordeal in a duet with her at the first general rehearsal of “Didone.” Even De Amicis herself, however, was surprised into sincere and kindly admiration.

This set the seal on Pacchierotti’s reputation, and for twenty-five years he delighted the cognoscenti of Europe. He remained for a time in Italy, singing at Parma, Milan, Florence, Forli, and Venice. After this, he sang at Milan in the carnival of 1778, then at Genoa, Lucca, and Turin; but in the autumn of that year he went to London with Bertoni, and made his first appearance there with Bernasconi in the pasticcio “Demofoonte.” Great expectations had been formed of him, not only from his continental reputation, but from the account given by Brydone in his “Tour through Sicily and Malta,” and from some airs sung “in his manner” by Piozzi, “in a style that excited great ideas of his pathetic powers.” These expectations were not disappointed; and Burney’s warm but intelligent praise of his beautiful voice, his perfect command of it, the taste and boldness with which he invented new ornaments, the truth and originality of his expression, and his other musicianly qualities, must be read by those who would form an idea of the truly great singer that Pacchierotti was. Lord Mount Edgcumbe also speaks in the highest terms of the talent of Pacchierotti, whom he calls “decidedly the most perfect singer it ever fell to his lot to hear.” Though intimately connected with his friend Bertoni, Pacchierotti sang with no less ardor and energy the music of Sacchini and other rival composers.

After a second visit to London Pacchierotti again returned to Italy. He sang at the Tuileries in Paris on his way back again to England from Venice, where Bertoni had written fresh operas for him. Galuppi had died there in 1785, and at his funeral Pacchierotti took part in a requiem. “I sang very devoutly indeed,” he wrote to Burney, “to obtain a quiet to his soul.” Pacchierotti arrived in London, on his third visit, in 1790, and sang at the Pantheon, and at the festival in Westminster Abbey in 1791. At the opening of the Fenice at Venice in 1792, he took his leave of the stage, after which he settled in Padua. In 1796, however, he was compelled to appear once more to sing before General Bonaparte, who was passing through the city. He sang, but most unwillingly.

At Padua he enjoyed the society and the esteem of all the literati of the city. In a letter to Catalani, which he had intrusted to Dragonetti, who was on the point of escaping from Italy, he lamented the French occupation. Both fugitive and letter were intercepted; and the unlucky Pacchierotti was thrown into prison, where he was detained for a month. Not long before his death he was visited by Rossini, to whom he deplored the depraved modern taste in singing, and the growth of a noisy and rococo style, for which, doubtless, the old singer thought Rossini in great degree to blame. “Give me another Pacchierotti,” Rossini replied, “and I shall know how to write for him!”

During his remaining years, Pacchierotti did not cease his daily practice and enjoyment of singing, in private; but mainly devoted himself to Benedetto Marcello’s setting of Giustiniani’s paraphrase of fifty psalms, “from which,” he said, “he had learned the little that he knew.” From the midst of this quiet life he departed October 28, 1821. Only a few moments before his death he had repeated, as usual with him, some of Metastasio’s sacred verses, in the most pathetic tones; and he died praying “to be admitted to one of the humblest choirs of heaven.”

“An anecdote illustrating Pacchierotti’s pathos,” says Ferris, “is given by the best-informed musical authorities. When Metastasio’s `Artaserse’ was given at Rome with the music of Bertoni, Pacchierotti performed the part of Arbaces. In one place a touching song is followed by a short instrumental symphony. When Pacchierotti had finished the air he turned to the orchestra, which remained silent, saying, `What are you about?’ The leader, awakened from a trance, answered with much simplicity in a sobbing voice, `We are all crying.’ Not one of the band had thought of the symphony, but sat with eyes full of tears, gazing at the great singer.”