From a musical family, she toured the United States as a child prodigy with the violinist Ole Bull and in 1857 toured with Gottschalk. In 1859, when she was 16, she made her opera debut as Lucia di Lammermoor in New York, and two years later she appeared as Amina in La Sonnambula at Covent Garden, a role she repeated for her debuts in Paris (1862) and Vienna (1863). Her fame spread throughout Europe, and she was soon recognized as the greatest soprano of her day .
Tchaikovsky and Adelina Patti
Tchaikovsky's first encounter with La Patti, as he often referred to her, seems to have been on 9 August 1861 [N.S.] in London, when he attended a concert she gave at the Crystal Palace, accompanied by an orchestra conducted by August Manns. She sang five numbers, including Lucia's aria "Regnava nel silenzio" from Act I of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Amina's aria "Ah, non giunge" from Bellini's La Sonnambula. She had made her sensational English début at Covent Garden only three months earlier, and during that period had appeared no less than twenty-five times on that theatre's stage in six different operas . However, the young composer was unimpressed: "We have been to a concert by the singer Patti, who is creating a mighty furore in London, though she made no particular impression upon me", he told his father .
In the 1870s, Adelina Patti would also appear regularly with the Italian Opera companies in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and Tchaikovsky would mention La Patti frequently in his music review articles, praising, in particular, her performances as Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville and as Amina in La Sonnambula. Of the latter he wrote in November 1874:
If there is one singer in the whole world who is up to the mark of this magnificent music, then that singer is, of course, none other than Madame Patti. Her wondrous voice, her enchantingly sweet appearance, her acting which is free of any artificiality, the reliability of her intonation, her extraordinarily conscientious approach to her roles, the absolute purity of her coloratura technique—all these qualities combined mean that Patti fully deserved the ovations with which she was honoured at her benefit performance [...] Madame Patti received several valuable presents and was showered with flowers and laurel wreaths—which I am indeed very glad about because Madame Patti, I repeat, is not only a splendid and incomparable singer, but also the most conscientious of artistes .
While continuing to regret the dependence of the Italian Opera companies on this single individual, Tchaikovsky often rose to Patti's defence, as in October 1872:
I should, though, return to La Traviata. Adelina Patti was singing. Now in Moscow and, so it seems, in Petersburg too, it has become fashionable to speak of this singer in a condescending and nonchalant tone. As soon as someone acquires a reputation for knowing his onions (however much this may actually be so), you can be sure that he will consider it his duty to say that La Patti leaves one cold, that she sings without any expressiveness, like a bird, or, to put it even more harshly, like a mechanical instrument. And there are even such cranks who will not hesitate to simply call her a log or a block of wood. I wholeheartedly assure my readers that all this is downright nonsense or spiteful dissembling on the part of these critics. For one cannot imagine anything more perfect than the singing of this truly amazing singer.
True, from such a childishly graceful little woman as La Patti, full of feline agility and delightful coquettishness as she is, it is difficult to expect such striking flashes of genius and mighty talent as displayed by singers of the exclusive and rare calibre of, say, a Pauline Viardot, Angelina Bosio, Désirée Artôt, Tamberlik, or Mario, but this does not in any way mean that, apart from the charm of her voice (which everyone agrees on), Madame Patti has no other fine qualities. Leaving aside for one moment the ideal clarity of her coloratura singing and intonation, one just has to think how splendidly she has trained her voice, as a result of which all her vocal registers are of equal strength and quality. Her interpretation of her roles is, moreover, marked by a great deal of taste and plenty of genuine inward emotion. Here in La Traviata, in her Act II duet (with Signor Graziani, where there are none of those dazzling roulades and trills on which La Patti's enduring success is above all founded, she nevertheless caused a profound impression thanks to the sense of inescapable anguish and despair with which her performance was suffused .
Notes and References
- Her death was registered under her married name as Adele Maria Govanna Guilia Patti Cederstrom (her third husband being Baron Olof Rudolf Cederström, 1870–1947) .
- See article by Jon Tolansky in The Oxford Companion to Music.
- Gerald Norris, citing an article by Dickens in the December 1861 issue of All the Year Round, suggests that when Tchaikovsky heard her at this concert her voice may have been showing signs of wear. See (1980), p. 300-301.
- Letter 58 to Ilya Tchaikovsky, 29 July/10 August 1861.
- The Second Symphony Concert. Madame Patti's Benefit, published in the Russian Register (Русские ведомости), 27 November 1874 [O.S.].
- The Italian Opera. The Russian Musical Society's Quartet Sessions, published in the Russian Register (Русские ведомости), 24 October 1872 [O.S.].