Bellini’s Muse and Europe’s Star Diva
The opening bars of ‘Casta Diva’ from the first act of Bellini’s opera ‘Norma’ are instantly recognisable but the name of the opera star for which it was originally written is much less so. Take time now if you wish via Youtube to reacquaint yourself with the incredible emotional power and pathos of Bellini’s masterpiece and then consider what must have been the talent and sensitivity of the singer, Giuditta Pasta, for whom it was written.
Pure Goddess, whose silver covers these sacred ancient plants, we turn to your lovely face unclouded and without veil…Temper, oh Goddess, the hardening of your ardent spirits, temper your bold zeal. Scatter peace across the earth Thou make reign in the sky…
Bellini’s ‘Norma’ was first performed in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on the 27th December 1831. Giuditta Pasta took the title role for this her inaugural performance at La Scala. She had carefully prepared herself for singing this part which Bellini had written with the quality and the formidable range of her voice in mind. Her voice had inspired him to create the aria ‘Casta Diva’ which initially even Giuditta feared might be beyond her capabilities. Bellini reassured her otherwise, and, in spite of a lukewarm reception on that opening night, Norma went on to be performed thirty nine times during that first season at Milan. Later in August 1832, Bellini watched Giuditta in ‘Norma’ at Bergamo. He wrote to his librettist Romani of the performance: ‘Our Norma is decidedly a great success. If you heard how it was performed in Bergamo, you’d almost think that it was a new work…[Giuditta] even moves me. In fact, I wept with the emotions I felt in my soul.’ And ‘Casta Diva’s’ magic still reduces many to tears!
But who was this young ‘Comasca’? After all it is not as if the name Giuditta Pasta is particularly well known nowadays, not even in the city where she lived and died. Como shares a common fault in celebrating its famous sons (Alessandro Volta, Giuseppe Terragni, the Plinys etc) more than it does its women. Giuditta Pasta certainly counts as a famous daughter since she, alongside Maria Malibran, is considered one of the most famous opera singers of the nineteenth century. She was as well known in London and St. Petersburg as she was in Milan, Naples or Venice.
Giuditta was born in 1797 in Saronno, a town in the Province of Varese lying almost half way between Milan and Como. She soon moved to Como where she spent her infancy and early adolescence. In 1811 the family moved to Milan and at sixteen she started her music studies at Milan’s Conservatorio. It was two years later when she held her first public performance and also married Giuseppe Pasta. In 1817 she made her first appearance at London’s King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, on the site of the current Her Majesty’s Theatre. However her career really took off once she started her long collaboration with Vincenzo Bellini.
Once her career was established, she bought the Villa Roda on the shore of Lake Como in Blevio, the first village out of Como on the road to Torno and Bellagio. She had it rebuilt in 1827 to her tastes by the architect Filippo Ferranti who was her uncle. Bellini became a constant visitor making the trip over the lake from Moltrasio where he stayed as a frequent guest at the Villa Passalacqua close to his mistress, Giuditta Turina who stayed in the nearby Villa Salterio Erker.
Gaetano Donizetti was another visitor to the Villa Roda and stayed for a month working on his opera ‘Anne Boleyn’. However it was her collaboration with Bellini that proved the most positive for both of them. Bellini felt that in Giuditta he had found the perfect voice to suit his style of experimenting with long melodic lines. For her part, she felt Bellini’s scores allowed her to develop and display her talents to their utmost. This partnership gave rise not just to ‘Norma’ but to his other great success ‘La Sonnambulista’ (The Sleepwalker) with Giuditta playing the principal role of Amina in its first performance at the Teatro Carcano in Milan on 6th March 1831. She repeated the role again at London’s King’s Theatre in July of that year.
Bellini went on to write ‘Beatrice di Fenda’ for Giuditta which was first performed at Venice’s La Fenice in March 1833. This was followed shortly after by the start of a tour to the United Kingdom with Bellini where Norma premiered at the King’s Theatre on 21st June with Giuditta in the title role. Her voice may well have suffered as a result of so much activity and faced with some poor reviews of her performance at La Fenice, she took a two year interval before relaunching her career at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1837.
Pauline Viardot, the younger sister of Maria Malibran and also a successful opera singer in her own right, described Giuditta’s voice at this stage as being similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – ‘a damaged painting but the most beautiful painting in the world’. Giuditta’s final singing tour was in 1841 when she toured Russia.
Giuditta was an ardent patriot sharing in the hopes of forming an Italian nation freed from its subservience in Lombardy and the Veneto to Austrian rule. The year of revolutions, 1848, witnessed a significant uprising in Lombardy where Milan, Brescia, Como and other cities gained a fleeting independence and a temporary surrender and retreat of the Austrian army. This uprising is known as the ‘Cinque Giornate’ (five days) and it was a significant moment with Como sharing in the bourgeois-inspired revolutionary fervour for democracy and self-determination which had gripped most of Continental Europe.
During those ‘cinque giornate’, with Milan and Como in open revolt, the local Teatro Sociale in Como staged Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Attila’. When the aria ‘Cara Patria’ (Dear Country) started, the auditorium stood up to join in the singing. The Austrian dignitaries ordered the guards to fire at the audience to silence them and force them back to their seats. A tragedy was only averted by a diplomatic intervention by the Police Commissioner who persuaded the guards to stand down and the public to return to their seats.
Giuditta had been giving shelter to some of the rebels in Blevio prior to the uprising but on this evening was up at Brunate with a group of friends awaiting news on how the rebellion was faring in Milan. At one hour before noon on the following day, news came that Radetzki’s army had retreated and that Milan, like Como, was under revolutionary leadership. From her vantage point visible to all below in Como she hoisted the revolutionary flag, the tricolor, and sung the ‘Canto degli Italiani’, the patriotic song written in 1847 by Goffredo Mameli and adopted as the Italian National Anthem in 1946.
The rebellion came to nothing in the end and Italy’s total unification had to wait until 1871. From 1849 until 1863, Giuditta continued living between her lakeside villa in Blevio and Milan. In 1864, with her health failing, she moved into Como and died there the year after from bronchitis. She now lies buried in Blevio’s cemetery.
Her villa on the lake was mostly rebuilt in 1904 and renamed the Villa Roquebrune although apparently one of the two original dependencies for guests remain intact along with the gardens. The luxury resort ‘Casta Diva’ is just nearby on the lakefront and named in her honour.
The town of her birth, Saronno, has named its theatre after her, and Como’s Teatro Sociale has a room named after her. There is also, as is common in Italy, a street named after her but unfortunately in a singularly remote location. But perhaps her most satisfying legacy would be the private school of music named after her – the Accademia ‘Giuditta Pasta’. This school is the only private music school licensed to award State Diplomas in Music and Dance. It has strong links with Como’s Conservatorio and the Teatro Sociale and is housed in the glorious setting of the Palazzo Valli-Bruni in Via Rodari in the centre of Como.
Giuditta Pasta is undoubtedly one of Como’s famous daughters – someone who achieved international recognition for her artistic abilities; a reputation gained not just through natural talent but by applying sensitivity and dedication to perfecting her art. Her home on the lake became a crucial meeting place for the development of Italian ‘bel canto’ at the start of the nineteenth century. That link between Bellini in Moltrasio and Giuditta Pasta in Blevio created works of world renown and their aria ‘Casta Diva’ still accords with deep rooted human sentiments as no doubt did her singing of that patriotic hymn to self-determination across the rooftops of Como. Undoubtedly Giuditta Pasta deserves a greater place in Como’s collective memory – as do others of her ‘not so famous as they should be’ famous daughters!