Grisi, Giulia (1811–1869)

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Grisi, Giulia (1811–1869)

Italian soprano who was one of the great prima donnas of her time. Born on May 22, 1811, in Milan, Italy; died on November 25 (some sources cite the 29th), 1869, in Berlin, Germany; daughter of Gaetano Grisi, one of Napoleon's Italian officers, and a mother who was also a singer; niece of Josephina Grassini (1773–1850), a contralto; cousin of ballerina Carlotta Grisi (1819–1899); sister of mezzo-soprano Giuditta Grisi (1805–1840); studied with Giuditta as well as Filippo Celli and Pietro Guglielmi; also studied with Marliani in Milan and Giacomelli in Bologna; married Count de Melcy, on April 24, 1836 (divorced); lived with her singing associate, the tenor Mario, Marchese di Candia (some sources say they were married in 1856); children: (with Mario) three daughters.

Made debut in Bologna (1828); created the role of Adalgisa in Norma in Milan (1831); made Paris debut (1832), London debut (1834).

Giulia Grisi was born into a family of gifted musicians, her maternal aunt Josephina Grassini (1773–1850) was a popular opera-singer both on the Continent and in London; her mother had also been a singer, and her elder sister Giuditta Grisi and her cousin Carlotta Grisi were both exceedingly talented. Giulia was trained to a musical career and made her stage début in 1828 as Emma in Rossini's Zelmira. Rossini and Bellini both took an interest in her, and at Milan she was the first Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma, in which Giuditta Pasta took the title part. On opening night, the first act was a fiasco, and it was not until the second act, with the duet of Norma and Adalgisa, that the audience began to applaud. Grisi appeared in Paris in 1832 as Semiramide in Rossini's opera and had a great success; in 1834, she appeared in London as Ninetta in La Gazza Ladra. Her first great London success, however, was in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. Grisi would appear in London each season from 1834 to 1861, missing only one year, 1842.

Giulia Grisi was the reigning Italian prima donna of the mid-19th century who is all too often remembered for a feud with her arch-rival, Pauline Viardot . The rivalry began when Grisi was chosen to replace Viardot's half-sister, Maria Malibran , in Paris and London. The feud grew when the tenor known as Mario, Giulia Grisi's companion, could not perform with Viardot in Covent Garden in 1848 due to illness. Later that year, illness forced him to cancel a second time. Although there was substantial evidence that Mario was truly ill, Viardot refused to believe it. In order to smooth things over, Grisi offered to sing Norma in Pauline Viardot's honor. Viardot agreed if she could perform the title role with Grisi singing Adalgisa. The opera was a huge success but did not smooth over the relationship. When Mario canceled an appearance with Viardot in La Juive in 1852, she was outraged. Matters were not helped when Grisi took over the role of Fidès in Meyerbeer's Le prophète at Covent Garden which Viardot thought she should be given.

Grisi was a talented performer despite a tumultuous life on stage. "She was known for her great beauty," said a contemporary, "although she was never known to be a coquette on stage. Her soprano voice was rich, sweet, equal throughout its compass of two octaves (from C to C) without a break, or a note which had to be managed. Nor has any woman ever more thoroughly commanded every gradation of force than she." Grisi was famous for her roles as Norma, Lucrezia Borgia , Donna Anna, and Anna Bolena. She was a particularly fine actress, and in London opera her association with such singers as Lablache, Rubini, Tamburini and Mario was long remembered as the palmy days of Italian opera.

Some considered Giulia Grisi a neurotic but these stories seem to come from her rival, Viardot. A major presence on the opera stage who was revered by an adoring public, including a young Queen Victoria , Grisi performed in Paris for 18 seasons and London for 26. She was the first in line of great dramatic coloraturas which began with her and continued with Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland , and Monserrat Caballé . While on tour in 1869, Giulia Grisi was felled by a severe cold; she died in Berlin of inflammation of the lungs at the Hotel du Nord on November 25.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia