For over three decades, Musicians of the Old Post Road have delighted in their mission of uncovering and performing works by historically overlooked individuals and communities. Based in the Greater Boston area, the ensemble specializes in the period instrument performance of dynamic, diverse, and little-known music from the Baroque to early Romantic eras.
In March, the group returns for the second half of its 34th season with more live performances for both in-person and online audiences. On March 11th and 12th, the ensemble pays homage to one of the original superstar prima donnas, Faustina Bordoni. Born to an aristocratic family in Venice in 1697, she studied with Michelangelo Gasparini under the patronage of brother composers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello. She made her operatic debut in Venice in 1716 in Carlo Francesco Pollarolo’s Ariodante and continued singing in her home city for 10 more years, performing in operas by Albinoni, the Gasparini brothers, Giacomelli, Leonardo Leo, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, the Pollarolos (father and son), and Leonardo Vinci, among others. It was during this time she met soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, who would become her greatest rival.
“Faustina,” as she was known (even in the 18th century, divas knew the power of the mononym!), quickly gained celebrity status, impressing all of Europe with her vocal range, breath control, acting skills and beauty. Handel was immediately captivated, persuading her to join his opera company in London, the Royal Academy of Music, which also included the star castrato Senesino and Francesca Cuzzoni. Faustina’s London debut in 1726 as Rossane in Alessandro was so successful, Handel wrote four more roles for her: Alceste (Admeto), Pulcheria (Riccardo Primo), Emira (Siroe), and Elisa (Tolomeo). Everyone raved about her performances; Charles Burney noted her perfect pitch and musical intelligence, and Johann Quantz wrote that she was “born for singing and for acting.”
As Faustina’s fame grew, so did her rivalry with Cuzzoni. Their supporters displayed the passion and animosity seen in modern-day sports fans, often booing their favorite’s rival to the point where the singers could not perform over the noise. The rivalry reached a head at a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte on June 6, 1727, when a riot broke out between their supporters. Sensationalized accounts state that the two singers came to blows on stage, pulling at each other’s hair. John Arbuthnot wrote of the “most horrid and bloody battle between Madam Faustina and Madam Cuzzoni,” but most likely the scuffle just involved the fans, as the singers continued to work together. In the end, it was not the rivalry that ended their relationship, but the dire financial state of the Royal Academy, which was dissolved in 1728.
Faustina returned to Venice and enjoyed success without the distraction of her erstwhile rival. She also found love there, with German composer Johann Adolf Hasse, whom she married in 1730. The following year they moved to the court of Augustus the Strong at Dresden, where Hasse would serve as maestro di cappella for over 30 years. Faustina, also engaged by the court (notably, her salary was twice Hasse’s), sang in at least fifteen of Hasse’s operas; they were described by the librettist Metastasio in 1744 as “truly an exquisite couple.” Faustina continued to perform in Italy during this time, until she retired in 1751. Fascinatingly, Faustina kept her salary and title of virtuosa da camera to the Elector until the death of Augustus’ successor in 1763. The couple moved to Vienna for a few years (where Faustina was visited by Mozart in 1769), and eventually retired to Venice in 1773. Her twilight years were by all accounts happy; when visited by Charles Burney in 1772, he observed her to be “a short, brown, sensible, and lively old woman… with good remains… of that beauty for which she was so much celebrated in her youth.” Faustina died on November 4, 1781, survived by her loving husband and their three children.
Despite her incredible life and career, Faustina is not widely known outside of niche music circles, and her husband’s work is rarely performed, even though he was one of the leading composers of opera seria. “Baroque Diva: A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni,” will feature works inspired by Faustina’s immense talent, written specifically with her skill in mind, as well as instrumental selections by composers within her musical circles.
Grammy-nominated soprano Teresa Wakim will bring Faustina’s musical legacy to life, performing virtuosic arias by Pietro Torri (“Senti ti voglio ancor trafiggere quel cor”) and Jan Dismas Zelenka (“La sua disperazione”). The program will also include two arias by Handel written for Faustina from his Admeto. Of course, a tribute to Faustina would not be complete without a work by her husband, so the ensemble will be performing what will likely be a regional modern-day premiere of Hasse’s cantata “Pallido il volto.” Instrumental selections include Francesco Gasparini’s Flute Concerto in A Minor (which the ensemble revived in 2011), overtures by Handel and Hasse, and a trio sonata by Nicolo Porpora, who penned many arias with Faustina as his muse.
Baroque Diva: A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni
Saturday March 11 4 pm, First Parish in Wayland (and live stream)
co-presented with the Wayland Museum & Historical Society
(members receive a $10 discount on their ticket).
Sunday March 12 4 pm, Old South Church in Boston
Featuring Teresa Wakim, soprano
Suzanne Stumpf, traverso
Sarah Darling and Jesse Irons, violins
Marcia Cassidy, viola
Daniel Ryan, cello
Sylvia Berry, harpsichord