Maria Malibran
Malibran image
photo, Castello Sforesco, Milan
1808-1836


Maria Malibran, mezzo soprano, was one of the most thrilling operatic divas of the early nineteenth century. In her singing and acting, as well as in her life, she embodied the spirit of Romanticism. She was the daughter of Manuel del Pópulo Vicente García, sister of Manuel Patricio Garcia and Pauline Viardot-Garcia.

Maria was born on 24 March 1808 at No. 3, rue de Condé in Paris (a plaque today marks the location), only one month after her father's debut in Paer's Griselda at  the Opera Buffa in Paris on 11 February 1808.

In 1811 García travelled to Italy to further his operatic career. But García was a born pedagogue and so was solicitous for the musical education of his children. In Naples, therefore, he initiated Maria's studies in theory and piano with Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833) and Auguste Panseron (1796-1859). Hérold had won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1812 but left Rome in September 1813 and settled in Naples where, apart from teaching Maria, he also taught the daughters of Joachim Murat (brother-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte), the King of Naples. Hérold's first opera, La gioventù di Enrico quinto, was premiered at the Teatro del Fondo on 5 January 1815 with Manuel García in the title role. If this marked the first connection between the Garcías and Hérold, then Maria was probably six or seven when she began her lessons. Panseron also was in Italy as a result of having won the Prix de Rome in 1813. He studied in various cities in Italy, including Naples, until he returned to Paris in 1818. Since Hérold left Naples shortly after the premiere of La gioventù di Enrico quinto, probably Panseron replaced him as Maria's tutor until the Garcías left Naples for the premiere of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia in February of 1816 in Rome.  After that historic event, García was briefly in London (where he wrote a "Terzetto di soprano, tenore, e basso" on 24 August 1816"). During this time (around March-October 1816) he placed Maria in a boarding school in Hammersmith, England, run by French Benedictine nuns. Thus, Maria's international upbringing provided her with skills in Spanish (spoken at home), Italian (learned in Naples), French (probably also spoken at home and used in her lessons with Hérold and Panseron and at the Hammersmith boarding school) and, now, English (probably not the medium of instruction, but picked up from schoolmates at Hammersmith). Knowledge of the latter language was to serve her (and her father) well when she made her New York debut with his troupe in 1825.

Maria probably began regular study with her father in 1818 or 1819 in Paris. His teaching, as evidenced in his Exercises and Method (Boosey, 1824) would have begun with slow mesa di voce
exercises (gradual crescendo and decrescendo on long held notes) throughout her range and then progressed to increasingly florid exercises on scales and arpeggios and, finally, extended vocalises. He would also have instructed her in improvisation and embellishment—an essential component of the bel canto style. According to the Countess Merlin (a close family friend and biographer of Maria), a special trait of García's teaching was his ability to develop the chest register in female voices (Merlin, Maria Malibran, 29-33; quoted in Radomski, Manuel García, p. 272). Thus, Maria, at the height of her career, had command of the alto through soprano ranges. This can be clearly seen in the last operatic role that  García wrote for her, Rosita in El gitano por amor: the part demands high C's down to low E's below middle C!

Maria made her professional debut in London at the age of 16, singing the very difficult "Nacqui al'affano" from Rossini's La Cenerentola in a concert at Almack's Rooms on 9 June 1824. A year later she made her London operatic debut as Rosina in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at the King's Theatre on 11 June 1825. The review noted already the artistic traits that were part of the Garcia tradition: beauty of voice and stunning agility:

[Mademoiselle Garcia] is a very agreeable young lady. Her figure is good—her features rather expressive than handsome—her action free yet modest. Her voice is very pleasing, but it is not of extensive power. She, however, manages it with infinite skill. Her opening air, a composition of great difficulty, was beautifully sung, and was rapturously encored. She here displayed all the florid, yet delicate execution, for which her father is so remarkable. [The Times, 15 June 1825, quoted in Radomski, Manuel García, p. 183.]

At this time García was engaged by the wealthy New York wine merchant Dominick Lynch (acting on behalf of manager Stephen Price) to direct opera performances at the Park Theatre in New York. This provided an excellent opportunity for him to present Maria before an undiscriminating public, giving her invaluable experience upon which to build a professional career. She opened, in Il barbiere di Siviglia, on 29 November 1825. All of New York's elite  including the likes of Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and former king of Spain), James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans), Fitz-Greene Halleck (American poet) and Lorenzo Da Ponte (librettist for Mozart's Don Giovanni) flocked to the García troupe's performances over the next few months. In New York Maria sang the leads of other Rossini operas (Il Tancredi, Il turco in Italia, Otello), Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Romeo in Zingarelli's Romeo e Giulietta (link to libretto) and also premiered works by her father: L'amante astuto and La figlia dell'aria (an aria from the latter work, "Non lo vedo...Son regina", has been recorded by Cecilia Bartoli).

On 23 March 1826 Maria, against her father's wishes, married the wealthy Eugène Malibran (1781-1836). When García sailed from New York to Veracruz on 16 October 1826, therefore, Maria remained behind for one more season in New York. She was by now the darling of New York society. With her English skills she was able to please the American public in a way that her father could not. During the lesson scene in Il barbiere di Siviglia, for example, she had accompanied herself at the piano singing "Home Sweet Home". In 1827 she sang in The Devil's Bridge by John Braham (1774-1856) and Love in a Village by
Thomas Arne (1710-1788) . But such light fare was too far beneath the level of Maria's talents. Feeling herself stagnating professionally in the United States, she decided, despite the protests of her husband, to return to Paris in November 1827.

On 14 January 1828 Maria made a sensational operatic debut in Paris in the title role of Rossini's  Semiramide as part of a benefit performance for the bass Filippo Galli (1783-1853). At first, due to nervousness, she was received with indifference. But as she regained confidence during the performance she began to shine and then to thrill: "The audience was conquered," said [François-Joesph] Fétis, "and passed from the most disdainful coldness to the most immoderate enthusiasm." (Revue et gazette musicale, II, 1827-8, p. 589; quoted in April Fitzlyon, Maria Malibran, p. 70).

From this moment on Maria, known as La Malibran, was a star—as well as a household word—in Paris and, eventually, all of Europe. Apart from Rossini roles, she went on to be a sensation in operas of Vincenzo Bellini (Norma, La Sonnambula, I Capuleti e i Montecchi) and Gaetano Donizetti (L'elisir d'amore, Maria Stuarda). In London she also sang, in English, Beethoven's Fidelio, and in 1836 premiered Michael Balfe's  The Maid of Artois. Despite the fact that the latter work has been long forgotten (although it was revived and recorded in 2005: The Maid of Artois), according to conductor and composer Julius Benedict, "Nothing has ever exceeded the effect she produced in Balfe's Maid of Artois." (Willert Beale, The Light of Other Days, (London, 1890) vol. 2, p. 201; quoted in Fitzlyon, p. 210).

After returning to Paris in 1827, Maria's relation with Eugene Malibran quickly declined. By 1829 she was in love with the Belgian violinist Charles de Bériot (1802-1870) and seeking a means (either by Church annulment or divorce) to end her marriage with Malibran. After endless efforts, including, for a while, the help of her friend, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), an annulment was granted by a Paris court in February of 1835 (Fitzlyon, p. 199). She thereupon married de Bériot on 29 March 1836.

On 5 July 1836 Maria was riding with friends in Regent's Park in London when she suffered an accident that led to her untimely death at the age of 28. The incident was remembered by one of her companions, Lord William Lennox:

On setting off at a canter, she plied her light riding-whip too severely upon the horse's neck. The animal, usually quiet, got his mettle up, and suddenly increased his pace. A clatter of some horses behind added to his excitement, and in a few seconds the rider had lost all control over her steed.

I was a few paces in the rear, and called upon Mr and Mrs Clayton to check their speed at once. Bounding round the inner circle of Regent's Park at an awful pace, Malibran, feeling herself lost, shouted for help, when a policeman rushed forward and seized the horse by the bridle. Unprepared for this sudden movement, the rider was precipitated against the wooden paling, and fell exhausted to the ground. (Lord William Pitt Lennox, Fifty Years' Biographical Reminiscences,  (London 1863) vol. 2, p. 207-9; quoted in Fitzlyon, p. 211)

Despite the seriousness of her injury and the pain she suffered, Maria immediately followed through with a series of four performances at Drury Lane in London: The Maid of Artois (July 5th and 7th), Fidelio and the second act of La sonnambula (July 6th), and the complete La sonnambula (July 8th). Her last operatic performance was on 16 July 1836, when she sang The Maid of Artois and the last act of La sonnambula at Drury Lane. She received thunderous applause and ended the evening's performance singing God Save the King.

Two months later Maria was engaged to sing at a festival in Manchester. Despite her terrible indisposition, resulting from the July 5th accident, she sang in concerts on September 13th and 14th. Her final performance was a duet from Mercadante's Andronico: "Vanne se alberghi in petto," sung with Maria Caradori-Allan (1800-1865) on the evening of the 14th. According to conductor Sir George Smart's account, Maria remained a fiery prima donna to the end:

Madame Caradori-Allan made some deviation; this prompted Malibran to do the same, in which she displayed most wonderful execution. During the well-deserved encore she turned to me and said: "If I sing it again it will kill me." "Then do not," I replied, "let me address the audience." "No," said she, "I will sing it and annihilate her." (Sir George Smart, Leaves from the Journals of Sir George Smart, ed. H. B. and C.E.E. Cox, (London 1907) p. 283; quoted in Fitzlyon, p. 221)

The next day Maria was so ill that she at first decided to cancel her morning performance. Then, fearing criticism for the cancellation, she insisted on going to the church where the concert was to take place, despite the fact that she was too weak to dress herself and was experiencing vomiting and convulsions. When the seriousness of her condition became apparent she was taken back to her hotel where she died at twenty-five minutes to midnight on 23 September 1836 (Fitzlyon, p. 227).

With her early demise, Maria Malibran, as so many artists before and after her, attained a legendary status. Her total commitment in performance, both vocally and dramatically, exemplified the Romantic diva and, in the twentieth century inspired singers such as Maria Callas and, in the twenty-first century, Cecilia Bartoli.

Bibliography

Bushnell, Howard. Maria Malibran: A Biography of the Singer (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1980).
   
Although it relies too heavily on the Countess Merlin, this is one of the best recent biographies, presenting
    much previously unknown material .
   

Fitzlyon, April. Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age (London: Souvenir Press, 1987).
    Fitzlyon aims not to write a conventional biography but to present Malibran as "a product and symbol of French Romanticism,
    an expression of Romantic attitudes." Although this makes for interesting reading, Fitzlyon often too heavily mixes her opinions with facts.
   
Merlin, Countess María de los Mercedes. Madame Malibran (Brussels; Société Typographique Belge, 1838).
    A good friend of Maria's, the countess provides fascinating anecdotes but is not reliable for historical accuracy. Available in
    various English editions.

Pougin, Arthur. Marie Malibran: Histoire d'une cantatrice (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1911).
    A fine work, for its time, by an important French conductor, music critic and writer; available in English translation.

Reparaz, Carmen de. María Malibrán 1808-1836: Estudio Biográfico (Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones del
    Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia, 1976).
     As with the Fitzlyon, this work also studies Malibran in the Romantic context. Useful for numerous illustrations, quotes from
    letters and other documents.

A definitive study of Malibran's life remains to be written!

Discography

Cecilia Bartoli - Maria [LIMITED EDITION]. Decca 2006.
    A beautiful exploration of Maria Malibran's repertoire. Includes  a substantial book with the CD.

Published Works by Maria Malibran

Album Lyrique; and Dernières Pensées, edited by Charlotte Greenspan [facsimile of two collections originally
    published in Paris 1831 and 1839 respectively] (New York: Da Capo Press, 1984).
    Includes: (from Album lyrique: "Le Reveil d'un beau jour,"  "La Voix qui dit: Je t'aime,"  "Le village,"
    "La Tarantelle," "Les Refrains," "Rataplan," "La Bayadère," "La Résignation," "Le Ménestrel, Row, boys,"
    "Enfants, ramez,"  "La Batelier," "Le Rendez- vous," "Belle, viens à moi," "Le Lutin).
    (from Dernières Pensées: "La Fiancée du brigand," "Le Message," "Prière à la Madone," "Hymne des matelots,"
    "Les Noces d'un marin," "Au bord de la mer," "Adieu à Laure," "Addio a Nice," "Le Montagnard," "Les Brigands,"
    "La Morte," "Le Moribond").

Arie, Ariette e Romanze.
Edited by Riccardo Allorto. (Ricordi).
    Includes three songs ("Rataplan, tamour habile," "La visita della morte," and
    "No chiu lo guarracino") by Malibran.

Nel cor piu non mi sento by Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816).
Variations by M. Malibran. (Fayatteville, Arkansas:
    Classical Vocal Reprints), Catalog No. CVR 3200.


Songs and Duets of García, Malibran and Viardot,
ed. Patricia Adkins Chiti, (Alfred Publishing Co., 1997).
    Includes three songs ("Il Mattino," "La voix qui dit: je t'aime," and "Le prisonnier") by Malibran.

Women Composers: A Heritage of Song. Arr. Carol Kimball, (Hal Leonard, 2005).
    Includes two songs ("Les Brigands" and "La voix qui dit: Je t'aime") by Malibran.

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