La Malanotte

ONE morning in Naples, in the spring of—,I was practising over some operas of Rossini with a musical friend, He had known the great maestro personally, and his intelligence on musical matters, his numberless anecdotes and reminiscences, made him a charming companion ; he was a living, talking Scudo article, full of artistic mots and ana. We had just finished looking over the “ Tancredi," and, as I sat down to rest in an arm-chair near the window, he leaned back in the deep window-embrasure, and looked down into the fine old garden below, from which arose the delicious odor of orange and young grape blossoms.

“I was in Venice,” he said, “ when this opera was composed, in 1813. Mon Dieu! how time flies! Rossini wrote it for one of the loveliest women God ever made, Adelaide Montresor. I knew her very well. She was the wife of a French gentleman, a friend of mine, M. Montresor, at one time very prosperous in fortune. Adelaide was a Veronese, of good family, and had studied music only en amateur. Her maiden name was Malanotte. Oh, yes, of course, you have heard of her. She was famous, poor child, in her day, which was a short one.”

The old gentleman sighed, and threw the end of his cigar out of the window. I handed him another; for his age and charming conversation entitled him to such indulgences. He remained silent a little while, puffing away at his cigar until it was well lighted; then he continued:—

“ I think I'll tell you poor Adelaide’s story. She was a delicious young creature when Montresor married her,— scarcely more than a child. For some years they lived delightfully; they had plenty of money, and were very fond of each other. She had two charming little children; one was my godson and namesake, Ettore. Montresor, her husband, was surely one of the happiest of men.

"They were both musical. Montresor had a clever barytone voice, and sang with sufficient grace and memory for an amateur. Adelaide was more remarkable than her husband; she had genius more than culture, and sang good old music with an unconscious creative grace. At their house we used to get up 'Il Matrimonio Segreto,' scenas from ‘Don Giovanni,' and many other passages from favorite operas; and Adelaide was always our admired pruna donna; for she, as Fétis says of genius, ‘invented forms, imposed them as types, and obliged us not only to acknowledge, but to imitate them.’

“I had to go to Russia in 1805, and leave my home and friends for an indefinite period of time. When I bade the Montresors good-bye, I wondered what sorrow could touch them, they seemed so shielded by prosperity from every accident; but some one has said very justly of prosperity, that it is like glass,—it shines brightest just before shivering. A year after I left, Montresor, who had foolishly entered into some speculations, lost all his fortune. In a fortnight after the event, Veronese society was electrified by the public announcement of Madame Montresor’s first appearance in public as an opera-singer. I forget what her opening piece was. She wrote to me about it, telling me that her debut was successful, but that she felt she needed more preparation, and should devote the following year to studies necessary to insure success in her profession. Her letters had no murmurs in them about the lost fortune, no moans over the sacrifice of her social position. She possessed true genius, and felt most happy in the exercise of her music, even if it took sorrow, toil, and poverty to develop it. Her whole thoughts were on the plan of studies laid down for her. Now she could be an artist conscientiously. She had obtained the rare advantage of lessons from some famous retired singer at Milan,— Marchesi, I think,—and her letters were filled with learned and enthusiastic details of her master’s method, her manner of study, regimen, and exercise,—enough to make ten Catalanis, I saucily wrote back to her.

“ Once in a while she would send me a notice of her success at some concert or minor theatre. At last, in 1813, seven years after her girlish debut at Verona, she received an engagement at Venice. At that time I obtained congé for a few months, and, on my home-journey, stopped a few weeks at Venice, to see some relatives living there, and my old friends, the Montresors. The seven-years’ hard study and public life had developed the pretty petite girl-matron into a charming woman and fine artist. She was as naive and frank as in her girlish days, though not so playful,—more self-possessed, and completely engrossed with her art. Her domestic life was gone ; she lived and breathed only in the atmosphere of her profession, and happily her husband sympathized with her, and generously regarded her triumphs as his own. The first morning I saw her, I was struck with her excited air; a deep crimson spot was on each cheek, which made her eyes, formerly so soft in their expression, painfully sharp in their brilliancy.

“'I sang for Rossini last night,’ she said, in a quick tone, after our first greeting was over; then continued, with her old, frank naivete, ‘I did not know he was in the theatre. I am so glad! for otherwise I might not have done myself justice.’

“‘He was pleased, of course,’ I replied.

“‘Yes; he was here this morning. He is a charming person,—so graceful and complaisant! Montresor and I were delighted with him. He is to compose an opera for me.’

“ Her whole form seemed to dilate with pride. She walked up and down the salon with unconscious restlessness while she talked, went to a stand of flowers, and, leaning her burning face over the fragrant blossoms, drew in sharp, rapid breaths of their odors. She plucked off a white tea-rose, and pressed its yellow core against her cheeks, as if she fancied the fresh white color of the flower would cool them. Every look, every movement, every expression that shot rapidly over her varying face, as quickly as the ripples on water under the hot noonday sunlight, spoke more plainly than words her intense longing. As I recall my beautiful friend, so possessed as I saw her then with this intense desire for the fame of a great artist. I think of two lines in a little song I have heard you sing,—

"'To let the new life in, we know
Desire must ope the portal.’

And, surely, her earnest spirit was beating with feverish haste on that portal of her future for her new life.

“ Of course we did not meet so constantly, and therefore not so familiarly as formerly. When we did meet, she was as frank and friendly as ever; but she was always preoccupied. She was studying daily with the great young maestro himself, then just rising to the full zenith of his fame, and her whole thoughts were filled with the music of the new opera he was writing, which she called glorious.

“ ‘ So grand and heroic,’ she said, with enthusiasm, one morning, when describing it, ‘ and yet so original and fresh! The melodies are graceful, and the accompaniments as sparkling as these diamonds in their brilliancy.'

“ At caffes, where silly young men murder reputations, it was said that Rossini was madly in love with the beautiful prima donna ; and of course he was; for he could not help being in love, in his way, with every brilliant woman he met. Numberless stories were told of the bewitching tyranny 1 La Malanotte,’ as she was called, loved to exercise over her distinguished admirer, which were interpreted by the uncharitable as the caprice of a mistress in the first flush of her loving power. I had to listen in silence to such stories, and feel grateful that Montresor did not hear them also.

“ ‘ It is one of the penalties one always has to pay for a woman’s fame,’ I said to myself, one day, as I sat sipping my chocolate, while I was forced to overhear from a neighboring alcove an insolent young dandy tell of various scenes, betraying passionate love on both sides, which he had probably manufactured to make himself of consequence. One story he told I felt sure was false, and yet I would rather it had been true than the others; he declared he had been present at the theatre when it had taken place, which had been the morning previous,— the morning after the first representation of this famous opera. La Malanotte, he said, was dissatisfied with her opening cavatina, and at rehearsal had presented the maestro with the MS. of that passage torn into fifty atoms, declaring in a haughty tone that she would never sing it again. This was too unlike Adelaide to be true ; but i tried to swallow my vexation in silence, and with difficulty restrained myself from insulting the addle-pated young puppy. I had heard her say she did not like the passage so well as the rest of the opera, and felt sure that the whole story had been founded on this simple expression of disapprobation.

“ I swallowed my chocolate, put on my hat, and sauntered leisurely along to Montresor’s apartments. It was late in the afternoon ; the servant admitted me, saying Madame was alone in the salon. The apartments were several rooms en suite; the music-room was divided from the salon by curtains. I entered the salon unannounced ; for the valet de chambre was an old family-servant, and having known me for so many years as garçon de famille, he let me proceed through the antechamber unaccompanied. The heavy curtains over the music-room were dropped ; but as I entered, I heard a low murmur of voices coming from it. The thick Turkey carpet which lay on the inlaid ivory floor of the salon gave back no sound of my footsteps. I did not think of committing any indiscretion; I concluded that Adelaide was busy studying; so I took up a book and seated myself comfortably, feeling as well off there as at home.

“ Presently I heard a brilliant preluding passage on the piano, then Adelaide’s glorious voice pronounced that stirring recitative, 'O Patna.' This was the passage alluded to by the young dandies in the caffe. I laid down my book, and leaned forward to listen. The recitative over, then followed that delicious ‘ hymn of youth and love,’ as Scudo calls it, 'Tu che accendi,' followed by the 'Di tanti palpiti.’ Can you imagine the sensations produced by hearing for the first time such a passage ? If you can, pray do, for I cannot describe them;—just fancy that intoxicating 'Ti revedrò' soaring up, followed by the glittering accompaniment,—and to hear it, as I did, just fresh from its source, the aroma from this bright-beaded goblet of youth and love! Heigho! Adelaide repeated it again and again, and the enivrement seemed as great in the music-room as in my brain and heart. Then the low talking recommenced, and from some words that reached my ears I began to think I might be committing an indiscretion ; so I left the room as i entered it, unannounced.

“ That night I was at the theatre, and witnessed the wild, frantic reception of this cavatina, and also saw the point Scudo alludes to, which Adelaide made that night for the first time, in the duo between Taneredi and Argirio, ‘Ah, se de’ mali miei,' in the passage at the close of ‘Ecco la tromba,' the repeat of ‘Al campo.’ She looked superbly, and, as that part of the duo ended, she advanced a step, drew up her fine form to its full height, flashed her sword with a gesture of inspiration, and exclaimed, in clear, musical diction, ‘Il vivo lampo di questa spada.’ The effect was electric. The duet could not proceed for the cries and shouts of enthusiasm ; the whole theatre rose in one mass, and shouted aloud their ecstasy in one voice, as if they had but one common ear and heart.

“ The instant the cries lessened, Adelaide gave the sign to Argirio, and they took up the duo, ‘Splenda terribile,’ before the orchestra, equally electrified with the audience, were prepared for it, so that Adelaide’s clear ringing ‘Mi’ soared out like a mellow violoncello note, and she sang the three following measures unaccompanied. The short symphony which follows this little bit was not heard for the cries of applause, which were silenced only by the grand finale, 'Se il ciel mi guida.’

Gran Dio! the bare memory of that night is a joy,” said my friend, walking rapidly up and down the room.

"I had to leave for my Russian home a few days after that, and saw Adelaide only once ; it was the morning of my departure. Her salon was crowded, and she was leaning on her husband’s arm, looking very proud and happy. ‘ Who could have been in that music-room ? ’ I asked myself, while I looked at them ; then in an instant I felt reproached at my suspicions, as the thought flashed across my mind, that it might have been her husband. What more likely? I bade her good-bye, and told her, laughingly, as she gave me a cordial grasp of her hand, that I hoped to renew our friendship in St. Petersburg.

“ She never wrote to me after that. Marked differences in pursuits and a continued separation will dissolve the outward bonds of the truest friendships. Adelaide's time was now completely occupied ; it was one round of brilliant success for the poor woman. 'Such triumphs ! such intoxication ! ’ as Scudo says; but the glory was that of a shooting star. In eight short years after that brilliant season at Venice, Adelaide Montresor, better known as ‘ La Malanotte,’ the idol of the European musical public, the short-lived infatuation and passion of the celebrated Rossini, was a hopeless invalid, and worse, presque folle.

“ I received the news, strange to say. one evening at the opera in St. Petersburg, while I was listening to the mnsic of‘ Taneredi.’ Two gentlemen were talking behind me. and one was telling the other his recollection of that brilliant scene I have just recounted. Then followed the account of her illness; and I could not restrain myself, as I had in the caffe at Venice; for I had known Adelaide as a girl, and loved her as a brother. I presented myself, explaining the cause of my interest in their conversation, and found the news was only too true. The gentleman had just come from Southern Europe, and knew the Montresors personally. He said that her mind was gone, even more hopelessly than her health. She lingered eleven years in this sad state, and then, happily for herself, died.

“And Rossini,” I asked,—“how did he take her illness ?”

“ Oh, three years after his Venetian infatuation, he was off here in Naples, worshipping the Spanish beauty, a little passee, to be sure, of La Colbrand. She, however, possessed more lasting attractions than mere physical ones. She had amassed a large fortune in a variety of ways. Rossini was not over-nice; he wanted money most of all things, and he carried off La Colbrand from her cher ami, the Neapolitan director of San Carlo, and married her. It was a regular elopement, as if of a young miss from her papa. Do not look so shocked. Rossini could not help his changeability. You women always throw away a real gem, and receive, nine times out of ten, a mock one in return. But the fault lies not with us, but with you; you almost invariably select the wrong person. Now such men as Montresor and I knew how to return a real gem for Adelaide’s heart-gift; but such men as Rossini have no real feelings in their hearts.”

“ And you think she loved him ? ”

“ I try to think otherwise, for I cannot bear to remember Adelaide Montresor as an unworthy woman ; and when the unwelcome thought will thrust itself in, I think of her youth, her beauty, her genius, and the sudden blinding effect that rapid prosperity and brilliant success produce on an enthusiastic, warm temperament.— Good-morning; to-morrow let me come again, and we will go over ‘ Tancredi,’ and I will sing with you the ‘ Ah, se de' mali miei.’”

My friend left me alone. I sat by the window, watching the waving of the tasselled branches of the acacia, and the purple fiery vapor that arose from the overflowing Vesuvius; and I thought of Adelaide Malanotte, and wondered at the strange, fatal necessity attendant on genius, its spiritual labor and pain. Like all things beautiful in Art, made by human hands, it must proceed from toil of brain or heart. It takes fierce heat to purify the gold, and welding beats are needed to mould it into gracious shapes ; the sharp chisel must cut into the marble, to fashion by keen, driving blows the fair statue ; the fine, piercing instrument, “ the little diamond-pointed ill,” it is that traces the forms of beauty on the hard onyx. There had been sorrow in the tale of my friend, temptation at least, if not sinful yielding, labor and pain, which had broken down the fair mind itself,—but it had all created a gracious form for the memory to dwell on, an undying association with the “Tancredi,” as beautiful, instructive, and joy-giving as the “ Divino Amore” of Raphael, the exquisite onyx heads in the “ Cabinet of Gems,” or that divine prelude the Englishman was at that moment pouring out from his piano in a neighboring palazzo, in a flood of harmony as golden and rich as the wine of Capri, every note of which, we know, had been a life-drop wrung from the proud, breaking heart of Chopin, when he sat alone, that solemn, stormy midnight, in the old convent-chamber at Majorca. But the toil and suffering are forgotten in the enjoyment of creation, and genius itself, when going down into the fiery baptism of sorrow, or walking over the red-hot ploughshares of temptation, would rather take all its suffering and peril than not be itself;—and well it may; for it is making, what poor heart-broken Keats sung,

“ A thing of beauty—a joy forever."