Prima Donnas

Choice of the Russian Society of Friends of the Salzburg Festival
The dictionary defines prima donna as 'the lead female singer in an opera'. But we're used to seeing prima donnas as much more than that: incredible stage stars with unearthly voices and ill-tempered personalities. How did a standard wage rate in Italian theatres (where there was a seconda donna and even an altra prima donna as well as the prima donna) come to signify musical royalty?

Cecilia Bartoli, who has long earned the title of 'prima donna assoluta', described the ascent of women to opera stardom in our recent interview 'I was curious how, at the turn of the 18–19th centuries, the common term 'divo' gradually morphed into the contemporary 'diva', while the meaning remained essentially unchanged: the word was still used to refer to an outstanding operatic personality around whom the entire colour of musical and secular society revolved. In the 1730s England and Spain were focused on one superstar – Farinelli. Farinelli was a symbol of the glamorous world of the castrati, with their distinctive vocal gift and equally remarkable tantrums on and off stage. However, views changed during the Enlightenment, and opera fans in the early 19th century began to turn their attention away from extravagant castrati to a completely different kind of theatre celebrity – opera prima donnas. Women performers better fit the demands and values of post-revolutionary bourgeois society; the castrati suddenly became a symbol of all things artificial. Young composers now took inspiration from women, whose influence extended beyond the musical scores to theatre repertoires, the vocal compositions of premieres and even the salaries of singers. Women became increasingly present in the social and cultural life of Europe: Isabella Colbran, Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran – all embodied the freedom-loving, impulsive spirit of romanticism.'

Certainly, few opera divas today can boast such ubiquitous authority. That said, there are a few names worth mentioning. Our current selection of productions is dedicated to the Prima Donnas of modern-day opera, exclusively for StayHome.Moscow.
Semele, conceived by Handel as an opera dressed up as a traditionally religious oratorio, caused outrage among the London public with its unusually immoral characters. Robert Carsen's production, originally from 1999, found a new lease of life only after the Zurich Opera invited Cecilia Bartoli for the main part. La Bartoli's performance was an instant hit. Since then Semele in English (much like The Nutcracker in the Bolshoi) has been staged in Switzerland exclusively on Christmas and New Year's Eve.
The words 'opera diva' are synonymous with Netrebko. Two divas feature in the magnificent, albeit somewhat static, production of Anna Boleyn by the Vienna State Opera. In addition to Anna as the tragic queen, once described by the New York Times as 'the personal triumph of the Russian soprano', the opera includes Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca as Jane Seymour.
It was after the London premiere of Norma in 2016 that Sonya Yoncheva was compared to Callas and feted to be the new Netrebko. While history has its own ideas, the large-scale production from Spanish director Àlex Ollé, with its hundreds of crosses and Ku-Klux-Klan-looking priests, cannot fail to impress.
Christof Loy's Zurich production of Vincenzo Bellini's Capuleti e i Montecchi features American singer Joyce DiDonato, whose presence on stage is described as transformative. This much was clear to the Moscow audience who came to Zaryadye park a year and a half ago for its legendary In War & Peace programme. One can only hope that once the global situation improves, prima donna Joyce will return to the capital as planned.
George Benjamin's Written on Skin (Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2012) is a prominent example of Katie Mitchell's direction and serves as an equally brilliant showcase of Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. Strange as it may seem, it is Hannigan who comes closest to Cecilia Bartoli's description of the prima donna: 'women whose influence extended beyond the musical scores to the repertoires of theatres'. Dozens of contemporary composers have written operas specifically for her voice, and opera directors are lining up their productions for her. Hannigan's diva status, however, is short-lived: inspired by Teodor Currentzis, she has almost entirely devoted herself to conducting and can be heard as a singer less and less often.
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