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Margherita Durastanti: a prima donna to remember

by Luca

From 1710 onwards she was one of the great European personalities of the stage – a fantastic singer and a brilliant actress.
And all this in spite of her looks – she was called “The Elephant” by a certain librettists.
The only artist to have focused on arias by Margherita was the late Lorraine Hunt with Nicholas McGegan (see: Arias for Durastanti, Harmonia Mundi, 1991, re-issued 2008), but this was twenty years ago, as long time has passed since. It may be that she is being more and more forgotten and will soon be only known to a small circle of musical historians. I hope not – hence this website! You will see, there are quite a few arias eligible for another CD.
From all I can say at this point, Margherita’s career was strongly affiliated with the works of two composers: Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Research, however, indicate that two other composers might have influenced her career decisively: Francesco Gasparini and Antonio Lotti. Her collaboration with Handel spans over almost 30 years, from 1707, when he had just come to Italy, until 1734 when she sang for him the last time in London at the a point of crises before an almost empty house.
300 years and more have left plenty of questions and mysteries to be solved.
Tracing the lives of artists who lived several hundred years ago is like a detective story. You’ve got only limited information here and there about one composer, while other sources reveal information about a particular singer. And slowly you feel there must be a link between them, even if there are no facts to prove it.

Her name is sometimes written as “Margherita Durastante” and Ellen T. Harris in her book “Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas” writes her name even as “Margarita Durastante”. It seems that both occurrences are English versions of her name.
However, to be true to her Italian origins, I will always refer to her as Margherita Durastanti.
In his autobiography, composer Georg Philipp Telemann recalls his stay in Dresden and remembers Margherita as the “Gräfinn” or in English “Countess” (see Georg Philipp Telemann: “Singen ist das Fundament zur Musik in allen Dingen”, Eine Dokumentensammlung, ed. by the publishing house Heinrichshofen, Wilhelmshaven, 1981, page 207). This may be connected to her husband’s title.

According to Julie Anne Sandie (Compantion to Baroque Music) Margherita was married to Casimiro Avelloni (a count according other sources) and was robbed when travelling via Germany in 1721. Winton Dean’s article on her from the following website has also been a source:
Margherita Durastanti Biography – (fl 1700 – 34 ), La Resurrezione, Agrippina, Carlo rè d’Alemagna, La virtù trionfante, Teofane

about 1685: born in the region of Veneto (?)
1700/1701: first professional appearance in Mantua and Venice
1707-175 regular performances for Prince Ruspoli in Rome
Dec. 1709/1710: singing the title role in Handel’s Agrippina at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice where she worked until 1713 >>how does that go with the following information?
1710: Bologna and Reggio Emilia
1713 Milan
1715: Florence >> in which operas did she sing??
1715-16: Naples: five operas, including Alessandro Scarlatti’s Carlo rè d’Alemagna and La virtù trionfante
1719: Dresden, singing “Gismonda” in Lotti’s Teofane, see here:
1720/1721: London: a daughter is born in February 1721, King George I and the Princess Royal (Sopie Dorothea?) as well as Lady Bruce are the girl’s godparents, christening on 2 March 1721
1721/1722: in Germany:
in mid-October 1721 Margherita has three guest performances in the Munich opera „L’Amore d’Amico“ (by Pietro Torri) as Deidamia, starring with Filippo Balatri, see: „Die Nachtigall des Zaren“ by Christine Wunnicke
-according to Dean an illness kept her from coming to London that season
1724: summer: singing in Paris (according to Dean)
1723/1724: back in London
1725-1723: ???
1733/1734: back in London again
after 1734: ???
In January 1720 Margherita makes her first step on the British Isles. A few months ago, during the celebration of the Elector’s son’s wedding in Dresden at the court of August II the Strong, where she appeared in Lotti’s Teofane, she had met her former colleague Handel: he recruited her for the newly-founded Royal Academy of Music. Now four eventful years (with interruptions) on English soil lie ahead of her.
One of her first roles in April 1720 already indicates the whole of her talents: she sings the male protagonist’s role in Handel’s Radamisto. In the next years she will create the roles of many men, from adolescent boy to a father in his 40s.
Here is the list of her roles (so far I can tell – the research is still underway). Abbreviations used:
GFH: Handel
AA: Ariosti
GB: Bononcini
FA: Filipo Amadei
Thanks to a book by Ernst Rüdiger Voggenreiter from 1978, “Untersuchungen zu den Opern von Attilio Ariosti” I could include information on Margheritas roles in Ariosti’s operas. Most information on Ariosti is taken from this book.
Another source is: Companion to Baroque Music by Julie Anne Sandie

-Numitore by Giovanni (?) Porta, 2nd April 1720: opening of the Royal Academy of Music

-Radamisto (GFH), 27 April 1720
-title role in the first version
-as Zenobia in the second version later the same year, 1 Nov 1720

-Narciso by Domenico Scarlatti, May 1720 , title role

-Arsace (by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini with arias by FA): 1 Feb 1721

-Muzio Scevola (FA, GB, GFH), 15 April 1721, as Clelia

-L’Odio e l’Armore (AA), 20 May 1721 as Tomiri (middle-aged king)

-Floridante (GFH), in the revival from 4 Dec 1722 as Elmira (famous aria „Dolce mia speranza“)

-Ottone (GFH), as Gismonda, 12 Jan 1723

-Flavio, (GFH) as Vitige (a lover), 14 May 1723

-Il Coroliano (AA), as ???, 19 Febr 1723, later a revival “For the Benefit of Signora Durastanti“ (17 March 1724) – her good-bye performance containing an aria in English from a work by Alexander Pope: “But let old charmers yield to new; /Happy soil, adieu, adieu!“

-Il Vespasiano (AA), as Domiziano (a power hungry general), 14 Jan 1724 (further performances: 18/21/25 Jan & 1/6/11/15 Febr 1724)

-Giulio Cesare in Egitto (GFH), as Sesto (an adolescent youth on revenge), 20 Febr 1724
Handel brought Durastanti back to England for his 1733-34 season, when she sang in revivals of Ottone and Il pastor fido, as well as several pasticcios. By this time she was probably in her fifties, and had been singing professionally for over thirty years. It is testimony to her enduring abilities that an aristocratic opera-lover of the time, Lady Bristol, was moved to comment:
“… Carestini, … I can find to be an extreme good singer; the rest are all scrubs except old Durastante, that sings as well as she ever did.”
Although there is little surviving contemporary opinion of Durastanti’s singing, Charles Burney wrote insightfully, though at second hand, of her performance in the first revival of Handel’s Floridante in 1722:
“When this opera was afterwards revived, and the Durastanti performed Mrs Robinson’s part, additional airs were composed to display her peculiar powers; and we find by these, that her abilities as a singer and musician were greatly superior to those of her predecessor, though perhaps less amiable and captivating to an audience, or at least to the spectators. One of these airs, Dolce mia speranza, is the most pathetic and beautiful of the slow Siciliana kind I ever heard.”