The Odious Women Tour: Isabella Colbran (1785-1845) radiated majesty on stage. Off-stage, it was said, she had as much dignity as a milliner's assistant. Born in Madrid, she studied under Girolamo Crescenti in Paris and by the age of twenty was known throughout Europe for her velvety mezzo-soprano voice. She took take her talent to Naples, a city known as the capital of European music during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The opulent Bourbon dynasty had taken over rule of Naples (1734-1861), bringing not only political stability and civic ideals of the Enlightenment, but turning a dilapidated Naples, after two centuries of Spanish colonial rule, into a modernized city. The Bourbon dynasty commissioned opulent building projects, including the Royal Palace of Caserta, the Royal Residence of Capodimonte, and the Albergo dei Poveri (the hostel for the poor). It was at this time that Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered and the architect Luigi Vanvitelli became a Neapolitan household name. What's more, the Bourbons built the Teatro San Carlo, which quickly became the place every opera singer wanted to be, including the famous castrata Farinelli.
When Isabella Colbran arrived in Naples, she first became the lover of the theater's coarse impresario, Domenico Barbaja. A coffee-shop owner from Milan with a knack for business, Barbaja ran the theater alongside a slew of gaming parlors in northern Italy -- the likely cause of Colbran's lifelong gambling addiction.
Barbaja commissioned Gioachino Rossini (Barber of Seville) to work in Naples on contract for seven years. Rossini quickly fell in love with Colbran, composing at least ten operas with her in mind. The three-some worked together until 1822 when Rossini and Colbran left for Bologna, where they married. (Barbaja wasn't invited.)
Materially well off, Isabella Colbran exacted high fees and also inherited a large estate. When Colbran's father died, Rossini was so moved by his wife's grief that he commissioned a mausoleum near Bologna depicting a daughter at the foot of the tomb weeping for her father. Colbran is buried there today alongside Rossini's parents.
But in general, Colbran's marriage was a disaster. Rossini was 30 and his career was about to take off, while Colbran was 37, her waning voice sounding the death knell of her career. While in 1824 she still played the star role for Rossini's Semiramide in London, asking the high sum of 1,500 pounds, the critics began to pan her performances with such zeal that three years later, at the age of 42, her career was over. While Rossini continued to travel and work throughout Europe, taking on a mistress in Paris, Colbran generally remained at her deceased father's estate in Castenaso near Bologna. Her health continued to deteriorate, in large part due to the gonorrhea she contracted from her husband. She also began to sell off whatever she could of her estate to support an ever more acute gambling addiction. She died in 1845, at the age of 60, purportedly murmuring Rossini's name.
Today, the Teatro San Carlo, located in the heart of downtown, is the highlight of any Naples tour. Tickets and information can be found here.
Theater Boxes in Teatro San Carlo (Still today they have mirrors along the wall meant to enable patrons to see both the show in front of them AND the King behind them inside the Royal Box.)
The Royal Box
Bust of Domenica Barbaja in one of the Intermission Rooms
An Intermission Hallway