Handel And The Battle Of The Divas

How the rivalry between Handel’s star sopranos and their fans led to fireworks and a right royal ding-dong.

George Frederick Handel

Star singers were essential for the success of Handel’s opera seasons, but sometimes they could be more trouble than they were worth. In 1722 he engaged the services of Francesca Cuzzoni. She was one of the finest sopranos in Europe but was known to have a fiery temper. 

In rehearsals for her London debut, Cuzzoni refused to sing one of Handel’s arias, complaining it had originally been written for another singer. But Handel was just as stubborn, and the matter was settled when he threatened to toss her out of the window if she didn’t. 

The performance was a great success, establishing Cuzzoni as London’s leading soprano. But after a few years the public was hungry for more. So in 1726 Handel got back in touch with his Italian agents, who suggested the mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni for the coming season.

Bordoni was younger than Cuzzoni and considerably more attractive. Cuzzoni was not happy sharing a stage with her rival and made sure everybody knew. Even so, Handel and his fellow composers wrote a series of operas for the two female leads, taking extreme care to give them equal prominence. 

The rivalry soon became public knowledge. Opera-going aristocrats began taking sides, encouraged by the press who took every opportunity to fuel the dispute. Society ladies would dress in the same fashions as their respective heroines, and would boo and jeer when the other was onstage. 

Eventually the dispute got out of hand. A performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte had been arranged with Cuzzoni and Bordoni in the lead roles. Princess Caroline was in the audience, but this did nothing to improve the behaviour of the crowd. Like Handel, Bononcini had divided the arias equally between the leading ladies, but jeers and catcalls drowned out the music whenever one or other began to sing. 

When the two singers appeared on the stage together the mood of the audience became so heated that a fight broke out in the stalls. The stress was too much for Cuzzoni, who turned on Bordoni. The two singers hurled insults at each other in Italian, then began pulling each other’s hair and ripping pieces from their costumes. They had to be dragged from the stage and the performance was abandoned. 

To prevent a repeat of the incident the theatre management cancelled Cuzzoni’s contract. The King was incensed and threatened to withdraw his subsidy, so she was immediately reinstated. The following season the two singers called an uneasy truce and appeared together in a number of productions. But it could not last and a solution had to be found. 

In the end, Bordoni was offered one guinea more than Cuzzoni for the following year. Cuzzoni reacted to the insult by immediately resigning and returning to Italy. The company hoped the affair would soon be forgotten. No such luck – The Beggar’s Opera had opened in London that season, with the fighting divas immortalised as its bickering heroines Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit.

Handel