Anna Maria Strada, Prima Donna of G. F. Handel

by Judit Zsovár (Author)
©2020 Monographs 312 Pages


George Frideric Handel’s longest continuous collaboration with a leading singer took place between 1729 and 1737 with Anna Maria Strada del Pò (1703–1775), a soprano who may have sung ‘entirely di petto’; that is, with a chest-like vocal production in the head range as well: powerfully and sonorously. The investigation of her peculiar vocal features and career, in connection with the music written for her by Handel and other composers, involved musicological research methods and findings of the historically informed performance practice. The conclusions rest on three main pillars: musical sources; surviving descriptions of her singing; and period treatises, completed with the author’s practical experiences as a classical singer.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prelude
  • Chapter One: Early Years
  • Venice
  • The new singing style
  • The 1720/1721 season at Sant’Angelo
  • Finances
  • Milan, Livorno, and Lucca
  • Chapter Two: First Maturity
  • Naples, the operatic capital of Europe
  • Strada on the stage
  • Becoming the leading soprano
  • Chapter Three: Successor to the ‘Rival Queens’
  • First impressions in London
  • Surpassing the predecessors
  • Social, political, and financial matters
  • Chapter Four: In the Midst of Operatic Business
  • Queen of revivals
  • Heroine of pasticci
  • Chapter Five: The Composer’s Faithful Soprano
  • The first original roles
  • A multi-faceted vocal personality
  • Reinventing Strada
  • Chapter Six: The Prima Donna of Oratorios
  • Esther and Deborah
  • From Athalia to Bellezza
  • Chapter Seven: Back to Italy
  • The first San Carlo season
  • The last active years
  • Appendix Strada’s London Season Schedules
  • Bibliography

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In the second act of Karel Čapek’s comedy, The Makropulos Case (Prague, 1922) ‒ and likewise in Leoš Janaček’s opera of the same title (Brno, 1926) ‒ Vítek, the clerk, congratulates the 337-year-old prima donna, Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos, after her fabulous performance that night and compares her to Anna Maria Strada del Pò, referring to history books which recorded her superb vocal artistry:

Emilia: Were you in the theatre? Did you like any performance?

Vítek: I should just think I did. Why, it was as good as Strada.

Emilia: Have you heard Strada sing? Let me tell you that Strada had no voice—she just made whistling noises.

Vítek: Why, Strada died a hundred years ago.

Emilia: So much the worse. You ought to have heard her. Strada! What do you mean by talking about Strada?

Vítek: I’m sorry, madam, but I—I—of course, I’ve never heard her. Only according to what the history books say—

Emilia: Let me tell you that the history-books are full of lies. I’ll tell you something: Strada made whistling noises and Corrona had a plum in her throat. Agujari was a goose and Faustina breathed like a pair of bellows. So much for your history-books.1

Emilia denigrates Strada’s voice, together that of two other singers in Janaček’s opera, and three additional ones from Čapek’s original play: Corona Schröter, a Kammersängerin in Weimar during the time of Goethe and Schiller, whose strength lay in her pure vocal sound; Lucrezia Agujari, who according to Leopold Mozart possessed an extraordinary agility and a range of three and a half octaves up to c′′′′ (and as testified by Fanny Burney had a beautiful voice with mellowness and sweetness); and the mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni, the most celebrated female singer of the Baroque era, with a big and penetrating voice.2 Thus, Emilia’s mockeries address these singers’ main vocal characteristics, by asserting their opposites.

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Among George Frideric Handel’s leading singers, Strada was the soprano with whom he had the longest period of continuous collaboration (1729‒1737) as well as the one who ʻseems to have pleased him most’.3 Charles Burney considered her an artist formed by the composer himself.4 I have chosen to investigate her vocal activities in connection with the music written for her not only by Handel, but also by Antonio Vivaldi, Leonardo Leo, Leonardo Vinci, Domenico Sarro, and others. Until now, this singer has yet to be the subject of study, either in Handel research or in the studies on eighteenth-century vocality. Aside from the scarcity of contemporary descriptions of her singing and private life, the scholarly neglect is mainly due to the popularity of her star-contemporaries, such as Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, as well as the castrati such as Senesino, Farinelli, and Carestini. Nevertheless, very important remarks were made about her singing, for example, by Ellen T. Harris, Reinhard Strohm, Rodolfo Celletti, Winton Dean, J. Merrill Knapp, Panja Mücke, and Donald Burrows. As suggested by her reference in The Makropulos Case, however, Strada must have still been remembered as a great musician with a strong vocal production as late as the nineteenth century. That Čapek as playwright of the Vinohrady Theatre chose Strada’s art to make a compliment to a 337-year-old singer, who in her career brought every segment of her art to perfection, refers to her long-lasting and wide-spread appreciation within professional circles.

The librettist Paolo Rolli remarked that Strada had a penetrating and delightful voice and stated that Handel thought ‘she sings better than the two previous ones’, meaning that the special skills of the two former divas, Francesca Cuzzoni’s expressiveness and Faustina Bordoni’s dramatism and vocal agility, became united in her voice.5 The musical material written for Strada shows an increase in lyric movements connected with demanding coloratura and a weightier dramatism. This indicates an exceptional vocal production entirely di petto ‒ as described by Pier Francesco Tosi and Giambattista Mancini,6 the very ←14 | 15→type of full-body singing that was in fact the main characteristic of the castrato style that became an essential characteristic of nineteenth-century bel canto.

Strada’s comprehensive range and flexibility, as well as her twofold lyric-dramatic talent, were most probably due to an unusual innate ability. She may have been a so-called natural soprano (or to use a Romantic expression, an early soprano sfogato or voce assoluta), who, having a strong upper register, sang with a chest-like vocal production in the head range as well, powerfully and sonorously. As Ellen T. Harris has pointed out, evidence for this can be seen in the arias written especially for her, where high notes as dynamic and musical climaxes are often textually and rhythmically accented,7 which was contrary to the general practice of the era and to Handel’s way of composing for Cuzzoni and La Francesina (Élisabeth Duparc), the sopranos preceding and succeeding Strada, respectively.8 My conclusions about Strada’s singing and sound features rest on three main pillars: (a) the musical sources, which focus on the original roles and arias created especially for her; (b) the surviving descriptions of her singing, and the period treatises – all of which is complimented with (c) my own practical experiences as a classical singer. The musical material per se can be misleading when it comes to the quality of singing, especially without the opinions of contemporary listeners who heard her voice and verify that Strada’s skills met all the technical, acoustic, musical, and expressive requirements these works imposed. Only after this foundation has been laid can the compositions, coupled with contemporary accounts of her singing, be interpreted as a sort of eighteenth-century ‘sound recordings’, preserving traces of her vocal personality. Setting Strada’s vocal profile, therefore, was like putting together remaining pieces of a puzzle or mosaic. This is what the cover of this book, my own painting, metaphorically illustrates.

The method I used is the same applied by Charles Burney, for example, who in the case of the soprano castrato Valeriano Pellegrini (1663‒1746) suggested certain abilities that the score might indicate concerning Mirtillo’s first aria, ←15 | 16→‘Fato crudo, Amor severo’ in Il pastor fido (1712).9 In the end, however, he classified the singer according to the general quality of singing, meaning that the requirements of the aria could have been accomplished by Valeriano, but neither easily nor excellently (the singer was nearly fifty years of age at that time):

The first air for a soprano, lets us know what kind of voice the Cavalier Valeriano possessed of; and the pathetic style of the first part of his song, as well as the agility necessary to the execution of the second, seem to imply abilities in that performer, of no mean kind. This air and many other airs in the opera, are only accompanied by a violoncello, in the old cantata style; but Handel always contrives to make this single accompaniment interesting without overwhelming the voice-part, or depriving it of attention. […] Valeriano was only of second class;10

Since Strada’s beauty of voice and manner of singing always drew admiration, and never received a negative review even from malicious critics ‒ she was rather criticised for her ‘frightfull mouths’ and unfavourable looks11 ‒ one can conclude that the ideal audible parameters of the arias inspired by and dedicated to her did reflect her actual vocal characteristics.

1 Karel Čapek, The Macropulos Secret. A Comedy, trans. Paul Selver (London: Robert Holden & Co. LTD, 1927), 86. At Janaček the same passage is as follows: ‘Did you ever hear Strada? Strada used to squeak! Corrona – she had a plum in her mouth! Agujari – she was just a silly goose!’ Leoš Janaček, The Makropulos Case. Libretto (1923‒1925).

2 Kathleen Kuzmick Hansell, ‘Aguiari [Agujari] Lucrezia [‘La Bastardina’, ‘La Bastardella’]’, in GMO, accessed 5 December 2015; Ronald R. Kidd, ‘Schröter, Corona Elisabeth Wilhelmine’, ibid. A French traveller’s letter to Mr Fougeroux, June 1728. HCD 2, 233.

3 Mrs Julian Marshall (Florence Ashton), Handel (London: S. Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1883), 85‒86; Nigel Burton, ‘Marshall, Florence Ashton’, in GMO, accessed 12 September 2014.

4 GHM 4, 402.

5 Paolo Rolliʼs letters to Giusepe Riva, 11 December and 6 November 1729. HCD 2, 331‒32 and 316‒17.

6 ‘Nelle Femmine, che cantano il Soprano sentesi qualche volta una voce tutta di petto’. Pier Francesco Tosi, Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni, o sieno osservazioni sopra il canto figurato (Bologna: Lelio dalla Volpe, 1723), 38; Observations on the Florid Song or, Sentiments on the ancient and modern Singers, trans. John Ernest Galliard (London: Wilcox, 1743), 23; Giambattista Mancini, Pensieri, e riflessioni pratiche sopra il canto figurato (Vienna: Ghelen, 1774), trans. Pietro Buzzi, Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing (Boston: Gorham Press, 1912), 108.

7 Considering the repertoire of her early, Venetian years, especially the arias Vivaldi wrote for her, one can assume that Strada’s upper vocal range naturally tended to have a solid and bright sound from the very beginning of her career.

8 Ellen T. Harris, ‘Das Verhältnis von Lautstärke und Stimmlage im Barockgesang’, in Aufführungspraxis der Händel-Oper Karlsruhe 1988 und 1989, ed. Hans Joachim Marx (Laaber, 1990), 157‒71: 167‒69; ead., ‘Singing’, in GMO, accessed 3 November 2013.

9 Valeriano Pellegrini sang Nero in Handel’s Agrippina in Venice (1709). He sang for the composer in London in 1712–1713 as well, playing Mirtillo in Il pastor fido, the title role in Teseo and probably Lepidus in Silla. winton dean/john rosselli, ‘Pellegrini, Valeriano’, in GMO, ed. Deane Root, accessed 2 February 2016.

10 GHM 4, 234 and 237.

11 Mrs Pendarves to her sister, Anne Granville, 29 or 30 November 1729. HCD 2, 320.

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Chapter One:

Early Years

After setting out the (new) findings about Strada’s birth and death dates, parents, and possible educational background; the first chapter discusses the modern singing school (that of Pistocchi), the new singing style, and the singers connected to Strada. This leads further to an introduction of the cultural environment of the Venetian Republic as a venue of Strada’s first professional years, marked by her collaboration with Vivaldi, including the city’s operatic life with the attendant political, financial, and social networks. The second part of the chapter deals with Strada’s Venetian season of 1720/1721 at the Sant’Angelo theatre, with emphasis placed on her being as the first specifically high coloratura soprano that Vivaldi, as an opera composer, worked with, as well as her performances in Milan (1720 and 1721), Livorno (1722), and Lucca (1724).

Keywords: Milan, Venice, Vivaldi, S. Angelo, Teatro alla Moda, high coloratura soprano

Anna Maria Strada was born in 1703, and died in Naples on 20 July 1775.12 Francesco Saverio Quadrio (1744), in his list of the ‘female singers of dramatic poems’, notes her as a native of Bergamo.13 Her father might have been the bass Giuseppe Maria Strada, a member of the chapel choir of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo between 1709 and 1711,14 who also sang in Milan, Parma, Casale Monferrato, Verona, Ferrara, Novara, and Brescia.15 Previously, Giuseppe received a monthly grant of three doppie from the Court of Mantova ←17 | 18→from 1 February 1696 onwards.16 It is probable that Anna Strada’s mother was Andriana Strada, also a singer, who appeared in various productions in Lombard cities like Crema and at the Gonzaga court in Mantua.17


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
Anna Maria Strada G. F. Handel Baroque Opera Singing Antonio Vivaldi HIPP
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 312 pp., 1 fig. col., 140 fig. b/w, 9 tables.

Biographical notes

Judit Zsovár (Author)

Judit Zsovár gained her doctorate in musicology at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest and has been awarded the Handel Institute Research as well as Conference grants, the DAAD-, and the Zoltán Kodály scholarships. She holds publications in four languages about Baroque opera singers as well as the soprano sfogato voice. As a soprano soloist, she appeared, inter alia, at the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Handel House in London, and the Helsinki Music Centre.


Title: Anna Maria Strada, Prima Donna of G. F. Handel
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