Within the operatic world there lingers a longstanding prejudice that, before the likes of Maria Callas took the world by storm in the 20th century, performances were slightly uninspiring in their dramatic impact.

This was so because no one – singers or audiences – was interested in acting, only in singing.

Of course, that’s a parody. Regardless of how prolific this trope has become, it’s clear from the reviews of the time that this wasn’t really the case. At the very least, there was usually someone in charge of assembling a dramatic experience within the opera in the early 19th century, be that a stage director or manager, or occasionally the work’s librettist – or even the composer.

In any case, performances certainly weren’t devoid of excitement when the likes of Feodor Chaliapin, Mary Garden or Giorgio Ronconi were on stage, fulfilling every dramatic as well as musical requirement with imaginative characterisations. Blazing a trail before them all was Giuditta Pasta.

Who was Giuditta Pasta?

The Italian soprano was celebrated for her extraordinary ability to place equal importance on voice, narrative and physicality. But exploring the career of a singer of Pasta’s vintage is tricky.

She was born in Saronno near Milan in 1797, gave her opera debut in 1816, made her final stage appearance in 1841 and died at her home in Blevio on the shore of Lake Como (above) in 1865, so one obviously cannot sample recordings or films to comprehend her artistry.

Instead we have to rely on the writings of her contemporaries, as well as some telling visual depictions and the scores of works she performed and, in some instances, helped create. These sources speak with such unanimity that it is abundantly clear Pasta was a singer whose gifts amounted to creative genius.

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Her first musical studies were with her uncle (an amateur cellist), the maestro di cappella at Como cathedral, and then later with a minor composer called Giuseppe Scappa, who wrote the opera in which she gave her stage debut in a minor Milanese theatre in 1816: Lope de Vega.

When did Giuditta Pasta make her debut?

But it was through the support of composer Ferdinando Paer – internationally admired, not least by the Emperor Napoleon – that she made a far more prestigious debut later that year at the Théâtre Italien in Paris.

From there, she moved on to the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket. Like the Théâtre Italien, it was a top-ranking venue, and one that paid the best fee. London also provided an ideal environment for an artist in terms of highly lucrative concerts: in her heyday Pasta could give upwards of 60 performances in just one season.

It took some years for the young singer – just 18 years old at her debut – to develop the level of artistry and the consequent fame that would mark her out as supreme in her own time: further seasons in Paris and London saw her receive extraordinary praise. These two cities would remain the twin centres of her stage career, though she also sang with success in Naples, Vienna and Milan.

What were Giuditta Pasta's greatest achievements?

Among her greatest achievements was the creation of new roles, including Corinna in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, written to celebrate the coronation of Charles X of France in 1825. There were also leading roles in works
by Bellini: La sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda and Norma, the latter of which became her La Scala debut in 1831. She also played the leads in debut performances of operas by Donizetti: the title role in Anna Bolena (1830)
and Bianca in Ugo, conte di Parigi (1832).

These scores were all written for a singer of extraordinary virtuosity, but also – with Pasta’s special dramatic gifts at the forefront of the composers’ minds – carefully constructed for maximum expressive intent.

Pasta continued at the top of her game for some years, but there were imperfections – such as intonation – that were never entirely overcome and deteriorated with time. She made her official farewell in 1835, but made occasional returns to the opera halls of Europe thereafter when the offers were good, including a performance in London and a subsequent tour to Russia and Germany. After these fleeting visits to the stage, she finally abandoned operatic performance, returning only for the odd concert.

When did Giuditta Pasta die?

In retirement she lived with her family at her villa in Blevio, a town on the shores of Lake Como, giving occasional lessons and receiving visitors, but otherwise living a simple life. It was there she died aged 65, her career long
over but her name still widely honoured.

Just how good was Giuditta Pasta at the height of her powers?

One of her most famous performances was in Mayr’s Medea in Corinto as the title role, which she sang in Paris, London, Naples and Milan. Of a performance in London in 1826, the critic of The Harmonicon wrote: ‘She does not act the character – she is it, looks it, breathes it. She does not study for an effect, but strives to possess herself of the feeling which would dictate what she is to do, and which gives birth to the proper degree of grace, dignity, ease or force.’

A colleague in the Quarterly Musical Magazine agreed, homing in on just one phrase, which comes at the point where Medea is attempting to regain the affection of her estranged husband, Jason. In response to his question, ‘Che sperar posso? che mi resta?’ (‘What can I hope for, what is left for me?’), Medea simply responds
‘Io’ (‘I am’). ‘It is impossible to convey the dignity with which Madame Pasta invested these two notes', the reviewer wrote. 'She gave the whole power of her voice, at the same instant flung wide her arms above her head, and her whole figure seemed to dilate with a passionate majesty that can only be understood when seen.’

The writer goes on to sum up her performance in the terrible scene where Medea prepares to murder her own children as an act of revenge on Jason: ‘The acting in this scene was beyond all prize. Her self-abandonment, her horror at the contemplation of the deed she is about to do, her burst of affection, were pictured with astonishing strength, yet with such simplicity as demonstrated by her profound study of the passions. Her folding her arms across her bosom, and contracting her whole form as it were in order to shrink from approach of the children, was touching beyond description.’

In 1826, at the height of her powers, she was granted an extraordinary clause in her contract for the opera season at the King’s Theatre in London. It dictated that in all the operas she was to perform in, she alone would have the selection of the actors and casting of the roles, as well as the absolute direction in everything concerning the rehearsals and production.

Quite apart from proof of her power, such a clause equally represents an extraordinary act of faith in the capabilities – dramatic as well as musical – of an artist who in some ways reminds us of a great creative figure of more recent times: Maria Callas. The two clearly shared certain attributes, as well as quite a few roles. But above all, Pasta serves as a useful reminder that there was indeed great drama on the operatic stage in the BC (Before Callas) era.