Soprano Angelica Catalani was born on 10 May 1780 in Senigallia, Ancona. At the age of twelve she was sent to the convent of Santa Lucia at Gubbio, near Rome, where the purity of her voice caused a sensation. She gained her first engagement at La Fenice, Venice, and made her début in Johann Simon Mayr’s opera Lodoiska. She soon sang at all the great opera houses in Europe.
During her stay at Lisbon she met the French attaché Paul Valabrègue and they married in 1804. He managed the financial aspects of her career. Catalani came to England in 1806 having signed a lucrative contract with the proprietors of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. She made her début 5 December 1806 in Marco Portogallo’s Semiramide, composed for her expressly.
Around 1808, James Lonsdale produced a painting of her as Semiramide, dressed in royal robes trimmed with ermine, and wearing a diadem on her head. For seven years she was London’s unrivalled prima donna. Among her famous roles was Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro which she introduced to London in 1812.
Such was her superstar status in London that her style of performing was adopted for entertainment at Vauxhall Gardens. Miss Elizabeth Feron (herself a soprano of French descent) performed a comic song by John Parke called ‘The Romp, or the Great Catalani’, in which she used her powers of mimicry to parody the Italian soprano.
The song was an early example of the double-entendre that came to dominate the music hall (the V&A holds a copy of Parke’s Catalani-song published in September 1809 by Laurie & Whittle). Her relationship with the English musical press became strained. Having transposed arias within performances of Handel’s Messiah, critics condemned her as being a tasteless foreigner. The figure of John Bull was introduced to attack the ‘deprived’ taste of an establishment that adored foreign art and music. Catalani quitted the theatre at the end of the season of 1813 and moved to Paris where she died in June 1849.