This dramatic portrait of the great Italian soprano, Giuditta Pasta (1797-1867), in the role of Queen Semiramide from Rossini’s opera of the same name, is part of a series of studies made by Alfred Edward Chalon of theatrical performances during the 1820s. Giuditta Pasta was acknowledged as one of the most prominent singers of the 1820s famed not only for her extraordinary if flawed voice, but also for the physicality of her performances. As Susan Rutherford has noted: ‘her innovative practices contributed to the development and reconceptualization of opera’s dramatic potential on the Romantic stage.’ Pasta made her reputation in a series of dramatic roles, including as Norma from Bellini’s opera of the same name, Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula and as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, but her most famous role, as seen here, was as Queen Semiramide.
Alfred Edward Chalon was a Swiss-born artist who spent his working life in London. A hugely successful portraitist, Chalon was appointed painter in watercolour to Queen Victoria. He became famous for his flattering depictions of his female sitters and was closely associated with the London stage, making numerous portrait studies of the leading dancers and opera singers of the period. Amongst his most notable portraits are depictions of Fanny Cerrito in Giselle, Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide and Taglioni, Cerrito, and Fanny Elssler in The Three Graces. These works were reproduced by leading lithographers, often in colour, and were sometimes used to decorate music covers. A set of six Chalon sketches of Taglioni in various roles, lithographed by R. J. Lee, and with poems by W. N. Bayley, was published in 1831. It was perhaps natural that Chalon would depict Giuditta Pasta.
The present portrait depicts Pasta in her iconic role, as the fated Babylonian Queen Semiramide, from Rossini’s 1823 opera of the same name. The dramatic pose was characteristic of Pasta’s physicality and stage presence. She was described in 1829 by the critic Carlo Ritorni as the ‘cantante delle passioni’, noting that her voice was directed: ‘towards expressing the most intense passions, accompanying it with expressions of physical action, unknown before her in the lyric theatre.’
Chalon’s drawing is inscribed ‘Semiramide’ and dated 1828; it is therefore not a depiction of the opera’s London premier in 1824, but its revival at the King’s Theatre four years later. As the The London Magazine noted ‘The theatre has… been crammed, for all persons who pretend to good taste, or who know how to admire exquisite singing and finished acting go to see Madame Pasta.’ The Times reported the first night of the run, noting:
‘Madame Pastas, as the Babylonian Queen, was on Saturday as powerfully effective as on all former occasions. Such is the peculiar influence exercised by her intense conception of great characters, that her latest efforts always increase the previous impression made on her audience. The universal applause of an excessively crowded house, which marked her reception when she first came on the stage, was partly meant, perhaps to show all that was expected of her; and the enthusiastic manner in which approbation was testified at the different periods of her performance, must have convinced her that the expectations she had raised were realized in a manner which fully justified them.’
Pasta’s fame meant that Chalon’s watercolour would inevitably find a popular audience. It is therefore not surprising that Richard Lane produced a lithograph of the drawing in the 1830s.
Showing Pasta in the role of the murderous Queen, Chalon’s energetic watercolour perfectly communicates the singer’s physicality and the drama of Rossini’s opera. As a popular, contemporary depiction of one of the greatest sopranos of the nineteenth-century en role in one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, this drawing is of exceptional importance.