‘Queen of Song’ Adelina Patti (1843-1919) was the highest paid soprano of her generation and a definitive interpreter of bel canto roles that Giuseppe Verdi considered ‘a stupendous artist beyond compare’. At the height of her fame in the 1870s and 1880s Patti was paid £5000 per performance: more than the President of the United States was paid in a year. Patti was born in Madrid to a family of Italian musicians. Her father Salvatore was a tenor and her mother Caterina a soprano. Her sisters Amalia and Carlotta were also singers and her brother Caro played the violin. But it was her brother-in-law Maurice Strakosch who served as Svengali to the woman who would become the most celebrated prima donna assoluta of her age.
The family emigrated to America and Patti made her operatic debut in 1859 aged 16 performing Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York Academy of Music. In 1860 Patti performed in Montreal for the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) who was touring Canada on a state visit that his mother Queen Victoria would not undertake herself. The Prince would become one of Madame Patti’s most ardent admirers and was a guest at her Welsh home Craig-Y-Nos Castle.
Patti made her London debut in 1861 at Covent Garden in the role of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Verdi, who was in the audience, wrote ‘when I heard her for the first time in London I was astounded not only by the marvellous performance but also by a great number of stage traits that revealed her great acting talent’. She chose England as her home and bought a house in South London on the west side of Clapham Common. It was to this address that her livery orders at Henry Poole & Co were sent when she became a customer in 1876.
Madame Patti travelled as tirelessly as a diplomat establishing her fame in Paris, Vienna, Washington and St Petersburg. Her performance in Paris in 1862 earned her the attention of the lascivious Emperor Napoleon III. She was immortalized by the Empress Eugenie’s court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, dazzled Russia’s Emperor Alexander II (who awarded her the Russian Order of Merit in 1870) and debuted one of her favourite songs Home Sweet Home in front of President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862. It was in Paris in 1868 that she met her first husband Marquis de Caux, an equerry of Napoleon III, who Patti divorced costing her £64,000; half of her not inconsiderable fortune.
The Diva, as she was called, burnished her fame with demands that only the greatest prima donna of her age could get away with. Her £5000 fee was paid in gold before a performance. Her name was always top of the bill printed in larger type than that of any other performer. She was not obliged to rehearse though reserved her right to attend and criticize her fellow artists and the orchestra. According to English opera promoter James Henry Mapleson, Patti travelled with a parrot who she trained to shriek ‘cash! cash!’ whenever a theatre manager walked into the room. Her preferred bel canto roles – the ones that would later earn Maria Callas her moniker La Divina – included Violetta in La Traviata, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Leonora in Il Trovatore and Gilda in Rigoletto.
Reporting on her 1884 La Traviata at Covent Garden, The Theatre magazine wrote ‘the Queen of Song was enthusiastically greeted by such an audience as she alone, of all the living prime donne can draw to the largest of London theatres. She was looking lovelier than ever, having acquired a becoming embonpoint during her sojourn in the States. Her signing and acting were in every respect as inimitable as they have been for many a past year’. When Patti heard the first of her 30 gramophone recordings, she was alleged to have said ‘now I understand why I am Patti. Oh yes. What a voice! What an artist!’
Despite losing money in her first divorce, Patti invested wisely and bought the Welsh castle Craig-Y-Nos in 1878 adding a theatrical auditorium based on Wagner’s theatre in Bayreuth. Here she gave private recitals, entertained and made gramophone record recordings of her greatest roles. She retired in 1903 after a farewell tour of the US that was a critical, financial and personal failure owing to the deterioration of her once perfect voice. Her last performance was at the Royal Albert Hall in 1914 for a Red Cross concert to benefit World War I widows. She died in 1919. Patti’s third husband, Swedish baron Rolf Cederstrom, who she’d married in 1899 outlived her and inherited her fortune. Craig-Y-Nos is now a hotel and Patti is said to haunt the private theatre preserved untouched in her castle.