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Posted - 18-08-2014 No Comments

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Sir Watkin and the Italian Castrato

As the musical world celebrates the tercentenary of Gluck (1714-1787), the star of Orfeo ed Euridice emerges from the account books of a Welsh estate. Previous to his role in Gluck’s opera the Italian castrato, Gaetano Guadagni (1728-1792) had become a London ‘celeb’, through professional contacts with Handel and David Garrick, sleazy lifestyle notwithstanding; and to London he returned in 1769.

Portrait of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn – by kind permission of the National Museum of Wales

Portrait of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn – by kind permission of the National Museum of Wales

Guadagni’s audience at the King’s Theatre included Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, the greatest Welsh patron of art and music in the eighteenth century. His name was linked with John Parry, the blind harpist, the Antient Concerts and the Handel Commemoration Concert in Westminster Abbey, 1784. He idolised both Handel and David Garrick, so he must have found Guadagni’s style utterly captivating. These are some of the heart-melting arias written for Guadagni.

Sir Watkin invited Guadagni and Stephen Paxton to perform at the installation of a new Snetzler organ in Ruabon church. Their astronomical fees are recorded in the Wynnstay accounts (October 1770):

Gave Mr Guadagni by Sir Watkins order having been 8 weeks at Wynnstay £100-0-0.

Pd Mr Paxton for the same time 60 guinees & gave him towards his expences 10 guineas £73-10-0.

Wynnstay accounts, 1770 (NLW, Wynnstay Estate Records, EH4/2, p. 32)

Wynnstay accounts, 1770 (NLW, Wynnstay Estate Records, EH4/2, p. 32)

Guadagni quarrelled with his manager and appeared before the magistrates for performing unlicensed opera at Carlisle House. The adverse publicity did not diminish the adulation of his devoted fan. Wynnstay accounts for March 1771 record that £20 was paid to Guadagni for singing at Grosvenor Square. He dedicated the libretto of Orfeo (1771) to Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, denying any further professional remuneration: …..with all due respect to the public, that in performing the part of Orpheus, I require no other bribe, or reward, than the pleasure of shewing you a ready obedience.

Eventually Guadagni returned to Padua but Sir Watkin Williams Wynn must have remembered the astounding voice of the Italian castrato.

Hilary Peters

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