Margherita Durastanti or the Love of Singing

Margherita in London 1720-1724


In March 1720 Margherita makes her first step on the British Isles. Half a year ago, before the celebration of the Elector’s son’s wedding in Dresden at the court of August II the Strong, where she appeared in Lotti’s Teofane, she had met her former colleague Handel: he recruited her for the newly-founded Royal Academy of Music. Her salary is 1600 Pounds for travel costs and for 15 months' work for the newly established opera company in London - a huge sum. Now four eventful years (with interruptions) on English soil lie ahead of her.

To get this contract, though, was not easy. At the beginning all went well, it seems. Handel sets off to Dresden in May 1719 with the instruction to get singers he "thinks fit" for the Royal Academy of Music (only one singer is specified, and this is Margherita's colleague Senesino). In July he writes a letter to his patron, Earl of Burlington, that soon he'll have talks with Senesino and other castrato singers. He most probably also talks to Margherita, his good friend (and perhaps more - I think they were lovers) during his Italian sojourn, offers her a position, and informs the Academy, as in August 1719 librettist Rolli, the Italian Secretary of the Academy, says that it looks as if she is going to come and gives his famous comment: 

"It is said for certain that Durastanti will be coming for the operas. Oh! What a bad choice for England! I shall not enter into her singing merits, but she really is an Elephant!"

Si dà per certo che la Durastanti verrà per l'opere; oh che mala scelta per l'Inghilterra; non entro nel di Lei cantare, ma è un' Elefante! 

Now you would expect that she got a contract straight away, but no. She has to wait until November (this when the decision was taken) and December (this is when she got the contract), when it is clear that none of the other singers will make it to go to London for April 1719. Obviously Handel was not so free to decide who to engage. It seems that the directors of the Academy preferred another singer, Maddalena Salvai (we know from Rolli's letters that apparently Handel didn't particularly like her), who is also offered more money. Well, for me it seems clear that politics came into play. The Academy was split into Georgians (in support of George I and of Handel) and those who secretly supported the "true" English kings, the Stuarts. The Earl of Burlington, Rolli's patron, as well, was openly for George I and secretly for the Stuarts. In this context Rolli's comment is not primarily about Margherita's looks. It is in my opinion a reference to her allegiance to Handel and the king, as the king's mistress at that time was called the Elephant. This is why it's so bad for England in Rolli's opinion, not because she has a rather strong and not so graceful appearance.

We have several information about Margherita's personal life in London from letters by the Italian Secretary of the Royal Academy of Music, Antonio Rolli mainly to a diplomat from Modena, Giuseppe Riva (Margherita's patron!), but also to others. These letters are sometimes very chatty and Rolli's comments go from witty to juicy with lots of secret clues. Margherita's husband Casimiro Avelloni was often in touch with Rolli, looking for a flat with him, welcoming other opera singers with him. From Rolli we know that Avelloni was ill in autumn 1720, that he found a furnished house for 95 Pounds per year, that he sublet some rooms (to her colleague Boschi and presumably his wife Francesca - she knew both from Venice) and that in general he and Margherita had money problems due to the South Sea Bubble, as some directors of the Royal Academy of Music had lost huge sums of money and the singers were paid with significant delays. In 1721 Avelloni also pawned Margherita's jewels, as they still hadn't received the outstanding 1000 Pounds by then, it seems.

While her husband was concerned with the practical aspects of life, Margherita, the actual breadwinner, was working hard for the Royal Academy of Music. Her pregnancy caused an uproar among some directors of the Royal Academy of Music in August 1720 and Rolli reports that she was "furious" about the complaints. She continued working and even appeared on stage a few days before she went into labour.  Her daughter, who was christened, remains nameless and the further fate of the little girl is unknown.

The above-mentioned power struggle of the Academy very much influenced the work of the artists involved and had a significant impact on the lives of Margherita and her friend Giorgio (Händel). In autumn 1720 the Academy invited Bononcini over and in the next year he was backed by the Catholic directors of the Academy. They were supported by the diplomat Giuseppe Riva, Margherita's patron. As he is also her patron, there should be no problems, but there are, as she is also favoured by Handel and George I. Casimiro, Margherita's husband, tries to mediate between both sides, as Rolli writes in one of her letters. After Margherita's gap year (1721/1722) and her return, things have changed. Rolli, so in touch with Riva, is gone and has been replaced by the librettist Haym - a goal for the Georgians! - however somehow, the Catholic Stuart directors gain momentum: Handel's opera "Flavio" has no success, while Bononcini shines. Casimiro seems to use this power struggle for his advantage and he brings in his protégé, the Venice castrato Giuseppe Bigonzi. This and probably other factors (guess which ones!), however, fire back on Margherita: she is forced to go, is probably offered no extension of her contract. Any connections to Handel are avoided in her benefit concerts. We have proof that she and Casimiro want to get back to London, but it seems to be impossible. The Academy brings in Faustina Bordoni instead and this new star gets into a fist fight with Cuzzoni in a Bononcini opera, to the disgrace of the Academy. Well, it is actually to the advantage of Handel that this happens: Bononcini is forced to go and his supporters lose all their influence. Shortly after this affair the Academy is liquidated. Handel, though, gets paid and can start his own opera company.

In the midst of the next rivalry, in 1733, Margherita can eventually return to London and work with her friend Giorgio again, while the majority of his former Italian colleagues have deserted him.

However, she is about 50 and after her final good-bye from London in 1734 she disappears into the unknown.

We don't know when she died. Considering that she was such a star it seems unlikely that no further information can be found on her.


One of her first roles in April 1720 already indicates the range of her acting talent: she sings the male protagonist’s role in Handel’s Radamisto. In the next years she will create the roles of many men, from adolescent boy to a father in his 40s.

Here is the list of her roles. Abbreviations used:

GFH: Handel

AA: Ariosti

GB: Bononcini

FA: Filipo Amadei

Thanks to a book by Ernst Rüdiger Voggenreiter from 1978, "Untersuchungen zu den Opern von Attilio Ariosti" I could include information on Margheritas roles in Ariosti's operas. Most information on Ariosti is taken from this book.


-Numitore by Giovanni (?) Porta, 2nd April 1720: opening of the Royal Academy of Music, as Romolo

-Radamisto (GFH), 27 April 1720: title role in the first version

-as Zenobia in the second version later the same year, 1 Nov 1720, also on February 25 1721, shortly before she goes into labour

-Narciso by Domenico Scarlatti, May 1720 , title role, she sings an aria by Thomas Roseingrave, who has probably financed this performance

-in Astarto (GB), November 1720, as Elisa


- in Arsace (by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini with arias by FA), as Statira : premiere was on 1 Feb 1721, she worked heavily pregnant!

- a spring serenade by Alessandro Scarlatti at the end of March, 1721: La gloria di primavera, first performed in Naples, 1716 

 -Muzio Scevola (FA, GB, GFH), 15 April 1721, as Clelia

-L’Odio e l’Armore (GB), 20 May 1721 as Tomiri (middle-aged king)


- aria concert on June 14


- 5 July 1721: concert for her benefit, with the cantata "Crudel Tirano Amor" by GFH and one by Sandoni (later husband of F. Cuzzoni), King George I attends the performance and asks Senesino to join her to sing arias and duets by Agostino Steffani, who was resident in Hanover

Due to an illness/another pregnancy and/or exhaustion she is not in London in the season 1721/22. After her comeback to London she is no longer the leading lady. Soon Francesca Cuzzoni arrives, but it seems they went on very well together. After all, they knew each other from Dresden. 


-Floridante (GFH), in the revival from 4 Dec 1722 as Rossane (Handel incorporates the arias from "Crudel Tiranno Amor", among them the famous aria „Dolce mia speranza“ into the opera)

Handel originally composed the role of Elmira for her and didn't change the arias for her replacement, Anastasia Robinson. This gets him into trouble now, as Robinson starts complaining to her patron Giuseppe Riva about it. During the staging of Ottone she writes that the arias by Handel don't go with her voice and way of singing.


-Ciro (GB, Nov./Dec. 1722)

-revival of Crispo (GB, December and January 1722/23)

-Ottone (GFH), as Gismonda (an ambitious and scheming mother), 12 Jan 1723

-Flavio, (GFH) as Vitige (a lover), 14 May 1723

-Erminia (GB)

-Il Coroliano (AA), as Veturia (Coroliano's mother), 19 Febr 1723, later two revivals for her benefit (one in 1723 and one in 1724, see below)


-Il Vespasiano (AA), as Domiziano (a power hungry general), 14 Jan 1724 (further performances: 18/21/25 Jan & 1/6/11/15 Febr 1724) 

-Giulio Cesare in Egitto (GFH), as Sesto (an adolescent youth on revenge), 20 Febr 1724

-17 March 1724: performance of "Il Coroliano" for the "Benefit of Signora Durastanti“; in this benefit concert any association with Handel seems to  be deliberately avoided; the good-bye aria in English has allegedly been written by Alexander Pope (“But let old charmers yield to new; /Happy soil, adieu, adieu!“) and composed by the unknown English composer Maurice Green, all apparently commissioned by the Earl of Peterborough, the husband of Robinson

Alexander Pope and the Earl of Peterborough were Catholic Englishmen supporting the Stuarts and probably the composer Bononcini.

-Farnace (GB), as Clitarco, revival of the opera, premiere was in November 1721

-Calfurnia (GB), as Giulia

-Aquilio (AA), as Lincestes on 13 June; she then travelled to Paris with her colleagues to give private performances of Ottone and Giulio Cesare at the private home of Pierre Crozat




Margherita in London 1733/34

More than 50 years old, Margherita is still able to impress. An opera visitor writes in a letter that "Durastante sings as well as she ever did". Her friend Giorgio pampers her with show-stealing arias in "Arianna in Creta". In spite of the financial pressure, the hard work and the rivalry with the other opera house (supported by the Prince of Wales), it seems to be a happy year for both of them.


-Semiramide riconosciuta (pasticcio, Vinci and Handel), as ?

-Arianna in Creta (GFH), as Tauride (an over-confident fighter)

-revivial of Ottone (GFH), as Gismonda again

-Arbace (pasticcio, Vinci), as ?

-Caio Fabricio (pasticcio, Hasse), as Byrcema

-Il Parnasso in festa, as Calliope

-revival of Sosarme (GFH, from 1731), as Heliate

-revival of Il Pastor fide (GFH, from 1713), as Eurilla, singing her famous aria from La Resurrezione 25 years ago:

"Ho un non so che nel cor"

-revival of oratorio Deborah (GFH, from 1733), as Israelite woman




© Anita Sikora

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