One of the first divas of opera: Maria Malibran

One of the first divas of opera: Maria Malibran

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Title: Maria Malibran, in the role of Desdemona.

Author : DECAISNE Henri (1799 - 1852)

Creation date : 1830

Date shown: 1830

Dimensions: Height 138 - Width 105

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas. Maria Malibran, in the role of Desdemona. in act III ofOtello by Rossini.

Storage location: Carnavalet Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bullozsite web

Picture reference: 02-005944 / P.2010

Maria Malibran, in the role of Desdemona.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Publication date: December 2005

Historical context

Singer Maria Malibran is arguably one of the most famous singers in opera history. She met the French public at the Opera on January 14, 1828, but it was at the Théâtre-Italien that she decided to make a career out of, multiplying roles, including that of Desdemona, in theOtello by Rossini. Its range was exceptionally wide: by nature a mezzo-soprano, extended to soprano and contralto, according to the current characterization. She is one of those artists who had an immense resonance in Paris, going far beyond the simple status of performer.

Image Analysis

The painter Decaisne represents the singer here, at the time of Desdemona's fatal bedtime in act III. She looks thoughtful, her eyes shining with tears, her hair down, like lost. Sitting in a large moiré armchair, she poses in three quarters, one hand resting on a harp, the other along her neck. A certain sensuality emanates from this female figure, dressed in a pleated white muslin dress. Only the threatening sky, at the back of the painting, announces the drama to come. This bourgeois portrait, in a very wise style, contrasts with the testimonies of the time.

Indeed, Maria Malibran possessed extraordinary dramatic gifts, body language of incredible daring and an almost "expressionist" song for the time. It was in the role of Desdemona that she achieved her greatest success thanks to a spontaneous and outgoing interpretation of the character. The review describes an unprecedented version of the heroine, extremely moving in this passionate role of a desperate young woman. His ardor, his passion, his outbursts of genius stirred hearts and made the listeners of the Théâtre-Italien weep. She had thus deeply marked the spirits in this role where, according to Alfred de Musset, "she abandoned herself to all movements, to all gestures, to all possible means of expressing her thoughts: she laughed, she cried, hit herself. the forehead was disheveled; all this without thinking of the parterre; but, at least, it was true. Those tears, those laughs, those unraveled hair, were hers, and it wasn't to imitate this or that actress that she threw herself on the floor in Otello ».


Maria Malibran embodies the essence of the romantic diva. It was under the Restoration and then the July Monarchy, in an atmosphere of feverish and enthusiastic spectacle, that the source of this myth is located which, in the space of ten years, will develop and even reach a true climax. The Parisians of the time indeed had the chance to experience the beginnings, the birth and already the apotheosis. What was only perfection before was going to become sublimation with the new generation of artists that the Théâtre-Italien was to offer to Parisians around 1830. It is with these new singers, and in particular Maria Malibran, that the italian term diva, component of the new lexicon imported from the mother country of bel canto, Italy. The cult of the diva imposes criteria of charisma and beauty that previous artists did not have to meet. At this time, the Parisian public discovered a new genre of singer, endowed with a pleasant physique, exceptional vocal resources and an assertive tragedian talent. We find in the character of Consuelo, in George Sand's novel (1854), a large part of the romantic imagination of the diva.

The circumstances in which Maria Malibran died have also fueled the myth of this fascinating singer, the first model of the romantic artist who sacrificed herself on stage. In 1836 - she was then twenty-eight years old - she fell from her horse, but, concealing her pain, she succeeded in singing on the evening of her terrible fall. Engaged in the Manchester festival, she went there despite her suffering and agonized for nine days while continuing to perform in concert before she died. This death plunged the world of music lovers into consternation and inspired Musset's famous Stances à la Malibran.

The interpretive model of the Malibran, both theatrically and vocally, has fully contributed to a real reform of the opera. It replaced the imperial neoclassicism of the first singers of the nineteenth century with a new aesthetic, adhering to the fiery feeling of time. From the breadth of her repertoire and the impact she had on her generation, we can say that she was one of the first divas in the history of music.

  • diva
  • music
  • opera
  • Rossini (Gioacchino)
  • Theater-Italian
  • stardom


Remo GIAZOTTO, Maria Malibran (1808-1836) Una vita nei nomi di Rossini and Bellini, Turin, 1986.Carmen de REPARAZ, Maria Malibran: The Romantic Diva, Paris, Perrin, 1976.

To cite this article

Catherine AUTHIER, "One of the first divas of opera: Maria Malibran"

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