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Rival Queens set to reign at St John’s Smith Square

19 April, 2019 — By Michael White

Faustina Bordoni, left, and Francesca Cuzzoni

“THEY were”, says conductor Christian Curnyn, “the 18th-century equivalent of Real Housewives of Orange County – glamorous women goaded into fighting for the cameras. They’ve gone down in history as deadly enemies, but it was all pretend.”

The “they” here were the two great female opera singers of the 18th century, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, who were both brought to London by the composer Handel to sing his operas but ended up entertaining the general public in other ways. Not least, so it’s recorded, by physically attacking each other in mid-performance. People packed their shows simply to watch them brawl, and they became known as the “Rival Queens” – which is the title of a concert focused on their
lives at St John’s Smith Square next week.

Mhairi Lawson and Mary Bevan. Photo: Mary Cadisch

Conducted by Curnyn, with sopranos Mary Bevan and Mhairi Lawson as the difficult divas, backed up by the Early Opera Group and actress Lindsay Duncan trying to keep order with appropriate readings, it can only be fun. But it does also feature some of Handel’s most wonderful arias, which he carried on writing for the “Queens” even when they gave him so much trouble (he supposedly threatened to throw Cuzzoni out of a window on one occasion).

And anyway, as Curnyn says, the whole thing was to some extent a put-up job, designed to generate publicity. Which they all needed, because 18th-century London opera was an entirely commercial venture. No Arts Council funding then.

Actual or acted, be prepared for vocal fireworks and a lot of temperament.

Rival Queens, Wednesday April 24, 7.30pm, St John’s, Smith Square, SW1P 3HA, 020 7222 1061,


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