Interest will be felt in some of Sophie Arnould’s more distinguished art contemporaries. Among these, the highest place must be given to Mme. Antoinette Cecile Saint Huberty, nee Gavel. Born in Germany of French descent, she made her first appearance in Paris in a small part in Gluck’s “Armide.” Small, thin, and unprepossessing in person, her power of expression and artistic vocal-ism won more and more on the public, till the retirement of Sophie Arnould and Mile. Levasseur, and the death of Laguerre, left her in undisputed possession of the stage. When Piccini’s “Didon,” his greatest opera,* was produced, she sang the part of the Queen of Carthage.
* “Didon,” differing widely from the other operas of Piccini, was modeled after the new operatic principles of Gluck, and was a magnificent homage on the part of his old rival to the genius of the German. Indeed, although the adherents of the two musicians waged so fierce a conflict, they themselves were full of respect and admiration for each other. Gluck always warmly expressed his appreciation of Piccini’s “felicitous and charming melodies, the clearness of his style, the elegance and truth of his expression.” What Piccini’s opinion of Gluck was is best shown in his proposition after Gluck’s death to raise a subscription, not for the erection of a statue, but for the establishment of an annual concert to take place on the anniversary of Gluck’s death, to consist entirely of his compositions—“in order to transmit to posterity the spirit and character of his magnificent works, that they may serve as a model to future artists of the true style of dramatic music.”
Marmontel, the poet of the opera, had already said at rehearsal, “She expressed it so well that I imagined myself at the theatre,” and Piccini congratulated her on having been largely instrumental in its success. As Didon she made one of her greatest successes. “Never,” says Grimm, “has there been united acting more captivating, a sensibility more perfect, singing more exquisite, happier by-play, and more noble abandon.” She was crowned on the stage—an honor hitherto unknown, and since so much abused. The secret of her marvelous gift lay in her extreme sensibility. Others might sing an air better, but no one could give to either airs or recitatives accentuation more pure or more impassioned, action more dramatic, and by-play more eloquent. Some one complimenting her on the vivid truth with which she embodied her part, “I really experience it,” she said; “in a death-scene I actually feel as if I were dead.”