A quarter of a century is a long reign for any queen, a brilliant one for an opera queen in these modern days, when the “wear and tear” of stage-life is so exacting. For so long a time lasted the supremacy of Mme. Grisi, and it was justified by a remarkable combination of qualities, great physical loveliness, a noble voice, and dramatic impulse, which, if not precisely inventive, was yet large and sympathetic. A celebrated English critic sums up her great qualities and her defects thus: “As an artist calculated to engage, and retain the average public, without trick or affectation, and to satisfy by her balance of charming attributes—by the assurance, moreover, that she was giving the best she knew how to give—she satisfied even those who had received much deeper pleasure and had been impressed with much deeper emotion in the performances of others. I have never tired of Mme. Grisi during five-and-twenty years; but I have never been in her case under one of those spells of intense enjoyment and sensation which make an epoch in life, and which leave a print on memory never to be effaced by any later attraction, never to be forgotten so long as life and power to receive shall endure.”
Giulietta Grisi was the younger daughter of M. Gaetano Grisi, an Italian officer of engineers, in the service of Napoleon, and was born at Milan, July 2, 1812. Her mother’s sister was the once celebrated Grassini, who, as the contemporary of Mrs. Billington and Mme. Mara, had shared the admiration of Europe with these great singers. Thence probably she and her sister Giuditta, ten years her elder, inherited their gift of song. Giuditta was for a good while regarded as a prodigy by her friends, and acquired an excellent rank on the concert and operatic stage, but she was so far outshone by her more gifted sister, that her name is now only one of the traditions of that throng of talented and hard-working artists who have contributed much to the stability of the lyric stage, without adding to it any resplendent luster. Delicate health prevented the little Giulia from receiving any early musical training, but her own secret ambition caused her to learn the piano-forte, by her own efforts; and her enthusiastic attention, and attempt to imitate, while her sister was practicing solfeggi, clearly indicated the bent of her tastes. She soon astonished her family by the fluency and correctness with which she repeated the most difficult passages; and Giuditta, who appreciated these evidences of vocal and mimetic talent, would listen with delight to the lively efforts of her young sister, and then, clasping her fondly in her arms, prophesy that she would be “the glory of her race.” “Thou shalt be more than thy sister, my Giuliettina,” she would exclaim. “Thou shalt be more than thy aunt! It is Giuditta tells thee so—believe it.” The only defect in Giulia’s voice—certainly a serious one—was a chronic hoarseness, which seemed a bar to her advancement as a vocalist.