Born: February 2, 1785, Madrid, Spain
Died: October 7, 1845, Bologna, Italy
Isabella Colbran, daughter of the King of Spain’s court musician, Gianni Colbran, was born in Madrid in 1785. She began her musical studies at the early age of six with composer, Francisco Pareja, castrato Carlo Martinelli, and the famous singer and composer, Girolamo Crescentini. Her dramatic soprano voice and sizeable range afforded her an extremely successful opera career beginning in Bologna and continuing in Milan, Venice, Rome and Naples. For nearly a decade in the early 19th century, Colbran was considered one of the best singers in Europe and garnered an extremely devoted following, especially in Naples, where the King regarded her very highly. There, she met and worked with her future husband, composer Gioachino Rossini. When he heard her passionate singing, he began to write dramatic operas such as Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra (1815) and Otello (1816), specifically for her as the prima donna. Stendahl, a well known critic who favored Rossini but was sometimes critical of Colbran, described her talent as, ”a wealth of exquisitely observed detail [that] could be read into the statuesque calm of her every gesture.” After maintaining an affair, Rossini and Colbran married in Bologna, but their marriage later ended in divorce when Colbran was due to retire from singing. Colbran’s voice and sense of pitch in performance began to decline around 1815, though she sang publicly for several years afterward.
As a composer, Colbran wrote four collections of songs, each one dedicated to an important influence: the Queen of Spain, the Empress of Russia, the Prince of Beaumarchais, and one of her teachers, Crescentini. Using her theatrical persona as a guide, her compositions of conventional songs often included dramatic elements that painted text and offered a nuanced and deep sense of character. For emphasis, she often added embellishments and fermati to enhance repeated figures, usually prior to the return of the initial melodic statement.
Colbran died in Bologna in October 1845.