Cymru Culture

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Emlyn Davies; Adelina Patti (English)

(September 01, 2016)


The wonder of Craig y Nos
The story of Adelina Patti (1843-1919)

Adelina Patti
Adelina Patti

It is very difficult for us today to try to comprehend exactly how famous Adelina Patti was. She was the best soprano of her day, and she could claim fees that may surprise us even by our standards today, not to mention in those days. She would regularly mingle with some of the world's most powerful people, including several royal families, and the operatic world was at her feet. As a person, she could be difficult, complex and moody, full of paradoxes and often short-tempered, but the ordinary residents of Cwm Tawe thought the world of her, and saw more of her generosity and warmth than anything else. While the whole world called her “Queen of Song” the people of Wales called her “Queen of Hearts.”

Although there was no trace of Welsh blood in her veins, she completely fell in love with Wales, and did much to enrich our life as a nation, both materially and culturally. Several volumes have been published to evaluate her achievements in the world of music, and other books have been written about the more personal trials and tribulations of her busy and exciting personal life, such as Fresh Flowers for M'Lady by Tony Hibbert and Craig-y-Nos by Gwyn Briwnant Jones. When we consider the aura and the mystery that are interwoven around her colourful personality, it is no surprise that we, the Welsh nation, find ourselves attracted to her story time and again, and we never cease to be amazed by the magnificence of her world and her spectacular talent.

As someone who enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle and lavish parties all over Europe, it is most surprising that she chose to live in this remote location in the upper Swansea Valley, where she set about extending Craig y Nos by erecting Gothic towers, and building a modern theatre. All mod cons were to be found there, and it was one of the first private homes in Wales to have electricity. With over thirty bedrooms, it boasted two huge kitchens, a private chapel, a music room and a number of sitting rooms. Outside, there was a huge glass aviary, a pavilion where she could promenade amongst the exotic plants in winter, extensive gardens, a lake, and even a room to make ice. She was a tiny woman, five feet and two inches tall, but even though she was not big in stature, she managed to attract attention wherever she went.

She was born in Madrid, on February 19, 1843, although the family was of Italian descent. She was the youngest of six children, and was named Adela Juana Maria Patti. Her parents were professional singers who happened to appear in Madrid when she was born.

She was eighteen years old when she went to London in 1861 to perform in public for the first time at Covent Garden, and the occasion was an important milestone in her history. That occasion secured her reputation on the world stage as an international star. Before long she was hailed as the best coloratura bel canto soprano in the world.

Adelina Patti, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1863, oil on canvasAdelina Patti, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1863, oil on canvas

She travelled all over Europe appearing in the greatest opera houses. There was no other like her, and everyone praised the purity and beauty of her voice. Giuseppe Verdi himself said that she was the best singer ever. She loved the attention, the publicity, the costumes and socialising, especially in Paris. That is where she met her first husband, when she was in her early twenties. Marquis de Caux was eighteen years older than her, a veteran soldier, he had been one of Napoleon the Third’s trusted officers.

The Marquis was a great socialiser, renowned for his love of parties, and this gave the young bride the opportunity to meet dignitaries throughout Europe. They were married in London in 1868, but it was not a happy marriage. The Marquis tried to persuade her to leave the stage, and that was probably not a very good basis for their relationship. Moreover, neither of them was faithful, and so the marriage ended in a bitter divorce, which was very expensive for Adelina as she lost half her fortune.

Ernesto Nicolini (1834-1898) by August Weger (1823-1892)Ernesto Nicolini (1834-1898), by August Weger (1823-1892)

But before the divorce, she was already in a relationship with another man, Ernesto Nicolini, a French tenor. Adelina was besotted with him, despite the fact that he was married at the time. But interestingly, the scandal did not hinder her career at all. If anything, her professional life progressed from strength to strength.

Yet, her relationship with Nicolini did have an effect in an unexpected way. Adelina started yearning for somewhere where she could escape from the bright lights. Somewhere she could call home. And that is what attracted her to the Swansea Valley.

Craig y Nos, a spacious mansion in the vicinity of Penwyllt on the outskirts of the Brecon Beacons, was ideal. She was made aware of the house by her friend, Sir Henry Hussey Vivian MP, who lived in Neath. The price paid was £3,500 and she and Nicolini lived there together for seven or eight years before their marriage, which was quite a scandal in those days.

Craig y Nos
Craig y Nos, Powys

The theatre was officially opened in 1891, as a kind of shrine to the world-famous diva, with a capacity to seat 150 people, and decorated with expensive blue drapes, and showing the names of the foremost composers in gold above the stage, with a mural showing Patti in the role of Semiramide from Rossini’s opera.

In the 1891 Census, the year when the theatre opened, Nicolini is described as “living on his means”, and we know he spent his time fishing and shooting, and playing the part of a gentleman who enjoyed all the trappings of his estate. Meanwhile, Adelina spent a fortune preparing a lavish welcome for their guests. She paid for a new road from the castle to Penwyllt station, which was renamed Craig y Nos station.

There is no doubting the importance of Madam Patti to the area's economy. Besides employing nearly fifty members of staff at the castle, she insisted on using local produce whenever possible. She organised dozens of charity concerts to raise money for good causes, and was supportive of cultural events such as the National Eisteddfod. For example, she sang “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” in front of a crowd of twelve thousand people in the National Eisteddfod held in Brecon in 1889. The Welsh people thought the world of her.

Whenever she embarked on her travels, she would be taken by horse and carriage to the station, where she had a comfortable private waiting room. From there she would travel in her own private railway carriage, coupled to the rest of the train, which meant she could travel all the way to London or Liverpool without leaving the comfort of her own carriage. When she toured America or Europe, she insisted on having her own private train with the name Craig y Nos painted on the side.

Ernesto Nicolini’s health gradually started failing, and he eventually moved out of the house to live in Swansea to enjoy the sea air. He died in January 1898.

With the death of Nicolini, the luxurious, wasteful life, came to an end in Craig y Nos.

Adelina PattiAdelina Patti

In less than a year, Adelina had re-married again, this time to a gentleman from Sweden, Baron Rolf Cederström, who was nearly 20 years younger than her. Cederström was completely different from Nicolini, being a very prudent person who immediately put a stop to any unnecessary spending. The staff was reduced from 48 to 18. By this time, Adelina’s public engagements were becoming fewer and fewer, and her final professional appearance was in 1914 when she sang for the Red Cross at the Albert Hall. Cederström persuaded her to sell Craig y Nos and emigrate with him to Sweden, but since no buyer was available, Adelina Patti was able to stay in Craig y Nos until her death at the age of 76. Her final wish was to be buried in the same cemetery as Rossini in France, where he lay in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Somewhat ironically, Rossini’s body was later moved to Italy.

There were no facilities to make professional recordings of singers when Madame Patti was at the height of her career, but she was persuaded to record a number of songs in her own home in 1905 and the record was released the following year. The quality of the recording does not do justice to her talents, although it has been digitally enhanced recently. Perhaps the song we associate most with her name is “Home Sweet Home”, and it is worth noting she sang it for President Lincoln at the White House in Washington in 1862, exactly one year after coming to London for the first time. This was the song she would choose to sing as an encore at the end of each concert.

It is reported that when she heard the recording of her voice for the first time, she said: “Ah! My God! Now I understand why I am Patti! Yes, what a voice! What an artist! I understand all!”

To add any further comment would be futile.

Emlyn Davies, September 2016

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Billy Hughes; June 2016
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley
; December 2016
Billy Hughes
; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau
; March 2016

Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015

The two redheads; June 2015

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2016


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