I’d like to spend some time on Clotilde Barili and her doomed marriage to Alfred Thorn. She was a member of the famous Barili family and a step-sister to Adelina Patti, “the most celebrated soprano of the century.” Both parents were musicians who spent their time between Italy, Paris and New York. Clotilde was commonly regarded as beautiful, talented, and quixotic. Her fame may have indeed rivalled her step-sister’s, if she had lived longer. The Century described her as “a finished vocalist, with a pure soprano voice remarkable only for its compass in the upper register.”
Certainly her vivacity captured the young Alfred Thorn, who fell irrevocably in love with her against his parents wishes. On the surface, it seemed a romantic story of forbidden love, and not unlike his sister Mary’s scandalous elopement with Baron Camille de Varaigne. The Colonel himself had not been favoured in his match with Jane Mary Jauncey, so it was not the first time the family had encountered these kinds of obstacles. However Alfred and Clotilde were not to have the same fairy tale ending as his sister or his mother and father.
Everyone had an opinion on Clotilde’s charms:
‘The personal appearance of the Prima Donna, Signora Clotilde Barili, disposes the audience in her favor. An exquisitely moulded form, a graceful motion, a queenly dignity, eyes large, dark and lustrous, a mouth of faultless perfection, …’
“By the way, speaking of the Italians, that pretty little Italian singer–Clotilde Barilli, who sung so sweetly at Palmo’s Opera House, and charmed everybody by her black eyes…”
‘Clotilde made her operatic debut at nineteen. She was a creature of “fire and dew” and so enraged aristocratic old Colonel Thorn of New York by marrying his son, that the young pair fled his wrath to Peru...’
Seemingly, Clotilde was particularly successful in Algiers (where she made her debut), San Francisco and Lima, but I’ve found record of numerous other performances, including Verdi’s, I Lombardi! at the Italian Opera House in NYC in 1855; as the prima donna in Madame Ablamowicz’s last concert, The Italian Opera, in 1847; in Donezetti’s Lucia di Lammamoor at Palmo’s Opera House in NYC in 1847; Linda di Chamounix in 1847 also at Palmo’s Opera House in NYC, and Ernani at the Astor Place Opera House in NYC in the same year. 1847 was described by the American Magazine as a red letter year for opera in New York.
However, while Colonel Thorn had the opportunity to forgive and reconcile with his older daughter, it was not to be so, for he and Alfred. Cut off from the family, the pair tried to make it on their own. “Barili-Thorn operated her Italian Opera Troupe in San Francisco as a sole trader in 1854, and [Anna] Bishop was a headliner.”
But in an attempt to keep their opera troupe viable, they returned to Lima, where drama followed them. Alfred seems to have attempted to stab the director of a rival music company, who had been publishing slanderous material about Clotilde. He attacked the wrong man by mistake, and the friend of his intended target (who survived his wounds) pressed charges. The govenor of Lima put Alfred under house arrest.
Then real tragedy struck. “Alfred Thorn died of yellow fever en route to New York from Vera Cruz; his widow died in 1856 at the age of 29 [MDP note: from consumption]…”
I have speculated on the rift between the Thorn’s and Barili. There is an account of Clotilde abusing and degrading Alfred in front of visitors. It is very anecdotal and uncorroborated, but it made me wonder if the animosity on the Colonel’s part was founded in something other than his concerns about status and money. Whatever the case, he had already lost three of his sons, so Alfred death must have been devastating. His only remaining son Eugene, at least outlived his father, though he did not have children either.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an image of Clotilde and only an engraving of Alfred (for which I am very grateful to James Mansefield for!).
***As an aside to this story, Clotilde’s great nephew, Alfredo, moved to Atlanta in the 1880’s. He was the first professional musician to live there and establish a music school for professional level training, and is considered to have heavily influenced the trajectory of music in the city.