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Great Singers, Second Series / Malibran To Titiens By George T. Ferris Characters: 18807

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Mme. Grisi, more than any other prima donna who ever lived, was habitually associated in her professional life with the greatest singers of the other sex. Among those names which are inseparable from hers, are those of Rubini, Tamburini, Lablache, and, par excellence, that of Mario. Any satisfactory sketch of her life and artistic surroundings would be incomplete without something more than a passing notice of these shining lights of the lyric art. Giambattista Rubini, without a shred of dramatic genius, raised himself to the very first place in contemporary estimation by sheer genius as a singer, for his musical skill was something more than the outcome of mere knowledge and experience, and in this respect he bears a close analogy to Malibran. Rubini's countenance was mean, his figure awkward, and lacking in all dignity of carriage; he had no conception of taste, character, or picturesque effect. As stolid as a wooden block in all that appertains to impersonation of character, his vocal organ was so incomparable in range and quality, his musical equipment and skill so great, that his memory is one of the greatest traditions of the lyric art.

Rubini, born at Bergamo in the year 1795, made his début in one of the theatres of his native town, at the age of twelve, in a woman's part. This curious prima donna afterward sat at the door of the theatre, between two candles, holding a plate, in which the admiring public deposited their offerings to the fair bénéficiaire. His next step was playing on the violin in the orchestra between the acts of comedies, and singing in the chorus during the operatic season. He seems to have been unnoticed, except as one of the hoi polloi of the musical rabble, till an accident attracted attention to his talent. A drama was to be produced in which a very difficult cavatina was introduced. The manager was at a loss for any one to sing it till Rubini proffered his services. The fee was a trifling one, but it paved the way for an engagement in the minor parts of opera. The details of Rubini's early life seem to be involved in some obscurity. He was engaged in several wandering companies as second tenor, and in 1814, Rubini then being nineteen years of age, we find him singing at Pavia for thirty-six shillings a month. In the latter part of his career he was paid twenty thousand pounds sterling a year for his services at the St. Petersburg Imperial Opera. This singer acquired his vocal style, which his contemporaries pronounced to be matchless, in the operas of Rossini, and was indebted to no special technical training, except that which he received through his own efforts, and the incessant practice of the lyric art in provincial companies. A splendid musical intelligence, however, repaired the lack of early teaching, though, perhaps, a voice less perfect in itself would have fared badly through such desultory experiences. Like so many of the great singers of the modern school, Rubini first gained his reputation in the operas of Bellini and Donizetti, and many of the tenor parts of these works were expressly composed for him. Rubini was singing at the Scala, Milan, when Barbaja, the impressario, who had heard Bellini's opera of "Bianca e Fernando," at Naples, commissioned the young composer, then only twenty years old, to produce a new opera for his theatre in the Tuscan capital. He gave him the libretto of "Il Pirata," and Bellini, in company with Rubini (for they had become intimate friends), retired to the country. Here the singer studied, as they were produced, the simple, touching airs which he afterward delivered on the stage with such admirable expression. With this friendship began Rubini's art connection with the Italian composer, which lasted till the latter's too early death. Rubini was such a great singer, and possessed such admirable powers of expression, especially in pathetic airs (for it was well said of him, "qu'il avait des larmes dans la voix"), that he is to be regarded as the creator of that style of singing which succeeded that of the Rossinian period. The florid school of vocalization had been carried to an absurd excess, when Rubini showed by his example what effect he could produce by singing melodies of a simple emotional nature, without depending at all on mere vocalization. It is remarkable that it was largely owing to Rubini's suggestions and singing that Bellini made his first great success, and that Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," also the work which laid the foundation of this composer's greatness, should have been written and produced under similar conditions.

The immense power, purity, and sweetness of his voice probably have never been surpassed. The same praise may be awarded to his method of producing his tones, and all that varied and complicated skill which comes under the head of vocalization. Rubini had a chest of uncommon bigness, and the strength of his lungs was so prodigious that on one occasion he broke his clavicle in singing a B flat. The circumstances were as follows: He was singing at La Scala, Milan, in Pacini's "Talismano." In the recitative which accompanies the entrance of the tenor in this opera, the singer has to attack B flat without preparation, and hold it for a long time. Since Farinelli's celebrated trumpet-song, no feat had ever attained such a success as this wonderful note of Rubini's. It was received nightly with tremendous enthusiasm. One night the tenor planted himself in his usual attitude, inflated his chest, opened his mouth; but the note would not come. Os liabet, sed non clambit. He made a second effort, and brought all the force of his lungs into play. The note pealed out with tremendous power, but the victorious tenor felt that some of the voice-making mechanism had given way. He sang as usual through the opera, but discovered on examination afterward that the clavicle was fractured. Rubini had so distended his lungs that they had broken one of their natural barriers. Rubini's voice was an organ of prodigious range by nature, to which his own skill had added several highly effective notes. His chest range, it is asserted by Fetis, covered two octaves from C to C, which was carried up to F in the voce di testa. With such consummate skill was the transition to the falsetto managed that the most delicate and alert ear could not detect the change in the vocal method. The secret of this is believed to have begun and died with Rubini. Perhaps, indeed, it was incommunicable, the result of some peculiarity of vocal machinery.

From what has been said of Rubini's lack of dramatic talent, it may be rightfully inferred, as was the fact, that he had but little power in musical declamation. Rubini was always remembered by his songs, and though the extravagance of embroidery, the roulades and cadenzas with which he ornamented them, oftentimes raised a question as to his taste, the exquisite pathos and simplicity with which he could sing when he elected were incomparable. This artist was often tempted by his own transcendant powers of execution to do things which true criticism would condemn, but the ease with which he overcame the greatest vocal difficulties excused for his admirers the superabundance of these displays. In addition to the great finish of his art, his geniality of expression was not to be resisted. He so thoroughly and intensely enjoyed his own singing that he communicated this persuasion to his audiences. Rubini would merely walk through a large portion of an opera with indifference, but, when his chosen moment arrived, there were such passion, fervor, and putting forth of consummate vocal art and emotion that his hearers hung breathless on the notes of his voice. As the singer of a song in opera, no one, according to his contemporaries, ever equaled him. According to Chorley, his "songs did not so much create a success for him as an ecstasy of delight in those that heard him. The mixture of musical finish with excitement which they displayed has never been equaled within such limits or on such conditions as the career of Rubini afforded. He ruled the stage by the mere art of singing more completely than any one-man or woman-has been able to do in my time." Rubini died in 1852, and left behind him one of the largest fortunes ever amassed on the stage.

Another member of the celebrated "Puritani" quartet was Signor Tamburini. His voice was a bass in quality, with a barytone range of two octaves, from F to F, rich, sweet, extensive, and even. His powers of execution were great, and the flexibility with which he used his voice could only be likened to the facility of a skillful 'cello performer. He combined largeness of style, truth of accent, florid embellishment, and solidity. His acting, alike in tragedy and comedy, was spirited and judicious, though it lacked the irresistible strokes of spontaneous genius, the flashes of passion, or rich drollery which made Lablache so grand an actor, or, in a later time, redeemed the vocal imperfections of Ronconi. An amusing instance of Taniburini's vocal skill and wealth of artistic resources, displayed in his youth, was highly characteristic of the man. He was engaged at Palermo during the Carnival season of 1822, and on the last night the audience attended the theatre, inspired by the most riotous spirit of carnivalesque revelry. Large numbers of them came armed with drums, trumpet

s, shovels, tin pans, and other charivari instruments. Tamburini, finding himself utterly unable to make his ordinary basso cantante tones heard amid this Saturnalian din, determined to sing his music in the falsetto, and so he commenced in the voice of a soprano sfogato. The audience were so amazed that they laid aside their implements of musical torture, and began to listen with amazement, which quickly changed to delight. Taniburini's falsetto was of such purity, so flexible and precise in florid execution, that he was soon applauded enthusiastically. The cream of the joke, though, was yet to come. The poor prima donna was so enraged and disgusted by the horse-play of the audience that she fled from the theatre, and the poor manager was at his wit's end, for the humor of the people was such that it was but a short step between rude humor and destructive rage. Tamburini solved the problem ingeniously, for he donned the fugitive's satin dress, clapped her bonnet over his wig, and appeared on the stage with a mincing step, just as the rioters, impatient at the delay, were about to carry the orchestral barricade by storm. Never was seen so unique a soprano, such enormous hands and feet. He courtesied, one hand on his heart, and pretended to wipe away tears of gratitude with the other at the clamorous reception he got. He sang the soprano score admirably, burlesquing it, of course, but with marvelous expression and far greater powers of execution than the prima donna herself could have shown. The difficult problem to solve, however, was the duet singing. But this Tamburini, too, accomplished, singing the part of Elisa in falsetto, and that of the Count in his own natural tones. This wonderful exhibition of artistic resources carried the opera to a triumphant close, amid the wild cheers of the audience, and probably saved the manager the loss of no little property.

But, greatest of all, perhaps the most wonderful artist among men that ever appeared in opera, was Lablache. Position and training did much for him, but an all-bounteous Nature had done more, for never in her most lavish moods did she more richly endow an artistic organization. Luigi Lablache was born at Naples, December 6, 1794, of mixed Irish and French parentage, and probably this strain of Hibernian blood was partly responsible for the rich drollery of his comic humor. Young Lablache was placed betimes in the Conservatorio della San Sebastiano, and studied the elements of music thoroughly, as his instruction covered not merely singing, but the piano, the violin, and violoncello. It is believed that, had his vocal endowments not been so great, he could have become a leading virtuoso on any instrument he might have selected. Having at length completed his musical education, he was engaged at the age of eighteen as buffo at the San Carlino theatre at Naples. Shortly after his début, Lablache married Teresa Pinotti, the daughter of an eminent actor, and found in this auspicious union the most wholesome and powerful influence of his life. The young wife recognized the great genius of her husband, and speedily persuaded him to retire from such a narrow sphere. Lablache devoted a year to the serious study of singing, and to emancipating himself from the Neapolitan patois which up to this time had clung to him, after which he became primo basso at the Palermitan opera. He was now twenty, and his voice had become developed into that suave and richly toned organ, such as was never bestowed on another man, ranging two octaves from E flat below to E flat above the bass stave. An offer from the manager of La Scala, Milan, gratified his ambition, and he made his début in 1817 as Dandini in "La Cenerentola." His splendid singing and acting made him brilliantly successful; but Lablache was not content with this. His industry and attempts at improvement were incessant. In fact this singer was remarkable through life, not merely for his professional ambition, but the zeal with which he sought to enlarge his general stores of knowledge and culture. M. Scudo, in his agreeable recollections of Italian singers, informs us that at Naples Lablache had enjoyed the friendship and teaching of Mme. Mericoffre (a rich banker's wife), known in Italy as La Cottellini, one of the finest artists of the golden age of Italian singing. Mme. Lablache, too, was a woman of genius in her way, and her husband owed much to her intelligent and watchful criticism. The fume of Lablache speedily spread through Europe. He sang in all the leading Italian cities with equal success, and at Vienna, whither he went in 1824, his admirers presented him with a magnificent gold medal with a most flattering inscription.

He returned again to Naples after an absence of twelve years, and created a grand sensation at the San Carlo by his singing of Assur, in "Semiramide." The Neapolitans loaded him with honors, and sought to retain him in his native city, but this "pent-up Utica" could not hold a man to whom the most splendid rewards of his profession were offering themselves. Lablache made his first appearance in London, in 1830, in "Il Matrimonio Segreto," and almost from his first note and first step he took an irresistible hold on the English public, which lasted for nearly a quarter of a century. It perplexed his admirers whether he was greater as a singer or as an actor. We are told that he "was gifted with personal beauty to a rare degree. A grander head was never more grandly set on human shoulders; and in his case time and the extraordinary and unwieldy corpulence which came with time seemed only to improve the Jupiter features, and to enhance their expression of majesty, or sweetness, or sorrow, or humor as the scene demanded." His very tall figure prevented his bulk from appearing too great. One of his boots would have made a small portmanteau, and one could have clad a child in one of his gloves. So great was his strength that as Leporello he sometimes carried off under one arm a singer of large stature representing Masetto, and in rehearsal would often for exercise hold a double bass out at arm's length. The force of his voice was so prodigious that he could make himself heard above any orchestral thunders or chorus, however gigantic. This power was rarely put forth, but at the right time and place it was made to peal out with a resistless volume, and his portentous notes rang through the house like the boom of a great bell. It was said that his wife was sometimes aroused at night by what appeared to be the fire tocsin, only to discover that it was her recumbent husband producing these bell-like sounds in his sleep. The vibratory power of his full voice was so great that it was dangerous for him to sing in a greenhouse.

Like so many of the foremost artists, Lablachc shone alike in comic and tragic parts. Though he sang successfully in all styles of music and covered a great dramatic versatility, the parts in which he was peculiarly great were Leporello in "Don Giovanni"; the Podesta in "La Gazza Ladra"; Geronimo in "Il Matrimonio Segreto"; Caliban in Halévy's "Tempest"; Gritzonko in "L'Etoile du Nord"; Henry VIII in "Anna Bolena"; the Doge in "Marino Faliero"; Oroveso in "Norma"; and Assur in "Semiramide." In thus selecting certain characters as those in which Lablache was unapproachably great, it must be understood that he "touched nothing which he did not adorn." It has been frankly conceded even among the members of his own profession, where envy, calumny, and invidious sneers so often belittle the judgment, that Lablache never performed a character which he did not make more difficult for those that came after him, by elevating its ideal and grasping new possibilities in its conception.

Lablache sang in London and Paris for many years successively, and his fame grew to colonial proportions. In 1828 his terms were forty thousand francs and a benefit, for four months. A few years later, Laporte, of London, paid Robert, of Paris, as much money for the mere cession of his services for a short season. In 1852 when Lablachc had reached an age when most singers grow dull and mechanical, he created two new types, Caliban, in Halévy's opera of "The Tempest," and Gritzonko, in "L'Etoile du Nord," with a vivacity, a stage knowledge, and a brilliancy of conception as rare as they were strongly marked. He was one of the thirty-two torch-bearers who followed Beethoven's body to its interment, and he sung the solo part in "Mozart's Requiem" at the funeral, as he had when a child sung the contralto part in the same mass at Hadyn's obsequies. He was the recipient of orders and medals from nearly every sovereign in Europe. When he was thus honored by the Emperor of Russia in 1856, he used the prophetic words, "These will do to ornament my coffin." Two years afterward he died at Naples, January 23, 1858, whither he had gone to try the effects of the balmy climate of his native city on his failing health. His only daughter married Thalberg, the pianist. He was the singing master of Queen Victoria, and he is frequently mentioned in her published diaries and letters in terms of the strongest esteem and admiration. His death drew out expressions of profound sorrow from all parts of Europe, for it was felt that, in Lablache, the world of song had lost one of the greatest lights which had starred its brilliant record.

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