Luigi Lablache: An Operatic Megastar

Luigi Lablache was a famous bass singer born in Naples on 6 December 1794. His father, Nicola Lablache, was a merchant from Marseilles and his mother an Irish woman named Franziska Bietak. Lablache displayed an unusual inclination for music at an early. At the age of twelve he captured the notice of Joseph Bonaparte, who supposedly took an interest in because Lablache’s father became a victim of the French Revolution.

Luigi Lablache, Author's Collection

Luigi Lablache. Author’s collection.

Because of Lablache’s talents, Napoleon Bonaparte procured a place for him at the Conservatorio della pieta de’ Turchini in Naples. However, Lablache was interested in the stage and decided that he didn’t want to devote himself solely to music. This resulted in him running away five times from the Conservatory and gaining employment at local theatres. Because of his antics a royal law was issued that put an end to his escape: 

“[A]ny theatre director … who should engage, without the express permission of the government, a pupil of the Conservatory, should pay a fine of 2000 ducats, and … [have] his theatre [closed] for a fortnight.”[1]

At the age of eighteen, Luigi Lablache graduated from the Conservatory. He immediately found employment at the theatre San Carlino in the comedic role of “Buffo Napolitano.” Five months later, he married the daughter of the celebrated actor named Pinotti. His wife then procured the same role of “Buffo Napolitano” for him at Messina. Soon after, she found him employment as a singer at the theatre of Palermo, where he made his debut in Stefano Pavesi’s Ser Marcantonio.

He remained at the Palermo theatre for five years before he left for Milan. There, he appeared as “Dandini” in Gioachino Rossini’s Cenerentola. It was also in Milan that the Italian composer, Saverio Mercadante, wrote his opera, Elisa e Claudio for Lablache, which became a huge success partly because Lablache was said to be extraordinary not only in his voice but also in his style of performance.

Saverio Mercadante, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Saverio Mercadante. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After seven years at Milan, Luigi Lablache decided to widen his horizons and his fame. This caused him to travel. He went first to Turin and sang in Ferdinando Paer’s Agnese and played the role of “Uberto.” He received great applause as Uberto because that role was said to be extremely difficult. He next went to Naples, then to Venice, and, in 1824, he appeared in Vienna where he filled the roles of “Figaro,” “Assure,” “Geronimo,” and “Umberto.” He also enraptured the audiences to such a degree that a medal was coined for him that bore an inscription by the Marchese of Gargallo and read:

Actione Roscio, I ope cantu comparandus, utraque lauru conserta ambobus major.“[2]

Lablache as Don Pasquale, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Luigi Lablache as Don Pasquale. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As an artist, Lablache was unrivaled and most people considered him the most famous bass of his generation. His full, pure, and powerful voice was said to be among the most sonorous ever heard and he enraptured audiences when he sang. His style of performance was also declared “truly artistic,” and he was lauded for his versatility. When it came to his acting, he was also said to be equally good in serious or comedic roles. Yet, for all the acclamation there was one area where he may have improved: It seems that over the years he went from a noble, truly handsome, and imposing figure to a man of “stoutness.”

Lablache as a flamboyant itinerant medicine vendor selling mar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite his stoutness, many people still admired him for his character. He was said to be a “true gentleman,” and his personal characteristics were regularly lauded. He was reported by many people to be “modest, frank, generous, benevolent, and an amiable husband and father.”[3] Because of his skills and virtuous character, he had many wonderful experiences: a private audience with Ferdinand I, King of Naples; he was one of the thirty-two torchbearers who surrounded Beethoven’s coffin in 1827 and he also sang Mozart’s Requiem at the funeral; and, finally, he was singing teacher to Queen Victoria giving her twenty-six lessons. She wrote to her uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium, on 1 August 1837 stating the following in reference to Luigi Lablache:

“I have been learning in the beginning of the season many of your old favourites, which I hope to sing with you when we meet. I wish I could keep Lablache to sing with us, but he will be gone by that time, I greatly fear.”[4]

Luigi Lablache’s health began to fail by 1856. The following spring, he took healing waters from the spa town of Bad Kissingen in Bavaria, Germany. While there he met and was honored by Alexander II of Russia with medals. Lablache responded to Alexander II’s medals with, “These will do to ornament my coffin.”[5] He had previously purchased a house near Paris in Maison-Lafitte and returned to it for a short time before going to Naples.

Luigi Lablache

Luigi Lablache. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

He hoped that in Naples he might improve his health as it had been precarious for months. Unfortunately, “a month before his death he had a violent attack of his malady … [and] after suffering excruciating agony with great fortitude and calmness [he died].”[6] He passed away 23 January 1858 and the Globe praised him stating:

“His character was manly, generous, and straightforward; his manners were genial and pleasant; and he was not less respected and beloved as a man than he was admired as an artist. His loss is irreparable. We shall never see another Lablache.”[7]

The London Evening Standard also noticed his passing and stated:

“One of the most eminent lyric artists of modern times has quitted the scene for ever. Signor Lablache died at Naples … His friends and family were not altogether unprepared for the sad result, since, though comparatively well for the last two months, his medical attendants were not over sanguine as to his ultimate recovery. It was thought, however, that a winter at Naples and a change of locality in the spring … would ten to restore the strength of the great basso … but the great voice is dumb whose song was thunder, and the eye is dim whose glance was the lightning of humour. Lablache will sing no more – be seen no more – and Comedy has lost her grandest living oracle.”[8]

His remains were taken to Paris, and he was buried at Maison-Lafitte, located in the north-western suburbs of Paris.

References:

  • [1] Moore, John Weeks, Complete Encyclopaedia of Music, 1854, p. 495.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 496.
  • [4] The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol. 1, 1907, p. 89.
  • [5] Grove, Sir George, etal., Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1906, p. 617.
  • [6] The Examiner, 1858, p. 72. 
  • [7] “Death of Lablache,” in Globe, 28 January 1858, p. 3.
  • [8] “Death of Signor Lablache,” London Evening Standard, 29 January 1858 , p. 3. 

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