A great heart in a great body, a great soul in a great voice, such was Luigi Lablache.
He was born at Naples, December 6, 1794. His mother was Irish, and his father, Nicolas Lablache, a merchant of Marseilles, had left Naples in 1791 in consequence of the Revolution.
But another revolution, in 1799, overwhelmed him with ruin in his new country, and he died of chagrin.
He family was, however, protected by Joseph Bonaparte, and the young Luigi was placed in the Conservatorio della Pieta de’ Turchini, later called San Sebastiano.
Gentilli taught him the elements of music, and Valesi instructed him in singing; while, at the same time, he studied the violin and violoncello under other masters.
His progress was not at first remarkable, for he was wanting in application and regularity; but his aptitude was soon discovered by a singular incident.
One day a contrabassist was wanted for the orchestra of San Onofrio. Marcello-Perrino, who taught young Lablache the cello, said to him, “You play the cello very well; you can easily learn the double bass!” The boy had a dislike for that instrument; nevertheless, he got the gamut of the double bass written out for him on a Tuesday, and on the following Friday executed his part with perfect accuracy. There is no doubt, in fact, that had he not been so splendidly endowed as a singer he might have been equally brilliant as a virtuoso on any other instrument that he chose.
The beautiful soprano for which he was renowned was last heard on a memorable occasion. Haydn died in 1809, when Lablache was fifteen years of age. At the performance of Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ in honor of the dead master, the young singer sang the soli. So much was he in earnest, when really put to a congenial task, that he overstrained his voice and became perfectly speechless after the performance. Fears were entertained that the loss of voice might be permanent, and indeed the soprano was gone never to return; but in a few months the most magnificent bass took its place.
In speaking of Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ it is interesting to note that on a much later occasion Lablache was again a principal performer in it. It was when Beethoven was carried to his last rest. Labalche not only traveled to Vienna for the interment, but defrayed out of his own pocket the expenses of the opera singers, and took a leading part as one of the torch bearers gathered around the grave of the great master. So freely was this acknowledged that Schubert composed and dedicated to him three songs set to Italian words.
The new vocal development only increased Lablache’s desire to go on the stage. No doubt he felt in him the dramatic gifts of which he gave proof in later years. No less than five times did he run away from the Conservatorio, only to be recaptured after a short spell of liberty.
He signed an engagement for Salerno, accepting a very small compensation, the most tempting feature being the payment of one month’s salary in advance. The possession of this turned his head completely; he did not leave Naples until he had gone through all the money, a feat which did not take him more than two days.
When he appeared at Salerno with a well filled portmanteau, the impresario received him kindly, but became very cool when a few days later a director of the Conservatorio turned up to reclaim the truant. Still there were the contents of the portmanteau to recoup the manager for the salary advanced; at least so he fondly imagined, until an inspection proved them to consist of sand. When the number of these withdrawals had reached five, the government thought it necessary to intervene. A law was passed that no theater in the kingdom should engage a pupil of the Conservatorio without special permission, and a penalty sufficiently formidable was imposed. This was effective in returning Lablache to his studies and preventing him from leaving the Conservatorio until his time had expired.
When, in 1812, eighteen years old, he had at last gained that freedom which he had so longed for, he lost no time in devoting himself to the career of his choice. His first engagement was as buffo at the San Carlino Theater at Naples, and his debut was in ‘La Molinara.’
He further increased his connection with the stage by marrying Teresa Pinotti, the gifted daughter of a clever actor. Though a marriage in which the early age of eighteen represents all the wisdom and experience of the husband cannot be recommended without reserve, his was a happy one.
Lablache, naturally indolent and devoid of the quality of application, needed a stimulating influence to force him into study; his wife had sufficient judgment and ambition to see that his talents were wasted as a suburban buffo. In fact, a man of inferior physical resource probably would have been ruined by the strain of two performances per day.
Lablache, easy going and satisfied with his present position, was not easily prevailed upon to sever his connection with the Carlino; above all, he dreaded the necessary study of good Italian to replace the patois which was all he knew and all he had thus far required. But Teresa was determined, and womanlike, she carried her point by sheer perseverance.
Accordingly the couple left for Sicily, where the husband procured without great trouble the appointment as primo basso cantante of the opera at Palermo. He achieved wonders here in the part of Ser Marc Antonio, and his reception by the public was so gratifying that he made Palermo his home for five years.
Gradually his fame spread beyond the confines of the island. The directors of La Scala at Milan heard of his voice, and engaged him without hesitation. His first appearance there was in “La Cenerentola”; his acting and singing were excellent, and more than made up for the faulty pronunciation, which would have damned any inferior performance.
But Lablache was not blind to his faults, and soon determined to rectify them. Not unlike Rossini, he acquired in later life that culture which want of opportunity and indolence had prevented him from acquiring during boyhood and youth. Already, in Naples, he had commenced to fill out the lacunae in his education.
The Milan season established the fame of the singer throughout Europe. Mercadante, at that time at the height of his renown, wrote “Elisa e Claudio” expressly for Lablanche. Travel was not the only thing needed to make his reputation universal.
Until 1824 his time was divided between Milan, Turin, and Venice; then he crossed the Alps and appeared in Vienna, where he soon became a prime favorite. A medal with a flattering inscription still bears testimony to the enthusiasm of the excitable Viennese.
From Vienna he turned to Naples, the birthplace he had left twelve years before, and which he now reentered as first singer to Ferdinand I, with an engagement at the San Carlo. For a number of years he devoted himself to that theater, alternating his engagement with frequent tours through Italy, but not going beyond the boundary of that country.
English and French impresarios tried in vain to secure him for their theaters. It was not until 1830 that he appeared in Paris and London, where he was received with the greatest admiration.
His triumphs were not limited to his voice; wherever he appeared there were enthusiastic and sincere admirers of his talent for the stage, his striking appearance, and his social successes as a finished man of the world. There were, indeed, competent critics who doubted whether he was greater as a singer or as an actor. His head and features were imposing, his figure tall enough to set off his bulk. A critic wrote: “One of his boots would have made a portmanteau, one could have clad a child in one of his gloves.”
His strength was truly Herculean; as Leporello he used to carry off under his arm Masetto, represented by a fairly powerful man. On one occasion he was seen lifting a heavy contrabass from the orchestra on to the stage by one hand, and replacing it without an effort. To all these accomplishments must be added a perfect balance of temper and a probity and broad mindedness not generally met with.
His repertoire was exceedingly large, ranging from low comedy to high drama and tragedy. It was considered an undecided point whether he was better as Geronimo in “il Matrimonio segreto” and the Podesta in “La Gazza ladra,” or in the serious parts he took in “Norma” and “Semiramide.” Critics united in considering LaBlanche’s conception of the rollicking part of Leporello unique and unrivaled, while, at the same time, he had great success in the title role of “Don Giovanni.”
In 1833 Lablache paid one last professional visit to Naples, and received the unbounded applause of his countrymen as Dulcamara in “L’Elisire d’amore,” and in
“Don Pasquale.” From that year he divided his time between London and Paris, appearing also in some of the oratorio performances for which the English provincial towns are celebrated. His kindly disposition was ever exerted on behalf of his brethren in the theatrical profession.
“LaBlache acts toward me as a father,” said Jenny Lind to Queen Victoria. At the English court he was persona gratissima. Both the Queen and the Prince Consort distinguished him, and toward the former and some of her children he acted for a time as a teacher.
In 1852 he accepted an engagement for the season at St. Petersburg, and created the greatest possible sensation, but this was his last regular connection with the stage. Feeling, perhaps, that his health was giving way, he retired to his beautiful country seat, Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris, and henceforth limited his musical activity to a few lessons and an occasional reappearance on the boards. He never composed.
At Maisons-Laffitte he passed some of the happiest moments of his life. Though his health was giving way, he felt no suspicion that his days were numbered, until 1856, when grave disorders in his system commenced to preoccupy his mind. At Kissingen, the watering place recommended by his physicians, he met one of his old admirers, the Emperor Alexander II of Russian, who treated him in the most friendly manner.
An appointment as court singer, and a Russian decoration, may have gladdened his heart for the moment, though he felt that he could not hold them for long. “It will be an ornament for my burial,” was the remark he made to the Emperor in regard to the order.
He returned to his French country seat only to find that his apprehensions were well founded. Even the mild air of August struck chilly on his constitution. A move to Posilipo, and afterward to Naples, afforded only temporary relief. He asked and obtained the solace of religion administered by an old comrade who had exchanged the stage for a convent of Dominicans.
On January 23, 1858, the celebrated singer passed away. He lies buried at Maisons-Laffitte, where his body was removed in accordance with the terms of his will.
Tradition teems with charming anecdotes of the wit, genius, and generosity of Lablache.
Anecdotes of Lablache
One night while taking his accustomed walk of exercise after the opera, enjoying his solitary cigar and cogitations, he came suddenly upon a ragged street singer , trolling out his miserable song and disturbing the harmony of the peaceful moonlight night. Lablache, impatient of so rude an interruption to his thoughts, and disgusted by the efforts of the desecrator of music, strode up to the beggar in order to bid him cease his mournful attempts at song. A glance revealed to him that the singer was old, decrepit, and trembling with exhaustion. In a moment the ill humor of Lablache changed to pity, and addressing the man, who was evidently frightened by the formidable size of his interlocutor, he very gently said: “Why do you make such a noise, my friend? What can I do to help you?”
“Nothing, monsieur,” answered the man with a sad attempt at dignity. “I don’t beg; I sing for the few sous thrown by those who care to listen!”
“Oh! Ho!” exclaimed Lablache with assumed irony, “then since you succeed so badly, let me assist you!”
Whereupon the great singer lifted up his voice in a strain so grand and sweet that the poor old man would have fallen at his feet in the ecstasy of his surprise and joy had not Lablache supported him. But others heard him and came trooping for café and restaurant, lured by the rich and glorious tones.
“Lablache, ‘tis Labalche,” whispered the crowd as they gathered round. One, two, and three chansons followed, and then the great singer, seizing the tattered hat of the old man, passed it around.
Gold and silver glittered in the moonlight as they fell into that shabby hat, a fortune for the miserable votary of music, whom Lablache placed in a comfortable home with the proceeds of those few moments of perfect song. The next day all Paris knew of this latest act of benevolence of their idol, and very proud indeed were the witnesses to retail their participation in that midnight romance of the boulevards.
Rossini, who loved him with affection as deep as it was sincere, was very fond of telling the following story of Lablache’s humor. A provincial rang his bell one day by mistake. Lablache by some chance opened the door himself. “I wish to see Tom thumb,” said the visitor in some trepidation. “I am he!” exclaimed Lablache in deep overpowering tones. “You!” gasped the other; “but they told me he was a very little fellow.” “Oh! That is when I perform in public,” replied Lablache with an air of surprise and sincerity, but when I get home to my own rooms I let myself out and enjoy myself.” It seems that General Tom Thumb, who was then appearing in vaudeville, was really quartered under the same roof with Lablache, which gave point to the humor of the situation.