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The Great Lablache - Nineteenth Century Operatic Superstar: His Life and His Times
By Clarissa Lablache Cheer
ISBN: 978-1-4415-0215-5 (hard cover)
ISBN: 978-1-4415-0214-8 (soft cover)
Published 2009
Number of Pages (with Appendices, Notes & Bibliography): 688
Price: £14.00 (paperback), £23.00 (hardback)

Experience Classicsonline

My first thoughts on receiving this weighty tome were that its origins were as a university thesis. Certainly in the UK, when that practice is followed, the book is slimmer than the thesis, which, if properly supervised, would have rid the work of superfluous detail. A closer look revealed a somewhat different story. The author, Clarissa Lablache Cheer, was born in Southampton, England and grew up there during World War Two. After attending Southampton College of Art she launched a career as a freelance artist, dress designer and muralist, living in Italy, France and Austria before settling in California and establishing a successful interior design business. In California she actively pursued her interest in her operatic lineage and writing articles on the history of opera. She became founder of the Chris Merritt fan club and continued her research into her family origins with the aim of a first biography in English of her ancestor, the great nineteenth century bass, Luigi Lablache. Lablache’s name will be known to many lovers of the operas of the so-called bel canto period as one of what became known as The Puritani Quartet.

The subtitle, Nineteenth Century Operatic Superstar. His Life and His Times really says most of what the book is about. It certainly owes nothing to academe, which would surely, in the interest of keeping to the point, have limited Cheer’s frequent diversions. The narrative of the book is divided into five of what Cheer chooses to call Books. These start with Lablache’s beginnings, family and early years in Book 1. These chapters (1-10) include his early successes and establishment as a force in primo ottocento opera performances in Sicily and Italy. Later Books (2-5) deal with his London debut, Paris and I Puritani in Chapters 11-16, before Lablache’s activities in the English Court of Princess, later Queen, Victoria. The concluding two Books cover his visit to Russia, Covent Garden debut, the end of his career and his final days. Each Book concludes with several pages of black and white lithographs, photographs and engravings, sometimes of doubtful relevance.

For me the many diversions in a text might have added character and colour as well as interest in respect not only of her illustrious relative, but also the detail of the historical and social milieu in which Luigi Lablache was born, grew up and performed. Whilst Cheer admits that she is not a trained musician and the focus of the book is an attempt to provide a glimpse of opera in its golden age through the saga of one of its greatest interpreters (preface p.xvi); the devil is in the detail. What Cheer significantly lacks is knowledge of opera composition and performance in general in the period concerned as well as the general social milieu in which it took place. This lack is shown in the diversionary details she provides as picture painting to her main theme. A few examples from Chapter 8 - 10 variously titled Naples, Vienna and Beethoven (pp 50-62), Fame at the San Carlo (pp 63-70) and Parma, (pp 71-11) will suffice to make the point.  

First, page 52, Cheer quotes Black (Donizetti Operas in Naples. London 1982) in stating of Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor that: both of these operas were proven successes long before they reached Naples. The second of these was actually premiered at the San Carlo, Naples, after a famous delay, on 26 September 1835. I am not in a position to check what I suspect, that she has misquoted Black. However, an error of that magnitude indicates she has little detailed background knowledge of opera performance in the period as a backing to her family researches into Lablache’s career. This view receives further confirmation when she states at p71: During the years from 1817-1828, in just over a decade, Lablache further established his reputation by singing in over fifty Rossini operas. It might be debated that, with revisions in French, whether Rossini wrote thirty-eight or thirty-nine operas, the latter was certainly the maximum with his final work, William Tell not yet written in 1828. Lablache certainly sang, as Cheer records, more than one role in some Rossini operas in various theatres. She quotes, for example, that he sang both Figaro and Bartolo in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and also Dandini and Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola. However, even with Lablache’s renowned diversity and size of repertoire I doubt if he sang fifty Rossini operatic roles, particularly as Cheer in her own list of Rossini operas sung by Lablache lists only twenty-three titles including the Italian translation of the French language version of Mosé in Egitto performed in Parma in the Spring of 1829 (No. 48 Appendices p. 623).

The errors also spread to matters of the social milieu of the period. Chapter Note 81 (p. 654) states that Isabella Colbran (1785-1845) was mistress of Barbaja (the San Carlo impresario), later Rossini’s wife…. separated from Rossini and divorced. It is generally accepted that Colbran had a relationship with Barbaja and Cheer suggests a ménage à trois. Colbran certainly married Rossini, bringing a generous dowry with her, but they could not be divorced, as the law of the time in Catholic Bourbon Italy did not allow divorce. They were, however, legally separated in 1837. Rossini had to wait until Colbran’s death to marry Olympe Pélissier who had become his close companion in the early 1830s. She was responsible for his return to Paris in 1855 and her patient care of the ill and depressive composer, and skills as a hostess, eventually enabled a compositional renaissance for the great man (Rossini. Richard Osborne. Master Musicians Series. London 1987. p 305). There are a number of typographical errors that more careful editing would have picked up. Examples are the date of the Naples service commemorating Haydn’s death: given as 1909 instead of 1809 (p. 57). More worrying is in the care given to the notes and references with Note. 105 giving Ashbrook’s seminal Donizetti and his Operas being given as 1982 whilst the correct 1983 is given elsewhere. Some of these errors are minor, but there is the danger that this book will, in turn, be quoted by others who assume the facts etc to be correct. In that manner errors are perpetuated in the literature.

It is easy for me to pick on errors of fact from the period when secondary sources are at issue. I cannot do that for the original research that Cheer has carried out in family and other archives and in respect of Lablache’s Family Tree (p. 582) and extensive Chronology of Opera Appearances and Casts (pp. 583-617). These, together with reference to contemporary press coverage on one of the accepted great singers of the bel canto era might well be the vital contribution the book makes to the literature. As to the many digressions Cheer makes within the narrative, these are a mixed blessing as she often loses the chronology in some diversions, at least for this reader. This is so in respect of the family history (Chapter 1) when a more explicit lineage of the family would have been welcome. It is particularly so in respect of the family connections and politics as French Jacobite sympathisers and their relationship with their country of origin post the 1789 Revolution. Fears of revolution moved towards the Royal Court of the Bourbon King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies, a kingdom that stretched from South of Rome to the heel and toe of Italy, and included the island of Sicily. These were palpable in Naples itself, which was the home of many émigrés fleeing the horrors of France. It was certainly the focus of the High Society of Europe, a regular on the Grand Tour and the home of painters and poets (Chapter 2). Ferdinand was a regular at his box at the San Carlo whilst his wife, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, was sister of the guillotined Marie Antoinette. The French and revolution did come to Naples with two fraught Republican periods wrought by Napoleon. During these periods Ferdinand and his Court fled to Sicily, on one occasion with the assistance of Nelson after the battle of Aboukir Bay (p.11). Ferdinand was reinstated in 1815, again with the help of the English, after the Battle of Waterloo.

The period of the Royal Court in Sicily was very important to Luigi Lablache. A theatre had been built in Palermo for the use of the king in exile. Whilst in Naples the young man had performed in the smaller dialect-singing theatres of the city. It was during this period that he met Rubini for the first time and married, in 1814, his young singing teacher. She was the daughter of a celebrated actor and singer. With the restoration of Bourbon rule in Naples in 1815 the new theatre in Palermo came under the domain of the impresario Barbaja who employed Luigi and sent him to Sicily. There with the help of his wife and father-in-law he learnt his trade as a formidable buffo. By the time Lablache moved on to Milan in 1821, where he was a joined by Rubini, he had around twelve Rossini bass roles in his repertoire, one of which was Figaro, sung in the first Neapolitan performance of Il Barbiere on 14 October 1818. The previous year, at a birthday gala for the King he had sung at the San Carlo in the Royal presence in a performance of Mayr’s Il sogno di Parteope alongside Isabella Colbran and Rubini (Chapters 5-6).

It is not the place of a reviewer to summarise the contents of a book, but rather to give a flavour. Taken at face value, and weeding the fact from the error, the story of Luigi Lablache that emerges is one of interest to all lovers of the bel canto period. He was without doubt one of the greatest singers of the first half of the nineteenth century. His diversity of roles and his life and performances in Paris and London give insights into the cultural milieu in those cities in that period. Of more than passing interest is Lablache’s connection as singer and teacher with Princess, later Queen, Victoria and which echoes Rossini’s connection with George IV during his visit to London prior to taking up his position as Director of the Théâtre Italien in Paris. Lablache’s season at Covent Garden (1854-55) and the fact that his size and age allowed him the privilege of a chair on stage, the only singer in nineteenth-century history granted this privilege (p. 441) has echoes in more recent times. In 1847, after offering to introduce Verdi to the Queen, Lablache created the role of Massimiliano Moor in the composer’s I Masnadieri, premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London on 22 July 1847 (pp.338-340). Lablache had remained loyal to the theatre after Costa had walked out and set up a rival company at Covent Garden (Budden. The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 1 pp. 316-18). Cheer reports that the critics had a field day with the large figured Lablache playing the part of a starving man, He had to do the only thing he could not do to perfection … represent a man who nearly starved to death. It was the first time since Weber’s Oberon that a world famous composer had written an opera for London and as Cheer reports the Queen, her Consort and all the Royal family and high society were to be there. Whatever the critics said Verdi, was offered a contract for one opera a year for the next ten years but, disliking the climate he would not be tempted, even by a large fee (ibid Budden). 

I do not wish to overstate the errors or the difficulties in following a linear narrative in this book. However, it must be said that the text would have gained immeasurably from both proof-reading and strict editing. More importantly, it could also have taken a more appropriate place among the literature if it had had the benefit of perusal and correction from an academic such as Commons, Gossett, Parker or their like, all of whom have the known facts within their being and whose imprimatur would have given greater veracity to the claims made for the singer. In this way a worthy but general read could have become a valuable addition to the operatic literature of the period and the singers involved, not least Luigi Lablache. As it is, Cheer’s amateur, but wide-ranging survey, leaves many questions and doubts, and misses the aim of bringing a definitive contribution on the art of Luigi Lablache to the English-speakers of the world.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Margarida Mota-Bull



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