Luigi Nicola Giuseppe Lablache - the great Lablache of this book’s title - was a great opera singer. He was by all accounts a magnificent bass, with a very wide range; possibly the best singer of his generation and arguably the best ever. He created many roles and sang countless others by the greatest composers of his time, like Rossini and Donizetti. According to accounts by his contemporaries, he was excellent both in tragic and comic parts.
Luigi Lablache was born in 1795, the date given in this biography, although most references to him in other sources give his birth year as 1794. He died in 1858. He became world famous and, for an era where there was no recorded music, television or the internet, he achieved superstar status. His career was amazing, spanning several decades and he was no less formidable in his personal life: He married singer Teresa Pinotti and together they had thirteen children. In the words of Rossini, Lablache was a genius, alongside the tenor Rubini and mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran; a quote that is included in this biography before the foreword.
It is clear from the start that the author, Clarissa Lablache Cheer, has great admiration for her subject. As her name may reveal, Luigi Lablache was Ms Cheer’s ancestor and she openly demonstrates her enthusiasm for him not only as a singer but also as a human being. Lablache was by all accounts a kind, generous and genuine person, benevolent, loving and with a good sense of humour.
Ms Lablache Cheer’s level of detail and quality of research is undeniable. She took great care in finding all the facts and it is obvious that this biography was a labour of love that required great dedication and commitment. However, personally, I do not think that she is a “natural” writer, meaning that the written word does not flow spontaneously to create an interesting story. I actually had the impression throughout the book that writing is for her very hard work, demanding a determined conscious effort on her part. In some instances, she probably struggled. The narrative is often fragmented even though the biography is structured in a strict chronological order. To my mind, Ms Lablache Cheer tries too hard to describe the times in which her famous ancestor lived and worked. There is too much historical detail, too much social background, which often become tedious. Such material is not always directly relevant to Lablache’s personal story. The singer’s life and career are sometimes lost amidst historical facts, accounts by his contemporaries, extracts from newspapers and letters, and his family’s background. What I expect from a biography is the factual narration of a person’s life and achievements, set against the time in which they were alive and the locations they inhabited or visited. This need not be exhaustive and can be told in a more appealing, satisfying manner with literary style. A couple of examples spring to mind: Jessica Duchen’s biography of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is an absolute page turner; and Anita Mercier’s account of Portuguese cellist Guilhermina Suggia’s life and career is beautifully and stylishly written.
There are nevertheless very enjoyable moments in this biography: some episodes in his life, extremely funny and full of human warmth thus demonstrating that he was a colourful character; more of these would definitely have enriched the book and made it more palatable to the reader. The memorabilia from Ms Cheer’s family is indeed fascinating and very interesting. She has included documents, portraits, drawings, caricatures of him and some of his more famous descendants, as well as copies of his opera and concert programmes. These speak eloquently of his professional life and enhance the narrative. Some chapters are however, slightly misleading, as, for example, chapter eight “Naples, Vienna and Beethoven” or chapter thirteen “Paganini and Lablache” and made me feel a little disappointed. We are told that Lablache sang in Mozart’s Requiem at Beethoven’s funeral; that he sang in two of Paganini’s concerts in London but it does not explain how the great virtuoso violinist reacted to the great virtuoso singer. In other sections, it also mentions that Lablache sang with soprano Isabella Colbran - Rossini’s first wife and for whom he composed many operas - and the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, himself also a superstar. Again, however, there’s little or nothing in the way of stories about their behaviour or any indication as to whether they got along. The episode of Lablache giving singing lessons to Princess Victoria (later Queen Victoria) is presented with a little more detail. The story of the gift that Queen Victoria made to the singer’s family after his death is told in one of the appendices - this was a portrait of the singer, painted especially for the Queen by Franz Winterhalter.
As I mentioned before, Ms Lablache Cheer’s admiration for her ancestor is immense. In her anxiety to demonstrate what a unique and dazzling singer he was, I felt that she exaggerated his importance. For example, she often comments on how Lablache enriched Rossini’s operas with his performances and so brought fame for the composer. This is true to a certain extent but what about the quality of most of Rossini’s operatic compositions? To my mind, Rossini and the other composers mentioned deserved a little more credit and attention.
Adding to Lablache’s story we are also given a relatively summarised version of his descendants’ lives, across approximately one hundred pages. There’s also a rather extensive section of appendices, with Lablache’s own and his family’s compositions, a family tree, a couple of articles and images of Lablache in “objets d’art”. You can also find in this company three very long chronologies of Lablache’s operatic appearances with casts, his performances by composer and details of Lablache’s family concerts. Staggering though these numbers are, they are also too exhaustive. I am not sure that anyone will want to read through all of them.
As a written work, The Great Lablache is a real achievement built upon the sheer volume of research conducted by Ms Lablache Cheer. Running to nearly seven hundred pages it’s a very substantial book. This is undoubtedly an authoritative and informative account of the life and career of an incredible bass. However I am sorry to say that, although I am an avid reader I did not find this a gripping read. It failed to capture my imagination.
Nevertheless, this biography of Luigi Lablache is a very commendable attempt to bring us the story of an operatic star from the past who but for this book would have been almost completely forgotten. The absence of recorded music prevents such artists from leaving a durable legacy for which they can be remembered. Books such as these are always a valuable reading experience.