LISTSERV mailing list manager LISTSERV 15.5

Help for OPERA-L Archives

OPERA-L Archives

OPERA-L Archives


Next Message | Previous Message
Next in Topic | Previous in Topic
Next by Same Author | Previous by Same Author
Chronologically | Most Recent First
Proportional Font | Monospaced Font


Join or Leave OPERA-L
Reply | Post New Message
Search Archives

Subject: Re: A chapter from Corelli, vol. 2on Stefan'
From: Miguel A De Virgilio <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Miguel A De Virgilio <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 21 Jan 2018 18:34:35 +0000

text/plain (357 lines)

Dear Stefan, 
Thanks for your concern. 
I’m OK 
I’m posting on your behalf 
Miguel de Virgilio 
From: Stefan Zucker [mailto:[log in to unmask]] 
Sent: Saturday, January 20, 2018 8:18 AM 
To: Miguel A De Virgilio <[log in to unmask]> 
Subject: A chapter from Corelli, vol. 2 
Here’s a better subject line. 
Dear Miguel, 
Not having seen you on Opera-L for more than a month, I hope you’re well. 
In view of the situation with Kos, I’d be grateful if you’d post the chapter below on my behalf. 
The following chapter appears in vol. 2 of Franco Corelli and a Revolution in Singing: Fifty-Four Tenors Spanning 200 Years as well as in the booklet to the forthcoming Blu-Ray edition of Bel Canto: The Tenors of the 78 Era. (Despite the name and the fact that I am the principal English-language commentator, this is not a Bel Canto Society title but will be released in March by Naxos.) 
Last of a Breed 
Giovanni Battista Rubini ruled as the paragon of virtuoso tenors, king of the high Fs 
by Stefan Zucker 
Rubini was Bellini’s favorite tenor. In a letter to his friend and confidant Francesco Florimo, the composer observed, “You have good reason to say that at the entrance of Rubini [in Il pirata] it seemed to you as if you were seeing an angel, for he said it [the music] with an incomprehensible divineness. …” At the time of his death, Bellini was about to refashion Norma for Rubini for the 1835–36 season of the Théâtre-Italien. Specifically he was going to replace the tenor aria and the Pollione-Adalgisa duet, add a second tenor aria and rework most of the tenor lines. Though Bellini died before he could make these revisions, Rubini went onto become the most famous Pollione of his day. When he was unable to appear in a series of Norma performances at the Italien in 1837 because of illness, the Parisian audience became 
dispirited and could take no pleasure in Norma or any other opera. 
Rubini was the most celebrated unneutered male international superstar until that time 
and one of the two or three most celebrated ever as well as the last really brilliant male opera 
virtuoso. Yet he succeeded in having a career only after utmost perseverance. Dismissed by 
his first voice teacher for lack of vocal promise, rejected for employment as a leading tenor, a 
recitalist, even as a comprimario, he reached his lowest ebb when a Milan impresario refused 
him work as a chorister “because of insufficient voice.” 
When Rubini finally did succeed in getting roles, he barely was tolerated. Domenico Barbaja, 
the so-called “Napoleon of impresarios,” who simultaneously ruled the opera houses of 
Vienna, Milan and Naples, was unwilling to rehire him after a year’s engagement in Naples. In 
the end Barbaja relented but retained him at a reduced salary. In his thirties Rubini at length 
came to be regarded as the foremost male singer of the time. But he was short, pockmarked 
and an indifferent actor, with a number of vocal flaws. 
Today we assume that any reigning tenor must have had a voice of some plangency and 
strength. Rubini’s, however, was characterized as “lightly veiled” in quality—that is, having 
little brightness or ring. Further, he had the habit of singing with head resonance notes and 
passages that it was felt ought to be sung with chest resonance. Throughout his career critics 
complained about the smallness of his voice. Below the top of the staff he often was said to 
have been inaudible! Other singers routinely covered him. 
A number of writers criticized Rubini’s sparing use of moderately loud and moderately 
soft levels of dynamics. In Chorley’s words, at the time of Rubini’s London debut in 1831 at 
thirty-six, his voice was “hardly capable, perhaps, of being produced mezzo forte or piano; for 
which reason he had adopted a style of extreme contrast betwixt soft and loud, which many 
ears were unable, for a long period, to relish.” 
His contemporaries attributed his success primarily to the infectious joy he took in his own 
singing, to his formidable technique (by the late 1830s his range and agility were relics from 
the vocal practices of twenty years earlier) and above all to the exquisite finish of his renditions. 
Anton Rubinstein is said to have remarked to the critic Pierre Lalo, “I formed my ideas 
of noble and eloquent phrasing almost entirely from the example of the great tenor Rubini.” 
This most musical of singers was father to something we now think of as the mark of provincialism 
and coarseness—the sob. Rubini’s sob must have had a telling effect emotionally, 
for according to Ferdinand Hiller, “When [in the first act of Sonnambula] Rubini seemed to 
be singing tears, Chopin too had tears in his eyes.” 
Giovanni Battista Rubini was born in Romano, near Bergamo, on April 7, 1795. His father 
was an obscure music teacher. At the age of eight the boy played violin in an orchestra 
and sang in a choir. He first studied voice with one Don Santo—the maestro who dismissed 
him—and later with a certain Rosio. After his opera debut at Pavia, he progressed to the opera 
houses of Brescia, Venice and Naples. There he studied with Andrea Nozzari. Rubini’s career gradually branched out with appearances in Rome and Palermo. His first major conquests took place 
in Paris in 1825, but of his debut at the Théâtre-Italien in La cenerentola the prestigious Journal 
des débats of October 8 noted: 
The organ of the new tenor is weak, veiled, and it does not have more 
than a fifth that he can make vibrate with clarity; therefore he has neither 
low notes nor a middle voice. His range is exactly that of the contralto: 
it departs from the string of the violin and it rises up until the twelfth, to 
the B-flat, and also until the G outside the lines by means of the falsetto 
[a term here used to mean what we today would call “head voice”]. This 
gracious voice, expressive and light, is much liked in solos but is scarcely 
heard in duets and in fact disappears in concerted pieces. The reserve that 
all singers put into the development of their means favors small voices, and 
on that account the part of Ramiro often is reduced to simple pantomime. 
Later that season the management of the Théâtre-Italien announced that Rubini was to 
take over the remarkably low-lying title role in Rossini’s Otello. The part previously had been 
the property there of Donzelli, a singer with a notably stentorian voice. (Donzelli was later to 
create Pollione in Norma, and it was to his vocal measurements that Bellini fashioned the part.) 
The Journal des débats of December 17, 1825, was able to report: 
One would not have thought earlier that the graceful, tender Rubini 
could give to the part of the terrible African the force of expression that 
it demands…[but] the most complete success has justified the faith of the 
administration. Rubini emerged from this difficult situation with all the 
honors of his predecessors. He transferred to his range all the low passages, 
and profiting with ability from the precious advantages of a voice strong 
and sonorous in its upper fifth, was able to give adept expression to the 
furors of Otello. 
Though I have seen no statement that he performed Pollione in a similar adaptation, we 
may assume he did, in accordance with his custom with low-lying roles. (Bellini himself had 
made the adaptation of the low-lying role of Arturo in La straniera for him.) 
Triumphs at La Scala and Vienna followed. According to Bellini, the Milanese public in the 
late 1820s had no interest in any tenor other than Rubini, and he despaired of being able to 
put on an opera successfully there without him. Rubini subjugated London in 1831. From 
then until his retirement from opera in 1843, he divided his reign between London and Paris. 
In 1839 Wagner wrote in The Virtuoso and the Artist about a Rubini appearance at the Italien 
in Don Giovanni: 
Rubini fired off this night his famous trill from A to B! The whole thing flashed 
on me. How could I have expected much from poor “Don Ottavio,” the 
so often mocked-at tenor-stopgap of Don Juan? Indeed I long felt truly 
sorry for the so unrivalledly adored Rubini, the wonder of all tenors, who 
on his side went quite crossly to his Mozart-sum. There he came, the sober, 
solid man, passionately dragged on by the arm by the divine “Donna 
Anna” [Giulia Grisi], and stood with ruffled peace of mind beside the 
corpse of his expected father-in-law, who now no more could breathe 
his blessing on a happy marriage. Some say that Rubini was once a tailor, 
and looks just like one; I should have credited him with more agility in 
that case: where he stood he stayed, and moved no further; for he could 
sing, too, without stirring a muscle; even his hand he brought but seldom 
to the region of his heart. This time his singing never touched him at all; 
he might fitly save his fairly aged voice for something better than to cry 
out words of comfort, already heard a thousand times, to his beloved. That 
I understood, thought the man sensible, and, as he took the same course 
throughout the opera whenever “Don Ottavio” was at hand, I fancied at 
last it was over, and still more anxiously inquired the meaning, the purpose 
of this extraordinary night of abstinence. Then slowly came a stir: unrest, 
sitting-up, shrewd glances, fan-play, all the symptoms of a sudden straining 
of attention in a cultured audience. “Ottavio” was left alone on the stage; 
I believed he was about to make an announcement, for he came right up 
to the prompter’s box: but there he stayed, and listened without moving 
a feature to the orchestral prelude to his B flat aria [“Il mio tesoro”]. This 
ritornel seemed to last longer than usual; but that was a simple illusion: the 
singer was merely lisping out the first ten bars of his song so utterly inaudibly 
that, on my discovery that he really was giving himself the look of 
singing, I thought the genial man was playing a joke. Yet the audience kept 
a serious face; it knew what was coming; for at the eleventh bar Rubini let 
his F swell out with such sudden vehemence that the little reconducting 
passage fell plump upon us like a thunderbolt, and died away again into a 
murmur with the twelfth. I could have laughed aloud, but the whole house 
was still as death: a muted orchestra, an inaudible tenor; the sweat stood 
on my brow. Something monstrous seemed in preparation: and truly the 
unhearable was now to be eclipsed by the unheard-of. The seventeenth bar 
arrived: here the singer has to hold an F for three bars long. What can one 
do with a simple F? Rubini only becomes divine on the high B flat: there 
must he get, if a night at the Italian Opera is to have any sense. And just 
as the trapezist swings his bout preliminary, so “Don Ottavio” mounts his 
three-barred F, two bars of which he gives in careful but pronounced crescendo, 
till at the third he snatches from the violins their trill on A, shakes 
it himself with waxing vehemence, and at the fourth bar sits in triumph 
on the high B flat, as if it were nothing; then with a brilliant roulade he 
plunges down again, before all eyes, into the noiseless. The end had come: 
anything that liked might happen now. Every demon was unchained, and 
not on the stage, as at close of the opera, but in the audience. The riddle 
was solved: this was the trick for which one had assembled, had borne 
two hours of total abstinence from every wonted operatic dainty, had pardoned 
Grisi and Lablache for taking such music in earnest, and felt richly 
rewarded by the coming-off of this one wondrous moment when Rubini 
leapt to B flat! 
Rubini, the broad-built Philistine with bushy whiskers; old, with a voice 
grown greasy, and afraid of over-taxing it: if he is ranked above all others, 
the charm can’t reside in his substance, but purely in a spiritual form. And 
this form is forced upon every singer in Paris: they all sing à la Rubini. 
The rule is: be inaudible for awhile, then suddenly alarm the audience by a 
husbanded explosion, and immediately afterwards relapse into an effect of 
the ventriloquist. Mons. Duprez already quite obeys it…. Rubini diverted 
me hugely…. 
In 1842–43 he and Liszt undertook a joint concert tour through Holland and Germany, 
during which they performed for the King of Holland, whose chamberlain gave them each 
a jewel-encrusted snuff box. Because Liszt thought Rubini’s of greater value he was resentful: 
“It does not suit me not to be put on the same level as he,” he wrote to his mistress Countess 
Marie d’Agoult, and he gave the snuff box to his secretary. Rubini and Liszt parted company 
in Berlin, possibly owing to Liszt’s jealousy. Continuing alone, Rubini vanquished the Russians 
at St. Petersburg. Every honor was heaped on him. Czar Nicholas appointed him not 
only Director of Singing but also a colonel in the army! He returned to Russia the following 
year, after a concert tour through Italy to Vienna. Then he retired, a rich man. Rubini passed 
his last years on his estate in Romano, where he died March 2, 1854. 
Though Rubini rose to prominence as an exponent of Rossini, his real affinity was for 
Bellini. Among his legacies are the five roles Bellini specifically crafted for his throat, which 
have been unsingable, as written, by virtually all his successors—Gernando in Bianca e Gernando, 
Gualtiero in Pirata (which catapulted him to supremacy in Milan), Arturo in the revised 
Straniera, Elvino in Sonnambula and Arturo in Puritani. These are the last virtuoso roles to have 
been written for male voice, the last for a tenor of above-average agility and range. 
Rubini and the roles written for him by no means were isolated phenomena. On account 
of their floridity, tessitura and range, the roles tailored for other tenors with his same vocal 
method also have been unsingable, more or less, by singers using different, newer singing 
techniques. Each of the tenors who partook of this technique, such as Giacomo and Giovanni 
David, made use in actual performance of a range of more than two-and-one-half octaves, 
whereas few tenors since have possessed more than two performable octaves. Composers of 
the period wrote so as to take advantage of the wider melodic contours and greater possibilities 
of expression afforded them by the wideness of the tenors’ ranges. Thus the roles Rossini 
and Bellini composed for Nozzari, Giovanni David and Rubini in several cases have written 
ranges of more than two-and-one-half octaves and in any case were embellished by them so 
that the ranges were that wide. 
Three roles conceived for Rubini have survived in the repertory, Elvino in Sonnambula, 
Percy in Anna Bolena and Arturo in Puritani. Elvino contains technical difficulties greater 
than those in any subsequent tenor role, including Arturo, and by the 1840s the part was 
being transposed down. So common were the transpositions that no edition published since 
then contains the original keys. The transpositions fairly quickly became standardized, so that 
the two first-act tenor-soprano duets and the last-act tenor cavatina were put down a whole 
tone, while the last-act tenor cabaletta was lowered a major third. These transpositions have a 
drastic impact on the emotional character of the role. As conventionally sung, the part has a 
personality bordering on the insipid. A few years ago, the Italian author Alberto Arbasino declared 
of Elvino that, “No one seriously believes he would be capable of any erotic possibility.” 
When the original keys are restored, however, the music becomes virile and the Rubini role a 
character of real emotional substance. In his last-act scene, for instance, Elvino, when heard in 
the original keys, becomes every bit as lathered up as Pollione in the trio from Norma. Percy 
likewise is in print only in downward transposition. 
Just how high did Rubini sing? The Journal des débats claimed his voice ascended “up… 
until the G outside the lines.” Scudo in his Critique et littérature musicales (Paris, 1856) maintains 
that Rubini’s voice went up to F. Scudo, a former singer himself, had heard Rubini on many 
occasions over the years. Most reviews and other primary sources say little about what pitches 
Rubini or other singers of the era actually sang. Rubini’s was a time when singers adapted 
music at will to suit their own vocal requirements. 
Taking this practice for granted, critics did not attempt to measure singers’ renditions by 
printed scores. None of the primary sources mentions that Rubini sang higher than F above 
high C on a specific occasion, though reports of his having sung F itself abound. Gino Monaldi 
in his Cantanti celebri del secolo XIX (Rome, 1906) claims, however, that Rubini’s range extended 
to F and, “He could push his range up to G.” Francis Rogers in his Some Famous Singers 
of the Nineteenth Century alleges that Rubini rose to an F or G. Rubini by no means was the 
highest or most virtuosic tenor of his day, in any case. Those honors belong to Giovanni David. 
Bellini wrote to his friend Francesco Florimo on October 24, 1834: 
I hurry to give you the news that last night La sonnambula created a fanaticism 
at the Théâtre-Italien. … Rubini was found sublime, both on account 
of his singing (of which I assure you, my dear, that every note touched the 
most profound fiber of the heart) and on account of the soul and action 
that he put into the whole opera. But to make him master of his part, I 
lowered his cavatina from B-flat to A and the largo and stretta of the finale 
still another half-tone, because now the voice of Rubini possesses effect a 
half-tone lower than the tessitura that it required six years ago. 
Interestingly, in the course of this rather detailed letter, as elsewhere in his thorough correspondence, Bellini at no time wrote that Rubini ever sang the still higher last-act tenor scene 
in a lower key. Perhaps he continued to find the melodies in question comfortable in the 
original key, or perhaps he preferred to be spared earlier in the opera so as to save himself for 
this scene. One might conjecture that Bellini had Rubini transpose those other numbers not 
because the tenor no longer was able to sustain the higher tessituras but because he no longer 
was able to obtain the particular effects they sought—to capture the “spirit” of Elvino—at 
those altitudes. Writing to Florimo, however, on November 18, 1834, of the adaptation he 
was making of Puritani for performances (which never materialized) in Naples, Bellini said, 
“Also for Rubini I wrote lower than usual, and it will go very well for Duprez” (Gilbert-Louis 
Duprez, who was supposed to sing Arturo there). So it would seem that by then Rubini’s 
tessitura actually might have descended slightly. In any case, Arturo can be negotiated by conventional tenors, provided they simplify certain passages. 
Nevertheless, the best-known high F put to paper by a composer for tenor appears in 
Rubini’s part in Puritani in the last-act quartet “Credeasi misera.” This F is not optional, as 
sometimes stated, but integral to the melodic contour of the piece as Bellini wrote it. Though 
this is the only F to have been set down by a composer for Rubini, he had interpolated Fs in 
other roles for years. Bruce Brewer in a Rubini article in Opera magazine and Rodolfo Celletti 
in Il vocalismo italiano da Rossini a Donizetti, in Analecta musicologica, cite the Fs in Bellini’s 
Bianca e Fernando as further instances of that note having been written for Rubini; however, 
they—and that version of Bianca—were penned for Giovanni David. 
Arturo is the most famous high tenor part in opera because, unlike Elvino, it still is in print 
in the original keys. Not only is it lower than the original Elvino, it is not high-lying for a 
tenor with Rubini’s vocal technique. Though it contains a few high notes, it basically sits 
around the E at the top of the staff. Compared to the roles of Salvini and Fernando and the 
original Elvino, it is in the basement. 
In Bianca e Fernando Bellini composed for Giovanni David the scene for tenor with the 
most extreme high notes actually written by a composer, Fernando’s entrance, “A tanto duol.” 
Depending on the edition one consults, this contains in its cabaletta, “Ascolta, O padre,” two 
or three written Fs. Moreover, its melodic contours and the stylistic practices of the era all but 
make mandatory that in performance a singer festoon it with a number of additional vertiginous 
pitches. If the Fs written in the score are sung, without an interpolated G there would 
be a distinct sense of lack of climax. 
That David flourished in an even higher tessitura than Rubini is borne out by a comparison 
of the part of Gernando, in Bellini’s Bianca e Gernando, ultimately and basically written 
for Rubini, with that of Fernando, which, where it is not made up of music taken over from 
Gernando in the earlier work, is tailored for David. Fernando goes to high D in an accompanied 
recitative, in the second sentence and fourth sung measure after the character comes 
onstage, and soon continues to the aforementioned high Fs. Gernando, however, contains no 
such requirements. On the contrary, it has no written notes higher than D and is actually in 
some places quite low-lying. (The sections of Gernando that Bellini reused for Fernando are 
also, in the main, remarkably low-lying.) Rubini performed Fernando at La Scala, but it is 
unclear whether he sang “Ascolta, O padre” at all, much less whether he sang all the high notes 
Bellini had written for David. 
The scene for tenor with the highest sustained tessitura is Salvini’s entrance, “Speranza 
seduttrice,” in the second (1826–29) of two operas Bellini wrote to a libretto called Adelson 
e Salvini. The very different version of Salvini’s scene in Bellini’s first setting, composed and 
premiered in 1825, is not nearly so high. 
Owing to an array of factors that were part of the revolution in singing then in progress, 
however, the approach of the Davids, Rubini and all tenors prior to the 1830s to high notes 
was of limited influence on later tenors. Most notably it did influence the tenors Giovanni 
Matteo Mario and Nicholas Ivanoff. The earlier tenors used proportionately more head resonance 
the higher they went. They were able to sing high notes softly as well as loudly, and 
when they sang them fortissimo, the sound was brilliant and penetrating. 
According to Hippolite Prévost, writing in the Revue du théâtre of February 3, 1835, Rubini 
emitted a high C from the chest in a rendition he gave, during an intermission of a performance 
of Puritani, of a cavatina from Pacini’s Niobe—two years before Duprez’s sensational 
debut at the Opéra in Guillaume Tell, generally considered the genesis of modern “power singing.” 
While this C in all likelihood must have had some chest resonance, it probably did not 
have a great deal. Perhaps the presence of some head resonance in Rubini’s “chest” tones— 
those tones he sang with chest resonance—is what brought La gazette de France on November 
4, 1837 to write of his singing, “It is always that chest voice that reunites force with grace and 
the potent intonations of which lend themselves to all modulations.” 
How low did Rubini go? All commentators have accepted slavishly the claim made by the 
Journal des débats and by Scudo that Rubini’s lowest note was E. But why then did Donizetti 
pen sustained, exposed low Cs for him in the cavatina “Atra nube” in Elvida, introduced in 
1826, within less than a year of the review in the Journal? And why did Bellini write even 
lower notes for him? Not only did he compose a low C in Sonnambula, but in Bianca e Gernando, 
written within less than a year of the Journal review, he set to paper for him four Cs and 
two Bs (though in unison with other voices, so Rubini’s would not have been perceivable as 
a discrete voice). These facts suggest that Rubini’s range must have extended a third or fourth 
lower than the E various writers credit him with. 
Rubini created about sixty roles, and his repertory included about 100 more. In addition to 
works by Rossini (22), Bellini (five) and Donizetti (17), he appeared in operas by Balfe, Benedict, 
Balducci, Boieldieu, Carafà, Carlini, Cimarosa, Coccia, Conti, Cordella, Costa, Farinelli, 
Fioravanti, Frasi, Gabussi, Gagliardi, García, Generali, Gnecco, Guglielmi, Haydn, Lanza, Lvoff, 
Majocchi, Marliani, Mayr (11), Mercadante (seven), Meyerbeer, Militotti, Morlacchi, Mosca 
(five), Mozart (Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni—Rubini’s decorations for “Il mio tesoro” 
sometimes culminated in a high F), Nicolai, Niedermeyer, Pacini (nine), Paër (four), Paisiello, 
Pavesi, Persiani, Prota, Raimondi, Rieschi, Sampieri, Staffa, Trento, Vaccai and Zingarelli. Today’s 
bel canto revival has yet to skim the surface. 
One of the songs most closely identified with him was Beethoven’s “Adelaïde,” which he 
sang in an Italian translation authorized by the composer. Berlioz described Rubini’s rendition 
of this song as “comprised entirely of that which embodies tender pain and impassioned 
Rubini’s singing was summed up by a Russian journal of the period: “Nature has not given 
Rubini great and immense means, but he, with his profound studies, has created a genre 
entirely his, inimitable.” Francis Rogers wrote in Some Famous Singers, “Other tenors have had 
voices as beautiful as Rubini’s and, possibly, technical skill as great as his, but none has equaled 
him in his ability to move the hearts of his hearers.” Published reactions of Rubini’s contemporaries 
indicate that many would have concurred with this, and Chorley credited him with 
“a geniality of expression that was resistless,” adding, “There was never an artist who seemed 
so thoroughly and intensely to enjoy his own singing—a persuasion which cannot fail to 
communicate itself to his audiences. … He ruled the stage by the mere art of singing more 
completely than anyone, woman or man, has been able to do in my time.” 
In the years since Rubini, each and every orchestra instrument has become louder or more 
brilliant, preventing tenors with small bottom and middle voices from making opera careers, 
except in original-instrument performances. 
Rubini’s most influential contribution to singing by far was the vibrato. He was the first to 
sing with a prominent, omnipresent, rapid, even-width vibrato—a “flutter” or “flicker” vibrato— 
something different from a “wobble,” which is a slow, wide and uneven wavering of pitch… 
The above is an excerpt from Franco Corelli and a Revolution in Singing: Fifty-Four Tenors Spanning 200 Years, vol. 2. The book is available at<>. I published portions of this chapter in Opera News in 1982, in an article also called “Last of a Breed,” and thank the magazine for permission to reuse them. 

Back to: Top of Message | Previous Page | Main OPERA-L Page



CataList Email List Search Powered by the LISTSERV Email List Manager