Excerpted from The Origins of Modern Tenor Singing
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 on to 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 the 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 at 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 often 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 the English critic Henry F. 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 finale of La 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… [The article continues.]