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Free School of Lyrical Singing G. B. Rubini

Giovan Battista Rubini: an abridged biography

Giovan Battista Rubini
(1794 – 1854)

To talk about Rubini is a difficult task as far as a biographical effort is concerned. This difficulty is not only related to the complexity of his artistic career but also to the multiples details that make of Rubini a unique human being.

It is necessary to consider, above all, that there are people that dedicate their lives to the investigation and the publication of biographical studies on Rubini’s life and work. Those studies, while providing important sources for research, at the same time obscure any subsequent biographical attempt.

Consequently, this modest work intends to point out, in a few words, just the main events of Rubini’s life, step by step.

Son of Giambattista Rubini and Caterina Bergomi, and born on April 7, 1794, Romano of Lombardia, province of Bergamo, Giovan Battista Rubini was one of the greatest tenors of the 19th century and the maximum representative of the Italian lyrical art.

His father was a tailor by trade, but he was also a musician and taught his son the first music lessons. At the age of twelve, Rubini was already singing at church and training hard to play the violin in a small orchestra. At that time, he was pupil of a priest from Adro (Brescia), Dom Santo, who did not find in his young student any talent for singing.

However, history proved Dom Santo a false prophet, and despite his opinion, Rubini’s father believed in his son's future and talent. So he continued teaching music to his boy, who sang for the first time in 1806, in Rome, at the age of twelve, interpreting a female character.

However, by then, Rubini’s voice was suffering changes due to puberty and the boy's father - concerned about his son's financial safety - sent him to Bergamo so that he could learn how to work as a tailor, a manual work that would earn him a living if he had some problem with his voice in the future.

Now a tailor, Rubini continued his violin and singing studies. By now he already had a beautiful tenor voice, strong and clear. Rubini used to sing while sewing. One day, a certain musician was passing by and heard that amazing voice. He then guided the young man in his singing studies.

In 1812, still working as a tailor, Rubini’s bent for theatre led him to find a job as the second violinist at the Teatro Riccardi, where he was also in the choir and stood out for his clear and strong voice.

In his home town, his first work as a tenor was in an aria by Lamberti, which was part of a comedy and it was sung beautifully by Rubini. The audience was so excited that the show’s business manager rewarded him with five liras.

In the autumn 1813, Rubini was hired as the second tenor for the Theatre Palazzolo, where he was considered a singer of small voice. The same happened in the Teatro Scala de Milano: The manager did not want him among the choristers of the theatre, because of his voice of little value.

In view of such bad luck, in 1814 Rubini accepted to be part of a decadent travelling company in Piemonte. In this company, he played a ballet dancer in Fossano, in a choreography entitled The Millionaire, and he was not successful.

A short time later, Rubini went to Vercelli, where he met a violinist called Madi, with whom he gave some unsuccessful concerts in Alessandria, Novi and Valenza. In 1814 Rubini was back in Vercelli, but financial difficulties forced him to leave the travelling company and, almost without hope, the young singer went on to Milan, where he met a musical manager who offered him 45 francs monthly to sign up to the Theatre of Pavia. 

Rubini was already 20 years old and his voice was firmer and more luminous than before. This guaranteed him success at the Theatre of Pavia. Few months later, the success in Pavia opened doors to Rubini who was invited to go to Brescia, in the carnival, 1815. Once there, musical manager Marchese Belcredi offered him a thousand liras for three months’ work. In the spring, for the double of that amount, Rubini sang at the Theatre San Moisè of Venice.

Finally, in 1815 Rubini met the astute and influential musical manager Domenico Barbaja, who hired him for the theatre of Vienna and for the Theatre Dei Fiorentini, in Naples, for eighty four ducats monthly, which was not much.

It was from Barbaja that Rubini’s lyrical career took off. His premiere in the Theatre di Fiorentini was with the opera L'Italiana in Algeri, by Gioacchino Rossini.

The fame conquered in Naples was the key to his admittance to the Theatre Scala of Milan, in the summer of 1818, with the opera Torvaldo and Dorliska by Rossini. In the autumn of the same year, Rubini made his premiere in Rome with the opera Enrico IV, by Fioravante.

In 1819, he returned to Naples where he stayed until March and, in April of that same year, he made his premiere in Palermo with the opera of Mosca, L'impostore o il Marcotondo.

In May, 1819, Rubini returned to Naples and met Ms. Adelaide Chomel di Bordeaux, a young singer from the Conservatory of Paris. With her he sang, in 1820, Il Barbieri di Siviglia by Rossini. On March 13, 1821, Rubini married Ms. Chomel, who Italianized her name for Comelli. That marriage did not leave them descendants.

Probably, in order to introduce his wife to his family, Rubini went to Rome early in 1822 but, in March 16 of the same year, he went back to Naples, where he stayed until April 10, 1824. During that period, the couple sang a vast repertoire.

On April 10, 1824, Barbaja’s administration of the Theatre San Carlo of Naples ended with the representation of Semiramide by Rossini. This caused Barbaja’s company to be transferred to Vienna. After that season in Vienna, Rubini went to the Theatre Re of Milan, in the spring-summer 1825.

Soon afterwards, at the request of Luigi Lablache, Barbaja opened the Italian Theatre of Paris for some recitatives and Rubini staged there on October 6 of this same year with the opera Cenerentola and later with Othello, both by Rossini, thus being for the first time acclaimed internationally.

But, when the contract with the Italian Theatre of Paris expired, in April 1826, Barbara demanded the presence of Rubin in Naples, where he met with Incense Belling, who also had been started into his career by Barbara.

Rubini and Bellini met quickly in the evening of May 30, 1826, at the Theatre San Carlo of Naples, where Bellini’s Opera Bianca and Gernando was being presented. Even though this opera was not a masterpiece, Rubini shimmered with the possibility to work with Bellini who, in compensation, found in Rubini the ideal interpreter for his works.

From this first encounter, Bellini wrote, exclusively for Rubini, the opera Il Pirata with libretto by Felice Romani, which was inaugurated at the Theatre Scala of Milan in October, 1827. The result was a real revolution in the illustration and style of Rubini who was then consecrated, entered to the history of music.

The success of Rubini in the opera Il Pirata, gave way to new representations in January 1828, in Vienna at the Porta Carinzia's Theatre, and in May 30 of this same year in Naples, at Theatre San Carlo.

The partnership between Bellini and Rubini made success also with Sonnambula that, according to the critic of the Revue des Deux Mondes, Rubini represented “(...) a blend of grace and emotion". Another success was with Puritani, especially in the aria A Te o Cara, in which the same magazine considered that “Rubini’s voice… bloomed like a spring rose to the morning rays".

Without a doubt, Rubini and Bellini represented the most powerful and important names in the musical field that marked the history of the Italian melodrama in the world.

On April 19, 1829, Rubini was in Milan to accomplish a series of recitatives at the Scala and Canobbiana Theatres. However, he did not sing those recitatives with his wife Comelli who unexpectedly dropped out of the stage.

It is not known, for sure, if that was a spontaneous decision on Comelli’s part or if it was due to health problems, or jealousy that was common between the singers. After this episode, Rubini took the obscure decision of never more sing at the Teatro Scala of Milan.

After the Scala, in March, 1830, Rubini gave two beneficent concerts at Accademia Dell'Unione Filarmonica and at the Society della Fenice, in Bergamo. In the middle of April of this same year, he had arranged to give twenty presentations at the Theatre di Porta Carinzia in Vienna, where he stayed until October.

Soon afterwards, in October 1830, Rubini staged the recitative de Il Pirata in Bologna, and then returned to Milan in November for the season at Theatre Carcano's, in the Carnival and Lent of 1830-31. And in December he staged Anna Bolena, an opera that Gaetano Donizetti had written exclusively for his voice.

Around January, 1831, Rubini got sick as a result of the long and continuous efforts made during the shows and his trips. His recovery was fast. On March 6, he interpreted Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Theatre Carcano of Milan.

From Milan Rubini travelled to London for the summer season, in April 1831. In September of the same year he went on to Paris, where he stayed until March 1832. After a series of concerts in Paris, Rubini went to Caravaggio on the Centennial of the Appearance, and then on to Rome to celebrate Corpus Domini. In October of the same year, he staged Il Pirate for the first time in Paris, where he stayed until March 1833.

In April 1833, together with Bellini, he left for London for the season of the Italian Company. Definitively, Rubini became a European artist. Except for some presentations in Bergamo, Pesaro and in his Senigália, he concentrated his activities in Paris, London, Madrid, Vienna, and later in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

So, Rubini worked in Paris from October 1833 to March 1834. Later he left for London for the spring-summer season. In the autumn of the same year, he opened the Parisian season with the opera Straniera, which was especially adapted, by Bellini, to Rubini’s voice. During this same season, the most applauded operas were I Puritani by Bellini and Marin Faliero by Donizetti.

When the Parisian season ended, Rubini left for London to close the season with a concert in 1835. When he returned to Paris, he got news of Bellini’s death. He sang at his funeral at the Notre Dame Church.

On March 9, 1836, Rubini opened the season of London with Gazza Ladra, closing same station in July with two concerts in the Buckingham Palace. He also opened the Parisian season of this same year, closing said season in March 1837.

For the first time in London, in 1837, Rubini sang the opera Norma.  On this same year, he went to Bergamo for the fair of S. Alessandro and there he sang Il Pirata at Theatre Riccardi. The integral income of the presentation was donated to the needy of the city. Before going back to Paris, Rubini sang at Church pieces by Simone Mayr, during the solemnities of the patron, S. Defendente.

On returning to Paris, in October 1837, Rubini got sick and his malaise led to the suspicion that he had hopelessly lost his voice. However, his fast recovery guaranteed the representation of Il Puritani late in October.

In April 1838, he went to London and then on to Paris in October, closing the season on March 7, 1839, with a memorable concert directed by Donizetti, in which the best singers of the time participated.

The following year, as usual, he opened the season in London and in October 1839, Rubini declared he was desirous of stopping presentations at the Italian Theatre of Paris. However, the public’s vehement and affectionate protests led him to renew the contract one year more.

In April 1840, in London, Rubini got news of his father's death at the age of 85. In October of this same year, he was in Paris to work his last season in that city.

1841 was marked by a concert tour that Rubini, together with Fanny Tacchinari Persiani, made of several European cities like Brussels, Wiesbaden, The Hague, Bayonne, Madrid and Bordeaux. Besides Europe, Rubini’s fame reached Russia, where he received manifestations of esteem and admiration.

In the spring, 1842, Rubini went to Rome decided to leave the theatre. However, due to insistent offers, he went back to London for his last season in that city. In October of this same year, he made a tour of Germany in company with Liszt. That celebrated night in Frankfurt had the presence of the Duchess of Weimar, besides the wedding party of the Grand Duke’s marriage to the daughter of the King of Holland.

After the season in Frankfurt, in January 1843, Rubini went to Berlin in order to produce several operas and concerts. In March of the same year, he left for Saint Petersburg and for Moscow, where he stayed until June. On June 1, the Emperor granted him with the title of the Court’s first singer, receiving a precious ring as well.

However, Rubini was decided to stop singing after that tour of Russia. So, he went back to Romano for rest. But he left again for Saint Petersburg and Moscow, staying there until February1845. On this occasion, Rubini gave a beneficent concert for the disabled of the Russian Army, receiving official compliments from the Emperor. In February 1845 he retired.

In his farewell, on June 25, 1845, Rubini had a party in Crocette di Mozzo when he received, from Count Mozzo, a gold tobacco container with the donor's picture on it. After this time, except for some private concerts and religious festivities in Roman, Rubini did not sing anymore. This same year he started the construction of his Palace in Roman.

In 1846, he turned down Conductor Dolci's invitation to sing in the funereal honours for the birthday of S. Mayr. Likewise, he refused invitations from New York and from Conductor Persiani in London. However, he sang with his brother Giacomo, in Villa Carlota in Como, in a small recital in honour of the princess of Russia.

Rubini visited Donizetti in 1847, when this latter was seriously sick and accommodated at the house Basoni. This same year, he was awarded, by the Russian Emperor, the gold medal of the Imperial Order of S. Andréa. He also took a leisure trip to Naples and Firenze with his wife.

In 1851, Rubini received from Saint Petersburg's Philharmonic Society a diploma honour to merit, but he refused the invitation from the same Society to participate in the ceremonies commemorative of the foundation of that institution.

In February 1852, he accepted to give some concerts in Venice, at the request of business manager Alberto Torri. However, in the same year, he kindly refused Rossini’s invitation to sing at the Philharmonic Academy of Florence.

He then got seriously sick, but once again he got over. However, attacked by the same disease, supposedly of heart origin, he died in the night of March 3, 1854.
On February 18, 1850, Rubini wrote a testament in his own writing, leaving the totality of his properties to his wife Adelaide, who lived up to 1874. Attending to her husband’s will, she destined all her fortune to the construction of a gym, an orphanage for men and a home for old musicians. Besides these works, Rubini’s legacy to Roman included a hospital, a charity congregation, the Helium-therapeutic Colony, the male and female recreational institution, among so many other social works which are priceless to date.

In Gino Monaldi's words, Rubini is “... reverenced as an artist, and was usually loved as a person. The generosity of his feelings, the simplicity of his attitudes, and the kindness of his heart earned him sincere love from his fellows, something rarely enjoyed by privileged people on this planet ".

CASSINELLI, Polish, MALTEMPI, Antonio, POZZONI, Mario. Rubini. L’uomo e
     L’artista. Comune di Romano di Lombardia: Cassa Rurale ed Artigiana di Calcio
     e di Covo, 1996. Vol I – II.
____________. Rubini. Opere Pie Riunite "Gio.Battistsa Rubini". Via Comelli
     Rubini,2 24058 Romano di Lombardia (BG)
GARA, Eugênio. Giovan Battista Rubini nel Centenario della Morte. Conferenza
     Commemorativa 28 de ottobre, 1954.
TRAINI, Carlo. Il Cigno di Romano. Giovan Battista Rubini. Re Dei Tenore.
Bérgamo: A Cura Del Comitato per La celebrazione Centenaria, 1954.

Illustrative pictures

Madama Adelaide Comelli
By G. Bonchot, 1828
Ceiling of the Pirate's room
By G. Gandolfi, representing a scene ofther opera Il Pirata, by Bellini, Rubini and Comell

A te, O Cara

Act I of the opera I Puritani, by Bellini

Opera Vincenzo Bellini, in three acts, with libretto by Count Pepoli. It was staged for the first time at the Theatre of the Italians, in Paris, January 25, 1835.

The drama takes place in a fortress, close to Plymouth, and tells the story of Elvira, daughter of Lord Walton, a Cromwell’s partisan that promised the hand of his daughter to Richard Forth, also a member of Cromwell’s party. However, Elvira loves Lord Arthur Talbot, a member of the horsemen's party faithful to the Stuart’s. After many fights, the lovers end up together.

The aria A te, O Cara is interpreted by Pierre Duval playing Lord Arturo Talbot, with the Choir and the Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Richard Bonynge. .

Frontispiece of the Rubini Palace

View of Rubini’s country house which was later transformed into an orphanage.

The old musicians' home