Flaviano Labò (1927-91) made an unheralded debut at The Met on Friday evening November 29, 1957 as Alvaro in Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino. I attended his debut mainly because Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren were in the cast. Nobody among the standees had any idea who Labò was or how he had found his way to New York. He was only 30 years old and scored a huge success. He sang 10 performances during the season and then disappeared from the Met for almost five years. From 1962 to 1971 he sang and additional 52 times at the Met.
While Labò performed at most of the world’s major opera houses he was never a first tier tenor. He also made very few commercial recordings. Given the exceptional quality of his voice and its large size, I find it very hard to explain why he didn’t achieve the recognition his talent deserved. Some have blamed his small stature; he was about five feet three inches tall. But I don’t think this is a satisfactory explanation. I think he was the victim of that worst of curses – bad luck.
Labò’s voice was dark and powerful. It easily filled the cavernous old Met. I never heard him in the Lincoln Center palace, but I’m sure it was equally audible there. His sound was ideal for the big Verdi spinto roles, in fact he was close to being a dramatic tenor. First here is the great duet from the last act of La Forza Del Destino. The baritone is the fine Italian singer Piero Cappuccilli. Le minacce i fieri accenti. Labò’s high note in the middle of the piece moves the audience to spontaneously applaud in the middle of the duet. This is great Verdi singing. Cappuccilli is another strange case. He gave one performance at the Met despite being one of the best baritones of his time.
Manrico in Il Trovatore was a role he sang just three times at the Met – all in 1965. Ah! Si ben mio and Di quella pira show the size and heft of his instrument. His vocal size was inversely proportional to that of his body.
Des Grieux is Puccini’s Manon Lescaut calls for spinto tenor of the same type needed for Fanciulla and Turandot. Donna non vidi mai and Guardate, pazzo son get a full throated reading from Labò, though the high note at the end of the latter aria is a bit strained, an unusual occurrence from him.
Next, the two tenor arias from Tosca – Recondita Armonia and E lucevan le stelle. The second aria was so vociferously received that it had to be encored. The version I’ve posted here is the repeat. More Puccini – Non piangere Liu and Nessun dorma from Turandot.
Finally, something entirely different. Nel furor delle tempeste the tenor aria from the first act of Bellini’s Il Pirata. Usually sung by a smaller voiced tenor, Labò manages the piece with ease.
So, the question remains – why did such a fine tenor not have a bigger career. There were other fine tenors around when Labò was in his prime, but there’s always room for a great tenor at the top. There’s never a surfeit of them. Some things just don’t have a ready explanation. I’ll just have to be grateful for what I heard him do and let the rest slide. The tenor died in an automobile crash in Milan in 1991. His home town of Piacenza runs a competition for young singers in his honor.