Francesco Tamagno: the first Otello
Verdi’s first Otello, Francesco Tamagno, was born in Turin in 1850 and died in 1905. His parents ran a modest trattoria and he was able to take singing lessons with the conductor and composer Carlo Pedrotti at the Liceo Musicale and to sing in the choir.
During his career of more than three decades, which took him to sixty five cities in twenty six different countries, he appeared in more than fifty operas and sacred works (nine of them by Verdi) and was lauded for his performances in Il trovatore, La forza del destino, Ernani, Poliuto, Guglielmo Tell, Le prophète, Les Huguenots, L’Africaine, Robert le diable, La Juive, Aida, Samson et Dalila, Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade and Lucia di Lammermoor. He created roles in several operas, among them Maria Tudor by Gomes in 1879, Il figliuol prodigo and Marion Delorme by Ponchielli in 1880 and 1885, I medici by Leoncavallo in 1893 and Messaline by De Lara in 1899.
He made his debut as a leading tenor as Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera in 1874 at the Teatro Bellini in Palermo. The following month he appeared again in Un ballo and La forza del destino at Ferrara. There, Tamagno took some singing lessons from Antonio Buzzi, the conductor, who was a singing teacher. Some time later he also took lessons from the famous teacher Luigi Vannuccini, a conductor and violinist and a friend of Rossini’s. The next season, at La Fenice in Venice, would be the first for him to share the stage with famous singers: Josephine de Reszke sang in Guarany and Selvaggia (another world premiere) and Emma Albani sang in Lucia di Lammermoor.
In 1877, on the opening night of the season, Tamagno made his debut La Scala, Milan, singing L’africaine by Meyerbeer. From May to November 1878 he sang at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, then in Rio de Janeiro, and returned to La Scala to open the season with 21 performances of the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlo, still in five acts. In 1880 he opened the Scala season once again, with the world première of Ponchielli’s Il figliuol prodigo, followed by Ernani. His first collaboration with Verdi was in 1881, when he created Gabriele Adorno in the revised version of Simon Boccanegra, with Victor Maurel in the title role and Edouard de Reszke as Fiesco. In a letter to Verdi, Giulio Ricordi noted that in the last three performances, Tamagno “having sung the opera several times now, had come to understand both the music and the action of his role better… he had moments of happy inspiration and aroused the audience to great enthusiasm.”
He returned to La Scala in 1884 to create Don Carlo in Verdi’s new revised version, conducted by Franco Faccio. Verdi told Ricordi about the rehearsals: “Don’t tell me that the singers have been studying and know the opera. I don’t believe it for a minute. Two things they certainly don’t know: how to enunciate clearly and keep in tempo, two things that are more essential in “Don Carlos” than in any of my other operas. Faccio can begin, or can continue the rehearsals. I recommend and demand that he insist above all on enunciation and keeping in tempo. You may think this is pedantry! But it can’t be helped: that is the way the opera is written, and if you expect any success, that is the way it will have to be performed.” The performance was a great success for Tamagno and the critic Filippo Filippi wrote of him: “Tamagno comes back showing great progress in his manner of singing, of phrasing, of shading effects, singing in mezza voce, bringing out the accents of impassioned music and of immersing himself in the character he represents…”
The future cast of Otello —Tamagno, Maurel, Pantaleoni and Navarini— opened the season at Alla Scala in Aida, under the baton of Franco Faccio, on the 26th December 1886. On the 29th October 1886, Verdi had wrote to Faccio: ”I urge you make Tamagno, when he arrives, thoroughly study his part. He is so imprecise in his reading of music that I really want him to study the role with a thorough musician who can get him to sing the notes with their full value and in time.” Ricordi reassured him, in November, that “Tamagno is studying every day with Faccio, with all his heart and with the greatest love, and that Faccio is rather pleased with him.” Almost a year earlier, on the 29th January 1886, Tamagno had written to Verdi thanking him for the honour of selecting him as his future Otello. Two days later, Verdi promptly replied that he had to “complain of the people who have made promises in my name, which they had no power to make”.
Time passed and in Boito’s words: “Giuseppe Verdi had decided that Tamagno should take the leading role in the appalling tragedy even before composing it; he was, therefore, the first to guess that he would be capable of a formidable performance. Then, when the opera was ready and put into rehearsal he was the first to admire Tamagno as singer and tragedian; in fact, the Maestro’s expectations were greatly surpassed.” Gino Monaldi, impresario, critic and composer, declared that on the evening of 5th February 1887 Tamagno appeared “suddenly transformed into a great artist” and that this miracle was “the work of Verdi”, who had tried “to instil the eloquence of art into that voice… and the proof of that is that Tamagno, stimulated by the great Maestro, suddenly changed his nature and underwent a complete metamorphosis in those few months.” That was Otello’s first night at La Scala. After 25 performances, the company set off with Faccio on tour, giving eight performances at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome, in April and eight at La Fenice, Venice, in May.
In 1889 and 1890, Tamagno took part in one of Adelina Patti’s “Farewell Tour” in the United States, alongside great singers such as Lillian Nordica and Emma Albani and Luigi Arditi and Romualdo Sapio as conductors. In 1892 he sang Puccini’s revised version in three acts of Edgar in Madrid, having read through the first version with the composer. That same year, in a letter to Tamagno, Puccini wrote: “I can always hear the sound of your divine voice in my ear and think of the extraordinary, the inspired interpreter who will sing my music!”
Months later, he gave a concert in Pesaro and Gino Monaldi gives a vivid description of Tamagno singing to his admirers outside his hotel: “…he stepped onto the balcony, bareheaded, and in the sepulchral silence of those five or six thousand people crowded into every corner, sang his famous Esultate! Like everyone else I had had no idea of what Tamagno’s voice would be like in the open air, and supposed only logically that the acoustic effect would certainly be less than in a theatre; quite the contrary! Tamagno’s voice suggested to me a silver trumpet, animated by the breath of the famous Brizzi [a trumpeter] of Bologna! A quite prodigious ring and power. Almost everyone in Pesaro heard the blast of that human trumpet echoing through the night, and many were the windows that were flung open, even in the most distant streets, so that people might admire that formidable sound. And when, urged on by the frantic applause of the crowd, Tamagno sang the Esultate! a second time, at least half the citizens of Pesaro gathered that that was the voice of Tamagno, the only one capable of such a prodigious feat.”
In 1894 Tamagno began his only season as a member of the Metropolitan Opera, in which he sang 51 performances of 8 operas in New York and on tour. His debut was as Arnoldo in Guglielmo Tell with Mario Ancona, Edouard de Reszke and Pol Plançon. He then appeared in Aida, Lucia di Lammermoor, Il trovatore, Otello, Samson et Dalila, L’africaine and, for the only time in his career, Cavalleria rusticana. He sang with Melba, Nordica, Eames, de Lussan, Mantelli, Maurel, and Campanari. He sang in the concluding night of the season on the 30th April and on the 13th May he was already making his Covent Garden debut as Otello.
He took part in a concert at La Scala on the 1st February 1901, organised by Toscanini as a tribute to the recently deceased Verdi. He sang a duet from La forza del destino with Antonio Magini Coletti and Enrico Caruso led the quartet from Rigoletto. Some years before, in 1898, Tamagno heard Caruso in the world première of Cilea’s L’Arlesiana at the Teatro Lirico, Milan, and on the way out told a reporter: “He will be the greatest of all of us.” As part of his contract with G&T recording company, Tamagno was presented with a few free gramophones and records, and he chose one record of De Lucia and one of Alessandro Moreschi but six of Caruso.
The popular writer Edmondo De Amicis wrote a short biography of Tamagno where the singer commented on his vocal technique: “And when I cunningly asked him what he actually meant by the placing of the voice, he immediately gave me a practical demonstration, imitating the individual method of placing of Masini, Stagno and Patierno and other famous tenors so faithfully that I could believe I was actually hearing each one of them singing; and then, to show me the difference, he gave me an example of his own.” Tamagno explained: “The voice is not in the throat: it is in the lungs; and he added, beating his ample breast with one hand: – The voice is here –and he let me feel the formidable depth of his breathing, like the blowing of a factory bellows. – When a singer is finished, they say he has no voice left. Oh, no! In most cases the voice is just as it was: what he has lost is his lung power. I feel as if I had a pump inside me! Just listen to how I sustain a note.- And he attacked a high B, and he held on to it so long that I would have had time to write down an alexandrine verse in fair copy.”
Sir John Barbirolli declared in an interview published in the magazine Records and Recordings in 1958: “I come of a family of musicians, and in Italy both my father and my grandfather were in the orchestra for performances of Otello supervised by Verdi himself. I have more or less grown up with the music in my blood, and I can find nobody who sings it today as Tamagno did on these old acoustic recordings.” Blanche Marchesi expressed that Tamagno’s Esultate! was the finest example she had ever heard on records of declamatory singing.
Di quella pira,
Ora e per sempre addio,
Sopra Berta l’amor mio,
Un dì all’azzurro spazio,
Deserto sulla terra,
Niun mi tema,
Quand nos jours,