Sunday, October 3, 2010
Titta Ruffo: "The Voice of a Lion"
Titta Ruffo (1877-1953—his actual birth name was Ruffo Titta) was born in Pisa. He had some vocal training, but he was essentially self-taught, something that would become a problem for him later in his career. His debut was in 1898 at the Teatro Constanzi in Rome as the Herald in Wagner's Lohengrin. Like so many other Italian singers, he made a slow climb up through the smaller houses, until an international reputation was finally achieved. His American debut was in Philadelphia in 1912, and he went on to sing both in Chicago—where he sang extensively—and at the Met, where he first sang in 1922, as Figaro.
Ruffo's repertoire was large: Rigoletto, (perhaps his signature role) Di Luna, Amonasro, Germont, Iago, Don Giovanni, and others. In many ways, Ruffo heralded the beginning of the robust and highly dramatic versimo baritone, contrasting sharply with his contemporary Mattia Battistini, of whom we wrote earlier (q.v. Sept. 12. 2010). Ruffo was sometimes compared unfavorably to the elegant, bel canto trained Basttistini, whose refinements were much appreciated at the time, in the same way that the early Caruso was sometimes compared unfavorably to the more elegant tenors that preceded him, such as Alessandro Bonci. However, verismo was in fact "la tónica del momento," and both Caruso and Ruffo would go on to world-wide acclaim and even spectacular success. They were more nearly rivals than friends, and they seldom sang together. They both had star status and were wary of each other. They did, however, at least record one duet together, and it is quite spectacular. It is particularly interesting because it shows how powerful Ruffo's voice was. Few could compete with Caruso, whose voice was notoriously big. (In fact, singing "a tutta forza" was pretty much his sole mode. He tended heavily to the monochromatic.) As you will see in "Si, pel ciel," the big duet from Otello, The Lion holds his own perfectly well:
Two mighty voices, to be sure! The bite and intensity of Ruffo's voice is quite remarkable. It must be said that, self-taught or not, he handled his voice with great intelligence, and made it do what he wanted. The measured vibrato in the upper register is a good indication of the exact control he had over the voice. He also holds it down on the bottom and in the middle, which is intelligent, because a voice of that size could exhaust itself quickly if he did not tone it down in the middle, and lie in wait, as it were, for the big notes, which are, especially in verismo opera, "the sound that pays the rent." All this, while perhaps typical, was not exclusive. Given a chance, and solo exposure, there were more shades in the voice than we hear in this explosive duet with Caruso. A more tender a reflective side of Ruffo is apparent in the famous aria from La Traviata, "Di Provenza il mar, il suol..."
This really aligns Ruffo and his sensibility with what Italian opera was largely to become in the first half of the 20th century: verismo at its core, but with plenty of room for expressivity and just plain beautiful singing, even if largely unadorned. Many refinements from the 19th century were abandoned, to be sure, but much remained that was both exciting and beautiful. To exclusively value one approach to music, which could, in a simplified way, be called "bel canto," to another, equally simplistically named "verismo," is not productive. There is much to value in each.
Finally, here is the great Ruffo in a baritone showpiece that is a sure way to state one's credentials: the prolog to I Pagliacci. I would call your attention especially to the high Ab at the end of the aria, followed by the G natural in the exit line after the aria: two stellar high notes which show just how well placed, powerful and resonant his voice was:
"The voice of a lion" indeed!
at 11:34 AM