Sunday, June 12, 2011
Salvatore Baccaloni: The Best of The Buffos
The man who would go on to become generally acclaimed as the greatest of the basso buffos was born in Rome, in 1900, where as a child he attended the Sistine Chapel choir school, and later went on to private vocal studies. He studied architecture in school, but music was his true love and he took the first chance that presented itself to try to make a musical career. His first appearance was as Bartolo, at only 22 years of age, at the Teatro Adriano, in Rome. He seems to have done quite well from the beginning, because a mere four years later, at age 26, he was singing at La Scala, in a virtually unknown opera, Pizzetti's Debora e Jaele. Baccaloni demonstrated a willingness, even as a very young man, to take small parts, or appear in obscure operas, because he loved acting and singing, and wherever there was a job, he was up front and ready to do it. This tendency remained with him for his entire life, and it was this willingness to take small parts, with any respectable company, even when he was famous, that made him one of the highest paid singers in opera. He was at the time of his death a very well-to-do man.
Like many, he owed his early success, at least in part, to having been heard and given advice by Arturo Toscanini, who was conducting at La Scala when Baccaloni was singing there. Toscanini's advice was simple: forget the serious roles—stick to character roles and supporting roles, where your comedic acting can shine. Baccaloni was very intelligent; smart enough to know, even as a very young man, that it was the better part of prudence always to follow the advice of a successful man if you want to be successful. In other words, never invest your money on the advice of a poor man. Do the opposite. And it paid off: Don Giovanni, Elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale, Falstaff, Gianni Schicci, the Sacristan in Tosca, Benoit in Bohème, Alfonso in Cosi Fan Tutte, Leporello in Don Giovanni, and on and on. His repertoire is reported to have exceeded 160 roles! He was, when he chose to be, an excellent musician. He could also be outlandish and musically careless on stage, when moved by the comedy of the moment. It should be added that he was, additionally, quite a scene-stealer! But who cares, basically. It goes with the turf. Prima donnas can be demanding, tenors can be maddening, and so on—a great comedian has the right to be silly de temps en temps!
One of Baccaloni's great roles was Dr. Dulcamara, in L'Elisir d'Amore: Here is the huckster selling his snake oil medicine in "Udite, o Rustici!" (You might want to read the comments I put under this video when I posted it...I was having a little fun with it. Comedy is infectious:)
That has to be one of the best versions of this famous comic aria ever recorded. Baccaloni's enunciation is so perfect that it almost seems anyone can understand it, even if they don't know Italian! Coupled with his remarkable acting skills, it must have been a real joy to watch.
It is very important, I think, to realize that one of the things that made Baccaloni more than so many other buffos was that he could actually sing. His genius may have been comedic, but it was based on solid musical and vocal ability, witness Leporello's famous aria from Don Giovanni:
That is not only musically solid as a rock, it is fine singing by any measure.
Finally, something that fascinates me very much, and that is the quintessential understanding Baccaloni had of his own artistic historical roots, which is commedia dell'arte. I have been deeply interested in this artistic tradition from the time I saw my first Punch and Judy show when I was a small child, nearly 70 years ago. I am far from the only one—Agatha Christie was so intensely interested in commedia dell'arte (also from earliest childhood) that it was close to an obsession for her. Her entire series of Harley Quinn stories—which are both mysterious and mythical in nature, reflect this near obsession. The theater of Europe was influenced for nearly 400 years by the commedia dell'arte characters and plots, and it is likely that in their earliest incarnation, which is to say Italian street theater, they go back in part well over a thousand years, perhaps even to the days of ancient Rome. Italian opera composers were certainly well aware of the tradition, and it is very evident in Don Pasquale, which is classic commedia dell'arte. Notice the pathos in Baccaoni's rendition of "Vediamo, a la modista cento scudi....," the duet in which the silly old Pasquale (Pantalone), stupidly obsessed with the idea of marrying the very much younger Norina (Columbina), reacts with horror at the way she is treating him and squandering his money after having been falsely "married" by the devious notary (another stock figure, Scapino). The marriage is obviously unconsummated (she's too busy shopping:) and will soon dissolve, so that she can marry the young Ernesto (Pierrot). While we laugh at Pasquale, it is a bittersweet awakening on his part, and we can actually feel sorry for him. Baccaloni understands this:
Laughter and tears: the buffo's ancient art!
at 2:04 PM