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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!


JD Hobbes said...

Ha ha. Yes, with Caruso and Ruffo in "Si pel Ciel" you have the voice of a lion and the voice of a bull together. One could sit in the parking lot outside the theater and hear that one.

But yes, you are right. He held his own and had a very strong voice and solid career.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes indeed:) The ending of that aria, in particular, is a classic "haul back and belt it" piece of singing. From all I have read, they did't particularly like each other, and one sort of fancies (with no real, legitimate reason for doing so) a singing contest of the "I can sing anything louder than you...." variety:) Whatever, they were great opera singers, and very popular with the public, obviously, as people still talk about them today. Super-voice singers. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, Sir Edmund. When I read the name “Titta Ruffo” I immediately remembered Battistini, and it was interesting what you would write about these two great baritones. Yes, it’s not easy to decide who was better; personally I like Battistini more, though both had beautiful, extraordinary voices. I can imagine that Ruffo’s voice was stunning in the theater; on records his lion-like power is less evident. But the timbre is beautiful and voice production is effortless, which is typical for bel canto singers. I agree that verismo singing in those years had many qualities of bel canto, and sometimes it’s hard to differentiate them.

His Prolog to ‘Il Pagliacci’ is very impressive
I didn’t know that Caruso and Ruffo were rivals, it’s interesting.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend, for your comment. Yes, they make for interesting comparison. Battistini certainly had a longer career. His voice was carefully trained, and he used it in the way a singing actor does, using it to portray the subtle traits of the characters he represented. He saved and guarded his voice, and sang for nearly 50 years. Ruffo blew his voice out pretty well completely by 50 years of age. He realized that he had never been properly trained, and for that reason he refused to teach voice when he retired. He said he hurt his own voice from lack of instruction, and he certainly wasn't going to pass those mistakes on to another generation. He was able to retire in dignity and comfort, because he was extremely well paid during the years when he did sing, so he was a well to do man. Even so, one wishes he might have sung longer.

Jing said...

Edmund, I have been hoping you would share your thoughts and some selections from Ruffo. Years ago I wore out the cut of "Si, pel ciel" on my old LP of Caruso favorites. I still find it so exciting to hear.(It's a pity the old recording technology and reduced orchestra in the recording studios don't capture the wonderful, swirling intensity of Verdi's orchestral accompaniment.) What a ferocious duet. Hobbes - I love your lion and bull observation.

Ruffo's treatment of "Di provenza" really is verismo, as you say. I noticed that he dispenses with the delicate grace notes along the way, but still manages a lovely line. I found the recording of the "Prologo" a revelation. What a vocally and dramatically stunning rendition. It's new to me. I could imagine him in his clown costume out in front of the curtain. And I loved his "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha" - right in time with the orchestra's chords. I don't think I've ever heard it done that way. Very striking. The remarkable thing about verismo is that, despite the "realism," it can still be so stylized. And what an A flat. Mama Mia!

I've read references to Ruffo's late-in-life interviews in which, as you say, he acknowledges his lack of training as the cause for his vocal decline. I suppose this would account for a good bit of it. But I wonder also if he just sang with such volume and abandon that he simply wore out his voice. The tones in his upper register sound very well-placed to me. It's those wide-open E flats and E's I wonder about (let alone F's). I suppose learning to rest is part of vocal training - like not letting baseball pitchers go more than eighty pitches or so. Is there a parallel here to what you pointed out some time ago regarding Lawrence Tibbett's decline? I don't know enough about Ruffo's life to speculate about other "life-style" causes as well. But, you indicate he lived out the rest of his life happily and with dignity. But, for sure, he's one singer I would give anything to have heard. Thanks for reminding us of him.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for an excellent string of observations. Yes, you are right: wide open E's and Eb's are a real danger sign. The passagio for a dramatic baritone starts earlier than for a tenor, and blasting away at that altitude with a wide open sound is trouble in the making (or trouble already made.) A big part of the problem, in my opinion, is repertoire. If you look at Ruffo's preferred repertoire, it is bread and butter to the point of surfeit. Those big roles--Iago, Rigoletto,
The Count Di Luna, Amonasro--can really take a toll on the voice after while. Battistini, on the other hand, while he performed a very wide repertoire, did not neglect to keep a fair few bel canto classics in it, operas that were much easier on the voice. However, Battistini had a superbly trained voice, and a much more elegant approach to music. He accomplished with acting and vocal/musical refinements what many verismo singers had to lean on sheer vocal power and dramatic intensity to accomplish. This is not to downplay Ruffo's accomplishments: he was a great baritone, but in a different fach, one that was much more vocally demanding.

Anonymous said...

‘He said he hurt his own voice from lack of instruction, and he certainly wasn't going to pass those mistakes on to another generation.’
Another fact I didn’t know about. He was self-critical, not every great star can admit such things.


Edmund St. Austell said...

You are absolutely right about that.

Nate said...

Edmund, thanks again for a careful and interesting account of one of the great singers of history. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to remember that Ruffo was trained by the same master as both Battistini and de Luca. Was it perhaps a shorter training period? In terms of sheer voice--that is, golden tone, resonance, power, and intensity--I don't believe Ruffo has any rivals, with the possible exception of Amato, but on a somewhat smaller scale. However, with respect to elegance and the art of singing, there are a few other baritones I prefer: Battistini, Ancona, and Magini-Coletti, for example. Not that Ruffo is a superficial or crude singer; far from it. His voicing of "Eri tu" in the baritone aria from Ballo in Maschera, to take one example, is wonderfully shaded. But it was the strong, bronzed tone and forte high notes that thrilled audiences most of all when Ruffo sang, not delicate interpretive nuances or tonal coloring. However, as you state, his singing was compared negatively to the suave, refined art of Battistini by those accustomed to the latter baritone's panache, just as the heroic singing of Caruso and Zenatello were, at first, criticized compared to the more fine-grained finesse of singers such as de Reszke, de Lucia, and Bonci; and as Chaliapin's style was considered inferior to that of the elegant Plancon, until audiences became habituated to the changes in opera brought on by compositions in the verismo style. (Your point about the overly sharp distinction often drawn between bel canto and verismo opera is also well taken, in my opinion. As is often the case, polarities can be simplistic.)

Nate said...

According to what I read, Ruffo and Melba also had their innings. Melba prevented Ruffo from singing with her in Hamlet, protesting he was too young and inexperienced for the role. Years later, Ruffo refused to sing in the same opera with Melba, claiming she was too old to play Ophelie. I'm not sure it really happened that way, but it sounds typical of Melba.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Nate, for a superb and scholarly contribution to the discussion. I certainly cannot add anything to what you have said, except to say that you caught me sleeping on voice teachers. Just two articles ago, when I wrote on Battistini, I said that he was "soon sent to study with Venceslao Persichini, who was also the teacher of Francesco Marconi, Titta Ruffo and Giuseppe de Luca." ! So yes, indeed, you are absolutely right, and I can only sigh and reflect upon the dread toll wrought by age:) If memory serves (which is a joke, considering the above faux pas) I have the impression that Ruffo did not impress Persichini, and it was a short affair, which Ruffo quickly abandoned in favor of working on his own. Thanks for a great reading and comment.

racheld said...

This piece is a delightful find, as I was trying through Dear Google to see if I might hear his rendition of "Eri Tu," as mentioned by a lovely writer friend in speaking of her magical Victrola's long family history. I longed to hear it fill the room, as I sit here exploring the world with First Cup.

Her enchanting reviews of the small things which bright us are a lovely part of my day, and I'm now marking your own site as a similar spot to re-visit often. Thank you.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank YOU, my friend. I very much appreciate your comment. Yes, please do drop by de temps en temps; I try to publish a blog entry every Sunday. (I wonder if I will every run out of singers!) Not likely, there are a lot:-)

Thanks again, Edmund