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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Salvatore Baccaloni: The Best of The Buffos

Not all famous opera singers are tragic heroes or heroines, or archetypal gods and goddesses. Neither are they matinee-idol heartthrobs or possessed of great voices which have to be heard to be believed. No; enter the 300-pound, ludicrously attired Salvatore Baccaloni, who first waddled onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in December of 1940, as Dr. Bartolo, in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. He was to remain at the Met for the next 22 years, making both a great career for himself, and a great deal of money.

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!


JD Hobbes said...

Like Mae West, Jimmy Durante, and many others, he knew how to hide his weaknesses by playing to his strengths......all the way to the bank. Ha ha.

Edmund StAustell said...

Yes, you could certainly say that. He took what he had, which was significant, and went straight for what worked for him. So many actors don't want to play character parts--they yearn to be the great romantic lead; to have people swooning over them. What they often fail to see are the terrible limitations of leading roles--like growing away from your roles with every passing year. A character actor is ageless.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Brilliant! So this is your latest post.

Haha..Edmund,what you said is very true but it depends on the type of singer. If you're a bass or a mezzo, even though there are supporting roles, there are also the big ones. I don't think you can count Don Pasquale, Leporello or Dulcamara as character parts..these are main roles but character singers are known to have done them. However, if you're a tenor or soprano, if you don't play the leading roles, unless you're someone like Piero de Palma or Angelo Mercuriali who always get to play the comprimario for the recording companies, your career is going nowhere. Imagine the amount of frustration and disappointment James McCracken must have gone through when he first started out.

In comedy, the buffoonery is certainly hilarious but after a while, it's forgettable. However, if the buffoonery is something we can relate to in our daily lives and makes us see it in a different light, it's something that leaves a lasting impression. I think this is what differentiates the class fool from the top comedian in showbiz. This I believe is what makes Baccaloni stand out from all the basso buffos. An example to showcase this is as follows:

Don Bartolo's a buffoon, yes, but Don Pasquale is rather a comic character. Sure, he is an old bumbling fool but his foolishness is rather out of his human nature than the commedia dell'arte tradition even though he was modeled on one of its stereotypes. Too many basso buffos are able to portray the former and miss out on the latter but Salvatore Baccaloni was able to merge the two, which goes to show how great a basso buffo he was.

Baccaloni claimed to have prepared five ways to play each moment, once remarking, “I choose. Only a fool improvises.”. With such a sincere and calculated approach towards his performances, he really deserves the epithet of being the greatest basso buffo of all time.

However, nevertheless, all great men have their flaws and drawbacks that render them human. Even though Baccaloni was greater than all the basso buffos after him because of the realism with which he portrayed his characters, his technique wasn't as good. It was reported that Baccaloni had difficulties in tackling the coloratura which Rossini had written for Don Bartolo so his part had to be transposed for him. Now, later basso buffos have been able to tackle the role quite manageably as it was written. I believe that though Baccaloni can beat our time's top basso buffo, Alessandro Corbelli, in the roles that he once played, he will not be able to sing all the roles the latter sings. If Don Bartolo was difficult for him, one can only imagine the amount of difficulty he will have grappling with Mustafa from L'Italiana di Algeri or Don Magnifico from La Cenerentola.

Finally to sum up, it's a pity that Baccaloni's successors like Fernando Corena and after were able to deliver the jokes and play the buffoon as hilariously as he once did but were not able to give the human touch he gave his characters. I guess Baccaloni's position as the greatest basso buffo has been cemented.

Edmund StAustell said...

Well, that certainly is a detailed and authoritative comment! Most impressive! You make very many good points, and I think that basically I agree with you. The technical standards of vocalism, generally speaking, have risen greatly since the 30's and 40's, no doubt about that. I suppose the question remains--and you do speak to it--as to what the magic is that some singers--such as Baccaloni--are able to add to the technical aspects of the art. It may simply be a question of talent, or it may be the result of study, or it might possibly be that the singer in question is a bit further back, time-wise, in the trajectory along which the art has developed and which, today, sometimes veers a bit wide of the mark, historically speaking. Baccaloni was born in 1900, and his early studies would have reflected understandings and traditions formed in the 19th century. In any case, you have made excellent observations which are appreciated and well worth reading. Thank you!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

I complement you on a charming and insightful blog. You are a fair writer and possess a unique insight into what makes your great opera singers great.

I am hours new to this world of the internet reading, and have had great pleasure in the reading of your pages, even in the simple truths, such as an article where you wrote about how Callas, Milanov and Barbieri knew how to put "grand" into grand opera.

If you permit, I should enjoy to read and annotate this eloquent testament to refined operatic tastes.

Warm regards from Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio of Torre del Greco, Italy; and Tatura, Australia.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much for your kind comments! I certainly appreciate them. You are more than welcome here, and your comments would of course be much appreciated! It is always a pleasure to have someone from the beautiful land of great art with us!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. He was a real comedian (judging by his facial expressions); reminds me of silent film actors.

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.’
Stanislavsky would have approved him too:). Character singers were valued in his Opera Studio. He often said that leading singers must perform small parts , because it would help them to improve their acting.
Baccaloni’s timbre was noble and pleasant , I particularly like his performance of Leporello’s aria. It’s beautiful.
‘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.’
It's easy to understand, commedia dell'arte is a fascinating thing. I know that several Russian artists also were obsessed by it. I’ve found several paintings:
Alexander Benois “Comedians’

Konstantin Somov “Harlequin and a lady”
‘Italian comedy’


Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you, my dear friend, for another excellent and informative comment! Yes, I see what you mean--Stanislavsky would have loved him, at least up unitl the moment he started being silly on stage, and making up new stage business for himself that no one had ever seen before! At that point, Stanislavsky would have gone completely crazy:) I'll see if I can find a good video of Jackie Gleason to send you. It is very easy to compare Baccaloni to Gleason, who was one of the very greatest of the American comedians. And I just *LOVE* the four paintings of commedia dell'arte characters, especially the first one. Absolutely fascinating! I have been thinking for some time about writing a book on the Commedia dell'arte and its influence upon comic opera.

Thanks as always for a great comment.

Anonymous said...

'At that point, Stanislavsky would have gone completely crazy:)'
Yes, most likely :)

It will be great if you write the book . There is a connection between Italian opera and commedia dell'arte, but it is never discussed. I've found another Benois painting, it will be a good illustration:


Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you! This one is just beautiful. I have put all 5 of them into a file on commedia dell'arte!