Francesco Tamagno (28 December 1850 – 31 August 1905) was an Italian opera singer who performed to enormous acclaim in Europe and America.
The most famous heroic tenor of his age,
Tamagno was celebrated throughout the operatic world for the
extreme power of his singing, especially in the upper register.
Indeed, music critics often likened the sound of his voice to that
of a trumpet or even a cannon. (This rare type of singer is called
a "tenore robusto" or "tenore di forza" by Italians.)
Tamagno's vocal range extended effortlessly up to the high C-sharp
during his prime. He was no mere 'belter' of high notes, however;
his recordings provide evidence of his ability, even at career's
end, to modulate the dynamic levels of his clarion instrument with
as the creator of the protagonist's role in Giuseppe Verdi's Otello at La Scala in 1887, he
also was the first Gabriele Adorno in the 1881 version of
Simon Boccanegra, a far
more lyrical Verdi part. He participated, too, in the
premiere performance of Verdi's revised version of Don Carlo when it was staged at La Scala in
1884, singing the part of the eponymous Infante. Five other operas (now largely forgotten)
in which Tamagno created lead roles were Carlos Gomes' Maria Tudor (1879),
Amilcare Ponchielli's Il
figliuol prodigo (1880) and Marion Delorme (1885),
Ruggero Leoncavallo's I
Medici (1893) and Isidore de
Lara's Messaline (1899).
Tamagno was renowned also for his potent performances as Radames in
Aida, Manrico in Il trovatore, the title role in
Ernani, the title role in
Poliuto, Samson in Samson et Dalila, Arnold in
Guillaume Tell, John of
Leyden in Le Prophete, Raoul in
Les Huguenots, Vasco in
L'Africaine and John the
Baptist in Herodiade. It is
estimated that he appeared in a total of about 55 different operas
and sacred works during his lifetime. Interestingly enough, with
one notable exception he almost completely eschewed verismo opera. That notable exception was
Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier, composed in 1896. He
studied the score of this work with Giordano and was lauded for his
authoratative singing of Chenier's impassioned music.
In summary: Tamagno performed at all the major
opera establishments of Europe, the United States and South America
in a stellar career stretching from the early 1870s to the early
1900s. While not an accomplished actor or a scrupulous musician
(his rhythm and pitching could be wayward on occasion), his huge
voice and volcanic renditions of the most forceful tenor roles in
the Italian and French operatic repertory had a tremendous impact
on audiences, enabling him to build a world-wide reputation as an
elite singer and charge impresarios on both sides of the Atlantic
top-tier fees for his services.
Birth, operatic career & death
Turin (Torino), Northern
Italy, in 1850, Francesco Tamagno was the son of a
trattoria owner and wine-seller.
His vocal promise
manifested itself early, and although steered into learning a trade
by his parents, he was able to take singing lessons with Carlo
Pedrotti at the local Liceo Musicale and find work as a
Having completed a stint of compulsory military service, Tamagno
sang several small operatic parts at Turin's Teatro Regio in
1872-73 before graduating to principal tenor roles. He burst into
prominence in January 1874 with a sensational performance as
Riccardo in Verdi's Un ballo in
maschera at Palermo.
then undertook a string of singing engagements in Ferrara, Rovigo, Venice and Barcelona which further raised his profile and enabled him to
make his debut at Milan's La Scala
in December 1877.
La Scala had long been Italy's leading
opera theatre and Tamagno became a core member of its company of
singers. His voice continued to mature at La Scala, reaching its
full potential after a few years of vigorous use in a variety of
operas. He enjoyed the added advantage of working closely with
Verdi, and his singing acquired a discipline and polish that
hitherto it had lacked. Eventually, he would perform in every La
Scala season from 1877 to 1887 and appear there again as a guest
artist in 1901.
was an overseas bastion of Italian opera throughout this period,
and Tamagno made the first of several well-remunerated visits to
its capital city of Buenos
Aires in 1879.
But his international career would
not take off in a big way until 1888 -- with the role of Otello,
which Verdi had written with Tamagno's extraordinary voice in mind,
serving as his global calling card.
He travelled widely during the final dozen or so years of the 19th
century, accepting lucrative invitations to perform Otello and
other strenuous operatic parts in Portugal, Spain (where he had
first sung in 1875-76), France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Uruguay,
Brazil, Mexico and, as we have noted, Argentina. He appeared, too, at
the Monte Carlo Opera and at the
most important operatic venues in New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and London.
three specific examples: he sang at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1891 and 1894-95,
at London's Lyceum Theatre in 1889, and at the Royal Opera House, Covent
Garden, in 1895 and 1901.)
Tamagno performed with a number of outstanding conductors
(including Franco Faccio
Mancinelli and Arturo Toscanini
during the course of his career, and partnered some of the most
in operatic history. He set a benchmark standard in vocalism which
still remains relevant, and most expert commentators would regard
him as being the greatest heroic-voiced Mediterranean tenor whose
voice is preserved on records.
Tamagno was seen in his day as the true successor to Enrico Tamberlik
(1820-1889), the dominant
Italian dramatic tenor of the mid-19th century, while Polish-born
Jean de Reszke
was considered to be
Tamagno's foremost contemporary rival. De Reszke (1850-1925) was an
elegant lyric-dramatic tenor of the French school whose repertoire
partly overlapped Tamagno's. Although he could never outsing
Tamagno, de Reszke was the more sophisticated musician, with a
sweeter voice as well as a suave stage presence. He was also the
finest male exponent of Richard
's operas to be heard on the stages of London and New
York during the late Victorian era. (Tamagno never attempted to
perform Wagnerian works, even in Italian translation; he believed
that the music written for Wagner's tenor heroes lay too low to
suit his voice.)
Fortunately, Tamagno lived long enough to witness the rise to
stardom of the young Enrico Caruso
(1873-1921). He greatly admired Caruso's talent, predicting as far
back as 1898 that he would go on to become the number one Italian
tenor of the 20th century.
In private life Tamagno was an affable if parsimonious bachelor who
never forgot his humble origins, no matter how wealthy he became.
(Soprano Nellie Melba
recounts in her
memoirs that Tamagno would save money by scooping up the left-overs
from his restaurant or hotel meals, consuming them later.) For a
hobby, he collected butterflies. His health deteriorated in the
early 1900s due to a debilitating cardiac condition. He was forced to
retire from the operatic stage but continued to give concerts, the
final one of these being held in Ostend, Belgium, in
1904. He sang briefly in public for the last time
the following year and died at his ornate villa in Varese, Italy, on
31 August 1905.
His chronic heart ailment had combined with
the effects of a stroke to bring about his demise at the age of 54.
He was interred at Turin's general cemetery within a stone
mausoleum of impressive proportions. An illegitimate daughter,
Margherita, whom he loved deeply, acknowledged openly, and cared
for from her birth, inherited his large fortune.
A definitive biography, Otello Fu: La Vera Vita di Francesco
Tamagno, il "tenore-cannone"
, by Ugo Piavano, was published in
Milan in 2005 to mark the 100th anniversary of his death.
intensely bright, ringing voice with its penetrating timbre, open
production and incisive declamation can be heard on a series of
primitive, piano-accompanied recordings of operatic arias which he
made in Italy in 1903 and 1904 (at Ospedaletti and in Rome
The Gramophone & Typewriter
paid him a handsome amount of money to make the
recordings and he received a royalty payment from the company for
each individually numbered disc that sold. Buyers were charged one
pound sterling, or its equivalent, per 10- or 12-inch disc; in
comparison, Caruso's 10-inch recordings sold for just 10 shillings.
The £1 each charged for Tamagno's recordings represented at least a
week's wages for the common man, and for that you got a
single-sided disc, sometimes containing less than two minutes of
music. (Tamagno's recordings, along with those of contemporaries
such as Melba, Adelina Patti
, were clearly
aimed at the social elite.) Among the composers featured on
Tamagno's recorded output are Verdi, naturally, Rossini
, de Lara and Giordano.
When he stepped before the acoustic recording horn, Tamagno was in
poor health and in semi-retirement after a demanding career that
had lasted for more than 30 years. Consequently his voice, although
still astonishingly powerful and kept under firm technical control,
was no longer at its peak. (His phrasing had lost some of its
former expansiveness, for instance, and he had developed a
preference for stately tempi.) Despite this, his singing remains
uniquely impressive and the extracts from Otello
committed to disc are treated by scholars as audio documents of
immense historical and musical importance.
Symposium Records has released a two-CD set containing an almost
complete anthology of Tamagno's recordings (catalogue number
1186/87), while an extensive selection of them was issued on the
Pearl/Opal label (CD 9846) in 1990. Those wanting to hear Tamagno
in a broader context may wish to consult EMI's three-CD La
Scala Edition, Volume 1, 1878-1914
(CHS 7 64860 2). This
edition contains four Tamagno tracks in excellent re-mastered
transfers, plus recordings made by a number of his
colleagues/contemporaries. Of more specialist interest is a
21st-century release of all of Tamagno's extant 12-inch discs on
high quality, 78-rpm vinyl pressings by the British firm Historic
Masters. This particular set includes the recently discovered
tenor-baritone duet from Otello
, namely 'Si pel ciel', as
well as an aria from Messalina
that was previously known
only from a private test pressing once belonging to Tamagno.