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Titta Ruffo, circa 1910-1915
Titta Ruffo (June 9, 1877 - July 5, 1953), was an Italian opera singer, generally regarded as the greatest Italian baritone of his generation - or any generation since. Known as the "Voce del leone" ("voice of the lion"), he was renowned for his enormous voice, thrilling high notes and dramatic force on stage.

Other baritones, even the most eminent, were in awe of Ruffo's voice: Giuseppe De Luca, a baritone star in his own right, said of Ruffo, "His was not a voice, it was a miracle;" (although not often published is the second part of De Luca's conclusion "...which he [Ruffo] bawled away...") and Victor Maurel, the creator of Verdi's Iago and Falstaff, said that the notes of Ruffo's upper register were the most glorious baritone sounds he had ever heard.

Biography

Born Ruffo Titta in Pisamarker (he later changed his name for the stage), Ruffo was the son of an engineer. He studied voice with several teachers, but basically his vocal method was self-taught.

He made his debut in 1898 at the Teatro Constanzi in Romemarker as the Herald in Wagner's Lohengrin. After a slow start, his career took off in the early 1900s and he quickly achieved international renown. His major debuts were in Buenos Airesmarker (1902), Londonmarker (1903), Milan (1904), Lisbonmarker (1907), and the Paris Opéramarker (1911). Ruffo made his American debut in Philadelphiamarker in 1912 and sang extensively in Chicagomarker. He reached the Metropolitan Opera relatively late in his career, in 1922 as Figaro in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. He sang 46 performances at the Met from 1922 through 1929.
Ruffo's repertoire included most of the major baritone roles in French and Italian opera, including Rigoletto, Di Luna, Amonasro, Germont, Tonio, Rossini's Figaro, Hamlet, Iago, Carlo in Ernani, Don Giovanni, Barnaba, and Renato in Un ballo in maschera. He was also renowned for several baritone roles in operas largely forgotten today: the title roles in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet and Franchetti's Cristoforo Colombo, Cascart in Leoncavallo's Zazà and Neri in Giordano's La cena delle beffe. Ruffo's signature roles were Rigoletto and Hamlet.

Ruffo's voice was a huge instrument, powerfully resonant and rich with an exceptionally brilliant upper register all the way up to high A. It has been compared to burnished bronze, and indeed there was more than a little metal in his sound. In the middle register the voice was rather dark in color. His lower notes were comparatively weak and lacked the resonance of his higher tones. The voice, over all, was richly colorful and 'prismatic'.

Like his famous tenor compatriot, Enrico Caruso, Ruffo was said to embody a new style of singing in which power, rich tone and declamatory force eclipsed the previous generation's premium on vocal grace, subtlety and finesse. According, however, to the respected critics John Steane and Michael Scott this is not a true reflection of the two singers' techniques which were far from crude. Notwithstanding his great popularity, Ruffo's vocal approach, however, was not universally admired, and he was compared unfavorably by some critics with the great lyric baritone Mattia Battistini. Ruffo's detractors accused him of bellowing and seeking to overpower audiences with sheer force of sound, but his records show him to have been capable of great subtlety and nuance, and fine technical control, when he thought it appropriate to the interpretation at hand.

Ruffo was a prolific recording artist and made over 130 records, acoustic and electric, first for Pathé Frères in Parismarker in 1904, and then exclusively for Victor (the "Gramophone Company" in England) beginning in 1907. Like Caruso, Ruffo's voice recorded exceptionally well. It was so rich and resonant that even through the primitive acoustic recording process, much glory remains to be heard. He continued recording into the electric recording era after 1925, but at far as one is able to judge (many titles remained unpublished) most of those later discs caught him past his prime: some unpublished sides made in London in 1933,however, subsequently issued ( http://www.truesoundtransfers.de/Titellisten/TT2490.htm ), are at least touching "beaux restes" and show an artist, at least in intent, able to modulate a huge voice producing some considerable intimacy and charm, and a deal of voice - certainly in 1933, at least from the recorded evidence, it appears that Ruffo could have matched any modern baritone in artistry and voice ... if he chose his repertoire wisely. These recordings in addition show Ruffo to have a "human face" and a man of wit, perhaps ribald humour (he also recorded at the session a private recorded "calling card" for his friend Chaliapin.

In his prime he made two stunning records of Hamlet's "Brindisi" (1907 and 1911), the cadenza in which demonstrates his astounding breath control. Most amazing of all is the unaccompanied "All'erta, marinar!" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, which shows the superhuman resonance and brilliance of Ruffo's upper register as do the recordings from Leoncavallo's now largely forgotten opera Zazà. His "Pari siamo" from Verdi's Rigoletto is also uniquely impressive.

Ruffo was never a "house baritone" or a resident singer with any opera company; he was a star in his own right and received top billing - and top fees - wherever he sang. Ruffo was the only male opera singer of his time who could compete, in terms of celebrity and fees, with Caruso. Surprisingly, they sang together infrequently. Three explanations have been adduced for this: firstly, that neither singer liked sharing the glory with another male star; secondly, that very few opera houses could afford to pay both singers' exorbitant fees in one performance, especially if there was an expensive soprano singing as well. Thirdly (Farkas 1984), according to contemporary newspaper reviews of their joint performances, Ruffo consistently overshadowed Caruso! Caruso and Ruffo did pair up twice in the recording studio. Only one recording of these survive, the duet "Sì, pel ciel" from Otello. It is considered by many vocal connoisseurs to be the greatest single vocal record ever made. Among many other vocal feats in this recording, Ruffo, unlike any other Iago on records, manages an incredible, declamatory vocal style from beginning to end. Caruso rises to the challenge, and the result is unequalled by any other recorded tenor-baritone combination in recorded history.

Ruffo's forceful singing style was perhaps not conducive to vocal longevity, and his vocal decline began relatively early (after about 20 years at the top of his profession). It must not be forgotten that Ruffo did enlist and participate in World War I. Perhaps this contributed to his comparitively early decline. During the mid-1920s, his voice took on an increasingly hollow, metallic sound, still quite powerful but with a sense that the vocal core had been blown out. Volume remained aplenty, but the richness faded, and the resulting sound was impressive but not particularly beautiful. Perhaps the seeds for Ruffo's early decline were sown in the fact that he was largely self-taught. Ruffo himself seemed to recognize this and he refused to teach voice after his retirement, stating; "I never knew how to sing; that is why my voice went by the time I was fifty. I have no right to capitalize on my former name and reputation and try to teach youngsters something I never knew how to do myself." However, contemporary reviews of his 1912 American appearances (Tuggle 1983) noted the mastery and economy of vocal means in tone production. The exact reasons for Ruffo's vocal decline (and indeed the extent of the decline) are still unclear.

Ruffo retired in 1931, staying for several years in Switzerlandmarker and Parismarker. He wrote an autobiography, La mia parabola ("My Parable"), which shows Ruffo to have been an intelligent, articulate and self-aware man. In 1937 he returned to Italy, where he was later arrested for opposing the Fascist regime. His memoir has been recently translated into English.

Titta Ruffo died in Florencemarker from heart disease in 1953.

Sources

  • Farkas, Andrew (Ed.),Titta Ruffo: An Anthology (Greenwood Press 1984).
  • Hamilton, David, ed., The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster, New York 1987).
  • Pleasants, Henry, The Great Singers (Simon & Schuster, New York 1966).
  • Seltsam, William H., Metropolitan Opera Annals (H.W. Wilson Co., New York 1947).
  • Steane, J.B., The Grand Tradition (Amadeus Press, Portland 1993).
  • Tuggle, Robert. The golden age of opera (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983).


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