Titta Ruffo’s was one of the greatest voices the world has known. No baritone within memory boasted such brazenly sonorous and vibrant tone. A vocal phenomenon, Ruffo was described by Giuseppe de Luca, as ‘Not a voice, but a miracle!’
When Ruffo came to New York in 1920, after several seasons’ absence, the press labeled him ‘the nabob of all living baritones,’ and Richard Aldrich, describing his return in Ambroise Thomas’ HAMLET, wrote, ‘It is not often that an operatic baritone shares so beautifully in the popular acclamations usually reserved for tenors and florid sopranos. He was uproariously applauded after every solo…and after the drinking song..:he was recalled many times, and in response to loud calls of ‘bis’ the scene, was repeated. It was indeed in its way, a magnificent piece of singing.’
Indeed, Ruffo could never be listed as a ‘house’ baritone. He reigned as an international star for whom vehicles were provided, thus becoming the focal point of any operatic season in which he appeared. The immense power and sonority of this voice placed it apart as did the altogether sensational quality of its high notes. It proved as elemental as a storm and the effect, electrifying.
When he appeared at the Manhattan with Galli-Curci and Schipa in RIGOLETTO, traffic was disrupted and excitement knew no bounds. I recall that atfer the ‘Si, vendetta!’ that closes the third act, the curtain was raised twice on the scene which had to be twice repeated, the frenetic turmoil increasing with each repetition. Ruffo’s final A-flat was an indescribable sonic experience.
Titta Ruffo was born in the ancient Tuscan city of Pisa on June 9,1877, the son of an iron worker.His actual name was Ruffo Titta, which he reversed for stage usage.Though he worked with several teachers, among them the famous Persichini, he was largely self-taught. When he madehis debut as the Herald in LOHENGRIN in 1898, the performance starred the celebrated Spanish tenor, Francisco Vignas. But young Ruffo’s voice stunned his listeners; nothing like it had been heard.
Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, the famous tenor, commenting on this voice wrote, ‘the velvety singing of Battistini, De Luca and Stracciari, conducted with knowledge and filled with inner nuances, received a rude shock with the sonorous manifestation of a biting and audacious Tuscan voice, which sky-rocketed the price of baritones in the operatic stock-exchange. A leonine voice, sometimes roaring, sometimes languid and dragged out, did not resemble any other which preceded it because it featured cavernous nasal resonances, spectacular portamenti, and notes that were dark and percussive. This was the ‘historic’ voice among the tenors and Chaliapin among the bassos. “Ruffo’s voice was instantly recognizable: it had a completely distinctive sound.”
Ruffo’s North American debut at Philadelphia, on November 4, 1912 in RIGOLETTO, caused a sensation, giving rise to immediate comparisons with Caruso, not always to the advantage of the New York idol. It was claimed by some that Ruffo attained his stentorian effects with greater ease than the Neapolitan divo. At that time he was receiving $2,500 a performance and was known as “the most expensive baritone in the world.” He triumphed in Paris, throughout Italy, in Russia and South America, but he did not reach the Metropolitan until January 19,1922 in Rossini’s ILBARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA. It is significant that this was the first Metropolitan season without Caruso, who had died in Naples the previous summer. At the time, Ruffo was 45 and the unique voice had lost some of its ease and phenomenal resonance. Nevertheless, Henry T. Finck in the EVENING POST exclaimed. ‘Ruffo is the baritonal Tamagno.’
Ruffo remained at the Metropolitan until February 22, 1929. On that date he appeared as Amonasro in AIDA in a cast composed of Lauri-Volpi, Corona, Branzell and Ludikar under the baton of Tullio Serafin. During his Metropolitan years he appeared sporadically as a star performer, sometimes not more than three or four times a season. These appearances were regarded by his followers as events. He retired from opera in the mid ninteen-thirties and died in Florence of heart failure on July 5, 1953.
As Figaro in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”
Gallo y Ruffo.
(Foto: V Barberá Masip)
Courtesy: Sandy’s Opera Gallery (Sandy Steiglitz)
Titta Ruffo & Enrico Caruso, 1914