Tito Gobbi (1915 – 1984) was probably the finest Italian baritone of his generation. He had a remarkably subtle way of using his voice to illustrate the drama and emotion of the music. If his voice lacked the beauty of a Robert Merrill or the power of a Lawrence Tibbett, he more than compensated with a fluidity and expressiveness that made him unequaled as a a singing actor.
Walter Legge, the legendary producer and a founder of Angel Records, described Tito Gobbi’s contribution to recorded opera as “The Acting Voice”. Gobbi once said that in a recording, as opposed to a performance on stage, “the voice alone must express every emotion, every nuance of tragedy, comedy or pathos. No telling gesture or subtle facial expression will be of any help. You will have to concentrate solely on sound and convey everything by that medium.”
Tito Gobbi was born in Bassano del Grappa, Italy. His father was a successful businessman and when young Tito was discovered to be suffering from asthma, he hired a personal athletic trainer for the boy. By his teens, Tito had conquered asthma and was a capable mountain climber, cyclist, and cross-country skier. He sang in school but enrolled at the University of Padua to study law. Baron Zanchetta, a composer and musicologist, heard the young Gobbi’s voice and urged him to have singing lessons. His father looked on an artistic career with scepticism, but he allowed his son to switch majors and study with Giulio Crimi, a once famous tenor living in Rome.
Gobbi spent five-and-a-half years with Crimi. In 1936 he won an international singing contest in Vienna and was awarded a scholarship to La Scala’s theater school. The next he sang in Rome where the famous conductor Tullio Serafin was in the audience. Serafin hired him to sing the Royal Opera. “Serafin was marvellous to me. He was… an invaluable guide to young singers (he used to call me “my son”); an infallible judge of voice and character.”
Gobbi sang his first “Tosca” in 1940 and soon was appearing on radio and in motion pictures, eventually appearing in a total of 26 movies. He was on his way to becoming a star.
But World War II had begun and Gobbi was conscripted into the army, although along with many other young singers he was regularly released to make appearances in Italian opera houses. Mussolini had joined forces with Hitler but when the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, the German army took effective control of the country. Able-bodied males were often dragged from the streets to serve in forced labor camps and Gobbi himself once escaped being taken to Germany to perform only because he happened to have a signed photo of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels which convinced the arresting officer that he was a personal friend of Goebbels. He wasn’t. In fact the Gobbi family had been hiding two escaped Allied prisoners of war during this time.
After the war his international career blossomed with appearances at Covent Garden, Salzburg, and the San Francisco Opera, until in 1956 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut singing Scarpia in a production of “Tosca.” While he sang often at the Metropolitan his career was primarily European-based as he preferred not to commit to the long engagements required by the Met.
He had a repertory of well over 100 roles including such rarities as Ulysses in Malipiero’s Ecuba , Teprulov in Rocca’s Monte Ivnor, the Count of Albaforita in Persico’s La locandiera, but he was best known for his Verdi and Puccini baritone roles, especially as Scarpia in “Tosca.”
One advantage of concentrating on European venues was that Gobbi was able to sing with an amazing number of operatic legends, some at or near the end of their careers. He was conducted by William Furtwangler, Victor De Sabata, Carlo Maria Giulini, Dmitri Mitropoulos, and Tullio Serafin. He met Titta Ruffo, the greatest of all operatic baritones and sang with Tito Schipa, Mariano Stabile, Giuseppe De Luca, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Victor Maurel, who had created the roles of bth Otello and Falstaff for Verdi. And Beniamino Gigli performed for him without fee at a benefit concert.
He also worked with more recent stars like Jussi Bjorling, Victoria De Los Angeles, Renata Tebaldi, Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. And, of course, he will forever be identified with the Tosca of Maria Callas.
and Callas were close friends and performed together often. They had first sung as Tosca and Scarpia in the classic 1953 EMI recording of the opera with Victor de Sabata conducting. That album is widely considered to be one of the two “perfect” complete opera recordings(the other being the “La Boheme” conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with Victoria De Los Angeles and Jussi Bjorling) and is still in print. Callas and Gobbi reunited for the legendary 1964 Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s Tosca at Covent Garden and later in Paris which is still one of the most acclaimed dramatic interpretations of all recorded operatic repertoire.
Gobbi recalled: “I didn’t always get it right immediately. When I first sang Scarpia, a friend came up to me and asked me how old I thought Scarpia was. I said “About 45”. He said, “Well, you walk like a young man of 25”. So I went home, watched how my father moved, and got it right the next time.” He discovered that “scarpia” in Italian slang meant a spider’s web and this also changed his interpretation of the part. He decided that Scarpia doesn’t need to pursue Tosca, he only needs to wait confidently, like a vulture in a tree, for her to be inexorably drawn into his arms.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Gobbi began a secondary career as an opera director and producer, beginning with a production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Soon he was staging and performing at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, the Juilliard Opera Center, and throughout Europe. In 1976, he staged and directed a Tosca at the Metropolitan.
Tito Gobbi was married to the sweetheart of his teen-age years, Matilde (“Tilde”) de Rensis for almost 60 years and they had a daughter, Cecile. Tilde’s sister married the great Bulgarian bass, Boris Christoff. Gobbi retired from the stage in 1979 and died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 69.
Tito Gobbi, Eugenia Ratti, Nicola Zaccaria, Giuseppe Di Stefano at La Scala in 1955
Maria Callas in Russia and Tito Gobbi – 1970