When I was younger, most of the Titta Ruffo recordings I heard were the ones reissued by RCA Victor and their European affiliates, LPs that emphasized the monstrous size and power of his voice. I took him to be a “belter” with a stunning voice that didn’t always really record very well on the acoustic recordings. Because of its size and ultra-heroic ring, the warm, rich mid-range that was so often praised in reviews simply wasn’t there, and although one could hear some of it in the electrical recordings, a top-end limit of 6000 Hz really wasn’t enough to capture all that it had to give.
But in recent years, reading more from those who heard him in person and also hearing more of his less “spectacular” recordings, I’ve altered my view of him, and this in turn led me to read his autobiography, My Parabola, published in 1995 by Baskerville Press,
Ruffo was born into a small, poor Italian family from Pisa on July 9, 1877. His mother was a gentle, sensitive woman whose primary focus in life was keeping house to please her husband, a gruff, stoic metal welder (sometimes elevated online to the status of an engineer, but he wasn’t one) whose only hobby was hunting with his friends. Shortly before Ruffo’s birth, his father had a wonderful hunting dog who he loved and depended on, which he had named Ruffo. Ruffo was accidentally shot, and died shortly before his second son was born, so his father gave him that first name—Ruffo Cafirero Titta—although his mother hated it and would only call him Cafiero. He had an older brother, Ettore, who became a composer, and two younger sisters, Fosca, who became a soprano, and Nella. Thus the parents with no musical interests whatsoever turned out three professional musicians.
At the age of eight, Ruffo’s father obtained a job as metalworker in a plant in Rome. The small family followed him there a month later and, shortly thereafter, the boy obtained a job as helper in another foundry for a pittance, which he felt necessary to earn in order to help his financially struggling family put food on the table. A year later, his father was made owner of the foundry after the original proprietor’s death, and Ruffo joined him there, working alongside him for six years. During that time, Ruffo came to understand why his mother wilted under his wrath. Used to ordering everyone around on the job, he treated not only her but his own son like a menial servant, with anger and sometimes physical violence—and this for less than one lira per week. Ruffo’s originally gentle, friendly nature became sour and embittered; he often withdrew into himself and, although he never begrudged his brother Ettore’s education, he began to worry about his own lack of one. Eventually, the time came when his father dressed him down quite nastily for some trifling reason in front of the other workers, and Ruffo simply exploded with rage at him. Dumbfounded at first, his father recovered enough to throw him out. “You are now grown up, so go out and earn your living. Get out! And never set foot in this place again!”
Ruffo was extraordinarily relieved to be out from under his father’s boot heels but had no idea where he was going or what he would do. He ended up working for another metal-working shop, but this time for a kindly owner who greatly appreciated his zeal and energy in the workplace. Ruffo responded by creating perfect little wrought-iron art works—first a rose, then a salamander, which he gifted to “Maestro Peppe” as tokens of his gratitude. After his meager salary had been raised a few times, Ruffo bought a copy of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It was his introduction to literature as well as adventure stories, and it spurred his imagination, transferring his love of metal arts to that of literature. In time, this led to a dissatisfaction with his job and his stature in life; he wanted something more, but didn’t know what.
After making an improbable repair of a wealthy farmer’s oil press, Ruffo incurred the jealousy of his co-workers and so resigned his job—only to have the farmer and his wife, who were childless, take him on as a live-in hired hand at a good salary for a couple of months. Eventually, however, his father showed up, begging him to return home because his mother was getting ill worrying about him. He initially refused, but then capitulated. When he returned home, a change had taken place with his brother Ettore, who was now studying flute and piano and attending the St. Cecilia Academy in Rome. Thus his return home was fortuitous and eventually led to his real life’s work. Ironically, however, he was initially unimpressed by his brother’s playing the music of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini. It just plain did not interest him in the least…he wanted to be Garibaldi.
But now he was truly lost. He didn’t want to return to iron work; he enjoyed living, working and sometimes even sleeping in the open air that the mere thought of being trapped in any kind of a workshop was abhorrent to him, yet he did temporarily (and reluctantly) return briefly to his father’s workshop. And eventually, the new musical atmosphere in his house eventually got to him when he saw his brother intently studying the score of Cavalleria Rusticana, and particularly the tenor’s opening “Sicliana.” Then Ettore invited Ruffo to come with him to hear a performance of this same opera with the great singing stars Gemma Bellincioni and Roberto Stagno. The experience overwhelmed him. He was completely silent on the walk home with Ettore, but when they arrived Ruffo asked him to play Turiddu’s serenade on his flute. He did so and, spontaneously, Ruffo sang the aria—in a beautiful tenor voice he never even knew he had. Everyone was stunned, but especially Ruffo.
It might have been the beginning of his real career, but not just yet. Since he, unlike his brother, didn’t have much education and couldn’t yet read music, he clearly could not have gotten into the St, Cecilia Academy, so back he went to his iron work for a while. Ironically, what drew him eventually back to music was not something his brother said or did, but his father, who up to that time had shown little interest in music. At one of the cafes in town, his father had heard a marvelous young man, who had recently arrived in Rome to study voice, sing a few arias, and had been smitten. The young man was Oreste Benedetti, who would himself become a well-known baritone in Italy. Ruffo’s father told Ettore about him and advised him to hear him, thus Benedetti was soon a visitor to the Titta household. Like Ruffo, Oreste had been a laborer who one day discovered that he had a good singing voice. Ettore played the piano while Benedetti sang “Vien, Leonora” from La Favorita, not only with an excellent voice but also with great subtlety and musicality. Interestingly, Benedetti aroused two contrasting feelings in Ruffo: a feeling that his tenor voice was inconsequential next to the visitor’s, but also a strong desire to resume singing at any cost. His father, surprisingly, offered Benedetti a bedroom at their modest house so that he could have the pleasure of hearing him sing when he wasn’t studying at the Academy. Thus the young baritone, five years Ruffo’s senior, stayed with the family for about a year. Sadly, he started becoming very ill around 1914 and died three years later at the age of 44.
During his tenure in the Titta household, Benedetti received free tickets to the opera as a pupil of the Academy and shared them with Ruffo; these experiences of hearing live opera revived his interest in singing and his hopes to become a singer himself. Listening to Benedetti’s recordings today, it’s easy to understand Ruffo’s enthusiasm. The older baritone had not only a beautiful voice and an easy delivery, but was a surprisingly musical singer for his time. He seldom if ever distorted the music and always sang with an excellent feeling for the character.
One day at the shop, trying to give his co-worker Pietro an idea of how good Benedetti was, Ruffo started singing an aria from Donizetti’s Belisario. All of a sudden, the “real” Ruffo voice emerged out of nowhere: powerful, rich, and nassive. When he told Ettore about it, however, his older brother was incredulous; he thought he was joking, and began to laugh. So was Benedetti—until he heard him. The “lovely” tenor voice of age 16 had now blossomed into the powerful baritone voice we know two years later. Benedetti took him to his teacher, Caio Andreoli, the next day. After hearing him, Andreoli told Benedetti that “this is a voice which will he the rival yours in a few years,” but advised him to stop singing for at least one more year. Ruffo’s mother and brother were thrilled by the news; his father was not told of this, however, because although he thought that it was OK for Benedetti to become a professional singer, he only thought of his son as a craftsman in metal work which was at least a steady income. During his year of silence, Ruffo continued to go and hear Benedetti sing, taking his finesse in phrasing and subtle gradations of volume as a singing lesson for himself.
Ettore gave Ruffo singing lessons to work on his voice, but somehow it seemed to take a step backwards and he began to lose confidence in himself. Nonetheless, Ruffo auditioned for a position at the St. Cecilia Academy and was accepted. He studied with a Professor Persechini, whose pupils were three tenors and four baritones, but the singer who got the most time and attention was Giuseppe de Luca. Only one year older than Ruffo, de Luca was nonetheless already five years into his studies and was thus rehearsing full roles. Worse, Persechini didn’t like Ruffo’s voice at all. He called it “sluggish” and predicted that he would never have a career. He also thought that Ruffo had a bass voice, not a baritone, and began training it as such. Conversely, he received great praise in his recitation classes with Virginia Marini, an outstanding Italian actress in her day, acclaimed for her flawless diction and acting skills on a par with Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. But his battles with Persechini and the lack of respect he was shown eventually led to an outburst. Ruffo told him he didn’t understand his voice and was doing him more harm than good and walked out.
He now saw “all the roads closed” to him “except that which led to the shop.” although his business “was going to the dogs.” By luck, however, he picked up a good outside job and so could make a living while working a few hours a day, by himself, on his voice. On the recommendation of a friend, he auditioned for an old baritone, now a teacher, named Senatore Sparapani, who marveled at his voice but could not teach him for free as this was now his only livelihood. Ruffo agreed to 50 lira per month and scraped up the money by working constantly with no time off. But it was worth it. In Ruffo’s own words, “One hour with Sparapani was worth more than a month with Persichini.” The problem, however, was continued cash flow. Ruffo managed to pay for the second month, but by the third was flat broke. Sparapani kept him on that third month for free but finally reluctantly, had to let him go.
Back at the shop, Ruffo worked diligently on an extraordinarily elaborate 15th-century portico owned by a wealthy American who was willing to pay 15,000 lira, an enormous sum in those days, for the work. Much to his consternation, however, his father had already accepted 9,000 of it for himself, even though most of the work was done by Ruffo and his trusted colleague Pietro (with input on the design from his brother Ettore). Yet somehow, he managed to embarrass his father enough to pay him fairly. He took this money and set off for Milan, where he intended to audition as a baritone and make his stage debut. There he auditioned for and studied with another baritone, Lelio Casini, who was very enthusiastic about Ruffo’s voice. His wife said that his voice was similar to but better than Benedetti’s, a compliment which Ruffo could not accept since he admired Benedetti above all others. But Ruffo, unfortunately, had rented a cold, drafty room as his lodgings, and caught bronchitis which stubbornly refused to clear up. He lived in the cold, damp winter air of Milan wearing a coat that was too light, and his bronchitis got worse, not better. He saw nothing but a dark end in sight for him.
And once again, luck came to him, this time in the form of a somewhat wealthy family who heard his story and took pity on him. They gave him medicinal pills to take for his bronchitis and, better yet, offered to let him sleep in their lodging for a few nights which were warm and comfortable, not dank and cold like his room. Eventually, spurred by guilt, his landlady gave him some heat for his room as well. He ate next to nothing for days, but somehow managed to slowly recover. When he was finally able to sing again, one of his new benefactors made the comment, “You sound like Tamagno!,” which will give you an idea as to the size of his voice. Then a little more luck; running into the older baritone Oreste Mieli, the latter told Ruffo that he was looking for good, young singers to make recordings for newly-formed Columbia Records. Ruffo did so, and was paid 20 lire for them; they were issued but seem to have disappeared. This was, after all, 1897; Columbia was then a very small company and distribution wasn’t that good. Yet with his voice restored, his lessons with Casini resumed and he made real progress. Casini, too, was a real artist, inflecting his singing with, as Ruffo described it, “exquisite pianos, inflections, and irresistible tone colorings,” thus his teacher’s singing was a much a lesson to him as anything else.
Then came a difference between them. Casini wanted him to keep studying with him further, but as Ruffo explained to him, this was financially impossible. He MUST make his debut soon so as to have a steady income. Once again, when his luck came, it came in twos. After auditioning for one impresario and being hired to sing the Herald in Lohengrin in Rome for his debut, two days later he was signed by another, Cavallaro, to sing with his company for a full year. The tenor in his Rome Lohengrin was none other than the famous Spaniard Francesco Vignas, who became a fan of his overnight and never stopped talking about him.
I’ve spent so much time describing Ruffo Titta’s early years in detail because they show the character of the man. For the most part scrupulously honest, he was exceptionally hard-working and took great pride in doing the absolute best he could whether in ironworking or singing. He took understandable pride in the results of his labors, meaning that he had supreme confidence in himself, but this should not be construed as egotism or arrogance. He never forgot where he came from and knew that a fluke of nature could put him back in the ironworking shop very quickly, thus he never took his voice for granted. Following the advice of his teachers and colleagues, he never smoked, ate a healthy diet, and worked on his voice to keep it strong and fluid. But he wasn’t completely truthful when, in 1913, he wrote an article in Musical America claiming that his brother Ettore had been his only good voice teacher. On the contrary, although Ettore helped to coach him between “real” instructors, Sparapani and Casini were clearly the ones who not only helped settle his voice (though his time with each was brief due to financial hardship) but who also, by example—along with Benedetti and his dramatic coach Virginia Marini—made him the artist he was. He also received good advice from an operatic dilettante with the soul of an artist but a “wretched baritone voice,” Cesarino Gaetani, who complained of other great baritones who, in his estimation, all had beautiful voices but were not true artists. He also received what he felt was invaluable advice on how to interpret his roles from Gigi Macchi, a respected Sicilian judge who was also an opera fanatic. When Ruffo took on the role of Valentine in Faust for the first time, for instance, he and Macchi began to analyze the character, “exploring its depths and unearthing the most subtle shades of meaning.” In this way, Ruffo became a true interpretive artist and not just a Big Mouth belting out high As, but few listeners have paid close enough attention to the interpretations beneath the glorious voice on his records.
For the most part, we can skip a discussion of his career, since he became famous all over Italy in a relatively short time and then, little by little, conquered the rest of the Western world, but a few things deserve special mention. One in particular was an older soprano he met on his first sojourn to South America, Adelina Fanton, whose name he disguises in the book by calling her “Benedetta.” Benedetta-Fanton was not merely older and a more established artist; to the young baritone she represented a higher, more sophisticated form of artistry to which he aspired. She criticized his scruffy looks (shaggy long hair and a string tie), so he got a haircut and new clothes. She told him he must always aspire to a higher calling onstage and not just think of himself as “a voice.” He had already been thinking of this himself, but she inspired him to go further. Without ever getting involved with her sexually, she became his muse and his artistic advisor during those crucial early years.
Another thing that caught my attention was his delving deep into the characters he sang on the stage. When doing Rigoletto, for instance, he didn’t just study the libretto, but also Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse that it was based on. When performing the slave Neluska in Meyerbeer’s L’Africana, a rather surfacy opera without much depth to the characters, he tried to give his performance depth by projecting as well as he could the inner feelings of the character. After singing “Se andate per comprar un bue de lavorar,” which ended with a sustained high G resolving into middle C in which his voice rang out with particular brilliance, the audience “burst out as one in formidable applause. I remained immobile in the middle of the set without acknowledging the ovation so as not to destroy the illusion that I lived as my character and his spirit was real to me.” When performing Iago in Otello, he not only studied Boito’s libretto carefully but also Shakespeare’s play in full (in the Italian translation by Guido Carcano), looking for nuances he could bring to the character. When performing in Thomas’ rather shallow Amleto, he nonetheless studied Shakespeare’s original play once again, digging deep into the title character until he not only thought like him but felt like him. Then, when he performed Amleto for the first time, he did something really daring: he changed the words of the libretto to bring them closer to what Shakespeare wrote. This brought him mixed reactions, shock from established, old-school musicians but a stunned realization from those who knew their Shakespeare that here was a real artist and not just a voice to belt out the drinking song. In addition to recording sung excerpts from Thomas’ opera, Ruffo also recorded two spoken monologues (in Italian) from Shakespeare’s play, including the famous “To be or not to be” monologue. Herman Klein, the astute voice teacher, pedagogue and critic, extolled these recordings to the skies, pointing out how intelligently he captured the feeling of the character.
By these means, step by step, and without having yet seen or worked with Feodor Chaliapin, Ruffo slowly became not just a phenomenal opera singer but a stage artist of the first rank…and, when in doubt, there was always Benedetta to fall back on. This is no small thing. The era in which he sang had not yet produced deeply psychological operas, nor were opera singers expected to do any more than just convey love, anger, jealousy or hatred by means of vocal inflections. Anything beyond that was not merely a bonus but unexpected, although there were opera singers—mostly female—who by emulating Sarah Bernhardt brought a certain realism to their stage roles. From what one can gather, Fanton was one of these, thus the young baritone accepted all of her suggestions to make himself better.
Those readers who find in his book moments of uncontrolled egotism are missing the point. Ruffo was well aware that he had an unbelievably superb vocal instrument, which he did not earn but was simply born with, though he took great pains to keep it working at peak efficiency. Thus when he speaks of the voice doing unbelievably superb things, he is not necessarily saying that he did unbelievably superb things. On the contrary, the book shows his mistakes and bad side as much as his good side. There were moments when he made conscious decisions to put his foot down for some reason or another, often costing his impresario pain and/or money, which were morally justified, and other such moments which were, as he admitted, stupid and which backfired on him. He doesn’t pull any punches on himself. He was the uneducated son of a laborer who grew up in the school of hard knocks, had to think fast on his feet in order to survive, often went hungry and cold in his early years, and sometimes had to make snap decisions as to what to do in financially or morally ambiguous situations. In short, he was just human, like all of us.
Returning to the voice itself, as I mentioned above, trained or natural he handled it with good taste, control and intelligence. Edmund St. Austell, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University is one of the few modern writers who have noticed this, stating that “self-taught or not, he handled his voice with great intelligence, and made it do what he wanted. The measured vibrato in the upper register is a good indication of the exact control he had over the voice. He also holds it down on the bottom and in the middle, which is intelligent, because a voice of that size could exhaust itself quickly if he did not tone it down in the middle, and lie in wait, as it were, for the big notes, which are, especially in verismo opera, “the sound that pays the rent.” All this, while perhaps typical, was not exclusive. Given a chance, and solo exposure, there were more shades in the voice than we hear in this explosive duet with Caruso.”
The book bears this out., and it was no accident. On p. 233, we read of his spending several hours trying to find exactly the right gradations of volume and shades of color to portray the “convent crook,” Fra Bonifazio, in Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame. He adds:
Some readers will find it strange that I…speak of the colors of the voice, but for me it’s the most natural thing….I believe that a student of singing, after having the fundamentals firmly implanted in his voice—name, sounds that from the lowest notes to the highest are composed, free, supported, united above the palate, without muscular contractions, sustained only by natural respiration—I believe, I say, that every student of singing, if he be endowed with feeling and imagination, and finally with talent, would be able with practice to form all the colors of a palette of sounds, and thus express every one of the emotions of the soul in all their tints and shadows. Surely it is not easy to do or quickly done.
Yet many contemporary critics, reviewing his live performances, missed the forest for the trees. Because the voice was so impressive, that was all they normally reported on, but a few noticed the difference between him and his peers. Oscar Thompson, writing in Musical America on January 18, 1922 of his Don Carlo V in Ernani, noted that “Ruffo made something more dramatically of the rôle of Don Carlos than his predecessor did.” Writing a year later of his Don Carlo, W.J. Henderson of the New York Herald added that “Mr. Ruffo once more demonstrated, in the role of Don Carlos, his ambition to shine with the finer lights of a polished vocal art, a matter in which his sincerity has now been placed beyond a doubt.” In December 1924, now writing for the New York Sun, Henderson went further in describing his Gerard in Andrea Chenier as showing “an appreciation of effectiveness of restraint…his singing has improved in tonal quality because of his avoidance of the natural temptation to give free rein to his vigorous impulses and his powerful voice.” Yet perhaps the most insightful and detailed praise of his acting abilities came from both Thompson and Henderson for his assumption of the role of Neri Chementesi in Giordano’s now-forgotten opera La Cena delle Beffe. In this opera, he played the part of a Florentine competing with another, Giannetto Malespini, for the affections of Malespini’s mistress, Ginevra. This rivalry was heightened by a cruel joke that Neri and his brother played on him by tying him up in a sack and pricking him with their swords. There are, however, various shades and hues to Neri’s character, all of which, apparently, Ruffo brought out brilliantly.
But perhaps the highest compliment came from a man who handed them out very rarely—a young British music critic who would soon replace the legendary Fred Gaisberg as the classical A&R director and record producer at EMI. This was Walter Legge, who, writing in the Gramophone in 1928 in which he recalled a recital Ruffo had given in London six years earlier. Legge stated that “From the his first phrase the audience was vanquished by the overwhelming beauty of his voice…But more: Ruffo’s infinite subtlety, variety of tone-colour, interpretive insight and sincerity, his magnificent control, stupendous breathing powers, and impeccable phrasing stamped him as a genius.”
You can indeed hear this genius on quite a few of his recordings, ranging from something as overdone as the prologue to Pagliacci, which Klein hailed as being sung exactly as Leoncavallo wrote it and wanted it, to such esoterica as the aria “Do not weep, my child” from Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon. The latter was an aria (and opera) closely identified with Chaliapin, and Ruffo sings in the original Russian, “Nye plach, ditya,” which he learned during his first (1903) season in Odessa. If one listens with fresh ears, however, one will find numerous subtleties in others of Ruffo’s recordings, perhaps expected in Iago’s “Era la notte” but far less expected in such war-horses as Don Alfonso’s “Vien, Leonora” (La Favorita), Nilakantha’s “Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile” [in Italian], and even in Valentine’s “Dio possente” from Faust. His various recorded excerpts from Rigoletto, most of them from 1907-08. show him delving deep into the nuances of the title character in a way that presaged such artists as Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi and Piero Cappuccilli.
Although Giuseppe de Luca complained that Ruffo “bawled” his voice away and the baritone himself said that his vocal collapse at age 52 was proof that he “never really knew how to sing,” the fact that he was able (excepting a few off-days here and there, as all singers have) to maintain his mostly natural vocal placement for 31 years is no mean feat. Moreover, whether he was in pristine voice or not, he continued to sing until 1937, at which point he wrote this autobiography. As late as 1929, critic Oscar Straus wrote in the New York World of Ruffo’s Amonasro that his “powerfully savage impersonation easily outranked that of the other participants, and shared the vocal honors with Mr. Lauri-Volpi, the Radames.” And once again, Ruffo explains how he did it in his book, on pp. 221-22:
I nearly always arose at dawn, took a brief walk…back at the house, I sat at the piano and vocalized patiently, seeking to track down the natural virtues of my voice which had been compromised when I was led astray by the advice of too many voice teachers. I started to vocalize like a student again, beginning with the light sounds, taking the voice as far as the intonations of tenor character….After three months of study [with Vincenzo Ucelli, the former accompanist of Angelo Masini] I was able to easily accomplish agile and wonderful modulations in my pianissimo and my fortissimo notes…With clearly defined variations I was creating a white voice, then a dark, more intense sound that I call blue; enlarging the same sound and rounding it I sought the red; then the black, too, the tone with maximum darkness, To obtain this iridescent palette I formed sounds which I call suoni di bocca (mouth sounds) which is to say verbal and not vocal sounds. In this regard I am able, after my rich experience, to state with authority that a singer who wants to make a long career without forcing his larynx and respiratory apparatus, ought to adopt more verbal sounds that vocal sounds, even if he has at his disposal an extraordinary vocal endowment.
Given my technique I was able to continue, for a period of twenty uninterrupted years, to sing in all seasons and all climates, in Russia at thirty degrees below zero and in the hottest weather of Egypt and Havana. Wherever I went my voice was always ready and dependable.
I think his refusal to teach, claiming that he had “no right to capitalize on my former fame,” stemmed more from the knowledge that numerous young baritones would flock to him wanting to be “the next Ruffo,” and this he could not do because he knew the voice itself was a gift. Otherwise, he clearly knew how to keep a voice, even a huge, natural one, in good condition over an extended period of time and under heavy use.
So that’s my take on Ruffo Titta, a.k.a. Titta Ruffo. You may or may not agree, but I still maintain that he is worth listening to for far more than sheer vocal prowess.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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