I do not know about old men dreaming dreams. I do know that young men do. When of that state, long ago, and germane to this review, I remember dreaming of seeing some of my operatic heroes and heroines live on stage. In the early 1960s I had inherited my late father’s Garrard 301 and home built amp. For the cognoscenti it was a Briggs design with two KT 66s in push-pull. I built a cabinet and started my own collection of records. Given the economics of a young family, a mortgage and no car it was a slow process. However, one Christmas a highlights LP of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra reinforced my reveries of seeing both the baritone Tito Gobbi (1913-1984)) and his brother-in-law, the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, live on stage. Living far from London, and with holidays not on the family agenda, the chances seemed remote. Then a Covent Garden tour to Manchester was announced with Gobbi featuring as Iago. Fate, however, was to be cruel and serious illness deprived me of the opportunity of seeing either of the performances. The obverse was true when attending a conference in London three years later. I got to see him in the same role, paying one pound for a stand ticket at Covent Garden. It was worth the money and aching legs to see my idol as he bestrode the stage as Iago, manipulating his Otello like a puppet on a string. He didn’t play Iago: he was Iago and the character’s evil malevolence was spine-chilling. It was a memorable evening for a young opera-goer and a memory that has lasted long in my mind’s eye and ear.
In those far-off days when TV was restricted to a couple of channels, the BBC didn’t fill every available evening with soaps or snooker, but allowed a bit of culture to intrude. In 1965, producer Patricia Foy tempted Gobbi into the studios, surrounded him with some of the UK’s best homegrown talents and filmed the results. The results were shown in 1966 as part of Great Characters in Opera TV series. This was produced for the BBC and comprised seven hour-long programmes. The present collection from that series was issued to mark the great singer-actor’s centenary year in 2013.
The three roles of Rigoletto, Gianni Schicchi and Scarpia were among Gobbi’s most intense interpretations. His portrayal of Scarpia, which he first sang in 1939 was repeated by him over nine hundred times. It is particularly famous from the filming of the act two of Zeffirelli’s Covent Garden production alongside Callas and has long been available. This collection also features the arrogant domineering Scarpia of act one (CHs.18-21) that Gobbi portrays superbly as the chief of police arrives at the church and uses the Attavanti fan to play Tosca like a trout on a line, then berating her with the words “You make me forget God” (CH.21). In this act two portrayal, Marie Collier, whilst not in the Callas class as an actress - few were at that time - responds superbly to Scarpia’s taunts and evil “I will have you”; likewise her “quanto”. While she sings Tosca’s prayer (CH.24) he lives the role, approaching her like a mantis hungry for its prey, before receiving Tosca’s ‘kiss’ of an upward thrust of a knife below the sternum. Formidable.
In the comic role of Gianni Schicchi, Gobbi shows his capacity for humour, albeit of the sly kind as the character manipulates circumstances, and some of the family, for his own ends (CHs.10-17). However, it is seeking and hearing Gobbi as Rigoletto that is the real highlight. He performed the role on stage more than four hundred times and it shows in his acting of the part and the nuances in his sung portrayal. His response to Sparafucile, in a snow-covered scene (CH.2) is nuanced to perfection whilst the following “Pari siamo” (CH.3) is vocally biting. Gobbi softens his tone as Rigoletto is greeted by his daughter, portrayed by Renata Scotto, no mean actress herself but looking a little too old for the part (CH.4). However, the pair of singer-actors come into their own in the act two scene that starts as Rigoletto seeks to influence sympathy from the courtiers before berating them in “Cortigiana, vil razza dannata”. It concludes as he receives and comforts his daughter and orders them to leave (CHs.6-9). This is singer-acting as it is rarely seen. No wonder Gobbi had featured in approximately 25 films by the time of his death in 1984.
Robert J Farr
Rigoletto: Tito Gobbi; Gilda: Renata Scotto; Sparafucile: Denis Wicks; Marullo: Neil Howlett; II Conte di Ceprano: David Read
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Edward Downes
Gianni Schicchi (excerpts)
Gianni Schicchi: Tito Gobbi; Lauretta: Elizabeth Robson; Zita: Elizabeth Bainbridge; Rinuccio: John Serge; Gherardo: Robert Bowman
New Symphony Orchestra/Edward Downes
Scarpia: Tito Gobbi; Flora Tosca: Marie Collier; Sagrestano: Eric Garrett; Sciarrone: Neil Howlett; Spoletta: Robert Bowman
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Downes