Domenico Viglione Borghese (1877-1957) was an Italian baritone who was active at a time when there was an abundance of first rate Italian baritones. This unusual confluence of fine singers explains why Viglione Borghese is virtually forgotten today. Born the same year as Tita Ruffo, his path to the top of the operatic world was much more circuitous.
A native of the Piedmont town of Mondovi, it’s about 50 miles south of Turin, he initially intended to study medicine. But he gave up the stethoscope for singing. He studied at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. After not making much of an impression in small roles he renounced singing as well and emigrated to America to join the Klondike Gold Rush. Not finding gold he went to San Francisco where he held a succession of odd jobs while resuming vocal study. He sang wherever he could and had the good luck to find Enrico Caruso in his audience. The tenor was impressed and recommended Viglione Borghese to the impresario of a travelling troupe of singers that featured Luisa Tetrazzini. His success on this tour vitalized his career and he was engaged in 1907 by the Teatro Regio in Parma as Amonasro in Aida.
He scored a triumphant success in Parma and his career was thence established. The critic and pedagogue Edgar F. Herbert-Caesari (1881-1969) was the author of several books on singing, all now out of print. He wrote of Viglione Borghese’s Amonasro:
“Talking of baritones, it was in 1908 in Rome that I first heard, in Aida, the biggest baritone voice of all time: Viglione Borghese. (His records are very poor imitations and give no clue whatever to the opulence of that colossal voice.)[…] When he came out as the father Amonasro in Aida in 1908 in Rome he looked a picture. I can still see him with the mind’s eye. An aquiline nose, big eyes, muscular body, with a brass band round his black wig and two short horns sticking out on either side of the head, and just a leopard skin, a real one, covering his chest and loins. When it came to the King asking him : “Dunque tu sei?” (Who are you?) he answered with “Suo padre” (Her father). Well that AH in padre, sung on D natural, fourth line, was something. Never, repeat *never* have I heard a bigger and better sound, of real beauty too, than that which came out of Borghese’s throat. It literally flooded the opera house. The whole audience rose as one man to applaud and applaud. Even the 120 members of the orchestra and conductor joined in the enthusiasm. It stopped the show for a while. Borghese simply bowed his acknowledgment and motioned for the orchestra to continue. That really stupendous D natural was not the product of belly-thrust (pace the diaphragmatic fiends). When it came to the Nile duet with Aida, in the phrase “Non sei mia figlia” (You are not my daughter any more) those G flats were colossal and something to think about. The power and spontaneity of it all. You should have heard the applause! At the time, I was correspondent for the Musical Times and three American papers too and I remember writing about Viglione Borghese that he would “make three of Titto Ruffo” ! That was no exaggeration. It seems incredible that such power, *liquid* power, could come from a human throat, capped with beautiful, apparently effortless, tone.”
By 1910 he was at La Scala. he appeared all over Europe and was a regular at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colon. The plentitude of baritones mentioned above likely explains why he never appeared at the Met. He didn’t make a lot of recordings, though those he did make are still available.
After his singing career ended he found work as a character actor in more than 20 films. The great face shown in the picture below suggests that he was well suited to his new career.
Ruy Blas is a play by Victor Hugo. It was made into an opera by Filippo Marchetti (1831-1902) who was one of a multitude of Italian composers whose career was overwhelmed by that of Giuseppe Verdi. His setting of the Hugo play was his biggest success. Ruy Blas was regularly performed from its premiere in 1969 in Milan until the end of the 19th century. It has been mostly invisible since then. The baritone plays the villainous (of course) Don Sallustio. Viglione Borghese gets as much as possible out of the aria A’ miei rivali cedere.
Rigoletto’s two arias show the baritone’s voice to excellent effect. Of course the claim that he had the biggest baritone of his time is impossible to confirm on a recording, but from the evidence available on discs made more than a century ago, it seems that his sound was large. Pai siamo; Cortigiani, vil razza dannata
Le Villi is Puccini’s first opera. Originally a one act work, it was expanded to two and first performed in Milan in 1884. It hangs around mainly because of the composer’s later work, nevertheless it sounds like Puccini and is worth listening to on occasion. The story is on the silly side. Guglielmo the soprano’s father blames Roberto for her death and calls on the fairies (Le Villi) to take vengeance on him. They do by making him dance himself to death. I told you it was kind of silly, but the music is quite good. Anima santa della figlia mia
O monumental is the first act aria sung by another villainous baritone, Barnaba. It’s from the first act of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The story is so under the top that its librettist, Arrigo Boito, used a pseudonym. Viglione Borghese’s baritone is not as honed on this recording as it is on some of his others.
Iago’s Credo from Act 2 of Otello is one of Verdi’s finest baritone concoctions. It’s a sophisticated update of Boito’s ‘O monumental’. This time he used his real name. The baritone is in fine form here and he doesn’t laugh at the aria’s conclusion which was the way Verdi wanted it performed.
Two arias by Leoncavallo. The prologue from Pagliacci in familiar to just about all. Zaza, piccola zingara from Zazà is best known as a recital piece. The opera, first performed in 1900, had some success for a while, but then drifted to obscurity.
Finally, two selections from French operas, both sung in Italian. Valentin’s death scene is not recorded as often as is his aria which occurs earlier in Gounod’s Faust. Massenet’s Hérodiade is a tamer, much tamer, version of the John the Baptist story compared to the cyclonicdepiction by Richard Strauss. First performed in 1884, a little more than 20 years before Strauss’ explosive version was first set lose, it is still occasionally staged. ‘Vision fugitive’, here as Vision fuggitiva, is from Act 2. It’s sung by Herod.
If Viglione Borghese appeared today, he’d be in demand everywhere, assuming we ever recover from Corona madness, instead of being a footnote. Timing, after luck and ripeness, is all.