Ferruccio Tagliavini (1913-95) was and Italian tenor famous for his mezza voce singing which was of exceptional sweetness. He made his debut in Florence in 1938 as Rodolfo in La Bohème. He was hailed as a successor to Beniamino Gigli and Tito Schipa, though his sound was much closer to the latter.
Tagliavini was born in the same year as Richard Tucker. He started out way ahead of his American contemporary, but as the Italian’s lyric voice was pushed beyond its proper compass Tucker’s tenor developed into a large spinto. Basically a tenorino, Tagliavini could not resist the temptation of the spinto roles for which his voice was not suited. The arc of his career is a common one for lyric tenors.
Though a light lyric tenor, he made his Met debut in 1947 again as Rodolfo in La Bohème. This role is for a lyric tenor, still it was a bit too heavy for Tagliavini. Nevertheless, he scored a big success at the old New York house. Over the ensuing five seasons he gave 90 performances at the Met. He appeared once in 1954 and four times in 1962 and then was gone from New York. Tucker, of course, sang with great effect until his death in 1975.
First the role of his Met debut – Rodolfo. Che gelida manina is sung with the generous use of head tones that characterized all his work. In front of a microphone his voice sounded bigger than it was in live performance.
Next examples of the roles that should have been the mainstays of his repertoire. First Ecco ridente from Rossini’s Barber. Una furtiva lagrima was in the center of the tenor’s comfort zone. He appeared in both operas during his stay at the Met. Wilhelm Meister from Thomas’ Mignon was a role cordial to Tagliavini’s voice. He did not sing the part at the Met, though the opera was given during his Met tenure. Adieu, Mignon is from Act 2. It’s sung in Italian. Mignon has received 110 performances at the Met, but none since 1949.
I don’t believe Elvino in Bellini’s La Sonnambula was performed on stage by the tenor; but it’s a part congenial to his voice. Prendi l’anel ti dono is an aria that leads into a duet for Amina and Elvino in Act 1.
Cavaradossi in Tosca was too heavy a role for Tagliavini’s light voice. Nevertheless he sang it often – 15 times at the Met, alone. His reading of E lucevan le stelle, however, is well done.
Le Reve from Massenet’s Manon was an excellent fit for Tagliavini. ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image’ in the ensuing St Sulpice scene was not. A tenor who can fully realize both arias is a rarity. You would suppose that ‘Je crois entendre encore’ from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers would be as equally good fit, but the tenor runs into a bit of unsteadiness at the end. He sings it in Italian as Mi par d’udir ancor.
Federico’s lament from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana receives a good rendition from the tenor. He recorded the complete opera for Cetra in 1951 alongside his wife soprano Pia Tassinari. Finally an aria from an opera Tagliavini should not have been allowed to approach even as a member of the audience. Ch’ella mi creda from the last act of The Girl of The Golden West requires a big spinto like Franco Corelli or Richard Tucker, both of whom sang the role (Dick Johnson) at the Met. Tagliavini does better than one would have thought. Here the microphone is his friend.
Sweetness can only take you so far. It can sometimes be too much. Still, Tagliavini at his best was worth a special trip to the opera house, especially if it were one not of the gargantuan size of either the old or new Met. His career trajectory should have been that of Schipa who preceded him or Cesare Valletti who came a bit later than Tagliavini’s appearance on the international stage.