Saturday, June 4, 2011

GIORGIO TOZZI, 1923-2011

Funeral services for this great Metropolitan Opera and San Franisco Opera bass, and University of Indiana maestro, were held this morning in Bloomington, IN.

Giorgio was a friend of my parents, and I often heard the story about he almost delivered me: he was being interviewed by my Dad for Living Opera when my Mom went into labor with me.

He was in the first opera I ever saw at the Met (Don Basilio, when I was about four). I refused to believe that he and Basilio were the same guy (really, the idea of taking make-pretend to a Metropolitan scale, with identity-obscuring make-up, sort of stretches a 4-yr-old's mind), so the next time he was over at the apartment, he brought with him the red socks that were part of the Basilio costume in the Eugene Berman production, and then I believed him.

Later he invited me and Dad to visit him in his dressing room before, not after, a performance of NOZZE, so I could learn more about the process of becoming a character. By then he was already Figaro and Boris for me, thanks to the Leinsdorf NOZZE and the Metropolitan Opera Record Club NOZZE and BORIS.

I last spoke to him early in 2008. That was barely two months after my Dad's death, and we had a lot to talk to about. He had "almost delivered" me, and here I was, almost 50, letting him bring me solace. Also, I had seen NYCO's revival of VANESSA the previous November, and I wanted to chat about that. He knew Dick Stilwell, who sang his role of the Old Doctor, so we talked about Stilwell's progress from light baritone to bass-baritone, and how the Old Doctor is kind of zwischenfach anyway, Harvuot understudied it and did some performances, etc. etc.

I mentioned that I had collected some his RIGOLETTOs from the '50s, some with Warren, some with Merrill. That set him off reminiscing about how different those two greats were to work with as Sparafucile. Warren was consumed with the character of Rigoletto. Merrill, more easy-going, maintained greater life/work separation, but when that voice came out...! It was Giorgio who, decades earlier, had coined the phrase "a Stradivarius in his throat" to describe how Merrill got his effects with a deficit of formal training.

Another topic of conversation: Nell Rankin was another family friend, and I have a GIOCONDA where she sang Laura to his Alvise (as she did at his Met debut, but this was some years later). In Act III, he really got scary, and it got to me in a way that scene rarely does. I figured out why, I told him: my emotional reaction had been "Uncle Giorgio is being mean to Aunt Nell!!" He laughed heartily, then said: "When you have a colleague that generous, it makes you generous in return!"

Stepping back a bit, here's how I've long seen the Tozzi legacy, which must be seen alongside that of Siepi. A basso cantante can be "round" or "pointy." I don't mean in personal shape: I mean in quality of voice. A "round" basso cantante voice will be more paternal, more marmoreal, more comfortable venturing into bass-baritone rep (as Tozzi successfully did as Hans Sachs). The "pointy" basso cantante will be bouncier, saucier, a much more natural Don Giovanni and Mephistopheles. Obviously that was Siepi. (His Met Gurnemanz was a great success, but not one I would have predicted, and incidentally, Tozzi ventured into King Marke and Rocco around the same time, 1970. A friend points out that Tozzi too sang Gurnemanz -- but at San Francisco, not at the Met.)

The amazing thing about Pinza had been that he combined "round" and "pointy" in one concentrated essence of what a basso cantante should be. By the mid-50s, he has been replaced by two men instead of one: Siepi replacing him
on the "pointy" side, and Tozzi replacing him on the "round" side.

Inevitably, "Mr. Pointy" (apologies to BTVS fans) can excel in many of "Mr. Round"'s roles, more than the other way around. Thus, both Tozzi and Siepi were great as Padre Guardiano (to take the least "pointy" role I can imagine), while Tozzi was never Siepi's equal as Don Giovanni, and indeed, sang the Commendatore opposite Siepi a few times. Yet there are some roles that are clearly better for "Mr. Round." Tozzi sang Arkel at the Met many times, and I don't think Siepi ever did. You'd think Siepi's Sparafucile (surely the ultimate literally "pointy" part, and recorded by Siepi, though rarely if ever done by him at the Met, I think) would blow Tozzi's out of the "fiume" -- but those '50s recordings I mentioned earlier, and the Perlea studio set, refute that assumption.

Of course they both sang Boris: Siepi first (with Tozzi as a glorious Pimen), and Tozzi later (on the MORC recording, on the NBC Opera Theater version, and finally at the Met ca. 1962). They did the role in different ways: Siepi gave us the tormented ruler; Tozzi gave us the tormented *father.* Both were unutterably great.

(Besides the Washington Post obit linked in my headline, here is another, slightly offbeat one from Gramophone. The special pleading for Nicola Zaccaria is intrusive, but then, the sound of axes grinding is almost as much part of opera as the sound of orchestras tuning!)

RIP, "Uncle Giorgo."