On This Day: What Tamagno’s Recordings Teach Us About Singing Verdi’s ‘Otello’

By David Salazar

Francesco Tamagno, born on December 28 in 1850, had a tremendously successful career throughout Europe and America. But his single biggest moment, the one for which he is remembered, is for premiering Verdi’s “Otello” in 1887. The tenor was also one of the first ever to record his voice and those immortal renditions are a major link to the great composer himself.

Tamagno was known for placing great emphasis on the “thrill” of his performance, so there were numerous liberties taken in his performances. That said, taking a look at his existing recordings of passages from “Otello” provide a unique perspective on how to take on the role, especially considering that he worked on the role directly with the great composer himself.

Perhaps of all of his recordings of the Moor, his most interesting interpretation comes at the beginning of the “Ora e per sempre addio.”  Verdi marked the scored with an Allegro assai ritenuto, which presents a paradox of sorts. Ritenuto implies a reduction of tempo to the previous Allegro in the score, but the music itself, with its pulsating chords and march-like rhythm imply forward momentum. Most interpreters of the role, slow the tempo down slightly from the previous speed, but still push ahead. Tamagno’s interpretation is the most radical with regards to the ritenuto, the music slowing down, the military march feeling more like a funeral march. Verdi marks the triple figures at the end of the first full phrase pesanti and the slower tempo certainly adds the desired weight. Moreover, the tenor takes some liberties with tempi at times, slowing down in the middle of phrases (listen to the emphasis on “Sante memorie”) to emphasize certain text. No other recording showcases this kind of approach whatsoever. Caruso, for example, keeps the tempo consistent throughout with only the aforementioned pesanti get some ritenuto. Other early recordings of the piece follow a similar pattern to Caruso’s with the tempo rarely flagging and always pushing forward.

We see a lot of that freedom of phrasing in the other sections that Tamagno recorded, mainly the “Niun mi Tema” where the phrases are broadened quite amply, particularly during the “E tu, Come sei palida!” and the climatic fermata at “Ah! Morta! Morta! Morta!” The latter however was a staple of his, but the former breadth of phrase is akin to Puccini-like rubato.

Tempi are also quite slow for the “Esultate!” and “Si pel ciel” recordings, but though there are a few moments where Tamagno is willing to stretch the line.

Tamagno’s stretching of the tempi the way he does is quite unlike what we are used to listening to in this repertoire. Most interpreters would rightly point toward Verdi’s propulsive nature in his dramas, from the music to the libretti themselves where dramatic efficiency is prized over thoroughness. But with Tamagno’s interpretations, we get a sense that there is space for a different perspective on Verdi’s music. One that is more elastic and flexible.


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