Music: Giorgio Tozzi, American Basso

I first encountered the name of Giorgio Tozzi, the singer who died this week at the age of 88, on the soundtrack of the movie South Pacific, where he dubbed Emile De Becque’s songs and, unusually, was credited for doing so. I then found out that Tozzi got credit because – unlike other dubbers, who tended to be young opera singers on the way up (Marilyn Horne) or who never quite made the big time (Marni Nixon), Tozzi was already an operatic star when he did the South Pacific songs. He was a young bass who had already become a regular presence at the Metropolitan Opera, and was chosen for bass roles on many of the opera recordings that used Met or Met-affiliated casts. (Union agreements made it very expensive to record opera in the U.S., so few recordings were made with the actual Met company, but companies would go to Vienna or Rome and record with casts that had performed the same work at the Met.) He was the American answer to Pinza, the original Emile, or Cesare Siepi, Pinza’s successor at the Met: a light bass – basso cantante or “singing bass” as the Italians call it, to distinguish that type of voice from the darker basso profondo – who generally played characters older than he was.

He was not quite on the level of Pinza or Siepi; there was something about the timbre of his voice that made it almost too light even for a light bass. This was fine for light and comic parts, but most bass roles are kings or high priests or Satan (seriously, any bass has to be prepared to play the Devil repeatedly), and in those parts he could lack a sense of authority. He was part of a generation of American singers – including the soprano Leontyne Price – who, coming from a country with no clear national “school,” were sometimes accused of blandness by U.S. critics – sometimes justified, though sometimes a sign of the U.S.’s famous musical inferiority complex.

The best Tozzi recording for me was his Grammy-winning Marriage of Figaro, made in Vienna with a Met cast led by Erich Leinsdorf. Some critics found Tozzi a bit bland in the title role, but I recall it as being refreshingly un-hammy and serious at a time when this character was rarely taken seriously. However, the recording seems to be out of print.

Here, from the days when TV networks still felt a need to present High Culture, is Tozzi as the title character in Boris Godunov, performed on NBC in 1961 in English translation.


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