The other Italian tenor of the eight singers born during 1819, could hardly be more opposite than his ubiquitous compatriot, Dino Borgioli.
Of all the famous Italian tenors of the period, he’s mentioned perhaps least of all. Indeed, I can say that in a thousand discussions about singers, over 45 years, I can rarely remember his name ever been mentioned.
And yet he was a singer of much elegance and style, and a personality of great culture and charm.
He is discussed in a short article written for a record sleeve, by someone who obviously knew him well. Unfortunately, the authors name is not mentioned. He was born on the 15th of February 1891 and studied law and qualified as a barrister. But he’d already fallen in love with music and singing.
Studying with a Giachetti, in native Florence, he made his debut at the theatre Dalvermi in Milan in 1918.
The opera was Donizetti’s la Favorita, a work in which he always felt he excelled.
The role of Fernando admirably suiting the high tessitura of his lyric tenor voice, with its lovely high notes and elegant phrasing. In the lighter lyrical repertoire, he soon established himself as one of the finest tenors available. Only surpassed in public esteem by that remarkable artistic Tito Schipa.
The leading Italian theaters soon rejoiced in his gifted appearances. The Constanza in Rome, the San Carlo in Naples and most important of all, La Scala in Milan. But he was encouraged and helped by Toscanini. But it was a safe assumption that the great conductor must have recognized and approved his intelligence and musicianship, which may have borne fruit a decade later as we shall see.
In 1924 he was recruited by the melba Williamson opera company for an Australian season.
Legend has it that melba was impressed, not only by his voice, but also by his appearance and his tronic graces. Both he and the emergent Tata Demonte won resounding success, which may have had much to do with an engagement for the 1925 season at Covent Garden.
Like Del Monti he made an impressive London debut. The foundation for the subsequent British career, was well and truly laid.
If we turnover, we shall hear him first in an Aria from Mignon by Android Atama.
The new tenor was well on the way now to becoming a world figure. He appeared in Opera on both sides of the Atlantic. In Monte Carlo, Madrid, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, London, the Theatre Cologne in Buenos Aires, and Chicago.
At San Francisco in 1932, he and Claudia Muzio sang in Tosca, on the opening night of the new War Memorial Opera House. His career at the New York metropolitan was short, 1934/35 and none too successful.
The critics thought him rather dry voiced, but of certain vocal limitations are confirmed by his recordings, his artistic charisma seems to have been strong enough to compensate for them most times and in most places.
1931 brought him the honor of an engagement at the prestigious Salzburg Festival, where he sang Alma Viva in the Barber of Seville. In 1935 and 1936, Salzburg was to see and hear him again singing Fenton’s music and Falstaff with incomparable grace and charm. Perhaps Toscanini had remembered the very artistic tenor of those early La Scala days.
At Salzburg he also sang Donatavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a role he was to fill at Glenburn in 1937 to 1939.
But it was in the earlier belcanto roles that he loved to sing.
Here he is in his element. Bellini La Sonnambula, Prendi L’Anel
When he settled in London in the late 1930s, he was already a highly respected figure in British musical circles.
Few Italian tenors had sung so frequently at Covent Garden in the inter war period. Not so much because his vocal and technical qualities could match those of such rivals as Gigli, Pertile, Lauri Volpi and Martinelli, to name his greatest compatriots at that illustrious theatre. But rather on account of his distinctive musical personality, which gave him a special fitness for some of the less common operatic tasks, for example, his grace of style made him a particularly admirable Edgardo in Lucia de Lammermoor.
The opera of his London debut in 1925. While later, he was to win golden opinions in the unusual role of Dimitri in Virzovki’s Boris Godinoff.
When a few years later, Covent Garden featured a series of Rossini operas with Conchita Supervier in the florid mezzo soprano roles, a novel venture in those days, it was he who sang opposite the great Spanish diva, in the then unfamiliar Chinerenchulae.
A not altogether rewarding venture perhaps, was his appearance in Rodolfo in the production of La Boheme, which introduced the American Film star diva Grace Moore to the British public, in 1935.
For the first time in its history, the Covent Garden Opera House was crowded with film fans, who may have found it highly educative to hear and watch a Rodolfo, who moved and sang with outstanding grace and artistry.
Later in the 30s he added to his British laurels, by appearing in the last three pre-war seasons with the relatively new Glenburn Opera company, an organization which already carried tremendous artistic prestige for its stylistic approach towards Mozart’s operas.
And he became increasingly activist as a recitalist, a role in which his distinctive artistry was to earn him a special niche in musical circles.
By 1939 he had finally settled in London.
Later that year, war broke out. He never again appeared on the stage, but he continued his career as a teacher and recitalist.
As a recitalist, he was distinctive to a degree, like Shcipa and Gigli, he could lend a particular bloom to the Italian art songs. Indeed, if a little less technically accomplished, he was also more imaginative and more musically sensitive than either. And in the field of song, he was a good deal more venturesome.
He was not I think, especially in sympathy with the more popular Italian repertoire. The Booleans and extrovert emotionalism of the Neapolitan songs, for example, suited neither his temperament nor his vocal gifts.
But he could give memorable performances of items from folk songs, collections and in modern Italian art songs by composers like Respighi, Gavico and especially Grisette.
His grace and intellectual penetration were out of this world
His first sympathy’s, lay with the Italian belcanto composers of the early 19th century, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, who’s music gave full play to his charm of style and fondness for subtle effects.
Verdi, I once heard him describe as the first barbarian, although he had always shone very brightly indeed, as the Duke in Rigoletto and Alfredo in La Traviata. He was referring of course to Verdi’s way of writing for the voice. He was far too fine a musician not to appreciate his quality as a composer.
I do not know whether his judgement was partly influenced by his not over successful Covent Garden venture, as Ricardo in the Masked Ball, late in his career. Be that as it may, his records certainly were eloquent testimony to the uncommon elegance of his musical style in Arias by the older school of composers.
His gramophone records give a distinctive, even a unique experience in any music he touches. This is not too surprising for he was a man of exceptional intelligence and culture. For example, he was a fine and successful painter exhibited at the Royal Academy. This impression of culture and breeding is never absent for long from his performances. I can think of no other singer whose phrases show more reverent care and shaping or manifest more innate elegance and grace.
After a long and distinguished career as a teacher, of the art he had practiced so devoutly, he died in London on the 13th of September 1960.
The news of his passing came to me as a great sadness, for it brought back to me touching memories of my short period of study with him in 1945. I found him a man of tremendous charm and he treated me with remarkable and never to be forgotten kindness. I can never cease to be grateful for the hours spent under his cultured and deeply stimulating influence. He had, I think, a genuine modesty. I
n the course of a discussion of his early career, he said with sudden humility, ‘I was just lucky, I had a good teacher’. No self-praise, only gratitude and a kind of reverence. And it was not only on stage that he was capable of side-splitting comedy.
One day as he walked with me along the Brompton Rd on his way to the Trattoria where he habitually lunched, he startled the passers-by with a resident and hilarious imitation of a then famous British tenor.
Anybody can make a noise like, that he announced disparagingly. Suddenly serious again. But he was at bottom, a sensitive and rather melancholy soul, sometimes between exercises, he would break off and speak to me of his deepest feelings about life, with sadness never far away from the surface.
I loved him dearly. Peace and joy forever to Dino Borgioli