Tittu Ruffo, born Ruffo Cariera Tatta, was one of the top baritones of the early twentieth century. He had a powerful, dark singing voice, yet his upper register had a ring usually characteristic of a tenor; these qualities embodied the full-blooded operatic baritone that has been in vogue ever since. His flowing hair earned him the nickname, “The Singing Lion.”

Ruffo was brought up in a poor family headed by Orestes Titta, a factory worker who named the boy after his deceased hunting dog. Ruffo intended to apprentice himself to an ironworker, but his natural singing voice soon became evident and several patrons arranged for him to study in Rome. He studied briefly with Venceslao Persichini, but the pedagogue already had another promising baritone, Giuseppe di Luca, as a pupil and so sent Ruffo to other teachers.

Largo al factotum del mar

Largo al factotum della città.
Presto a bottega che l’alba è già.
Ah, che bel vivere, che bel piacere
per un barbiere di qualità!

Ah, bravo Figaro! Bravo, bravissimo!
Fortunatissimo per verità!

Pronto a far tutto, la notte e il giorno
sempre d’intorno in giro sta.
Miglior cuccagna per un barbiere,
vita più nobile, no, non si da.

Rasori e pettini, lancette e forbici,
al mio comando tutto qui sta.
V’è la risorsa, poi, del mestiere
colla donnetta… col cavaliere…

Tutti mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono,
donne, ragazzi, vecchi, fanciulle:
Qua la parrucca… Presto la barba…
Qua la sanguigna… Presto il biglietto…
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!, ecc.

Ahimè, che furia! Ahimè, che folla!
Uno alla volta, per carità!
Ehi, Figaro! Son qua.
Figaro qua, Figaro là,
Figaro su, Figaro giù.

Pronto prontissimo son come il fulmine:
sono il factotum della città.
Ah, bravo Figaro! Bravo, bravissimo;
a te fortuna non mancherà.

Room for the city’s jack of all trades

Room for the city’s factotum, here;
Off to the shop – the dawn is near.
What a merry life, what pleasure gay,
Awaits a barber of quality!

Ah, bravo, Figaro! Bravo, bravissimo!
Of men you are the happiest, most surely.

Ready for all, both by night and by day,
I bustle about so briskly and gay.
What better cheer, what happier lot,
Could an ever active barber await!

Razors and combs, and lancets, and scissors,
All here and ready at my command.
Then there are little resources besides –
With the young dame, with the gay cavalier.

All after me, all inquire for me,
Both young and old, mistress and maid:
“My wig here!” – “My beard here!”
“Here, bleed me!!” – “Quick, the note!”
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! etc.

Oh, what a crowding! Oh, what a fury!
Oh, what a crowding! Oh, what a fury!
“Hey, Figaro!” – I’m here.
“Hey, Figaro!” – I’m here.
Figaro up, Figaro down.

Swift and swifter, quick as lightning:
Room for the city’s factotum here.
Ah, bravo, Figaro! bravo, bravissimo!
In very truth the most lucky of men.

Here we have Ruffo and Caruso in the wedding scene in Shakespeare’s Othello.  Note that I do not say Verdi’s Otello, although, while Verdi keeps Shakespeare’s allusion, he is not as heavy with it as is Shakespeare.  In Shakespeare, the scene appears at the end of Act III, sc. 3.  In Verdi, one act sooner.  The point of this scene, at least in Shakespeare, and I do believe that Verdi kept this gloss, is that what Jago is doing, poisoning Otello’s mind against Desdemona, is the equivalent of a marriage of evil and that Jago himself was Satanic.  Otello and Jago seem to marry in the guise of taking revenge against Cassio and Desdemona, and they arise after having sworn their fealty to one another.  This is another of the many inversions of characters from the original play that Verdi is able to recapture and to retain in the opera.

One more comment if I might. This duet is sung with Enrico Caruso. I have nothing to say about Caruso that has not been said many times over. I will therefore keep my proverbial mouth shut and let the the singers sing.

Verdi, Otello, Atto 2

OTELLO
Oh! mostruosa colpa!

JAGO
Io non narrai che un sogno.

OTELLO
Un sogno che rivela un fatto.

JAGO
Un sogno che può dar
forma di prova ad altro indizio.

OTELLO
E qual?

JAGO
Talor vedeste in mano di Desdemona,
un tessuto trapunto a fior
e più sottil d’un velo?

OTELLO
È il fazzoletto ch’io le diedi,
pegno primo d’amor.

JAGO
Quel fazzoletto ieri – certo ne son –
lo vidi in man di Cassio.

OTELLO
Ah! – mille vite gli donasse Iddio!
Una è povera preda al furor mio!!
Jago, ho il cor di gelo.
Lungi da me le pietose larve.
Tutto il mio vano amor esalo al cielo.
Guardami… ei sparve!
Nelle sue spire d’angue
l’idra m’avvince!
Ah! sangue! sangue! sangue!
(S’inginocchia.)
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!
Per le attorte folgori!
Per la Morte e per l’oscuro
mar sterminator!
D’ira e d’impeto tremendo
presto fia che sfolgori

(levando le mani al cielo)
questa man ch’io levo e stendo!
(Fa per alzarsi; Jago lo trattiene inginocchiato.)

JAGO (inginocchiandosi anch’esso)
Non v’alzate ancor!
Testimon è il Sol ch’io miro,
che m’irradia e innanima
l’ampia terra e il vasto spiro
del Creato inter,
che ad Otello io sacro ardenti,
core, braccio ed anima
s’anco ad opere cruenti
s’armi il suo voler!

OTELLO, JAGO
(alzando le mani al cielo come chi giura)
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!
Per le attorte folgori, ecc.
Dio vendicator!

Verdi, Otello, Act 2

OTHELLO
0 monstrous guilt!

IAGO
1 told you but a dream.

OTHELLO
A dream that reveals a fact.

IAGO
A dream that may
give substance to another circumstance.

OTHELLO
And which is that?

IAGO
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
embroidered with flowers in Desdemona’s hand,
of finer stuff than lawn?

OTHELLO
That is the handkerchief I gave her,
first token of my love.

IAGO
That handkerchief I saw – I am sure of it –
yesterday in the hand of Cassio!

OTHELLO
O, that God had given him a thousand lives!
One is too poor a prey for my revenge!
Iago, my heart is ice.
Banished be the spirits of mercy.
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
Watch me…’tis gone!
In its snaky coils
the hydra has entwined me!
O, blood, blood, blood!
(He kneels.)
Now, by yond marble heaven!
By the jagged lightning-flash!
By Death, and by the dark
death-dealing ocean flood!
In fury and dire compulsion
shall thunder-bolts soon rain

(raising his hands to the sky)
from this hand that I raise outstretched!
(He starts to rise; Iago prevents him.)

IAGO (kneeling also)
Do not rise yet!
Witness, you sun that I gaze on,
which lights me and which animates
the broad earth and the spiritual expanse
of the whole universe,
that to Othello I do consecrate
ardently heart, hands and soul
even though on bloody business
his will be bent!

OTHELLO, IAGO
(raising their hands to heaven in an oath-taking gesture)
Now, by yond marble heaven!
By the jagged lightning-flash, etc.
God of vengeance!

Nemico della Patria?!

Nemico della Patria?!
È vecchia fiaba che beatamente
ancor la beve il popolo.

Nato a Costantinopoli? Straniero!
Studiò a Saint Cyr? Soldato!
Traditore! Di Dumouriez un complice!
E poeta? Sovvertitor di cuori e di costumi!

Un dì m’era di gioia
passar fra gli odi e le vendette,
puro, innocente e forte.
Gigante mi credea…
Son sempre un servo!
Ho mutato padrone.
Un servo obbediente di violenta passione!
Ah, peggio! Uccido e tremo,
e mentre uccido io piango!

Io della Redentrice figlio,
per primo ho udito il grido suo pel mondo
ed ho al suo il mio grido unito…
Or smarrita ho la fede
nel sognato destino?
Com’era irradiato di gloria
il mio cammino!

La coscienza nei cuor
ridestar delle genti,
raccogliere le lagrime
dei vinti e sofferenti,
fare del mondo un Pantheon,
gli uomini in dii mutare
e in un sol bacio,
e in un sol bacio e abbraccio
tutte le genti amar!
e in un sol bacio e abbraccio
tutte le genti amar!

Enemy of the Fatherland

Enemy of the fatherland?!
It’s an old fable that luckily
the public still swallows.

Born in Constantinople? A foreigner!
Studied at St Cyr? A soldier.
A Traitor! An accomplice of Dumouriez!
And a poet? A subvertor of hearts and of habits.

Once I was happy,
going about amongst the hatreds and the vendettas,
I thought my self a giant,
pure, innocent, and strong…
But still I’m a servant!
I’ve changed masters.
And obedient servant of violent passions!
Oh, it’s worse! I kill and I tremble,
and while I kill I weep!

I, a son of the revolution,
was the first to hear it’s cry to the world
and I joined my voice to its…
Now I’ve lost faith
in the destiny of my dreams?
How radiant with glory
my path was!

To reawaken conscience
in peoples’ hearts,
to gather up the tears
of the oppressed and of the suffering,
to make the world a paradise,
to change men into gods,
and with a single kiss,
with a single and embrace
to love all mankind!
And in a single kiss and embrace
to love all mankind!

Titta Ruffo

Titta Ruffo, whose real name was Ruffo Cafiero Titta, initially considered following in the career footsteps of his blacksmith father Orestes Titta (who named his son after Ruffo, a favourite hunting dog); but his superb natural voice indicated that his future was to lie in singing. He studied briefly in Rome with Venceslao Persichini, who also taught Battistini and de Luca, and in Milan with Lelio Casini; but, as he himself acknowledged, he was essentially self-taught.

Ruffo’s operatic stage debut came in 1897, as the Herald / Lohengrin at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. This was followed by appearances throughout the Italian provinces, for instance at Livorno and Pisa, singing major roles such as the title part in Rigoletto and Barnaba / La Gioconda; and by visits also to Santiago (Chile) in 1900 and Cairo in 1901. He sang Enrico / Lucia di Lammermoor and Figaro / Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Royal Opera House, London in 1903 and was scheduled to sing Rigoletto opposite Nellie Melba; but she scuttled this proposal on the grounds of his being too young to play her father. During the 1903–1904 season however Ruffo sang this role several times at La Scala, Milan, marking the take-off of his European career as a top-flight opera singer.

Thereafter Ruffo had no close links with any one particular company (although he returned to La Scala frequently during the next twenty-five years), but rather sang as a guest for extremely high fees. His repertoire was grounded upon the major baritone roles of Verdi, for instance Don Carlo / Ernani and Amonasro / Aida. He enjoyed a very successful tour of Russia in 1904 and returned annually between 1905 and 1907, singing in St Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Kharkov and Kiev, as well as appearing in Warsaw in 1907. During 1905 he was one of the stars of the Sonzogno season presented in Paris, and sang Boniface in the Italian premiere of Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. He sang as a guest at the Paris Opera, the Court Operas of Vienna and Berlin and at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires. Here he was especially successful in the title roles of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1908) and Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon (1909) as well as Jack Rance in La fanciulla del West in 1911. When he was booked to sing the role of Hamlet at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Melba, there on her way to Australia, contacted the manager offering to sing Ophelia. ‘Tell Melba she’s too old to sing with me,’ Ruffo responded, in revenge for her earlier put-down at Covent Garden.

In America Ruffo’s debut took place in Philadelphia in 1912 as Rigoletto, followed by appearances in Chicago during 1912 (singing Hamlet with the Chicago company when it visited the Metropolitan Opera House, New York) and 1913, and later in 1919 and 1920, when he took the title part in the first performance of Leoncavallo’s Edipo Re, which was especially written for him. He sang with the Canadian Opera in 1914 and 1915 before serving with the Italian army between 1916 and 1919.

After appearances in Mexico City in 1919 and Boston in 1920, Ruffo made his belated debut with the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1922 as Rossini’s Figaro (it has been suggested that Caruso used his influence to keep his major operatic rival out of the Met during his lifetime). He sang in forty-six performances at the Met up until 1929, his roles there including Rigoletto, Amonasro, the Ernani Don Carlo, Barnaba, Gérard / Andrea Chénier and Tonio / Pagliacci. He also sang Neri in the Met American premiere of Giordano’s La cena delle beffe in 1926.

Following the murder of his brother-in-law by fascists, from 1924 Ruffo refused to sing in Italy. He gave concerts in Paris, Monte Carlo, Berlin and Amsterdam during 1930; in the following year made his final appearances at the Teatro Colón (as Hamlet and Scarpia / Tosca); and gave his last concert at Cannes in 1935. When he returned to Italy in 1936 he was promptly arrested, but released shortly afterwards and retired from musical life to live in Florence, publishing his memoirs in 1937. On the news of the fall of Mussolini in 1943 he flung open the windows of his apartment in Florence and sang the Marseillaise before an applauding crowd.

Ruffo possessed a phenomenally rich baritone with an unusual upper extension which could take him into the territory of the tenor. An extremely handsome man, his only rival on the operatic stage during the earlier part of his career was Caruso. As late as 1951 Ruffo’s voice still sounded in good condition; but as his vocal technique was weak, his reliance on his raw natural gifts, and the resulting fatigue, probably shortened his career. In his prime however the force of his singing was overwhelming, marking the shift in operatic singing from the restrained elegance of Battistini to the more immediately dramatic requirements of the verismo composers. He recorded extensively. The conductor Tullio Serafin said of him: ‘In my lifetime there have been three miracles – Caruso, Ponselle and Ruffo. Apart from these there have been several wonderful singers.’