“Oh my beloved Taddei!” ventured Philip Hope-Wallace on air one afternoon in the early post-war years, remarking on the great and sudden popularity of the new Italian baritone. And certainly Gianni Schicchi was one of his best parts, wonderfully vivid and individual even now on the 60-year old recording PH-W was probably in the process of reviewing. It was an opera that remained in Taddei’s repertoire till very near the end – he was still singing it in his seventies. In the course of his long career he was heard in most of the leading European and American houses, the Metropolitan last of all. There he made a triumphant debut in 1985 as Falstaff – in his 70th year.
Born in 1916, he had just begun to make a name for himself when Italy went to war on the side of Germany. He was conscripted but joined the resistance in the Alps and was taken prisoner. He had made a promising debut at Rome in 1936 and when he made what was virtually a second start it was in Vienna. He quickly became a favourite in the Austrian capital, admired for his charismatic stage presence as for his warm, resonant voice.
Work with the company broadened his musicianship, and he became distinguished among Italians as a singer of Mozart. He sang the title-role in Le nozze di Figaro at the Salzburg Festival in 1948 and partnered Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a performance of The Magic Flute on Italian radio. Later he took his place in the illustrious casts assembled by Walter Legge for performances and recordings of Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni, where he sang Leporello.
London first heard him in some enterprising seasons of Italian opera at the Cambridge Theatre. At Covent Garden, more than a decade later, his roles were Macbeth, Rigoletto, Iago and Scarpia (all of them dominated in Taddei’s best singing years by Tito Gobbi). On records, too, he took second place, for Decca (which might have looked to him as their answer to EMI’s Gobbi) preferred Ettore Bastianini. The early records, which probably are his best, were made on the Cetra label, which had only limited circulation outside Italy.
All the same, he was universally recognised as one of the leading baritones of his time. His Scarpia, clearly the work of an experienced veteran, is preserved in the 1963 Tosca under Karajan and is a good example of the powerful actor-singer he became. The Mozart recordings show the lightness of touch he could bring to recitative, and make clear too his gifts as a comic artist.
In later years his voice became less well-focused and he tended to resort to an ever-more emphatic style. But we can always go back to that Schicchi of 1949 (recently reissued on Preiser) and (mentally at least) sing along with the critic of years past in melodious praise.