Obituary: Giorgio Tozzi

James Inverne2nd Jun 2011
Giorgio Tozzi as Colline in Puccini's La bohème (photo: Met Opera Archives)Giorgio Tozzi as Colline in Puccini's La bohème (photo: Met Opera Archives)

Giorgio Tozzi, one of the pre-eminent bass singers of the 20th century, has died at the age of 88. With the passing of his contemporary Cesare Siepi last year, Tozzi was perhaps the last of the great bass singers of his era – a golden generation that spawned, alongside Tozzi and Siepi, the likes of Jerome Hines, Nicolai Ghiaurov and (the often underrated) Nicola Zaccaria. When Tozzi reached his prime, Boris Christoff and Ezio Pinza were also still on the stage.

Indeed, it was Pinza whom the younger bass succeeded in one of his most famous roles – taking on vocal duties (actor Rossano Brazzi lip-synched) for the 1958 film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as Emile de Becque, the role Pinza had famously created on Broadway. It was a favourite role.  Nearly 20 years later he performed it at New York’s Lincoln Center, recording it (again) alongside Florence Henderson. And musical theatre was never an alien form to Tozzi, who in some ways crowned his career with a Tony Award-winning turn in 1980 with Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella.

It was in fact a Broadway production, albeit of an opera, that housed the Chicago-born singer’s professional debut, as Tarquinius in a 1948 staging of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. His unique gifts – charismatic stage presence, softly burnished bass voice that was capable of real power (and sublime beauty) yet at the same time had a vulnerable quality and very ‘human’ scale to it – were quickly seized upon by the opera world. Tozzi became a star of the Metropolitan Opera and around the world.

Though hardly ubiquitous, he left enough recordings to give a good assessment of his talents. Chief among these is a sovereign Ramfis in Aida under Sir Georg Solti (Decca), a quietly moving Colline on the famous Beecham-conducted La bohème (EMI) and a Verdi Requiem for Fritz Reiner whose reputation today belies the lukewarm Gramophone review it originally received (Tozzi’s contribution was more or less dismissed as, “workmanlike…not eminently distinguished, but thoroughly credible.”). His part in Beecham’s recording of Handel’s Messiah fared better, with Gramophone opining, “Giorgio Tozzi does the bass solos absolutely marvellously”.

If it can be found, perhaps the best recording of Tozzi was actually taken from a live performance, of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg in 1961 (most recently available on the Opera d’Oro label). Under the baton of Gianandrea Gavazzeni and alongside that finest of vocal actors Tito Gobbi, Tozzi blazes as the vengeful Fiesco – he and Gobbi arguably outdoing even the classic partnership of Gobbi and Christoff on the classic Nello Santi studio set.

He ended his career as a respected vocal professor, first at the Juilliard School and latterly at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. He published one novel, The Golem of the Golden West.

By way of tribute to this much-loved artist, here is a lovely audio clip of Tozzi singing Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers.

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