I first saw the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi on stage at Covent Garden in 1963, by which time his operatic recording career had been going on for more than 20 years. During the 60s – the formative years in my operatic education – I was lucky enough to witness the great man live in many of his signature roles including: as Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro in 1963, with Freni, Geraint Evans, Teresa Berganza, Ilva Ligabue, and conducted by Solti, and the same year with his brother-in-law Boris Christoff and Grace Bumbry – another stellar cast this! – as Rodrigo inDon Carlo; as Iago in 1964 opposite James McCracken’s Otello; as Michele (in Il tabarro) and Gianni Schicchi in the complete Trittico in 1965 and as Simon Boccanegra in his own game-changing production, also in 1965; as Scarpia a number of times (but, sadly, never opposite Maria Callas); as Falstaff, with Norman Bailey and Ilva Ligabue as the Fords.
Some of his most wonderful interpretations have never been made available on CD: at the forefront of these is that 1963 Almaviva. It might well have been broadcast live at the time and it certainly was recorded. I would love to think the Royal Opera House could make this one available. I like to think I saw Gobbi in his prime. But the reality is that he was born in 1913 and will have already been 49 when I first saw him and the majority of his most cherishable recordings date from the 1950s.
Here’s my (agonisingly selected) top 10. How could I not find room for his Aida, Il barbiere or Ballo in maschera, all with Callas? If you enjoy these, treat yourself to a laugh by watching him (as Tito Gobbi, partisan) in The Glass Mountain (1949), with Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray and Valentina Cortese (Bel Canto Society BCD D0538). Or an even bigger laugh in the 1947 film of Pagliacci (Bel Canto Society D657), where his Tonio plays opposite the Nedda of (believe it) Gina Lollobrigida (admittedly, she doesn’t do the singing!)
1) Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Live from the Salzburg Festival, 1950, in the title role with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Donna Elvira, Ljuba Welitsch, Josef Greindl, conductor Furtwangler). The mono recording quality of this live performance is of a lower standard than I would usually demand but there is a vitality I cannot resist and an irresistible electricity about it. (EMI CHS 566567-2) Amazon
2) Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (1952, as Belcore, conductor Gabriele Santini). An abridged early recording in imperfect sound, but a fascinating document, which I cannot but help including. (Testament SBT 2150) Amazon
3) Puccini’s Tosca (1953, as Scarpia, with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano, conductor Victor de Sabata). Reissued countless times and almost never out of the catalogue in 58 years, this mono recording by Walter Legge for EMI is rightly hailed as one of the greatest opera releases of all time. (EMI 966815-2) Amazon
4) Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1954, as Prologo/Tonio, with Callas, conducted by Tullio Serafin). Released with Callas’s Cavalleria Rusticana. (EMI 640722-2) Amazon
5) Verdi’s Don Carlo (1954, as Rodrigo, with Boris Christoff as Filippo II and Antonietta Stella as Elisabetta di Valois, conducted by Santini) (EMI 567479-2) Amazon
6) Verdi’s Rigoletto (1955, in the title role opposite Callas as Gilda, with di Stefano as Il duca di Mantova, conductor Serafin) There is no finer Rigoletto: just sample what is one of the greatest of Verdi’s father-daughter duets. (EMI CDS 747469-8) Amazon
7) Puccini’s Il Trittico (1955, as Michele in Il tabarro, conductor Vincenzo Bellezza, mono; 1958, as the eponymous Gianni Schicchi, with Victoria de los Angeles as Lauretta, conductor Santini, stereo) Definitive, with the not inconsiderable bonus of de los Angeles’s wonderful Suor Angelica, with Fedora Barbieri as La zia principessa, conductor Serafin. (EMI 212714-2) Amazon
8) Verdi’s Falstaff (1956, in the title role, with Schwarzkopf, conductor Herbert von Karajan) An unmissable joy from first note to last, even if I preferred Geraint Evans on stage here – and Toscanini’s 1950 broadcast performance with Giuseppe Valdengo, now available on RCA Red Seal, 72372-2, is arguably finer still! (EMI 377349-2) Amazon
9) Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (1957, as Simon, with Boris Christoff as Fiesco and de los Angeles as Maria, conductor Santini, mono). Gobbi was possibly as important to the recognition of this Verdi masterpiece as was Colin Davis to the acceptance of Les Troyens. With an unbeatable cast I prefer this Boccanegra to any other and is an automatic inclusion in my list. (EMI 567483-2) Amazon
10) Verdi’s Otello (1960, as Iago, opposite Jon Vickers as Otello and Leonie Rysanek as Desdemona, conductor Serafin). Another must for my list, and it would be a desert island selection also, even though it is slightly diminished by sometimes erratic pitching from Vickers. Gobbi is superb throughout and it’s a shame that this was his only studio recording of (maybe, only maybe!) his greatest role. Thank heavens the CD release avoids the worst-placed disc break I ever encountered on LP! (RCA 09026-63180-2) Amazon