25 January 2017

Antonio Scotti - baritone

Neapolitan singer who played 35 seasons at the Met

Antonio Scotti in his most famous role as Baron Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca
Antonio Scotti in his most famous role as
Baron Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca
The operatic baritone Antonio Scotti, who performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for a remarkable 35 consecutive seasons, was born on this day in 1866 in Naples.

Scotti's career coincided with those of many fine baritones and experts did not consider his voice to be among the richest. Yet what he lacked in timbre, he compensated for in musicality, acting ability and an instinctive grasp of dramatic timing.

Later in his career, he excelled in roles that emerged from the verismo movement in opera in the late 19th century, of which the composer Giacomo Puccini was a leading proponent, drawing on themes from real life and creating characters more identifiable with real people.

For a while, Scotti's portrayal of the chief of police Baron Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, for example, was the yardstick against which all performances were measured, at least until Tito Gobbi's emergence in the 1930s.  Indeed, in 1924 the Met chose a gala presentation of Tosca as a fitting way for Scotti to mark the 25th anniversary of his debut there.

Scotti's parents in Naples were keen for him to enter the priesthood but he chose to pursue his ambitions in music. He received his first serious training at the Naples Conservatory under Esther Trifari-Paganini and Vincenzo Lombardi, who was the vocal coach employed by Enrico Caruso.

Most accounts of Scotti's career say he made his debut in Malta in 1889 in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida but some suggest he had already performed in public at the Circolo Filarmonico in Naples in Gaspare Spontini's La vestale.  What is agreed is that audiences and critics were impressed by the young baritone and he was soon being booked to appear elsewhere, not only in Italy but in Spain and Portugal, Russia and South America.

Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where Scotti made his debut in 1898 in Richard Wagner's Der Meistersinger
Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where Scotti made his debut
in 1898 in Richard Wagner's Der Meistersinger
His status as a singer destined for an illustrious career was confirmed when he made his debut at La Scala in Milan in 1898 in the role of Hans Sachs in Richard Wagner's Der Meistersinger, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini.

He performed at Covent Garden in London for the first time in 1899 as Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera of the same name, in which he also made his New York debut in the same year.  He would return to Covent Garden almost every year until the outbreak of war in 1914.

Scotti's association with Baron Scarpia in Tosca began in 1901, when he became the first artist to sing the role in America.  He would go on to perform the role a further 216 times, playing opposite 15 different Toscas, including the beautiful American soprano Geraldine Farrar, with whom he was said to be infatuated.

Farrar had an affair with Toscanini and was rumoured to be involved romantically also with Caruso, who became Scotti's close friend, their careers at the Met running parallel.  Scotti was Rigoletto to Caruso's Duke of Mantua when the latter made his debut at the house in Verdi's opera in 1903 and they would share the stage on many occasions.

A dapper Antonio Scotti pictured in New  York in 1915 at the height of his fame
A dapper Antonio Scotti pictured in New
York in 1915 at the height of his fame
By the time he retired, Scotti had clocked up more than 1,200 performances with the Metropolitan Opera House Company, either in New York or on tour.  Among his other notable roles, he was Puccini's Marcello in La bohème and Sharpless in Madame Butterfly, each on more than 100 occasions.

From 1919 he also toured with his own troupe of singers, under the name of the Scotti Opera Company, although the venture was not a financial success.

His final Met appearance came in January 1933, shortly before his 67th birthday, when he sang Chim-Fen in Franco Leoni's one-act opera L'Oracolo, a role he had premiered at Covent Garden in 1905 and which he played in New York several times.  Despite a voice that was by then beginning to fail, a dynamic performance was still hailed as a fitting send-off.

Scotti made a number of recordings, including several duets with Caruso, Farrar and with the Polish coloratura soprano, Marcella Sembrich, although he did not enjoy the commercial success that came the way of Caruso.

He returned to Naples, intending to enjoy retirement in the city of his birth, but had not been able to turn his years of celebrity in New York into financial security and after three years in reduced circumstances, relying on money he was sent occasionally by sympathetic friends and fans in the United States, he died in hospital in 1936 from arterial disease.

Travel tip:

Milan's famous opera house, Teatro alla Scala - popularly known as La Scala - came into being in 1778.  It was at first called the Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala, having been commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa of the House of Hapsburg, of which the Duchy of Milan was at the time a part, as replacement for the Teatro Regio Ducale following a fire in 1776.  It was built on the site of the former church of Santa Maria alla Scala.  As with many theatres of the time, La Scala was also a casino, and opera-goers in the early days had to contend with the distraction of gambling activities taking place at the same time as the cast were performing on the stage.

The Naples Music Conservatory is next to the
Church of San Pietro a Majella 
Travel tip:

The Naples Music Conservatory occupies the former monastery adjoining the church of San Pietro a Majella at the western end of Via dei Tribunali, one of the three parallel streets running from east to west that mark the grid of the historic centre of the city, one of which - Via San Biagio dei Librai - is more commonly known as Spaccanapoli.  Formerly housed in the monastery of San Sebastiano, on the eastern side of Piazza Dante, the Conservatory moved to its present location in 1826.

More reading:

Also on this day:

1348: Devastating earthquake hits Friuli Venezia Giulia

(Picture credit: Church of San Pietro a Majella by Armando Mancini; via Wikimedia Commons)


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