Journeying with Titta Ruffo: in the land of the tsars.

Journeying with Titta Ruffo: in the land of the tsars.

With this first article, we inaugurate the column ‘Travelling with Titta Ruffo’ which, through the reading of the book My Parabola and the vast material in the Archive, aims to relive the most salient and emotionally significant events experienced by our Titta Ruffo during the years of his artistic career. Happy reading!

We are in 1905, Titta Ruffo’s debut year in the country of the Tsars where he will be engaged for the entire season, and after two months of performances in Odessa, it is now the turn of the capital St. Petersburg at the New Conservatory Theatre. On 21 March (the 8th according to the Julian calendar still in use in the country), Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il trovatore was staged, in which the baritone played the character of Il Conte di Luna. The Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti, Russia’s oldest daily newspaper, writes about him: ‘The talented baritone Titta, who had already displayed all his exceptional and rare artistic gifts in Rigoletto, both in terms of the splendour of his voice and his supreme artistry, was an extraordinary Conte di Luna in Il Trovatore. Here, too, he proved himself to be a great master of bel canto, and can rightly be called an artist of the first rank, unsurpassed. We are surprised and delighted by his method of singing, his long breathing, his clear and declamatory phrasing. […] Amidst delirious applause, he had to repeat the famous romanza that he sang superbly.’ Our Ruffo, to be exact, arrived in Russia in December 1904 and departed only at the end of April 1905 for a total of 18 official performances and numerous repeat performances between Odessa and St. Petersburg. In the image below you can see the playbill of the performance with the artist’s name in Cyrillic characters highlighted in black.

Among the many archive materials documenting our Ruffo’s career, one section that is certainly peculiar is that of the caricatures: these documents are like snapshots of the world in which the artist moved and, more importantly, allow us to observe it, filtered of course, through the eye of those who were the main recipients of the performances staged, namely the audience. The scene depicts baritone Mattia Battistini (one of the most important and famous Italian singers at the time) on the left being dragged towards the Piccolo Teatro, while on the right Titta Ruffo is carried in triumph towards the Nuovo Conservatorio theatre with the inscription at the bottom centre that, paraphrased, reads: ‘It is better to be the opponent of a good one’. Far be it from us to pass judgement or even lessen Battistini’s importance and value, an interpretative context is provided by Titta Ruffo himself when he speaks of his return to Russia for the opera season of 1906: ‘The last opera I sang before leaving St. Petersburg was the Linda di Chamonix. That evening, the same opera was given in competition at the Italian theatre with Mattia Battistini, who had already been one of the most talked-about idols there for some time. The next day, a critic from one of the major newspapers, with little regard for my artistic companion, wrote that since Antonio Cotogni’s time, one had never heard a baritone voice as beautiful as mine, the only one worthy of comparison.

Like all artists, in order to be able to perform and thus tread the boards in the countless theatres around the world, it was first necessary to have a contract, which, in those years, was customary to be stipulated by agencies or companies that acted as mediators with the managements of the individual theatres. Obviously, our Ruffo was not exempt from this practice, and one of the most eminent and prominent theatrical agents on the Russian scene with whom he came into contact was undoubtedly Alessio Cereteli, an Italianisation of the transliterated Cyrillic name of Aleksej Tsereteli. A Georgian prince and Russian theatre impresario active first in Kharkiv and later in St. Petersburg, he was an important figure who contributed to the spread of opera and European singers in the Tsars’ country. This contract stipulated the engagement of Titta Ruffo for a total of six performances at the New Conservatory Theatre in St. Petersburg and a total remuneration of 15,000 liras. The performances took place in December 1905, i.e. during the uprisings of what was the first Russian revolution, and this note of exceptionality and intrepid adventure is well described in the volume: ‘[…] when he came to me with a Milanese newspaper, where the front page was printed in large letters “The revolution in Russia – the state of siege in St. Petersburg and Moscow”. The news made me lose all hope of seeing my Moscow dream realised, and yet I was always reluctant to bind myself to other contracts. […] Not more than two days later, in fact, I received a telegram from Prince Cereteli from Petersburg […] And a week later I left for Petersburg. When I arrived at the Russian frontier after two and a half days, the stationmaster absolutely refused to allow me to continue […] I felt lost; but, insisting, mentioning my name, showing the contract and the sum received in advance, they decided to let me board the train […] The journey was interminable. […] The big city, covered in snow, with twenty-eight degrees below zero, made a frightening impression. […] I armed myself with holy patience; I took my two heavy suitcases, and sinking my feet into the snow that was penetrating my galoshes, I arrived at the Conservatory theatre in a hurry. […]”

We conclude our first journey with a beautiful photo in which we find Titta Ruffo as the Demon, from Rubinstein’s homonymous opera. The recipient of the dedication is unknown to us, but the date, in the bottom right-hand corner, ‘St Petersburg 3-2-906’ clearly tells us that we are before the start of the artist’s second tour in the country of the Tsars. The opera, and the character, had already been staged with great success during his first stay in 1905 as is well testified in My Parabola: ‘Master Ciarcov, distinguished musician and pianist, was a great help to me. He even wanted to teach me – and, seconded by my fervour, with his loving care and patience he succeeded – the great aria of the third act in Russian, so that later I was able to sing it in public with correct pronunciation. […] In this last part, I acquired such mastery that I ended up singing it effortlessly, naturally, as if the Demon were myself.
Curiosity: a discerning eye will immediately notice a backdrop not appropriate to the opera in question, since the costume was originally made for the role of Satana in the opera Il Santo staged in Venice at La Fenice in 1903.