Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905) was considered the greatest dramatic tenor of his generation. During the last quarter of the 19th century, this legendary singer captured the attention of audiences everywhere with his performances in opera and concert. Born in Turin to a wine merchant and tavern keeper, Tamagno showed early promise as a singer, but was refused entry to the Turin Conservatory when he first applied at the age of seventeen. Not to be dissuaded, the young tenor repeatedly auditioned for the Teatro Regio in his hometown. Eventually he was accepted into the chorus and began studying with celebrated composer and teacher Carlo Pedrotti (1817-1893). As he continued to gain stage experience as a chorister, Tamagno hoped to be given the opportunity to sing roles with the company. He got his wish in February of 1872 when he debuted in the small role of Gaspero in the local premiere of Francesco Cortesi’s opera La Colpa del Cuore. Other comprimario parts followed during the season in such operas as Poliuto and Ruy Blas.
Tamagno’s real breakthrough came about early in 1874 when he sang Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera at the Teatro Bellini in Palermo, impressing audience and critics alike. Over the course of the next three years, Tamagno made appearances in Carpi, Ferrara, Venice, Rovigo and Barcelona, building an impressive repertoire of leading roles in such works as Lucia di Lammermoor, Ernani, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Don Carlo, La Forza del Destino, Robert le Diable, Les Huguenots, Saffo, Martha and even Rossini’s Stabat Mater.
Tamagno’s work with the Teatro Liceo in Barcelona most likely brought him to the attention of La Scala in Milan, where he opened the 1877/78 season as Vasco in L’Africaine. From that point on, La Scala was Tamagno’s artistic home, and he sang there regularly until 1901. The tenor was also a frequent guest to the operatic stages of Naples, Rome, Venice, London, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Seville, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, New York, Paris, Nice and Monte Carlo. He amassed a repertoire of over fifty roles, including the leads in Le Prophète, Guillaume Tell, Aïda, Sansone et Dalila, Andrea Chénier and his greatest role, Verdi’s Otello, which he created at La Scala in 1887.
Unfortunately, Tamagno’s career was not destined to be a lengthy one. As far back as 1887 (during rehearsals for the premiere of Otello), the tenor was suffering from chest pains and shortness of breath. Acute hypertension coupled with arteriosclerosis, eventually caused Tamagno to curtail his activities. After the turn of the century, the fifty year old singer had cut back his stage appearances markedly and began concentrating on concert work. His final performance seems to have been a recital in Turin in March of 1905. Several weeks later, the tenor suffered a serious heart attack and spent the summer convalescing at his villa in Varese. In mid-August, however, Tamagno suffered a massive stroke from which he never recovered. Paralyzed, the great tenor lingered for two weeks before dying from a second stroke on August 31. He was only fifty-four years old.
The recordings of Francesco Tamagno are amazing documents to behold. Although made when the tenor was semi-retired and nearing the end of his life, they reveal an amazingly well controlled voice with trumpet like top notes. The majority of Tamagno’s forty three discs were made in February of 1903 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. G&T representative Will Gaisberg agreed to set up a makeshift studio in the music rooms at the tenor’s villa in Ospedaletti in order to produce a stress free environment for the chronically ill Tamagno. In a span of five days (February 7 to 11) the tenor cut some forty discs of titles from Guillaume Tell, Il Trovatore, Andrea Chénier, Samson et Dalila, Hérodiade, Messaline, Le Prophète and, of course, Otello. Most of these titles were given at least two (in some cases, four) takes and those considered worthy of release were issued later that same year. In October, Tamagno joined soprano Giannina Russ to record the duet “Sento una forza indomita” from Il Guarany. However, the resulting disc was marred by a technical flaw and no copies are known to exist. Finally, in April of 1904, Tamagno agreed to travel to the G&T studios in Milan where he recorded two arias from Otello and Andrea Chénier.
This performance of Otello's death scene, "Niun mi tema", was one of two recordings made by the tenor during a visit to the Milan offices of the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in April of 1904. This version is the most complete of all the tenor's recordings of this aria and shows Tamagno to be in splendid voice in his fifty-fourth year.