Giuseppe Borgatti (1871-1950) was the greatest Italian-born Wagnerian tenor of his generation. Born into a humble family in Cento in the northern Italian province of Ferrara, Borgatti began his working life as a bricklayer. It was during his mandatory military service that his fine singing voice was discovered by the Marquis Plattis, who sent the young tenor to Bologna to study with Alessandro Busi in September of 1890. Shortly after his arrival, Borgatti was introduced to Biago Oppi, a local patron of the arts, and grocer Francesco Ballanti. The young man signed a contract with the two gentlemen…a contract that required him to relinquish 50 percent of his earnings during the first four years of his career, in return for a stipend, clothing, food and lodging at Ballanti’s home. The two men turned out to be con artists, for Borgatti never saw a penny of his stipend, the clothing provided for him was threadbare and embarrassingly out of fashion and the food was practically inedible. As if this weren’t enough, Borgatti was put to work, hauling supplies back and forth for Ballanti’s grocery business! A decade later, when Oppi and Ballanti attempted to collect half of the now famous Borgatti’s income, numerous witnesses came forth to testify to the dreadful treatment the young man was subjected to and the case was decided in Borgatti’s favor.
Despite these early deprivations and indignities, Borgatti finished his studies and was contracted to perform Gounod’s Faust with a small opera company in Castelfranco Veneto. Unfortunately, the company required its cast members to provide their own wardrobe! Unable to afford to pay for a costume, Borgatti received a loan from Professor Busi and was finally able to make his debut in September of 1892. He was soon hired by the Teatro Malibran in Venice, again as Faust. Unfortunately, the production was a failure and Borgatti wound up stranded with barely a cent. He wrote to Professor Busi who came to the rescue once again and loaned Borgatti passage money to Milan. More importantly, Busi wrote several letters of recommendation for his former pupil, including one to Carlo d’Ormeville, the celebrated theatrical agent, who helped to guide the young man’s career.
Borgatti’s star began to rise by the mid-1890s, with appearances in Venice, Milan, Parma, Naples, Rome, Genoa and other cities. His first foray into Wagner was an 1894 Lohengrin at Turin’s Teatro dal Verme. Two years later, Borgatti made operatic history when he stepped in for Alfonso Garulli as Andrea Chénier in the world premiere of Giordano’s opera at La Scala. He appeared extensively in South America, as well as in Spain and Russia. Although Borgatti’s repertoire of over two dozen roles included parts in such Italian operas La Gioconda, Tosca, Mefistofele, Fedora, Pagliacci, Siberia, Manon Lescaut, La Traviata, and Aďda, he began to concentrate heavily on the Wagnerian repertoire as the 19th century came to a close. In 1899 he was the first Siegfried at La Scala and in 1904 he became the first Italian artist invited to the Bayreuth Festival, cementing his reputation as a Wagnerian tenor of the first rank. Among his Wagner roles were Siegmund in Die Walküre, Walter von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Loge in Das Rheingold, and the title roles in Lohengrin, Siegfried, Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser and Parsifal. In 1907, Borgatti began to have vision problems. Over the course of the next several years, the tenor’s eyesight grew gradually worse. Glaucoma was the culprit and, with no effective treatment in those days, Borgatti became completely blind by 1914.
The loss of his vision spelled the end of Borgatti’s stage career. Although he continued to appear on the concert platform (in VERY fine voice) until 1928, the tenor essentially devoted himself to teaching. After spending thirty years as a successful voice coach, Borgatti retired to the resort town of Leggiuno, where he died in 1950.
Giuseppe Borgatti left a relatively small legacy of recordings. In three sessions…Fonotipia, 1905, Pathé, 1919 and Columbia, 1928…Borgatti committed just 16 arias and songs to disc, mostly from the Wagnerian realm. The voice heard on tenor’s records, particularly the Fonotipia set, doesn’t always suggest a Wagnerian tenor. The Pathé records display Borgatti to much better advantage, although one gets the impression that he was much better in the theater. All in all, Borgatti’s discs are a mixed bag, but one that contains some very satisfying and individual singing. In this recording, Borgatti sings "Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan" (sung in Italian as Mercé, mercé, cigno gentil") from Wagner's Lohengrin. This was recorded in Milan for the Pathé company in 1919.