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The son of an innkeeper, Tamagno studied at Turin as a pupil of Pedrotti. He began his career in the choir of the Teatro Regio at Turin (1870), singing minor roles as well. In 1873 he attracted attention with his powerful B in the role of Nearco in Donizetti's Poliuto. He sang his first principal role in the year 1874 at the Teatro Bellini in Palermo (Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera). That same year he also sang Roberto il diavolo at Rovigo and in Il Guarany, Poliuto, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Franco cacciatore at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice.
The press reports of the time credit him with a firm, bright voice with squillanti high notes reaching high C. A critic of his Edgardo said that even though he possessed a good mezzavoce, he preferred to sing throughout using full voice.
Tamagno made his international debut at Barcellona's Liceu in the 1875-76 season, and in 1877 made his first appearence at La Scala as Vasco da Gama (L'Africaine). This was the beginning of a major career at La Scala: during the following season (1878-79) he sang in Don Carlo (title, role) and in Massenet's Re di Lahore (Alim), and created the role of Fabiano in the premiere of Gomes' Maria Tudor. In the next season followed Ernani, Simon Boccanegra (Adorno) and Il figliuol prodigo (in which he created the role of Azaele). In the 1883-84 season he sang again in Ernani, then Meyerbeer's Ugonotti and Il profeta, followed in 1884-85 by Mefistofele (Faust), Il profeta and Ponchielli's Marion Delorme (creating the role of Didier).
During this period Tamagno sang in all the major Italian theatres and made several visits to Madrid, Lisbon, and Buenos Aires. His favorite roles were in Guglielmo Tell, Ugonotti, Il Profeta and Il Trovatore because they provided the opportunity of showing off his powerful high notes. But he was also appreciated for his phrasing and the sweetness of his "mezzavoce", even if the middle of the range was more ordinary and his acting appeared clumsy. His limited education did not help his acting and interpretation. When planning the production of Otello, Verdi objected strongly to Tamagno: the critics claimed that he had a poor "legato" and tended to go off pitch when singing "mezzavoce". Verdi also judged his musical background to be insufficient and his acting as poor. (Verdi did not modify his opinion, despite Tamagno's success: several years later he wrote that he was impressive singing "Esultate" and "Addio sante memorie", but that the lesser known tenor Giovanni Battista De Negri would have been a far better overall choice.)
Nevertheless, Tamagno was choosen for the première. Otello became the high point of his career and opened the doors of all the world's major opera houses to him. He brought the role to London (Lyceum Theatre) in July 1889 and to Chicago (preceeded by a display of his high notes with Arnold in Guglielmo Tell...) and the Metropolitan in 1890. Nice followed in 1891 and Covent Garden in 1895. He also sang the role in Buenos Aires, Madrid, Monte Carlo and Moscow.
With the last years of the century came a decline. His repertoire was restricted to Otello, Guglielmo Tell and Il Profeta. He also sang (but rarely) in Ugonotti, Poliuto and Il Trovatore. The colour and power of the voice were still impressive, but the pitch was flawed and he could no longer sing "piano". Tamagno retired in 1904 and moved to his villa at Varese (an 18th century building he had bought in 1885 and radically remodeled- even building a private theatre).
Along with Roberto Stagno, Angelo Masini and Sebastian Gayarre, Tamagno was one of the great tenors of the last 30 years of the 19th century. Perhaps he was less technically gifted, but he is the best known nowadays, partly because of his creation of the role of Otello, and partly because we can hear his voice. During his last years (1903-1905) Tamagno made several recordings with piano accompaniment. The recording quality is poor and the singer was at the stage of retirement. However the specific characteristics of his voice are recognizable. The middle is light but the voice seems effortless in reaching the high notes. The diction is clear, giving an impressive declamation in Otello's "Esultate" and "Ora e per sempre addio". The pitch flaws (partly due to the recording technique) are still acceptable. The highs are even too effortless, because with the somewhat generic phrasing it results in an overall coolness. A comparison with the Otello recordings that Enrico Caruso made some years later shows better diction and more impressive high notes by Tamagno. Caruso sounds more convincing, however, because of his superior interpretive skills and the richness of the voice. But we should not forget that Caruso was at his peak while Tamagno was retiring!
Complete recordings (incl. 3 prev. unpublished) on Opal CD 9846
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