Daniele Barioni: A Tenor for the Ages

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

Daniele Baroni as Cavaradossi in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Tosca, 1956

Daniele Barioni’s career has included working with many of the icons in the industry. Read about his beginnings in Italy, how he cultivated a career in the U.S., and the memories he shares of his colleagues.

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etween my struggling Italian and Daniele Barioni’s particularly good English, we managed a phone interview to discuss another one of opera’s greatest singers from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Barioni, frequently paired with Licia Albanese and Lucine Amara, was versatile in repertoire and sang worldwide. But it was Puccini, perhaps, who showed his voice off best. The beautiful lyrical quality, the emotional fervor and, more impressive, the clarion ring would thrill his audiences. Ronald Eyer in a New York Herald Tribune review of Barioni’s Cavaradossi in 1961 concurred: “If there had been any crystal around, his ‘Victoria!’ in the second act certainly would have shattered it.” 

Born in the small town of Copparo, near Ferrara, Barioni started as a boy soprano. But when his adolescent voice started to mature, people would comment on what potential talent he had. “Everybody said, ‘You have a beautiful voice, maybe you have a great career,’ and they told me to go to Milan because my town was a little smaller,” Barioni recalls. Upon arriving in Milan, his teacher, Attilio Bordonali, would change the trajectory of his career. 

“My teacher asked, ‘What do you sing?’ I said, ‘Di Provenza’ [Germont’s baritone aria in Verdi’s La traviata],” Barioni says. “I sang it one time, two times, three times and noticed every time [I sang it], the teacher would go up a half step. I said, ‘Maestro, for me it is too high.’ He said, ‘You’re not a baritone, you’re a tenor.’ 

“So I studied five years as a tenor. I asked my teacher, ‘When will it be possible to sing at La Scala in Milan?’ He said, ‘You forget about that. You need to study some more, and then we see about La Scala.’ So, my debut was as Turiddu [Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana] in Milan’s Teatro Nuovo in 1954.” Barioni describes his voice as “not dramatic, but lyric with a spinto quality.” 

As fate often intervenes, his debut was also important for another reason. “I was lucky because I was a great success,” he says. “The coach in the theater told me, ‘Mr. Rudolf Bing was in the theater and he heard you.’ He was in Italy looking for voices.” 

But Barioni was currently on a tour in Johannesburg, South Africa. He would perform the roles of Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly and Cavaradossi from Tosca there, as well as in Egypt, in 1955. “Immediately, [Bing] gave me a contract,” he says. “It was not possible [then] to go to New York, so when I finished the tour, I came to New York.” 

Barioni’s Metropolitan Opera debut was postponed a week as he had also been signed to the Metropolitan Opera Record Club and was recording La bohème. Originally scheduled to debut in Bohème, he replaced tenor Giuseppe Campora as Cavaradossi in Tosca on February 20, 1956. It was a stellar cast with Barioni, Delia Rigal, and George London, with Dimitri Mitropoulos at the podium. 

Barioni and Vera Francescha

In his critique for the Saturday Review, Irving Kolodin was laudatory of the new tenor: “At the apparent time Barioni, slim and good-looking in a suitably Latin way, walked through the door of the first act set with no audience reaction to speak of. When he finished singing ‘Recondita armonia’ some five minutes later the audience let loose with a spontaneous reaction not often equaled of late.” 

Barioni recalls his good friend American bass Giorgio Tozzi calling the following day. “‘Daniele, you read the paper?’ And I said, ‘No, I only know one word in English.’ He told me I was a critical success!” 

Barioni’s career pole vaulted on an international scale, including recordings and 54 Met opera performances. He did, however, wish to sing with other American and foreign opera houses when under contract with Bing. “I had a contract with the Met,” he says, “[and] it was not possible for me to sing in other theaters. I asked Mr. Bing, ‘Give a release because I wanted to sing in other companies.’ He said it was not possible.” 

Barioni speaks fondly of his former colleagues: Licia Albanese, Régine Crespin, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker, Nicolai Gedda, Mario Del Monaco, Jussi Björling, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, Magda Olivero, Gabriella Tucci, Anna Moffo, and others. He appeared regularly on television and radio in The Voice of Firestone and The Ed Sullivan Show through the 50s and 60s. 

In 1957, he married Italian-American pianist Vera Franceschi who passed in 1966. “America gave me everything,” Barioni says. “I am married to an American.” They had a son, Giulio, born in 1958. In speaking of singers in the past, Barioni was laudatory—but there was one of whom he seemed to respect with an almost reverence: Maria Callas. 

He performed with Callas at the Met was February 6, 1958, as Alfredo to her Violetta. As critic Winthrop Sargeant of the New Yorker reviewed: Barioni “went through his love scenes with the air of an irate top sergeant yelling at a backward platoon and several times got so badly off pitch that Miss Callas was hard put to it to hold their ensembles together.” We may never know if this speculation is accurate but, make no mistake, Barioni adored her as a singer and could recognize her insecurities as well. 

His La traviata with her was one he recalls vividly. “When I sang Alfredo with her [he was 24], she was so afraid. I asked her, ‘Madame Callas, why are you so afraid?’ She said, ‘Look, young man, when you arrive, you must be perfect every night.’ But she sang wonderfully that night. That night she was very nervous, but she sang beautifully.” Barioni’s last Met performance was in 1962 as the Italian Singer in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier

Soprano Lucine Amara, a popular Met soprano with an astounding 748 performances, remembers Barioni, her frequent partner, as “a wonderful fellow with a great sense of humor. He was always an excellent colleague. We had many good laughs together.” Continuing to appear in opera and concerts after his wife died, his last performance was in 1981 with Renata Tebaldi in Ferrara, Italy. 

And what of today’s current singers? I ask Barioni how opera and the singers have changed. “Everything is different today,” he answers. “Still good, but others, just so-so. They sing different now. It is the times, the evolution. It’s much different than even 10 years ago.” 

Tony Villecco

Tony Villecco is a tenor and arts writer for the Binghamton Press, Broome Arts Mirror, Classical Singer and Films of the Golden Age. His first book, ‘Silent Stars Speak’ was released to critical acclaim in 2001 by McFarland. A vocal adjudicator for the New York State Schools Music Association, Villecco has studied with the legendary soprano, Madame Virginia Zeani in Florida and has received praise from another legend, tenor Nicolai Gedda.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZfMHJR_5L4 Facebook Twitter Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn