Distant Voices : Aureliano Pertile

Distant Voices : Aureliano Pertile

The early years of recorded vocal history are dominated by one name: Enrico Caruso. His warm yet brilliant voice was well suited for the technology of the day, and nearly 300 records are a testament to his miraculous vocal and artistic achievements. Upon his death in 1921, at least a half-dozen tenors were poised to succeed him, each of whom, according to the late Henry Pleasants, “would have been a candidate for recognition as the greatest tenor of the century thus far . . . had there never been a Caruso.”1

Among them was Aureliano Pertile (1885-1952), who is considered by many to be one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century.

Pertile was born in the Italian town of Montagnana (near Padua), just 18 days after and a couple of streets away from fellow tenor Giovanni Martinelli. Pertile studied in Padua with Giacomo Orefice, after which he made his debut in Vicenza in 1911 as Lyonel in Martha. Further studies in Milan with Manlio Bavagnoli were followed by a series of debuts—San Carlo in Naples, the Costanzi in Rome, La Scala in Milan, and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

The Colón hosted Pertile in such roles as Julien (Louise, in Italian), Alfredo, and Puccini’s des Grieux with costars that included sopranos Ninon Vallin, Claudia Muzio, Rosa Raisa, Bidú Sayão, and Toti Dal Monte over the course of five years between 1918 and 1929. Pertile also made frequent appearances at Covent Garden between 1927 and 1931 as Radamès, Manrico, Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, and Don Alvaro (La forza del destino). It was during these years in London that Pertile began his recording career with HMV, including complete recordings of Aida and Il trovatore.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pertile performed for only a single season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. By the end of 1920, Caruso’s health began to decline and, in a proactive move, Met manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza assembled a multitude of tenors for the 1921-1922 season. Pertile’s debut at the Met came on December 1, 1921, opposite the Tosca of Maria Jeritza, whose sensational debut dominated the evening and the reviews. During the remainder of the season, however, Pertile garnered more attention of his own as Radamès, Turiddu, des Grieux, and Canio. He achieved a great success as Dimitri opposite Feodor Chaliapin’s Boris Godunov and, on one week’s notice, he learned the French text to Louise for performances on tour with Geraldine Farrar. Despite a generally favorable reception that season, Gatti-Casazza was, much to his regret, unable to renew Pertile’s contract.2

Fortune turned Pertile’s way in 1922 when Arturo Toscanini hired him to sing Faust in Mefistofele at La Scala, where he sang every season until 1937 and was widely known as Toscanini’s favorite tenor. His roles at La Scala included des Grieux, Edgardo, Andrea Chénier, Canio, Radamès, Riccardo, Don Alvaro, Manrico, Pinkerton, Pollione (Norma), and Otello as well as Werther, Walther (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Lohengrin, and the title roles in premieres of Boito’s Nerone, Mascagni’s Nerone, and Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly.

The later years of Pertile’s career saw a decline in the number of performances and in the status of the venues. Nevertheless, he continued to sing until 1946, the year after he joined the faculty of the Milan Conservatory.

Pertile was a thorough, meticulous artist whose vocalism was highly responsive to the interpretive demands of the repertoire. When the music called for it, he displayed a remarkably sensitive lyricism, capable of a faultless legato, which is exalted by his proponents as the height of Italianate singing. In an almost complete contrast, he found irresistible the most dramatic of emotions, which his detractors argued he expressed to the extreme with palpitations and declamatory affectations to the expense of not only musical line, but of Italian singing in general.

Noted critic J.B. Steane attributes this perceived fault to Pertile’s having been born into the age of verismo—with its heightened passions and often violent realism—and that he was “caught up in this moment.”3 Pertile expert Paul Morby offers another suggestion—that the arias from Boito’s Nerone “show the beginnings of the ruin of Pertile . . . the precipitous headlong rush from his glorious lyric period to his excessive concentration on the dramatic presentation of his roles.”4 Regardless of the reason, Pertile was at the forefront of the full realization of a new style, one that valued excitement over the Bel Canto ideals of agility and legato—and, as such, he was subjected to the harshest of criticism in his day. However, as Steane acknowledged, “the passion always impresses as real, never imposed, and the intercourse between passions and musical sensibility produces singing that is always alive and characterful.”5

Perhaps it is this combination of singing styles, seemingly at odds with each other, that made Pertile such a compelling and, at times, controversial artist. In his early recordings (primarily those from the 1920s), the exalted sense of legato is in the forefront, but shades of verismo are there, too. Grammofono 2000’s The Young Pertile: The Acoustic Records and Minerva Records’ Aureliano Pertile: The Early Rare Acoustic Recordings contain identical playlists, comprised exclusively from sessions dating between 1923 and 1925. Throughout the collections, the full radiant beauty of Pertile’s ardent singing is on display: a nuanced “Siciliana” from Cavalleria rusticana, a hauntingly intimate “Amor ti vieta” from Fedora, and a thrillingly exultant “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore, among many others. Pertile remains one of the most highly regarded Lohengrins of all time, and three tracks (in Italian), each of which is remarkable for its subtle dynamic shading, are included here.

As with several of the artists profiled in “Distant Voices,” the most complete survey of Pertile’s legacy is made available in the Lebendige Vergangenheit series by Vienna’s Preiser Records. Preiser dedicates three volumes to Pertile; the first two contain recordings from 1927 to 1930, while the third is primarily from 1932 with three tracks of Pertile as Otello in 1942. The difference between the 1932 recordings and their 1923-25 predecessors is notable as the emotionalism of verismo is brought to the fore. The sincere introspection of the 1923 “Amor ti vieta” becomes more outward and heroic in 1932. Whereas the emotional content of Lohengrin’s “Atmest du nicht mit mir” (“Di’, non t’incantan”) was contained within the musical contour in 1923, it reaches beyond those confines in 1932 with frequent approaches from below the pitch and an emphasis on declamation over line—the latter of which is, arguably, stylistic of Wagnerian singing.

Regardless, Pertile’s voice is responding to his creative desires, and the result is often thrilling. Three excerpts from Otello in 1942 (with soprano Gina Cigna as Desdemona) show the near complete takeover of drama and emotion in Pertile’s performance. Of course, such intensity is necessary with Otello, but the loss of stability in the voice is striking, and Pertile was not yet 60.

It is fortunate that all of these releases (and several others) are readily accessible for anyone who wishes to explore them. In addition to being available for purchase on iTunes and several online retailers, including Amazon and Allmusic.com, they can be heard for free on Spotify, which is proving to be a prime resource for historic recordings.


1 Henry Pleasants, The Great Singers: From the Dawn of Opera to Our Own Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 297.
2 Robert Tuggle, The Golden Age of Opera (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), 175-6.
3 J. B. Steane, The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 157.
4 Paul Morby, Liner notes for Aureliano Pertile, Aureliano Pertile, Vol. I, The Rubini Collection GV 505.
5 Steane, The Grand Tradition, 158-9.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.