Distant Voices : Pasquale Amato

The Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West marked the centennial of the work’s premiere, and it provided an enticing look back at the creation of the opera. Much of the attention surrounding the anniversary was on the starry pairing of Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso as Minnie and Dick Johnson in the world premiere. Less notice was seemingly paid, however, to the casting of Pasquale Amato (1878-1942) as the original Jack Rance.

As with Giuseppe De Luca (November 2010’s Distant Voice), Amato was one of more than a dozen Italian baritones who were prominent on the world’s great stages at the start of the twentieth century. However, unlike de Luca, whose career was noted for its remarkable longevity, Amato’s years of consistent singing were cut prematurely short.

Amato was born in Naples and studied there at the Music Conservatory of Naples at San Pietro a Majella with Beniamino Carelli and Vincenzo Lombardo, one of Caruso’s teachers. Amato made his operatic debut in 1900—at the age of 21—as Germont in La traviata at the Teatro Bellini in Naples. Engagements soon followed at Genoa, Rome, Monte Carlo, Nuremberg, Leipzig, Prague, and Odessa. He performed with the Teatro di San Carlo at Covent Garden in 1904 and was first heard at La Scala in 1907, where he sang under Toscanini. Amato’s roles in those early years consisted primarily of Verdi, but he also sang Golaud in the first Italian production of Pelléas et Mélisande, Escamillo in Carmen, Marcello in La bohème, Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde, and Scarpia in Tosca.

Germont was the role in which Amato also made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera on November 20, 1908, appearing with Marcella Sembrich and Caruso, who was substituting for an indisposed Alessandro Bonci. The Met remained the center of Amato’s artistic life for 13 years, during which time he amassed an impressive record of achievement. He frequently shared the stage with Caruso, including seven opening nights. In addition to Jack Rance in La fanciulla del West, Amato created the title role in Walter Damrosch’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1913) and Napoleon in Umberto Giordano’s comic opera Madame Sans-Gêne (1915), opposite Geraldine Farrar. His repertoire included approximately 70 roles. Amato sometimes performed as many as four or five times a week, averaging more than 60 performances a season in his early years at the Met.

In October 1912, the arrival of the steamship George Washington in New York was cause for excitement among the opera-going public. The ship’s passengers included Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori, Amato and fellow Italian baritones Titta Ruffo and Antonio Scotti, and American baritone William Hinshaw. Although Amato had attained celebrity status in New York, the New York Times article covering the event began with “Titta Ruffo Here for American Debut.”

Robert Tuggle, director of archives at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests Ruffo’s subsequent performance as Hamlet with the Philadelphia-Chicago Opera at the Metropolitan Opera House triggered the start of Amato’s vocal decline. Ruffo was renowned above all else for the sheer size of his stentorian voice and for the thrill it brought to audiences. While Amato’s vocal instrument was sizable in its own right, hearing his rival prompted him to push his voice to its limits, and the resulting strain of consistent abuse that followed marked the end of Amato’s vocal prime. By the time Amato was 40 years old, the Victor Company no longer recorded his voice.

When he was 43 years old, his contract with the Met was not renewed after it expired and he was replaced on the Met roster by Ruffo himself. Accounts of Amato’s singing after this period, mostly abroad, were repeatedly unfavorable.

After a brief stint in opera administration in New York, Amato accepted a post as opera director at Louisiana State University, where he remained until his death in 1942. Letters from his time there are currently housed in the Hill Memorial Library at LSU, and their contents, including his bitter feelings toward then-Met management, have been compiled in Sarah Wells Kaufman’s master’s thesis “The Pasquale Amato Correspondence at Louisiana State University” (2009).

Notwithstanding the brevity of his career, Amato’s singing at its best exhibited many laudable characteristics. Whereas De Luca’s singing was defined by its smoothness of style, Amato’s singing frequently took on a dramatic albeit usually effective coarseness, the difference of which is made plain in their respective recordings of “Di Provenza il mar” from La traviata. Where Amato excelled, however, was in the more villainous baritone roles of Verdi and of the verismo era. Although the voice was not as luxurious as that of Ruffo, it was certainly substantial and secure. His tone was brilliantly ringing throughout the range and is easily recognized for its distinguishing fast vibrato. His legato was well schooled, his diction clear, and his musicianship impeccable. He observed every detail of the score, yet he was capable of probing sensitivity and interpretive imagination. This unique mix was what made Amato so individual and so memorable.

The finest evidence of Amato’s artistic achievements can be found on records he made for the Victor Company between 1911 and 1915. Because his career was not as prolonged as that of De Luca, he was never afforded the opportunity to record by electric means. Amato’s art is best exemplified in those recordings that show him at his most unique: a compelling “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera, an aching performance of Iago’s “Credo in un Dio crudel” from Otello, and a masterful Prologue (“Si può? Si può?”) from I pagliacci. A striking contrast to these offerings is one of the best recordings ever made of Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” from Il barbiere di Siviglia.

While the quality of acoustic records is often jarring to ears unaccustomed to them, several companies have produced quality digital transfers of Amato’s records. The two volumes on Preiser Records’ Lebendige Vergangenheit label present the most complete picture of the artist, especially when “Largo al factotum” and “Eri tu” are curiously absent from Nimbus Records’ Prima Voce release. All of these are easily available on iTunes and through Amazon.com.

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.