UMBERTO BORSO Ambasciatore del belcanto nel mondo

By Vittoria Borso and Gabriella Pasquali

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Pezzi Editore; 384 pages; 35 €.


I know, I know: “In Rome act like the Romans.”  Nevertheless I cannot get accustomed to the Italian way of writing singer biographies. Most collectors possess copies of exemplary (mostly written in English) biographies of Caruso, Björling, De Lucia, Melchior, the Greek years of Callas etc. Meticulously researched the life story of triumphs and disasters is always chronologically told while fans of lists will find in annex a full career performance chronology, a discography, a bibliography etc. and a name index. In Italy this rather logical built up often seems to pose an intellectual challenge that cannot be met.

Once more (as in many on paper interesting Azzali biographies) we are stuck with a few pages on Borso’s début and from that moment on we get chapters per opera the tenor performed. Most of the remaining pages are devoted to reproductions of favourable reviews in these roles  in chronological order. Sometimes we get the message at the end that the tenor sang the role as well in X and Y and one has the feeling that maybe those reviews were less laudatory. One wonders too why almost one page per chapter is devoted to the story and the genesis of each opera. I cannot imagine that someone interested in Borso still has need to read what Carmen or Otello are about. After those chapters it’s time for the in Italy inevitable long messages by family, friends and admirers. Somewhat more interesting is a piece on the many tours the tenor made in Australia, Ireland and Yugoslavia.

Borso often was part of ad hoc companies who performed for weeks and even months in some parts of the world that were starved for real Italian singers and were too poor or too far to receive the greatest  stars of the fifties and the sixties. Ironic though written in earnest is a chapter on “Il tenore gentiluomo”; the nice colleague who always ran to the rescue when another tenor was indisposed. From the chronology in annex it is clear that the few appearances the tenor made in big houses as La Scala or the Met were due to this gentleman attitude as otherwise Bing or Ghiringhelli would not have thought of inviting Borso. So the tenor has to thank Del Monaco, Tucker and especially Franco Corelli who were so kind to fall ill and to give Borso a chance. He even had the honour of singing the dress rehearsal of a new production of Ernani at the Met with Price and MacNeil. At the première – as often happened- Corelli was once again “simpatico” towards the world and took his rightful place. And irony is very far off in a chapter called “Enrico Caruso e Umberto Borso”. There is indeed a likeness, though only as to physical resemblance. No tenor buff will pretend that Borso’s voice had a lot in common with the great Neapolitan’s; maybe the amount of decibels excluded.

 There is not a separate discussion of Borso’s voice and voice production but a CD with a lot of arias from live performances is included so that everyone can draw his conclusions. It is clear from the outset of Borso’s career that the voice is a heavy one; somewhat like Giacomini’s. The early recordings reveal that there is some youthful shine on the voice but soon –maybe due to heavy roles- the timbre becomes dull. And one has to agree with Irving Kolodin in his The Metropolitan Opera who made short shrift of the tenor. On his début at the Met: “Later, Umberto Borso performed a loud, unappealing Enzo.” And even more damaging “Thus in the shadow of a brilliant Meistersinger…were the commonplace Aida of October 26, with Borso as Radames impeding the efforts of Price to resume her superior standard.” On the CD one indeed hears unremitting loud sounds which maybe were somewhat more impressive in the house but on record one soon gets bored as there is nothing appealing. Never one sits up and takes note of a nice phrase, an original insight, a new interpretation. No, this is the legendary Italian provincial tenor and an ambassador of belcanto nel mondo –as the book title suggests- he isn’t, more a case of can belto.

Click here for our 'in memoriam' clip

Therefore an unnecessary book ? Not wholly. There are a lot of interesting photographs distributed throughout the text. But - would you believe it ? – without captions. You only get them on a special page in the middle of the book. On the other hand bibliography and discography are well done and very complete; youtube included. There are long alphabetical lists with the names of everybody who sang in the same performance as Borso but that is no compensation for the lack of a proper name index. The best part of the book is the exemplary chronology commpiled by Arrigo Valesio. If – like this reviewer- you are an avid cast reader, then you are in for a treat as those pages tell you more than the text about the rise and fall of the tenor. This chronology is the more interesting for the fact that Borso never had a permanent career among the really great though in his best years Tebaldi, Stella, Tucci, Petrella regularly pop up. At the same time and in the same performing years you will meet a lot of performances in smaller venues, with names who are sometimes less familiar as they recorded little reminding you nevertheless that signore De Rosa, Udovich, Heredia Capnist, Dall’ Argine, Parutto, Parada, Ferrario, Corridori etc. etc. had a proper career.  You will be surprised too at the amount of big names in their declining years who valiantly sang on in less important theatres at the end of the fifties; names like Maria Caniglia, Elisabetta Barbato, Borso made his official début in 1952. His best years are from 1959 till 1964. From  1965 on the career goes slowly down hill with a lot of performances in Italian provincial theatres, Yugoslavia, Australia etc and from time to time a few performances in bigger theatres like the San Carlo or the Rome Opera. .
One of the authors of this book is Borso’s daughter Vittoria. It is probably too much to ask a daughter to help with a highly critical assessment of one’s father’s career.

Jan Neckers