George London & Giorgio Tozzi

George London & Giorgio Tozzi
George London

            For my study of bass-baritone George London I listened to two Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts: a 1959 performance of Don Giovanni, and a 1973 production of Der fliegende Holländer, both under the baton of Karl Böhm and with London in the title role. Incidentally, the latter also featured Giorgio Tozzi as Daland. I will deal with this in a separate section as it features both artists and focus here on Don Giovanni along snippets of Boris Gonduov.
            The Metropolitan Opera’s MetOnDemand service describes this performance of Don Giovanni as follows: “When George London stepped on stage as the legendary lover Don Giovanni, audiences gasped. Handsome and effortlessly charismatic, he promised to fulfill every woman’s desire. No wonder the beautiful Lisa Della Casa (Elvira) didn’t want to let him go, and Eleanor Steber (Anna) wants to put off her wedding for another year. [Cesare Valletti and Ezio Flagello also star as Don Ottavio and Leporello respectively.]” This was a fascinating (and perhaps somewhat presumptuously sexist) review of the performance with which I did not entirely disagree but had some qualms.

            London’s rich bass-baritone perhaps epitomizes the voice type. There is a sense of robust power behind the voice in terms of sheer depth and size. Unlike other potent male voice types however, like dramatic tenors or Verdi baritones, I had the sense that London’s voice was buttery and warm. I do not mean to claim that he lacked the chiaroscuro balance as a technical flaw; indeed the ring is there. Nonetheless, the dark richness of the voice was evident even as the squillo gave it power and carried the voice. London’s interpretation of Don Giovanni certainly seemed without any vocal difficulty and felt completely valid artistically. This was not a situation where I wondered whether maybe a singer was reaching beyond their natural means. London’s voice made his Don Giovanni into an imposing fighter and domineering nobleman. The events surrounding the fight at the beginning of the opera, his numerous bouts lording his position over Leporello, and his repeated threats of violence felt extremely convincing because of his vocal powers. It seemed completely believable that he would remain in control of all of the earthly situations brought against him by the rest of the characters despite their grand conspiracy against him. Even when the statue comes to claim him at the end he seemed to remain resolute in the face of his judgment.

Still, in many of the most well known pieces the very things that make London’s voice so impressive and enjoyable, its creaminess, cannon-like feel (though handled with artistry), and tone that suggests almost a constant smile seemed to overwhelm the role in places. Don Giovanni is a man of many different faces, one of which is indeed the domineering nobleman. Also though, he is a honey-tongued seducer who knows his abilities to win over women. Certainly a bass-baritone voice can fulfill this role. Nonetheless, in famous pieces like “Là ci darem la mano,” and “Deh vieni alla finestra,” indicative of these moments, I felt like the toughness of London’s voice overwhelmed the sense of seduction. Perhaps more than this it felt as though London’s Don Giovanni lacked a certain youthful virility that might have been communicated through a lighter voice. Perhaps it is an unjust personal bias, but I feel that part of what makes Don Giovanni compelling is the fact that he is not aged, not an elder statesmen, but yet he is in complete control and he knows that his youthful vigor will win him both women and power. The concept of “manliness” is inevitably a trap. Nevertheless, I feel like a more metallic, perhaps slightly lighter sound communicates one part of manliness and a darker sound another. For Don Giovanni, I feel like more of the lighter sound, perhaps even a perfect balance, is essential. Other sorts of “manly” roles might require more of the darker sound, as London’s performance in other roles suggests. I suspect, though I do not know, that London’s acting on stage helped to mitigate the factors I have just described with his physique and choices giving him the feel of a deep, plushly smooth lover.

The beginning of the opera left me more with my latter, less favorable opinion of London’s Don Giovanni and I was not sure about how I felt about him in the role. His “Fin ch'han dal vino,” however, was extremely impressive. It was rich, powerful, explosive, and the voice moved easily despite its size and weight. I went back and listened to it several times, in fact. It was this, along with some reflection, that led me to the conclusion that perhaps London’s voice merely offers a different, somewhat unusual, but viable take on the role.

One other issue at play here is pure sound or orchestration. This is reminiscent of my feeling that Christa Ludwig’s Marschallin was certainly viable but perhaps caused some issues in ensemble. Having a bass-baritone voice capable of singing dramatic repertoire set next to another bass-baritone voice for Leporello and a bass voice for the Commendatore offered neither as much variety nor the kind of intrinsic characterization that we might get from having a true kavalierbariton perform Don Giovanni. Pointedly, I do not feel London made any choices that somehow influenced this. The simple fact that he is a bass-baritone with a sizable voice was responsible for changing the interpretation of the character. I walked away feeling, though, that London’s innate characteristics brought out certain elements of the character and downplayed others. From a personal standpoint I am not sure I liked the way this portrayed Don Giovanni as a whole, but I am certainly in favor of new perspectives on classic characters that make me reconsider my conceptions of the character.

Watching George London perform Boris’ death scene from Boris Godunov was revealing in its contrast with his performance as Don Giovanni. I really felt he was cast in a character whose personality fit the voice more appropriately. London’s good looks and strong acting were still used to great effect as Boris, but the voice’s inherent, somewhat strange combination of dramatic mortar-like production and smooth creaminess lent itself to the dramatic yet noble Boris. These characteristics, in slight variation, were apparent in his portrayal of the Dutchman, as well.

            Before moving on to the Dutchman, a section that will address both George London and Giorgio Tozzi, I wanted to mention how reviews of London’s performances matched up with my own perceptions. Early reviews of London in Wagner suggest he was a bit uncomfortable in heavyweight roles such as Wotan. His other roles of similar stature, especially later in his career, however, like Boris Godunov, Scarpia, and the Dutchman, all received rave reviews. Unfortunately I am not so familiar with Der fliegende Holländer and thus have less against which to compare, but the review of a 1960 performance in the New York Times describes London as portraying “fierce eeriness” and the production overall as possessing “blazing intensity.” Finally, London did not dip too much into the bass repertoire, but his success in a range of repertoire is apparent from positive reviews ranging from the Wagnerian to heavy Italian repertoire, to Méphistophélès, and finally to Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, the last of which was placed among his highest achievements in a London Times obituary despite its outlier status compared with the other roles listed.

George London & Giorgio Tozzi in Der fliegende Holländer
            George London’s performance as the Dutchman was very impressive. As suggested by reviews and by my postulation listening first to Boris Godunov excerpts, the vocality of the Dutchman seemed to fit London’s voice more appropriately. He is not a nobleman like Boris, of course. Still, he is a ship’s captain with the experience of age (supernatural, as it were). In this context the rich, brown-sugar-topped butter of London’s voice, combined with its generous thrust, felt appropriate. The voice brought the strength and nobility lent to both Don Giovanni and Boris Godunov yet did not require the virility I expect of someone like Don Giovanni and, not unlike Boris, showed the weight of a curse (perhaps figuratively in the former case and literally in the latter). The Dutchman’s relationship with Senta might not be appropriately described as romantic or even lustful as Don Giovanni’s relationships can be, but the voice also made more sense in this interpersonal realm, as well. Hence, I can certainly see how London’s performance in this and similar repertoire garnered such rave reviews.
            Giorgio Tozzi’s performance as Daland was, I believe, not the most accurate representation of the basic structure of his voice. By no means was it a poor performance. On the contrary, it was quite effective. Tozzi’s performance of Daland, however, employed a great number of the vocal effects not uncommon in portrayals of all but the most major characters in Wagnerian dramas. Hence, the true character of the voice was somewhat masked. What I perceived from his performance as Daland was a lighter sounding voice that was less sung-through. While the perception of a sense of lightness was actually prescient, it was still not representative of the voice. Nevertheless, Tozzi’s Daland was convincing and effective. His vocal character distinctively characterized him apart from London as the Dutchman. I felt like I could understand the mix of uneasiness, greed, and then emotionalism that do make Daland more than just a mere character role. Hence, I felt like Daland was not an unreasonable role in which to examine Tozzi’s flexibility.

Giorgio Tozzi

            To investigate Giorgio Tozzi alone I looked at the bass solos in a version of Handel’s Messiah orchestrated and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1959 as well as a video of Boris Godunov, date and conductor unspecified. These both led me to the intriguing conclusion that Tozzi’s “boxing in” as a bass with some bass-baritone roles seemed somewhat peculiar.

             Beecham’s Messiah was definitely not in the context of “historically informed performance,” something already underway according to the note he included, though my understanding is the movement did not take off until later. Sir Beecham describes his attempt to find a middle ground between 19th century conventions of 5,000 member choirs and mid-20th century conventions of miniscule orchestras equivalent to those in Handel’s time that satisfied neither the size of the modern concert hall nor the ear of the modern concertgoer accustomed to late-Romantic music. Tozzi’s solos were definitely in line with this artistic vision. Ornamentation was essentially unused (though Tozzi through some in just once!), some da capo sections (and actually the B section of “The Trumpet Shall Sound”) were cut, and the singing and playing was definitely modern in style. I did not find this offensive in any way. Indeed, Sir Beecham’s interpretation is one among many viable ones and he even restored some of the often-cut numbers to the regular recording and recorded many more in an appendix. Still, as far as listening to Tozzi, the singing was not anything like what might be heard in Baroque specialty performances today. What I appreciated about this, however, was that it gave me a true measure of the voice. I was surprised because what I heard did line up to some extent with my sense of Tozzi’s voice through Daland. Despite his voice being, by designation, deeper than George London’s, it was also steelier. For the Messiah solos I felt this was especially effective, giving a bit of an edge to “Why Do the Nations” and a sense of triumph to pieces such as “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Also surprisingly, this same voice, active in Wagner and heavy Russian repertoire, had no difficulty accomplishing the coloratura in Handel that, for the most part, was not any slower for the style of that era compared to today. This was an indication of Tozzi’s great versatility and the fact that the voice was capable of a variety of moods and styles over and above its simple technical ability to tackle diverse repertoire.

            Tozzi’s performance as Boris Godunov was, of course, quite different from his performance as a Messiah soloist and even from his performance of Daland. Despite, some of the same factors shone through. I did not see a full version of George London’s Boris, but for comparison, it once again seemed like a richer, nobler, perhaps somewhat less troubled version of the character. Tozzi’s portrayal was brighter, had a more metallic edge, and was interpretively more pointed. I appreciated both, though I felt that Tozzi’s carried greater, more frenetic emotional weight, which I felt was particularly effective. The acting also seemed more organic. Tozzi once again had little difficulty handling a role, like the Messiah solo, that while described often as a bass role, is often considered to be bass-baritone (or even baritone in the case of Messiah) territory. Indeed, looking back on it, all of three of these full performances by Tozzi were effective, and it would be hard to pick a “best” realm of repertoire for him.
            Stepping back to look at the voice based on these case studies yields two interesting results. The first is Tozzi’s success in different vocal modes. He could use a lot of character shading and acting for Daland, sing with a resonate, vibrant, and big tone for the Dutchman, a heavy role, and modulate that tone to sing with essentially the same technique but move the voice quickly and with a sense of effervescence in Messiah. The second conclusion is perhaps surprising and perhaps biased by the things to which I chose to listen. I found that Tozzi actually felt like he possessed a lighter, perhaps higher voice to me than London. I have heard neither of them live, of course, and I probably should have sought a true, deep bass role to which to listen while investigating Tozzi. Even directly comparing London and Tozzi singing the same scenes from Boris Godunov I found the same conclusion to be true. It may be that Tozzi’s voice actually did sit a bit lower, perhaps was bigger (I cannot really tell), and even heavier in a way. That said, the tone quality was more piquant, with that brighter, perhaps more Italianate vibrancy. This may have been responsible for the illusion that the singer, Tozzi, of the two I studied considered a bass and sometimes a bass-baritone actually sounded higher and lighter than the singer I studied, London, considered to be a baritone or bass-baritone. Across the board, reviews did not seem to address anything of this sort. They did, however, almost always praise Tozzi’s constancy, often describing him as dependable and sturdy in both bass-baritone parts and bass parts, making little distinction between the two. He was not considered merely a standby however, but frequently elevated as one of the great singers of the age and perhaps of recent memory.
Perhaps George London was not given quite the same praise. It is important to note that the purpose of this study is not to compare the two singers against one another. Still, they each offer a valuable lens through which to study the other. In this case, both men exhibited impressive versatility in unexpected ways in voice types that, as I discussed last week, offer less opportunity for versatility. Where less diversity was available for these men in kinds of roles, range, and style of singing, they certainly tackled roles in a diverse range of repertoire from Mozart to Wagner, creating interpretations that stand the test of time.


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