Verdi’s Bass

Navarini in 1879 (etching by E. Fontana)

One of the fascinations of old records is that they arrived on the scene just soon enough to tantalize us with links to the century that was on its way out. Pianists who studied with Liszt! Brahms’s sonata partners! Bayreuth’s first Parsifal! Even today, approaching decade three of the twenty-first century, those of us in “classical music” spend most of our time with the products of the nineteenth. 

So we can’t help being fascinated by the traces of singers who actually sang with the composers we ourselves sing most - Verdi above all, where Italian opera is concerned. We can hear at least 35 voices that we know he too heard. In some cases we know he liked them. One of the latter is the bass Francesco Navarini (or Navarrini - Inconveniently for our search-engine age, Italians in those days were comfortable with writing the same name various ways). 

Navarini, to use the spelling eventually adopted when the Fonotipia company put it onto record labels in 1907, was born in 1855 near Padova when Verdi was finishing up Les vêpres siciliennes.  He was on the stage by the age of 22 or 23, and in December 1883 he reached La Scala with most of his great roles already in repertory, scoring a big success as Alvise in La gioconda. Verdi had already approved him for the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo, whose revised version was about to go up in January, and the young bass was singled out in every review of that premiere for the beauty and sonority of his voice. When Otello was in final planning stages four years later, Verdi and his publisher Ricordi were in constant correspondence about the casting, and Navarini was the first and only choice for the role of Lodovico.

Navarini in 1907 (Fonotipia advertisement)

His career went on all the way to 1914, when he retired after a final season in St. Petersburg (Colline, Silva in Ernani, Don Basilio, Frère Laurent, and the King in Lohengrin). In between, he toured America with Mascagni, helped Toscanini establish Die Meistersinger in the Italian repertory, sang roles in every Verdi opera then in circulation - and, on three days in February of 1907, left fourteen primitive souvenirs of the voice that had supported all that activity.

They all display a sunny, warm, rangy bass instrument, rock-solid from low E to a high F that he could taper down from a roar to a pianissimo like a lyric tenor, unafraid of any vowel at any pitch, capable of trills and florid work, able to alternate smooth legato with accentuated marcato without resorting to aspiration. 

He was also able to get into the mood of his pieces in the inhibiting confines of the early recording studio (some singers weren’t), so we can hear the comic relish of his Basilio and Mephistopheles, the genuine pathos of his King Philip and Fiesco, and the way his warmth turned to aggressive heat in Cardinal Brogni’s curse and Duke Alfonso’s vengeance aria. Those dramatic qualities don’t come into play in the solo from Rossini’s Stabat Mater, which Navarini first performed in 1879 in the company of the legendary Ravogli sisters, but the vocal ones do - along with the basic dignity he brought to everything. 


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.