Wednesday 21 March 2018

He missed the boat on American trip – luckily for him it was the Titanic

George Hamilton

Fifty years ago this week, the 27-year-old Luciano Pavarotti made his Irish debut in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. He was singing the male lead in Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the first time. The programme noted: "This fine young tenor has won wide recognition in recent years throughout Italy."

That very same week, another Italian tenor – almost as famous in his day – passed away in New Jersey in his early 80s.

Guido Ciccolini made his debut in Bologna in 1907. Like Pavarotti all those years later, he also sang in Belfast and Dublin.

He went to Australia where he shared the stage in La Bohème with one Helen Mitchell, who would become the world's original prima donna under the name of Nellie Melba.

Ciccolini's "robust method, full voice and round tone", as his style would later be described, got him noticed in the United States. He was all set to travel, but the trip had to be postponed when it turned out he was double-booked.

Lucky for him. He'd been due to sail on the ill-fated Titanic.

He did get to America, and, as expected, his career there took off. In the days before air travel made it easy, he would criss-cross the Atlantic by ocean liner, very much the international star.

In Milan in 1914, La Scala chose Ciccolini as the lead for its premiere of a successful opera of the time – Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's I Quattro Rusteghi ('The Four Curmudgeons').

In the US, he was making quite an impression both on and off the stage. He found himself embroiled in a high-profile divorce case involving the wife of a brewery magnate from St Louis. Ciccolini sued for slander. His visits to her apartment were to sing and play piano for her guests.

Ciccolini was also one of the early recording artists, engaged by the inventor Thomas Edison – the man behind the electric light bulb – who was trying to break into the music market with his own type of disc.

Edison wasn't his greatest fan, it turned out, but then he was an inventor, not an impresario.

Ciccolini became a fixture at the Chicago Opera Company, and also made a successful move into vaudeville.

He mixed with the rich and famous. Charlie Chaplin was a friend, as was Rudolph Valentino, the greatest movie star of the age.

When Valentino died at the age of just 31 in 1926, the New York sidewalks were thronged for the funeral. Ciccolini sang Massenet's Elegy at the Mass in St Malachy's Church on West 49th Street off Broadway.

Ciccolini died on this day in 1963. The passage of half a century and the emergence of the superstar tenor like Pavarotti may have pushed his memory into the background.

But thanks to his fame at the time and his involvement in those early recordings with Edison, Guido Ciccolini's immaculate voice lives on.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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