MacDonald and Jane’s, London, 1979
My Life is an anonymous, abused title rather than an explanatory one, even when the author is one of the most famous Scarpias and Falstaffs of the 20th century, Tito Gobbi. To free it from this unhappy condition, the best thing to do is to enlist immediately the qualities of the book – and only them, since I failed to find out defects in it.
Two things leap out from the first pages of My Life: the style and the intelligent disposition of the contents. As for the style, it makes clear that the great singer is a great writer and storyteller too, not only because Gobbi writes with coherence and enlightening synthesis, but first and foremost for his cordiality spiced with irony and for his frankness, features that marvellously combine together when he narrates the accidents he caused on stage by inexperience at the beginning of his career and that fill up many amusing pages.
The second aspect (the contents) is definitely more serious when it refers to Gobbi’s career and characters. Even if some of the episodes are funny, they usually reveal something of the operatic world and of its customs in a not so distant past. The seriousness can be very well observed when Gobbi talks about his most celebrated roles – as Scarpia, Falstaff, Rigoletto and Don Giovanni – that he analyses almost line by line (or, if you prefer, note by note), leaving virtually no doubt on the reason why he chose to sing that particular character and on his interpretation. These are among the most precious pages of the entire book and are a valid support for the understanding of Gobbi’s own performances and an inspiration for young singers.
Thanks to these two, praiseworthy aspects of Gobbi’s writing, it is possible to approach the operatic world of the 20th century with a careful and agreeable guide who leads the reader from his early youth in Bassano del Grappa (a lovely town in Northern Italy) to his move to Rome, where he met not only his teacher in the person of Giulio Crimi and many other supporters of his early career as conductor Gino Marinuzzi, but also his wife, the daughter of musicologist Raffaello de Rensis and one of the key figures of the book, which willingly lingers on the private life of the author.
Apart from Gobbi’s family and first steps into the operatic world, these pages describe the tragic years of the Second World War, which was particularly difficult in Rome during the German occupation and the recollection of a troubled trip to Sorrento for a performance of Andrea Chénier which in the end did not take place.
After the war, Gobbi’s career flourished beyond the borders of Italy and of the Reich and the book expands its horizons to the entire world, devoting many chapters to the accounts of performances in which Gobbi sang, produced, directed or did all the three things together and to the memories of many singers and conductors with the names of Maria Callas, to whom is devoted an entire chapter, Beniamino Gigli and Tullio Serafin standing out among the others. An interesting chapter narrates the most unusual or far places where Gobbi performed and shows again the skill of the baritone for literary entertainment.
The last chapters collect relatively closer memories of the activity of Gobbi as a teacher and some sympathetic references to his pupils.
This is a comprehensive book and, for the blend between private and public life and between seriousness and witticism, is one of the best autobiographies of a singer ever published. The parting from My Life is very difficult precisely for its intrinsic value and the only palliative is to remember that Gobbi wrote another book, entitled Tito Gobbi on His World of Italian Opera, published in 1984, unfortunately the year of the singer’s death.