Gian Giacomo Guelfi, having initially studied law at the University of Florence, subsequently enrolled at the Centro Lirico in Florence where he was a pupil of the celebrated baritones Titta Ruffo and Mario Basiola (senior). He made his operatic stage debut in 1950 at Spoleto in the title role of Rigoletto, appeared shortly afterwards in Florence and Venice, and sang Ezio in 1951 in an important Italian radio broadcast from Milan of Verdi’s Attila, conducted by Giulini. During the following year he appeared at Catania and first appeared at La Scala, Milan as Lo Straniero in Juan José Castro’s opera Proserpina e lo straniero.
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Guelfi was active throughout Italy as a powerful Puccini and Verdi baritone, appearing at the opera houses of Bologna, Catania, Florence, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome and Venice, as well as elsewhere. At the Maggio Musicale of Florence in 1954 he enjoyed especial success when he sang Jack Rance in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting) and in Spontini’s Agnese di Hohenstaufen (Vittorio Gui conducting) and later in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine in 1971, with Riccardo Muti at the helm. Another notable early succes d’estime was his appearance in 1957 as Francesco Foscari in Verdi’s I due Foscari at La Fenice, Venice opposite Leyla Gencer, conducted by Tullio Serafin. Guelfi sang frequently at the Verona Arena (1955–1956, 1958, 1960, 1962–1969, 1975), notably as Amonasro / Aida and, from 1952 onwards, at the summer festival at the Caracalla Baths outside Rome. At La Scala, where he frequently appeared, he made a particularly strong impression in 1964 when he sang the title role in Verdi’s Macbeth opposite Birgit Nilsson. Contemporary works in which he sang in Italy included Mortari’s La figlia del diavolo (La Scala, Milan 1954), Pizzetti’s La figlia di Jorio (San Carlo, Naples 1954), Rossellini’s La guerra (San Carlo, Naples 1956) and Testi’s La celestina and L’albergo dei poveri (Teatro della Pergola, Florence 1963 and Piccola Scala, 1966 respectively).
Internationally Guelfi first sang in the USA in 1954 at the Chicago Lyric Opera as Marcello / La Bohème, followed by Ashton / Lucia di Lammermoor and Escamillo / Carmen. He returned in 1961, 1966 (Barnaba / La Gioconda, Don Carlo / La forza del destino), 1968 (Alfio / Cavalleria rusticana, Scarpia / Tosca) and 1969 (Alfio). Guelfi’s English debut was in 1954, when he sang Gérard / Andrea Chénier at the Drury Lane Theatre. This was followed in 1957 by his first appearance at the Royal Opera House, London as Scarpia alongside Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli.
In South America Guelfi sang at Rio de Janeiro in 1956 and 1964 (as Macbeth and Scarpia). Other international appearances included Barcelona (1963), Lisbon (1965, the title role in Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell), the Vienna State Opera (1965, 1974–1976, notably as Gérard), Munich, Berlin (1972) and Monte Carlo (1965, Rance; 1973, Michele / Il tabarro and Alfio; 1975, Gérard).
At Dallas in 1969 Guelfi sang opposite Elena Suliotis in Aida and subsequently made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York during February 1970 as Scarpia, later also singing Rance. His Verdian baritone roles not already mentioned included the title role in Nabucco, di Luna / Il trovatore and Guido di Monforte / I vespri siciliani.
Guelfi possessed a huge, smooth, rich voice and acted with a heightened sense of melodrama. When he was performing, the audience could always be assured of full vocal and dramatic value. He was also reputed to have an excellent sense of humour. He made few commercial studio recordings, but features in a large number of recordings of live performances, testimony to his remarkable activity as a singer.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist