Sammarco, who studied singing with Antonio Cantelli in his home city of Palermo and later with Franz Americh in Milan, made his operatic stage debut in Palermo as Valentin / Faust in 1888. His Milan debut was at the Teatro del Verme as Guglielmo in Puccini’s Le villi in 1894, the same year in which he gave his first performance at La Scala, Milan, and sang in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust at the San Carlo, Naples. In Madrid he sang the title role in Thomas’s Hamlet in 1895, repeating this in the 1895–1896 season at La Scala. Sammarco took part in several significant first performances at this time in Milan, including Gérard / Andrea Chénier in 1896 at La Scala, Cascart / Zazà (Mascagni) at the Teatro Lirico in 1900 and Worms / Germania (Franchetti) at La Scala with Toscanini conducting. He also participated in two premieres in Naples: Mugnone’s Vita Bretone in 1905 and d’Erlanger’s Tess in 1906, both at the San Carlo Opera House.
By the turn of the century Sammarco was establishing himself internationally, singing in Berlin and Prague in 1901, in Odessa in 1903 and in Brussels in 1909. He made his debut at the Royal Opera House, London in 1904 as Scarpia / Tosca, followed by Michonnet in the London premiere of Adriana Lecouvreur in the same year. At Covent Garden he appeared regularly up to 1914, notable performances there including the English premieres of Catalani’s Loreley in 1907, of Tess in 1909 and of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna, opposite Lydia Lipkowska, in 1911.
In North America Sammarco first appeared in 1907, with Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company as Tonio / Pagliacci, substituting for Maurice Renaud. He sang with this company as its principal baritone until 1910 (when it folded), starring in roles such as the title part in Rigoletto, Germont père / La traviata and Enrico / Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as Gleby in the first American performance of Giordano’s Siberia in 1908. Between 1909 and 1913 he sang with the opera companies serving Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia; and in 1911 appeared opposite Mary Garden in the first performance of Victor Herbert’s Natoma. Sammarco was popular in South America also and in 1915 sang Boniface in the local premiere of Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires.
Having appeared in the 1913–1914 season at La Scala, Milan singing the title role in Falstaff and Iago / Otello, in 1918 Sammarco was appointed to the board of directors of La Scala. He continued to sing, for instance returning to Covent Garden in 1919, but this was also the year in which he retired from the stage. He turned to teaching, first in Chicago and from 1928 in Milan; his pupils included the baritone Giovanni Inghilleri and the bass Alexander Sved.
In the earlier years of his career Sammarco sang the traditional baritone repertoire such as La favorita, Ernani, Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Hamlet and La Gioconda, but his theatrical ability later led him increasingly to verismo roles, for instance Tonio, Gérard, Scarpia, and Rafaele in Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna, which took their vocal toll. He recorded extensively from 1902 onwards, with the earlier recordings generally being considered the best. That he was able to enjoy a successful career in an era when many baritones of distinction flourished, such as Battistini, Ruffo and Scotti, is testimony to his dramatic as well as vocal skills.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).