Antonio Paoli according to Wilfredo Braschi
by Wilfredo Braschi
Puerto Rican profiles
Library of Puerto Rican Authors , San Juan, 1978, pp. 42-44
His face—lit by a strong gaze that seemed to set his beard on fire, impressed me. The impression is very distant, although firm and indelible as I recall: between the reeds of his dark beard, the blood red skin; a fleshy mouth enclosed between the stiff mustache and the wide goatee sharpening towards his chest. A torrential, thundering voice came out—at once, both crystalline and rough—spreading and reverberating, victorious.
Tall and robust, as if a giant tightrope walker, he filled the small room. I imagine him looking out from his window at the tingling anthill of New York City below. Ever since I was five years of age, I wondered from where this huge man had emerged.
They explained this to me. I knew it was "Uncle Antonio," my grandmother's brother. Then, his figure faded in the smoky region of my memory—although at times, in his New York days, I imagined him standing a little higher than the pendant lamp on the ceiling.
My second vision of "Uncle Antonio" belongs to the torrid scenery of Puerto Rico. The same portliness from a few years before, but his face less flushed behind the gritty strands of his beard. Still elegant, his suit closed to the neck, his lips a faded red and yellowish ivory in the depths of the mouth. And always the tenor voice. Trees with damp leaves loomed in a house streaked with light. Inside, a nightingale chirped and—at times —it felt like a parrot was clearing its throat. Next to the portrait of the singer in Othello, lay a gramophone with its twisted trumpet and on it, a disc within which a circular memory relived his voice. I heard Adina, Antonio's wife, putting her index finger in her mouth, gurgled in her Italianized Spanish:
A breath of music and words prevailed over all the noises and an esoteric, all-powerful form settled there: magical, elusive and unreal.
I found out: it was Antonio Paoli singing. The phonograph picked up his voice and we listened, above the chirping of the needle, to what still remained—within a collection of grooves—of the mythological Antonio Paoli, blurred within the legends of choruses and town squares. Then, in later years, his face became familiar to me. Back in an old green house that overlooked the street, he used to invite me:
"Shall we go to San Juan?"
I don't know how he managed it. Despite his limited financial means, his coat of fine English cloth, his broad-winged Italian hat and his cane with a mother-of-pearl knob—projected a silhouette of a wealthy man.
With a slow, almost majestic, rhythmic stride, he walked the same as if he was on a stage. Wide chest, hairy jaw forward. He liked the trolley that crawled like a yellow worm in the sun, within San Juan, towards Santurce with its shadowy traces, or around the seaside Condado neighborhood, with its stretched, golden line of beaches lay amongst the dunes and bushes.
Occasionally, during a walk through old San Juan, someone would greet him and he would take off his hat with a slight bow. I imagined what would come to his mind in tiny San Juan, a striking contrast with the large cities which hailed his presence as a dramatic tenor.
He had triumphed at the Paris Opera, at the Scala in Milan, at the Colón Theater in Buenos Aires. He was compared to the great figures of his time. Even with Caruso! In those hot days of my youth, I was fascinated by his confession that he had to box in London once his throat broke and he couldn't sing. He secretly showed me an ancient portrait in which he appeared as a strong gladiator. When I recall him today, it seems to me that I see him in front of the Victrola that replayed, diluted, evanescent, the echo of his voice. And I recall his anguish at remaining a great protagonist, lost in the dark gyre of an undulating and faraway recording.