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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mario del Monaco: Greatness and Controversy

"Il y a des personnes qui ont plus d'esprit que de goût, et d'autres qui on plus de goût que d'esprit; mais il y a plus de variété et de caprice dans le goût que dans l'esprit." La Rochefoucauld

Mario del Monaco was born in Florence in 1915, to a cultivated and affluent family who fostered his early musical education, seeing to it that he studied the violin as a youth. He loved singing, however, and quickly turned to voice as his principal musical enthusiasm. He had a good musical education, graduating from the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. He made good early musical contacts there, including Renata Tebaldi, who was to become a good friend and future collaborator. Among his voice teachers was Arturo Melocchi, the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) teacher of the lowered larynx school of singing that produced some notable dramatic singers, such as del Monaco himself and the excellent Giuseppe Giacomini, about whom I have written previously. The method is particularly designed to produce powerful, steely and dramatic voices, often with extended range, especially in the singer's youth. The problem that sometimes arises is that voices thus trained can begin to show severe signs of strain fairly early on, sometimes resulting in a wide wobble in the voice. This is what eventually happened to Giacomini, although he had many good years on stage before it started.

Del Monaco had a lot going for him. He was very handsome, and remarkably virile in his appearance. He was made for the dramatic Italian repertoire, especially Verdi. He made an early debut in Milan, as Pinkerton, in 1940, and began paying his dues, singing primarily around Italy and also in London. He came to the Met in 1951 and had an enormous success there for the next 8 years, doing the big Italian roles for which he became famous: Otello, Andrea Chenier, Rhadames, Canio,and Manrico, among others. His voice was very powerful and dark, and very thrilling. He could incite near hysteria in an audience. He was a melodramatic actor, not at all subtle, but then this is opera we are talking about. It hardly mattered. His adoring and loving fans will declare to this day that he was the greatest dramatic tenor ever, and one of the greatest tenors of any vocal classification. He also has detractors. Their claim is that he was histrionic to a mid-19th century degree, that he was monochromatic, and could only sing a tutta forza, and that he was quirky to the point of being outright eccentric in the lack of discretion he showed in recording completely inappropriate material: bass arias, baritone arias, or silly popular songs like "Ghost riders in the sky." He had a significant presence in film and TV, and this material can be consulted fairly easily on Youtube. I will also say that his videos on Youtube tend to occasion comments that seem to have been previously loaded onto a bathysphere in an attempt to plumb a new low. He can still, in a word, produce near-hysterical reactions in some.

I prefer always to look on the bright and positive side. Considering how many people would like to be great singers, and how many give it their all, and how few make it, a certain amount of respect is due those who actually do make it, and in addition have spectacular careers. They must be doing something right. He was in point of fact a great dramatic tenor capable of producing a visceral excitement which has become pretty rare these days. He was a giant among singers, and should be remembered as such. The eccentricities (and they are there, to be sure) are incidental. Yes, he was more than a bit of a character. But who cares, basically.

Here is a recording of a brilliant "Di Quella Pira," which he lip-synched (for reasons I will never figure out) to one of his own recordings playing over loud speakers in what seems to be an outdoor arena of some kind. One always needs to concentrate on the voice and the looks with Del Monaco, and overlook the bizarre:

You've got to love the Italians! It looks like something out of a Fellini film. But isn't that an incredible voice! What a tenor! A king-sized personality, possibly with less than a typical amount of discretion. However, what matters is that the voice was simply great. No reasonable person can deny that.

Here is particularly well sung and acted "E lucevan le stelle."

The voice, the looks, the broad but perfectly acceptable acting, the excitement. It's all there. This is a very high level of professional performance.

Del Monaco was involved in a very bad automobile accident in the early 60's, and many claim that his voice began to suffer after the accident. This is hard to demonstrate, because those who sing as dramatically and as full-out as he did will see some natural decline in vocal powers with time. It cannot be determined. However, whether natural or caused by misfortune and injury, the voice darkened considerably later on. Here, finally, is a recording I posted on Youtube a week ago which shows the near-heldentenor stentorian singing of the later years. This is "M'hai salvato," from Catalani's La Wally, which, while technically Italian music, is much influenced by German Romanticism, which Catalani admired. The opera contains a tenor aria, near the end, which is heldentenor-like in its vocal demands.

Let us all agree: This was a great voice, and a great tenor. When that is said, nothing else need be said.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy

Peter Hermann Adler told me once that there was no doubt at all in his mind that Mario Lanza was the greatest voice America ever produced. That is a mighty claim, but it may be the case. Born Alfredo Cocozza, in 1921, in Phildelphia, Mario Lanza, as he called himself, had a whirlwind career of the kind that can only happen in America, as a rule, and he became such a presence in the popular media that he was known by virtually everyone by the early 1950's. For my generation, who grew up in the fifties, he was the biggest "classical" vocal presence since Caruso. Many singers have told me that he was their main inspiration for wanting to become opera singers. It was not so much that he WAS primarily an opera singer, because in point of fact he was essentially a movie star and radio, TV and recording artist. He only performed in two full length operas. What he did was portray an opera singer, and represent operatic singing. This gave him an enormous audience. And he did have a great voice. No reasonable person can deny that.

Contrary to much popular opinion, he took his studies seriously at the beginning of his career. He had good voice teachers and coaches, and quickly made friends with some very successful singers, including George London, Robert Weede and Francis Yeend. In fact, he went on tour with these singers in 1947, throughout North America, and was successful. In many ways, 1947-48 were years of destiny for Lanza. He had choices to make. Many things were developing at once, and to the degree that he remained East Coast based, he was on solid ground and making progress toward an operatic career. He had been heard by both Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky, and both were impressed. In 1947, he sang at the Hollywood Bowl, and was heard by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios. He also appeared the next year in New Orleans as Pinkerton in Butterfly, one of only two full operas he was ever to perform on stage, the other having been a Tanglewood production of Niccolai's Merry Wives of Windsor in 1942. Mayer came up with a typically Hollywood sized offer, and the son of poor and struggling Italian immigrants from Philadelphia was overwhelmed. He made, at that crucial junction, what is in my opinion, and the opinion of many, a tragic mistake that would determine his destiny.

He opted for the glamorous, but relatively undisciplined glitz of the movie world, and began to make some pretty mediocre movies. He was handsome when he was young, but his acting was unschooled, and just not very good, to be honest. The first movie was The Midnight Kiss, done during this early period of 47-48, followed by an RCA Victor recording contract in 1949, and then, in 1950, the movie The Toast of New Orleans. It was in this movie that the song "Be my love" was introduced, and it went on to become his biggest pop hit, selling over a million copies. People still associate him with it:

Incredibly, that is a high C natural at the end! An absolutely perfectly seamless voice, with spectacularly clean, clear, understandable, colloquial English, like any pop singer might deliver. Those who contend that English cannot be sung in an operatic way without distorting vowels beyond recognition should be forced to listen to this recording. It is a great voice, plain and simple. In 1952 he recorded the Student Prince, and operetta in English was an excellent vehicle for his voice. Here is the famous "Serenade," with somewhat updated lyrics.The voice, as always, is almost beyond belief in its naturalness, and seeming ease of production. No pop star ever had clearer pronunciation than Lanza. That is one of the real miracles of his singing:

Following The Toast of New Orleans, Lanza had made—in 1951—his biggest and most popular movie, with which he is still associated, The Great Caruso. He put all his interest and emotion in this film, because Caruso was his boyhood idol, as the great Neapolitan tenor had been for many Italian immigrants. His voice was in superb condition:

This is clearly pre-recorded with movie lip-synch, but then all movies are. It does not detract from the voice. The C's are splendid. The problem is that by this point Lanza has become a portrayer of opera singers, as opposed to being an opera singer himself. Also, movies require much less musical and intellectual discipline. Songs can be re-recorded, sounds can be electronically enhanced, and so on. The money is big, the fame is big, the acclaim is heady, but to a large extent it just isn't the same thing. And not much respect, if any, is garnered from the world of classical music and its artists. This can eat away at a person who wants to take his gifts seriously, but has chosen a tricky venue in which to display them.

The quality of the movies began to decline after The Great Caruso, and Lanza began to show the tell-tale signs of Hollywood stress. He could in fact deliver fine concerts in public when given the chance. He sang with great success in London, for example, at a Royal Command Performance in 1957, to considerable acclaim. He had the goods, but he had made a Faustian bargain early on, and was never to escape from it. He was only going to live one more year, his struggle with weight gain out of control, and his personal habits deteriorating to a disastrous degree. Nowhere on earth is the road down more precipitous than it is in Hollywood. Overnight stars go hand in hand with overnight disaster. He was quickly abandoned by the fair-weather friends who abound in Hollywood, and found himself in deep trouble. He made one last decision to go to Italy and study, with an eye toward a legitimate Italian debut, a decision which, had it been made a decade earlier, might have led him to a great operatic career. But it was too late. He died in Italy, in 1959, at 38 years of age. The details surrounding his death were never clear. I have heard many stories, including some from a man who worked as his publicity agent, but I will not repeat them. They are sordid and unpleasant and cannot be proven. His heart gave out, and he died, still a young man. That is enough to say. He seemed to have it all at the beginning: a truly great voice, very handsome features, good friends and connections. It is impossible, and finally silly, to try to gainsay history and the decisions of other people, or to go on about what might have been, but it seems pretty clear that it was largely Hollywood, with its infamous life-style and all that goes with it, that destroyed Mario Lanza. It was a tragedy; a particularly American tragedy and an unspeakable loss to the world of great singing.