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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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veTWqkltGLA


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."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXjNwyJO5qY


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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vlu8cTg4qVA


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

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, his "Di Quella Pira" in the arena is a bit surreal. Gladiator? ha ha.

At any rate, he did have a strong voice, that's for sure.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, it was a spectacular voice. His ability to carry the dark intensity in his voice all the way up to C natural is most unusual. Most heroic or dramatic tenors are basically Bb tenors, but he had the entire top range. As for the eccentricities, yes, he was perhaps a trifle odd, but he was a very engaging, thrilling, exciting singer. Also, the Italians have a tremendous tolerance for extravagant behavior--witness Bonisolli--and maybe they have the right idea. I'm inclined to think they do.

Jing said...

"E lucevan le stelle" is my favorite here. Everything - singing, acting, and overall energy - seems contained and in focus. Quite nice indeed. You don't mention it specifically, but, judging by the photo of him you post, he must have had a lot of simmering sex appeal. If that is so, he apparently was able to bask in that without having to create a calculated media image - perhaps by just honestly being himself - which would seem refreshing today. Thanks for another most interesting article and set of links.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You are of course right. He fairly oozes sex appeal, no small part of his popularity, I'm sure. He was also from a pretty up-scale family, which may well have put him at a kind of ease unknown to other singers clawing their way up from the bottom, so to speak. If so, that cavalier attitude might have served to make him seem a bit diffident. Hard to say. With that voice, those looks, and that simmering energy, it's easy to imagine him stirring an audience to fervor.

Why do some people seem to be born with it all? It's not fair:)

Chloe said...

Good choice of musical excerpts, Edmund! I did not know he had the necessary subtleties of the Tosca aria in him.

Edmund StAustell said...

Yes, he is full of surprises. His eccentriciies can sometimes blind people to what a brilliant tenor he was, basically. He certainly understood passion, and how to present himself on stage. Del Monaco fans are a very fervent bunch, indeed!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he acted bizarrely sometimes because he couldn’t control his temperament on the stage.
Del Monaco performed once or twice in the Bolshoi in 1959 and involuntary created a revolution in the Soviet style of tenor singing. Lemeshev, Kozlovsky, Orfenov and other singers of old school were not young or retired . Our only record label “Melodia” didn’t want to reissue their recordings, so when young tenors heard del Monaco, they all decided to sing like him and to forget about the Russian stars of the past. After that came the new generation of Soviet singers with powerful voices (Atlantov is the best example) and “The Italian style".
I have a biographical book by Anatoly Orfenov, The Bolshoi’s tenor, and he described his impression of Del Monaco. The text is amusing,“I listened to Mario del Monaco on the radio and heard him in “Il Pagliacci’ in the theater… He made mainly a very good impression. He is almost a baritonal tenor. He is better on the radio than in the theater. He is a genuine artist and can act. Some of his gestures come form typical Italian manner though. When he sings a high note he raises his finger and holds it so, until he lets go of the high note. He is not tall. Yet he is an outstanding event. He arrived here with his spouse. They say his blood pressure is low and he sleeps all day , apathetic and indifferent in real life, and passionate on stage.”:)

n.a.

Anonymous said...

Great tenor and great article. A well balanced and reliable opinion is a rare thing in operatic blogs and forums.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. To Anonymous n.a., yes, very funny! I love Orfenov's comments! "blood pressure is low and he sleeps all day! Wish I could do that. And especially interesting is his influence on the singing technique of Russian tenors. Most interesting.

To Anonymous II: Thank you very much for you kind comment. I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

"Great tenor and great article..." - this comment is mine too. Somehow my comment was divided, when I posted it.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

В таком случае, я должен поблагодарить вас дважды! Извините! :) :)

MICHAEL BRADY said...

Interesting comments on Mario DelMonaco. I was a member of the he screams camp for years and years until I decided to really LISTEN and be fair in my appraisal. I found that he could and did sing piano quite often and despite the dark tonal base to his sound his sang high tessitura music with incomparable ease. In some operas like Otello, La Fanciulla del West, Il Trabarro, Francesca da Rimini he had no competiton except for Tucker in Fanciulla. There is a performance of Guardate Pazzo Son from Act III of Manon Lescaut that has been posted on youtube that is simply great. Lastly Ghost Riders is a lot of fun.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your excellent comment. I know exactly what you mean--I too, at one point in my life, was not well disposed, and then I, like you, started to pay a little closer attention. I think it was the aria from La Wally, curiously enough, that attracted my attention. Even post auto accident, and with some years on him, the raw emotional power and ringing sound of that rendition effected me emotionally, I must admit. Then I started to notice the Di Quella Pira, and the fact that yes, indeed he did have a stunning high C. And then I started to listen in earnest, and decided that I had been unfair. I admire Giuseppe Giacomini for his style, musicianship, and the generally high quality of his singing, but he does not have the top that Del Monaco did, and he did abuse his voice, rather, and developed a pretty severe wobble later on. Still a great tenor, imho, but the exciting vitality of Del Monaco was somewhat sui generis. Thanks again for an excellent comment.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Most interesting! You make good points, and I respect them.

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

Mario del Monaco, a great and strange tenor. One time I heard his Manrico. In the first act, he sang an easy Db5, but could only sing B4 at the end of "Di quella pira"

I think he was the greatest Otello of modern times. He was very different to the first Otello, Francesco Tamagno, but he did not pretend to be anything or anybody other than Mario del Monaco. I went to a performance in America of Otello with Leonard Warren, Renata Tebaldi, and of course del Monaco. It was thrilling and the power of the three voices had the ability to produce a surreal atmosphere.

As we call him, the "Bras bull of Milan." He did not have mezza-voce or falsetto, and he struggled with piano and pianissimo markings, but he way had a character in roles like Otello and Canio does not really have much of an equal.

My main problem with Mario del Monaco is a issue of imitation: he helped make the tenors with the trills, diminuendo, and mezza-voce a severely endangered species. His style changed tenor singing forever.

EdmundStAustell said...

Thank you! Yes, I think you are right, and that is one reason he has a certain air of controversy around him. He fits right into the whole verismo/bel canto argument, with a kind of singing that is heroic, stentorian, and dramatic. There are some who consider him a very high baritone, but whatever he might technically be called, he was certainly an exciting singer, and a great favorite with many people. He took the idea of "dramatic tenor" about as far as it can go, and yes, his Otello was superb. No doubt about that!

calclamcc said...

Mario del Monaco became part of an era: the post WWII era. His companions in this wonderful reconstruction period wer Gigli, Tagliavini, Tucker, di Stefano, Björling, Gedda, Corelli, Wunderlich, Raimondi among others. The last years of this era brought the rise of great signers such as Kraus, Bergonzi, Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras, Giacomini, La Scola... I happened to be in Buenos Aires when del Monaco sang at the Colon Theatre. He was a real heroe and much admired. One cannot say he was a disguised baritone/tenor. Will you be kind enough to tell your forum your opinion about this nowadays popular tenor: Kaufmann? He has the voice and also the looks. I would like to have your much respected opinion. Many thanks.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Interesting comment! Thank you very much. You certainly know your singers! Yes, good! Actually, I plan to do a piece on Kaufmann very soon, right after I do one on Ben Heppner. Thanks again.

Intelegentable said...

I think MDM was the most exciting tenor ever. Yes he was theatrical, melodramatic and often so emotionally involved with his roles that his vocally and dramatically his performance was over the top, but that is what made him so exciting. He was alive and electrical on stage and had the vocal and artistic gifts to elevate his eccentricities to the level of great art. MDM has emerged as a respected artist, Vinay, Corelli Bonisoli,Vickers,McCracken, Giaccoimini, Atlantov, all were influenced by MDM and that niagara of sound that poured forth from that golden throat.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Great comment! Nothing I can add to that except to say I agree! Thank you very much!

Italocanadese said...

I am not an expert on opera but I do love to listen to arias and Neapolitan songs, mainly due to my father's influence. Many years ago he mentioned Mario Del Monaco but because we lived in Africa at the time I never had the opportunity to listen to any of his recordings.

A few weeks ago, thanks to the magic of modern technology, I looked up his name on I-Tunes and I was totally blown away. I ended up downloading about forty arias and Italian songs!

I truly believe he has the most wonderful voice I have ever heard. For those critics who obsessed over his technique? All tenors should adopt it if the result is a voice like Mario Del Monaco's. In fact I think they should be ashamed for maligning This tenor, who should be amongst the best ever, if not the best.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Your enthusiasm tells the whole story. When a singer can create that kind of response in a listener, he or she is a great singer. It's just about that simple. And Del Monanco was one of the greatest.

Hildegerd said...

The man had it all.

The voice, the looks and the musicianship.

Grande Maestro. <3

Aetion said...

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

Reriod. Thanks a lot, Professor.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Well said, my friend, well said!

Don R said...

Gee, Edmund, calling "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" a "silly popular song" is a bit harsh, isn't it? It's arguably the most beloved cowboy song ever written. Now del Monaco's particular recording of it,could more plausibly be called silly.It's overly stentorian and lacks the haunting quality of, say, Vaughn Monroe's version.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha. Well, you may be right, my friend. I was probably writing faster than I was thinking at that point:-) It's been a while back, but I think I was almost certainly referring to Del Monaco singing it, more than the song itself, which I actually like. My mom and dad went to see Vaughn Monroe sing that song in Dayton, Ohio, many years ago, at Sutmiller's Restaurant, I think it was, and he came out on the little stage they had built up, stepped over the edge of it, feel onto the floor, and threw up all over himself. Guess Vaugh was one of the world's more serious drinkers:-)

Francesca B. said...

A beautiful essay and appreciation. Thank you.