Sunday, August 15, 2010
Giuseppe Di Stefano: A Tenor For All Seasons
Giuseppe di Stefano was born in Motta Sant'Anastasia, a village near Catania, Sicily,in 1921. He came from a family of very modest means and was educated at a Jesuit seminary. His operatic debut was in 1946 in Reggio Emilia as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon. His La Scala debut was the next year, in 1947, in the same role. From his early youth, Di Stefano's voice was remarkable for its great beauty. After the La Scala debut, his rise was unusually rapid. His Met debut followed, in 1948, in Rigoletto. He was to be a Met mainstay for many years. From this moment on, he sprang to international fame, and sang in all the major opera houses and in many festivals. His biography is very easily consulted, owing to his great popularity.
I will say at the outset that I am, and have always been, an ardent Di Stefano fan. I can't promise too much objectivity on this one. We are accustomed to speaking of tenors in many categories: leggiero, lyric, spinto, dramatic, and heroic. Di Stefano, however, was molded in the old-fashioned way. He was essentially a tenor—period—and he sang an extremely wide range of roles, each requiring different vocal abilities, or "kinds" of voices, at least according to current mythologies. This did not concern Di Stefano. His essential training was bel canto, and he adhered absolutely to the advice of Fernando De Lucia: "Per cantare bene, bisogna aprire la bocca!" (This was reported by his most famous student, Georges Thill, in a filmed interview that can be seen on Youtube.) Di Stefano did "aprire la bocca," very wide indeed, and very consistently, and that is how he sang. His pronunciation, as a result, is impeccable. You can understand every single word, in Standard Italian, Neapolitan, or Sicilian. It was very open phonation, and while some criticized him for this, I think it served him beautifully, because it gave him an enormous range, superb control in the extreme upper register (he could diminuendo on a high C natural!) and it made it possible for him to sing roles from Nemorino to Calaf. Here is the very young Di Stefano, little more than a boy, is the popular "Una furtiva lagrima.":
A beautiful rendition for a 23 year old! Already the main qualities are in place—the open phonation, the beautiful voice, the superb enunciation, and a remarkable ability to diminuendo down to a lovely mezza-voce that is almost choir-boy-like. It was clear he was headed for the big time!
Let's progress by repertoire and age, and the "tenor for all seasons" ability will become apparent. Here he is in a very demanding role, the Duke of Mantua, which is a serious step up from Nemorino in terms of vocal demands, singing the extremely well known "La Donna è Mobile." Notice the open phonation, and the easy access right up the scale to the final B natural:
Wonderful! Did you notice that in addition to the immaculate pronunciation, that there is a distinctive, recognizable personality to his voice? It often happens that when opera singers in a given vocal fach cover their sounds heavily, it is almost impossible to tell one from another. When the phonation is open, however, the individual personality of the speaking voice is revealed. Among basses, the most striking example is Chaliapin, who was a wide-open singer if ever there was one, as tenor Giovanni Martinelli was also.
Like Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Di Stefano (whose vocal production was similar) could sing very high. Here is an extraordinary piece of singing featuring Di Stefano and Callas, his frequent collaborator (theirs was a bit of a mutual admiration society). This short finale to a longer duet features a high Db from both of them, and a B natural at the end. This, as I indicated in the description accompanying the video, is virtuoso singing of a very high order indeed:
That is simply spectacular! There is no other word for it. That is the kind of singing that makes people happy to lay down their hard earned money for expensive opera tickets, and then stand up and shout to demonstrate their satisfaction at having heard great singing.
Finally, in our progression, a very heavy role, Calaf in Turandot, in the by-now famous "Nessun Dorma:
Magnificent. Same vocal production as for Nemorino. Nothing has changed. This is the repertoire critics say he should not have sung, yet I challenge anyone to fault this rendition of "Nessun Dorma" in any way. Perhaps it did shorten his career a bit, but that turns out—considering how long his career was—to be a matter of small concern. He had a spectacular career, was greatly respected, sang all over the world in all the important opera houses and made a very large number of recordings and no small amount of money. There's a problem here? I don't think so. Also, he was certainly not the only tenor to sing with an open phonation on top. One thinks of Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Fernando de Lucia, and Georges Thill, for starters, three of the most famous tenors of all time. No, this is great tenor singing, plain and simple.
Sadly, he died a tragic but heroic death. Attacked by unknown assailants in his summer home in Kenya, he fought bravely—at age 84!—to defend his wife from the thieves. He saved her, but he paid for his heroic actions by being so badly beaten that he slipped into a coma and basically lay, in pain and semi-consciousness, for the last three years of his life, dying at 87 in Milan. This was as great a man as he was an artist!
at 1:44 PM