Dear Readers: This article was originally written on June 17, and was unfortunately lost during the time I was rebuilding this site. Fortunately, I had backed it up, and have been able to reconstruct it!
It is a real pleasure —and distinct honor—for me to welcome the return today of our very distinguished guest writer, Mr. Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, Italian industrialist from Naples, opera critic and historian. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio was an intimate friend of the great Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi, and is a life-time subscriber to the Teatro San Carlo, one of the world's historically great opera houses. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio's knowledge of Italian opera and opera singers —past and present—is simply vast, and I do not believe that there is anyone among my acquaintances whose knowledge exceeds his own, and there are precious few who could match it. I know that I certainly could not. It is a rare pleasure to be able to feature this piece on the great Italian tenor Mario Filippeschi.]
Mario Filippeschi, the tenor from Pisa, was called spadavoce* by adoring audiences in Spain. At his beloved Teatro San Carlo, he was known as Mario il mito.** Lauri-Volpi, in private correspondence, once called him the "King of Tenors." It was a title he truly deserved.
The voice was of the highest quality: warm and sonorous throughout the range, extending into a glorious treble register that finished with a gigantic high D natural. Filippeschi, like Escalais, O’Sullivan, Lauri-Volpi, Soler and others, belonged to that rarest of vocal categories— the true heroic tenor. While a dramatic tenor often has a weighty, dark voice and vast sound, (Giacomini, Vinay) the heroic tenor is more what is sometimes called a “super-lyric.” Although large, the voice is brighter and more notable for power of incision than for weight. A dramatic tenor can easily make a career without an extensive upper register, but for a heroic tenor, singing notes like the C and C-sharp must be easy and effortless.
Filippeschi was an exemplar of all these qualities. His high notes, and not just the very highest C-sharp and D, but lower notes as well, were cast into the theatre like a blast of molten gold. This stream could be modulated a piacereto a fine pianissimo. The staging of Faust at San Carlo, with Tebaldi, in 1951, was particularly memorable. Although only a young man, I remember going with my father to speak to Filippeschi before the opera. I recall that during these years, it was Di Stefano’s high C diminuendo that had captured much attention among the opera-going public, so we were most interested when Filippeschi told us that “Di Stefano is not the only one to make that little trick of "suffocation.”*** And sure enough, that night, during the cavatina, the great tenor sang a fortissimo high C, bringing it slowly down to a floating pianissimo.
Callas attained great prominence as a reviver of Rossini and other bel canto composers. The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino performance of Armida, in 1952, is still well remembered. Less well known, outside Italy, is the role that Filippeschi played in reviving bel canto, especially Rossini. Always a generous performer, giving his best to the audience, he gave his voice with the unselfishness of a blood donor to old Rossini and his final operatic creation, William Tell, in the formidable role of Arnoldo. Singing it is not just a matter of pulling out a C — although this is important. No, Arnoldo must be sung by a voice of the right color, texture and power: it is no role for a tenorino. **** Filippeschi sang this role all over Italy and overseas as well, more than fifty times between his début of the role in 1949 and his last performance of it in 1959—a record that is unlikely ever to be equalled.
Upon hearing the cruel tessitura Verdi had demanded of the heroine of Nabucco, Rossini called him a "composer in a helmet." In the writing of Arnoldo's role, we could say the same of Rossini! Filippeschi, however, with a voice naturally suited to these heights, and harnessed with solid nineteenth-century technique, passed through these Alps of opera without a single mis-step. Here he is, singing the big scene of Act IV, O muto asil del pianto, and the cabaletta, Corriam! Voliam!
Prior to his vocal training, Filippeschi studied the clarinet, which no doubt helped to form his musicianship and above all refine his legendary breath control. His extraordinary singing was always well-presented in another of his best roles: that of Manrico in Il Trovatore. Here, he sings Di quella pira, the big aria that the audience always waits for. A real showpiece, requiring an extraordinary voice if it is to be done well, and pity the tenor who does not do it well! Only first-class singers need apply!
Such incredible high Cs! There is a time for romantic and realistic characterisation in Manrico’s character,but this comes in other places in the opera: during the cavatina to this cabaletta, earlier in "Mal reggendo," in the first act serenade, and of course in the final act in the "Miserere" and the duet "Ai nostri monti." "Di quella pira," however, is all about excitement and militaristic abandon.
Arturo, in I Puritani, was another role with which Filippeschi was closely associated. He provided not only the high notes (always singing "A te, o cara" and "Credeasi misera" in the original key), but sustained the high tessitura of the role effortlessly. Additionally, and very importantly, Filippeschi also sang Arturo with a certain feeling for Bellini’s long, long melodic line that he is frequently accused —outside Italy—of lacking. In any case, readers can judge for themselves. Here Filippeschi sings the great warhorse, "A te, o cara."
Finally, let us look at Filippeschi in his signature role--The Duke, in Rigoletto. Filippeschi's Duke was an edgier, darker figure than that portrayed by many tenors. During his career, his Duca was extremely pleasing to me and audiences at San Carlo, and now, listening to old recordings, I find them refreshing. Today there is a great obsession with forcing the Duke to be sung in a way which creates a sympathetic character that endears him to the audience. Nothing could be further from Verdi’s vision, which, we must remember, in fact depicts no less a personage than King Francis I of France: a sovereign emperor who needs no sympathy. Certainly his second-act aira "Ella mi fu rapita," performed in its correct context as an interior lament, reflected this darker character, and one can hear resonances of that more powerful, inforgiving, autocratic nature even in a passionate love song such as "E il sol dell'anima":
What a top voice! This hardly sounds like a lovesick and impoverished student. It sounds more like a Roman emperor!
The versatility and stamina of Filippeschi was incredible, from the very beginning of his career in 1937, when he made his début as Edgardo, and then the very next day was called upon to sing the Duke, a role which served him well for more than twenty-five years and which he presented for his final performances. His retirement when he was only in his mid fifties was certainly not caused by any vocal problems, but by a desire for a more tranquil life with his wife and daughters. Filippeschi was, from the beginning, in high demand, frequently travelling the length of Italy between Palermo and Trieste, crossing the sea to sing in Spain, and above all, always having to hurry across the Atlantic Ocean to sing in Mexico and South America, where he was, like everywhere, a great favorite.
The quality and success of his career is reflected in the artists he performed with: names such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Caniglia, Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Lina Pagliughi, Antonietta Stella, Adelina Cambi Fedora Barbieri, Ebe Stignani, Aldo Protti, Carlo Tagliabue, Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Giulio Neri, as well as the great conductors Gabriele Santini, Vincenzo Bellezza, Tullio Serafin. One person with whom Filippeschi did not have an easy relationship was Victor de Sabata: when singing at La Scala in 1949 as Alvaro, he and de Sabata clashed severely, with the result than the only later association the tenor had with La Scala was collaborating with the orchestra and chorus after Serafin asked him to be Pollio to Callas’ Norma on the famous recording. To an outsider, such a conflict might seem disastrous, for it is a common assumption that La Scala enjoys status as primus inter pares. But Italy is a land of many towers, and during the `40s and `50s, nothing could be more deceiving. Naples and Rome enjoyed great prestige, and Filippeschi’s reputation as tenor of the capital probably did not help him at La Scala, still recovering from the war.
Fortunately, Filippeschi’s legacy is secure thanks to the many recordings of this work that survive, and thanks also to the two opera films he sang and acted in (Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor), his studio output, and numerous live and RAI broadcast recordings, which capture him in all his best roles, such as Arnoldo, Calàf, Chénier, Duca, Manrico, Don Carlo, and Arturo. Regrettably, no document exists of his interpretation of Fernando in La Favorita, one of his best roles, which served as his farewell to the stage in Spain, where the news that it would be his last caused tears in the audience.
Now I thank this noble facilitator, Professor Edmund St Austell, for this wonderful opportunity to showcase the King of Tenors on his blog. Like Filippeschi, he is a gentleman of great learning and great perception and the Internet is a better place for his vast contribution.
*spadavoce "A voice that cuts like a sword"
** Mario il mito "the mythical Mario," or "the Legendary Mario"
*** "Smorzando," gradually slowing down and softening the note
**** A modest, light-voiced tenor