Mario del Monaco: Greatness and Controversy
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 warn you 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
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: . Yes, he was, not unlike Bonisoli, more than a bit of a character. But who cares, basically.
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 an old film clip of Vesti la Giubba, made many years ago, when Del Monaco was a young man. One can see here what the fuss has always been about. The voice, the looks, the excitement. It's all there! From the beginning!
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 couple of years 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!