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Sunday, January 11, 2015


 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!

And here is another extraordinary recording, a signature piece for Del Monaco, “Nessun Dorma:”

Extraordinary Singing!!

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!



Edmund St. Austell said...

Please let me know if you have any problems at all with the Comments. I think they are working properly now. Edmund

CurzonRoad said...

As noted, very virile and yet shy on subtelty, the latter of which his fans presumably defend, even deny. Some friends haggle over my "fixation" for lyric sopranos, the seeming avoidance of male singers, (especially bass & baritone), though often enough certain tenors do get through (off the top: Anselmi, Bjorling, DiStefano), so must openly confess Del Monaco has been fairly off my radar. As always, thank you for this fine appraisal and presentation. He is certainly a strong, powerful presence, which in no way can not be ignored.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Great comment, Doug! And I know exactly what you mean! I get the same. I similarly get hassled by friends over my seeming fixation upon child singers, most notably dear Jackie! it's true, I love kids, and especially kids who sing! However, at the same time I can virtually swoon over great great dramatic tenors, notably, Del Monaco, Corelli, Heppner, and particularly Giuseppe Giacomini, one of my all time favorites. So I figure that showcasing 12 to 15 year old sweethearts side by side with Del Monaco, Heppner and Giacomini just means that we have all kinds of great singers, kids to granddads! The more the merrier, as I see it!! Thanks again for a great comment!

JD Hobbes said...

Thanks for another fine blog. As far as lip-synching, I imagine he didn't want to risk any extraneous noise from the crowd in the background.

His voice to me is a combination of Melchoir and Tibbett--the heroic, the powerful, the vibrato, etc.

Quite a great and exciting voice!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes! As always, I appreciate your comment, and I greatly respect your unfailing support. Have you EVER missed a blog in the last five years!!? I can't remember one!

Anonymous said...

MDM was probably my first heart-throb. I heard him for the first time as Radames on an LP I got as a 14th birthday present. He was partnered by the lovely Tebaldi, and it was this very record that infected me with the opera bug. MDM may have not been "subtle" - he wouldn't have made a good Don Ottavio for instance - but he was a SUPERB Radames. A few of his recordings come across as slightly metallic, which is most certainly the fault of the recording technique, and makes me wish I'd heard him perform live. Besides which, as you say, Edmuund, he was VERY easy on the eye. Thank you for this wonderful article! - Annie

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank YOU, Annie! Lovely comment on a personal experience. Yes, I can imagine that a 14 year old girl, otherwise known as a hormone bomb, could really be blown away by a man who could sing like that, and who looked like that! He exuded an astonishingly powerful virility that must have been irresistible. Thanks again for a good comment, my dear friend!

DanPloy said...

For the type of roles Del Monaco sung, his voice is perfectly matched. Are we really going to get all righteous over his lack of variation or the fact he did soften the last note of Celeste Aida when the plots of the operas are so ridiculous.

If we stop analysing and just let his voice embrace us, do we not feel our heart quicken a little and our mood lighten a lot. Who is not smiling or even grinning at sheer majesty of that outpouring.

In fact I think I need a bit of cheering up now:

Edmund St. Austell said...

Great comment Dan, and as usual you are exactly right! Thanks!

Hildegerd said...

You could say a lot about him, but lazy and without passion, he wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article - I just discovered this site and will sure go and explore more (Is there some sort of index somewhere, other than the dates of entries?)

As for Mario del Monaco, I've been a 'diehard' fan of his for nearly 35 years now. By the way, I don't think Mario del Moanco's fans are blind to his faults - back in the day when cd were unknown and I copied my records on tape to not stress the records too much, my favorite tape was amicably entitled, "Mario del Monaco roars arias". It's also quite obvious that sometimes he didn't really match his roles. Don Jose for example - how on earth could that story ever have happened with a character only half as powerful as the voice that represented him? Or Des Grieux - that guy wouldn't have died in the desert, he simply would've called his elephants to the rescue. And as far as 'Ghostriders in the sky' is concerned - that's nothing. Wait until you hear his 1975 Stiffelio - that's almost as painful as Francesco Tamagno croaking his big successes 40 years after his heydays (the 1903 recordings; I was quivering with awe when I first put the record on the player, oh wow, the first Otello and all, and then broke down laughing when he started ESULTATAAAAAAAA.... glorious! Yes, that's blasphemic, I know.)

All this notwithstanding, in spite of his flaws or maybe because of them, there was a magic in Mario del Monaco that no other tenor ever reached for me. He put a power and a virility in his recordings that still is there, no matter how old and technically inferior those recordings might get. There's something in them that no one can reach. Whatever he sung, no matter how far from the composer's idea, he made that character alive. And even when he accidently turned Alfredo into Chuck Norris, somehow he made that character real. Other tenors might sing it better, but no one will give it this reality.

Though, he had one major flaw even I cannot forgive him. When the much praised and highly acclaimed Otello-movie with Placido Domingo came out, I went to the cinema to see it. I left after 30 minutes.

That means, Mario del Monaco owes me 10 bucks.