The Tenor of the Century – Almost

This article was written in 1997 more than a decade before the tenor’s death (Kurtzman NA: The Tenor of the Century – Almost. Lubbock Magazine (October):52-53, 1997). I’ve added a few sound files that I obviously couldn’t have put in the original version.

Of all the words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.

In his memoirs, 5000 Nights at the Opera, Rudolph Bing wrote that the most beautiful sound he heard during his observation season at the Metropolitan Opera, prior to becoming its general manager in 1950, was the diminuendo with which Giuseppe Di Stefano took on the high C near the end of the tenor’s cavatina in Gounod’s Faust. (His statement is almost always misquoted to include every sound he heard in whole his life.) On December 9, 1955, I heard the tenor duplicate the feat at the same venue. I was as impressed as Bing had been. Unfortunately, this season proved to be the last good one left to the 34-year-old singer whose tenure at the operatic summit was as spectacular as it was brief.

Born in Sicily in 1921, his family moved to Milan when he was six. When he was a teenager, he discovered that he had an operatic voice and began vocal lessons. World War II inter­rupted his training; he was drafted. As everyone knows, the Italian Army thinks much more of singing than fighting, so Di Stefano was kept away from the front and allowed to sing. Things got much more parlous after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime when the Germans occupied the northern half of the peninsula. Di Stefano fled to Switzerland where he was interned. His con­finement was generous, however. He gave some public perfor­mances and made his first recordings, which demonstrated a beautiful voice not yet fully under control, but which showed extraordinary promise.

At the conclusion of the war, he returned to Italy where he resumed vocal studies. But not for long; he was a natural and there was no holding him back. He made his operatic debut in 1946, the following year he was at La Scala, and the year after that, he appeared at the Met for the first time. From 1948 to 1952, he appeared at the Met in more than 100 performances. After 1952, the recovery of the post-war Italian economy raised the tenor’s fees in that country’s state-subsidized opera houses to more than the Met could pay. Di Stefano accepted engagements in his home country that conflicted with his obligations to the New York house. Bing, whose managerial style was akin to that of Attila the Hun, fired him. Di Stefano brought legal action and eventually forced the Met to take him back for the season of 1955-56, which was when I heard him onstage. He was not reengaged until 1963-64 when his voice was gone and then, only for a single performance. Bing had brought him back just to embarrass him.

After his operatic career petered out in the early ‘60s, Di Stefano appeared in operettas and then, in recitals almost up until the present day, seemingly oblivious of his vocal decay. He partnered Maria Callas on a disastrous concert tour in 1972-73. He still lives in Milan with a young wife and old memories.

During the decade of 1946 to 1956, Di Stefano performed onstage and on recordings with a beauty of tone and an intensity unique in this century. His lifestyle was as intense as his performing – it made the behavior of the wildest player on the Dallas Cowboys seem more sedate than that of a house-bound Baptist preacher. Like Oscar Wilde, he could resist anything except temptation.

In a recent interview, he blamed the rapid deteriora­tion of his voice on an allergy to rugs he installed in his Milan apartment in the mid ‘50s. This is denial on an operatic scale. His voice was ruined by its owner, who forced it far beyond its natural limits and who stubbornly used a vocal method which tore the voice to pieces. He had a dramatic temperament, but a lyric instrument. He insisted on singing parts that were too heavy for him. His technique, which in some respects was ex­traordinarily good, spread his tone and negotiated the transition of vocal placement that occurs in the tenor range around F above middle C in the worst possible way.

But while the voice lasted, it was unlike anything heard this century. Its sound was beautiful beyond compare and Di Stefano could manipulate it with nuanced expression of seem­ingly endless subtlety. His diction in both Italian and French was perfect. Every syllable he sang was suffused with meaning. He shaded the music so that the listener seemed to sense the meaning of what he sang without understanding a single word of Italian or French. He could also make a seamless transition from the very loudest to the softest sound without losing support of the tone, and he could do it over his entire vocal range. The diminuendo on the Faust high C (salut demeure) is an outstanding example of this ability. This effect has never been duplicated. Though he often forced his singing, he didn’t have to. His voice carried with ease through the cavernous space that was the old Met.

Music is about emotion. Opera is about the most basic of emotions. Di Stefano was the most passionate singer who ever made records. Love, hate, jealousy, despair, longing – all were communicated in his singing with the most telling urgency. When he sang something well, every other tenor’s version sounded tepid.  Consider the end of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The tenor has spent much of the opera trying to find out the name of his wife’s lover. In the opera’s famous play-within-a-play, he portrays a jealous husband caught up in the same pre­dicament as in real life. In a jealous frenzy, the tenor stabs his wife who is playing his unfaithful wife onstage. In her dying gasp, she calls out her lover’s name, who in turn rushes up from the audience to help her.

“Ah, sei tu (Ah, it’s you),” he cries, whereupon he kills the lover with the same knife he used on his wife, leading to the last line of the opera – La commedia e finite. (Pagiacci finale) Di Stefano, who never should have sung the role of Canio in this opera because it’s too heavy, deliv­ers the line with blood­curdling ferocity and satisfaction. Listen to any other tenor say the words and you’ll think he’s calling out bingo numbers. Similarly, Di Stefano’s rendition of the work’s most famous number, Vesti Ia giubba, is miles ahead of anyone else’s, in­cluding that of Caruso. His breath control is Olympian, allowing him to convey all the pathos in a piece that is often made into a caricature. This performance, with Maria Callas as the female lead, is still in the catalog as part of EMI’s complete re­cording of the opera.

Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca was one of the tenor’s finest roles. I heard him sing it at the Met on January 13, 1956 – Friday the 13th, which turned out to be one of the luckiest days in the house’s history. Tito Gobbi made his Met debut that thy as Scarpia; he had no equal in the role. Tosca was the incomparable Zinka Milanov. Even the bit parts were extravagantly cast that night. For ex­ample, the Sacristan was sung by the world’s greatest basso buffo, Fernando Corena. But it is Di Stefano’s perfor­mance that remains most vivid in my memory across the abyss of more than four decades. E lucevan le stelle, the tenor’s familiar third act aria, was sung just the way Di Stefano sings it on the famous complete recording – again with Gobbi and with Maria Callas in the title role. This recording is also still in print, so you can hear the miracle he makes of the phrase Le belle forme disciogliea dai  veli (Oh, vanished forever is that dream of love).

In November of 1956, Di Stefano recorded 22 mostly Neapolitan songs. These were among the last recordings he made that are worth listening to. The popular songs of Naples are the world’s longest-running pop tunes. They deal mainly with the Neapolitan man’s three chief preoc­cupations: the sun, women, and his re­gion. The most famous of these little gems, O sole mio, is a paean to the south­ern Italian sun. Luciano Pavarotti has recently taken to performing it in a rather clownish version. Di Stefano’s rendition is a passionate love affair. After hearing it, you’ll pick up the phone and call Alitalia. Marechiare describes the beau­tiful bay for which the song is named. This bay is said to be so intoxicating that when the moon shines on it even the fish make love. Core ‘Ngrato, the most pas­sionate of these songs in which passion is as plentiful as gasoline at an arsonists con­vention, relates how the singer’s former lover has left his heart a piece of ground meat. You do not have to understand a word of the Neapolitan dialect to feel the despair that Di Stefäno communicates. If you would really understand the meaning of suspension of disbelief, listen to these songs sung by a performing genius.

Unfortunately, the complete collec­tion of 22 songs is not available on CD. Twelve of them, however, can be found on a disc entitled Giuseppe Di Stefano, Voce ‘e notte on Replay Music RMCD 4032. The label is obviously not a house­hold name, so you’ll have to hunt to find the disc. But try – it’s worth it. Also, stay away from the Neapolitan songs the tenor recorded a few years later.

Recently, both Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were interviewed during the intermission of the broadcast of the opening night performance at the Met. They were asked which tenors had influenced them. They both named the same two—Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe Di Stefano. The recently published biogra­phy of Jussi Björling written by his wife describes how taken that great tenor was by Di Stefano’s singing, how Björling said that if Di Stefano kept going the way he had started, he would leave everyone behind. Bing said that Di Stefano’s career should have been one that people talked about in the same breath as Caruso’s. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but what was, was sensational enough.

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