Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Review: Mario del Monaco: Historical Recordings 1950-1960

Track Listings:
1. Leoncavallo – I Pagliacci: Prologo (Tonio)
2. Leoncavallo – I Pagliacci: “Vesti la giubba” (Canio)
3. Leoncavallo – I Pagliacci: “No, pagliaccio non son!” (Canio)
4. Verdi – Il Trovarore: “Di quella pira” (Manrico)
5. Verdi – Il Trovarore: “Mal reggendo” (Manrico)
6. Verdi – Il Trovarore: “Ah, si ben mio” (Manrico)
7. Verdi – Macbeth: “Ah, la peterna mano” (Macduff)
8. Verdi – Otello: “Esultate” (Otello)
9. Verdi – Otello: “Niun mi tema” (Otello)
10. Verdi – Otello: Morte di Otello
11. Puccini – Madama Butterfly: “Addio fiorito asil” (Pinkerton)
12. Puccini – Tosca: “Recondita armonia” (Cavaradossi)
13. Puccini – Tosca: “E lucevan le stele” (Cavaradossi)
14. Puccini – Il Tabarro: “Hai ben raggione” (Luigi)
15. Puccini – Il Tabarro: “Folle di gelosia” (Luigi)
16. Giordano – Andrea Chenier: “Un di all'azzuro spazio” (Chenier)
17. Giordano – Andrea Chenier: “Si fui soldato” (Chenier)
18. Giordano – Andrea Chenier: “Come un bel dì di maggio” (Chenier)
19. Berlioz – Les Troyens: Aria di Enea
20. Rossini – Il Barbiere di Siviglia: “Largo al factotum” (Figaro)
21. Wagner – Die Walküre: “Ein Schwert verhiess mir den Vater” (Siegmund)

Fabulous singing, atrocious presentation

The five stars are for the recordings on this CD only. These will be discussed a little later. First, the presentation deserves scorching criticism.

I really don't know what the guys in GALA thought when they produced this GL 305 "Made in Belgium" monster. Apart from names of operas, composers and excerpts, there is only total timing (it's a nice one at least: 71:48). No dates, no orchestras, no conductors, no indication whatsoever whether these were recorded during complete performances of the corresponding operas or in concert. At least they are all "live", as vividly demonstrated by the frenzied audiences in the end of each track.

The "booklet" is hilariously mangled. Apart from a short and perfectly indifferent biographical essay in English and German (actually two essays, the translator being fond of embellishments), there is nothing more about Mario del Monaco. But there is one further essay in German and a full-page photo of – Mario Lanza. Sure, the two men shared a first name. But as voices, careers and artistic personalities, they couldn't have been more different. Such monumental sloppiness really leaves me speechless.

The rest of the promisingly thick booklet is occupied by the GALA catalogue, handsomely printed in full colour. There are many fascinating things here, and I am sure most of them are well worth listening to. But, people, for the sake of your buyers as well as for you own, improve your presentation!

NB. The following links are not necessarily to the same performances that you can hear on the CD. They are the closest approximation that YouTube allows.

The amazingly poor job GALA did with the presentation had to be commented upon, but it is the music that really matters. All 21 tracks here capture Mario del Monaco in his absolute prime; one doesn't need dates, one just has to hear the voice. The sound is quite acceptable. There may be some distortion in the orchestra and the voice may be somewhat distant, but neither is worth making any fuss about. The repertoire covered is enormous. It shows Mario in some of his most famous and most often performed roles (Otello, Chenier, Canio), yet also is such rarities as Wagner's Siegmund or in Berlioz's Les Troyens. As a special bonus, there are his two favourite ventures into the baritone area: Figaro's "Largo al factotum" and Tonio's Prologue from Pagliacci.

This is a CD for confirmed fans of Mario, but if it happens to fall in the hands of a del Monaco neophyte I strongly urge him or her to disregard claims as “inelegant”, “incapable of subtlety”, “not a great actor” and other similar clichés that have been parroted for ages by people who should know better (but don’t). It’s all matter of personal taste, so trust yourselves first.

For my part, Mario del Monaco is a great deal more than glorious voice. To be sure, Mario’s “forte” was his forte. But to say that he lacked subtlety or was a poor actor – this is sheer nonsense. He could never manage anything like Pippo’s heavenly ventures into the pianissimo dynamics, but his singing did have a good deal of variety, and yes, subtlety too. He may not have been the most elegant of tenors, but neither was he an effete character assassin á la Kraus. What Mario did, above all, was to remind his listeners that the tenor is a male voice and that some of the most famous parts written for it are of elemental intensity.

The accusation of poor acting is way more preposterous. There is enough video material preserved – his guest appearances in Tokyo and Bolshoi, the film-opera of Otello, a number of excerpts from concerts – to show that del Monaco, love him or hate him, was truly one of the greatest actors that the opera stage has seen. Ever. Mario’s acting was histrionic, certainly, but it was not hammy; it might have been so in combination with another voice, but he always knew what he was doing and it always, if you choose to believe, came from the heart. With a gesture of his hands or a glance of his eyes he could say more than other famous tenors said during the whole of their careers. With the exception of Boris Christoff and Maria Callas, I have never seen Mario’s equal in terms of acting. (Small wonder that Christoff himself was impressed by his dramatic intensity when they sang together in that famous Ernani at Maggio Musicale in 1957.)

What does all this have to do with the CD which is being reviewed here, you wonder? Well, a great deal. The selection here shows all of Mario’s virtues and very few of his defects. And the fact that it’s all “live” is a great bonus indeed. In La mia vita e miei successi (1982), his brief, chatty, witty, gossipy, inadvertently self-revealing but sadly never translated into English memoirs, Mario made the significant remark how difficult it was to record his studio recitals for DECCA, usually during the hottest weeks of the summer, in the stifling and stultifying environment of the recording studio. So if you happen to be introduced to his art by the Decca Recitals 1952-1969, keep in mind that this is not Mario at his best. For this you have to go to his live recordings, such as this disc.

When the repertoire is right – Otello, Canio, Chenier, Manrico – Mario is simply stunning. It’s hardly often that one can hear these monstrous parts sung with the proper mixture of abandon and artistry. This is the case here. Before crying out about the proverbial “lack of subtlety”, give an ear to the opening of “Vesti la giubba” or the heartrending “Ridi del duol” in the end. “Ah si, ben mio” is another fine example of passionate elegance. Lots of venom has been spilled on Mario for his lack of phrasing and other stuff like that. But he reminds me that Manrico is an ardent hero burning inside, one of the major characters in violent melodrama. It’s useless to sing such character in a refined and restrained manner; conventional elegance just doesn’t apply here. Note also, not just the stupefying final note, but the perfect pronunciation and trills of “Di quella pira”. Franco Corelli, the only contemporary of Mario in the “tenore di forza” category, has been captured live (as in his famous recording with Karajan from Salzburg, 1962) to bark this aria in a most abominable way only to split the roof with the final top note. That’s something Mario never did.

Cavaradossi from Puccini’s Tosca was not generally regarded as one of Mario’s best parts. I disagree. The 1959 complete studio recording he made with Renata Tebaldi and George London is unjustly forgotten. Again, he turns the poet into a suitably passionate and socially active artist, far removed from the insipid renditions of more “elegant tenors”. For subtlety, note the line “o dolci baci o languide carezze”. Not bad, eh!

This CD actually contains some unique things, some moments in which Mario actually surpassed himself. Otello’s first entrance, “Esultate”, is a case in point. Note that he takes the whole line “Dopo l'armi lo vinse l'uragano” longer that usual, yet without the usual pause after “vinse”. I have never heard anybody else doing that; del Monaco seldom did himself. The effect is breathtaking. Mario made two studio recordings of his signature role, a tempestuous one with Erede in 1954 and a timid one with Karajan in 1961, but neither of them even remotely conveys the sheer grandeur, the awesome power of his Otello live in the theatre. There are, fortunately, countless historical performances preserved in decent sound which testify that the man simply owned the part of the Moor. Period. If you don’t believe, just check, for example, the 1958 Metropolitan show with Victoria de los Angeles and the great Leonard Warren as Iago. It will blow you away.

As for Mario’s acting, he wasn’t just mesmerizing to look at on the stage. He could act with his voice, too. You needn’t go further than Otello’s death to have an ample proof for that. You will hear it twice in a row on this CD. Tracks 9 and 10 are listed respectively as “Niun mi tema” and “Morte di Otello” as if they were different. In fact, they are; the music is the same but the performance shows a number of minor differences. As every great artist, Mario was not just better live. He never performed anything in quite the same way twice. To get back to the beginning, these two “deaths of Otello” are eloquent proof about his considerable powers for dramatic recitation.

Even in Siegmund’s great monologue, the closing track of this CD, Mario is by no means a negligible contender. Despite being a very unusual part for him, and despite his idiosyncratic pronunciation in German, Mario delivers e memorable performance. He tends to show off the famous cries “Wälse”, but then so sometimes did Lauritz Melchior. The only artistic failure on this disc, as far as I am concerned, is “Largo al factotum”, not because it’s a baritone part (Mario’s take on Tonio’s Prologue is impressive!), but because comic parts never were part of his artistic make-up.

In conclusion, this is an excellent selection of live performances from Mario del Monaco’s glorious prime. It works equally well as an introduction for neophytes (if they can manage to break the sound barrier) and as a treasure for MDM buffs to dip into. Addressing the former, I would suggest you ignore nonsensical ranting like “not elegant, no great characterization”. Mario del Monaco was way more than stentorian voice. He was, first and most of all, one of the greatest singer-actors from the last century. “No great characterization”, indeed! And he was elegant and subtle, too. It is just that his elegance and subtlety are not for the faint-hearted who think of opera as a type of oratorio.

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