Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Giuseppe Di Stefano - In Concerto - Live, 1950-52, G.O.P.

Giuseppe Di Stefano

I Concerti General Motors alla TV Messicana,
Mexico City, June-July 1952

I Concerti a San Francisco, October 1950

Ed Sullivan Show, New York, 1952.
G.O.P., 2002. 2 CD. TT: 76.63+73.26.


CD 1 (76.33):
      1.     De Curtis: Tu can nun chiagne
      2.     Barrera: Granadinas
      3.     Puccini: Turandot – Nessum dorma
Mexican TV – 15/6/1952.
      4.     Tosti: Serenata*
      5.     Mario: Santa Lucia luntana**
      6.     Cioffi: Na sera a maggio
Mexican TV – 22/6/1952.
      7.     Perez-Freire: Ay, ay, ay
      8.     Puccini: Tosca – E lucevan le stelle
      9.     Cardillo: Core ‘ngrato
Mexican TV – 29/6/1952.
 10.     Nutile-Russo: Mamma mia, che vo’ sappe
 11.     Ponce: Estrelita
 12.     Tosti: Marechiare
Mexican TV – 6/7/1952.
 13.     Bellini: Vaga luna che inargenti
 14.     Bellini: Chi se ne scorda cch’io***
 15.     Tosti: A vucchella
Mexican TV – 13/7/1952.
 16.     Barberis: Munastere a Santa Chiara
 17.     Falvo: Dicintencello vuje
 18.     Di Capua: O sole mio
Mexican TV – 27/7/1952.
 19.     Verdi: Rigoletto – La donna e mobile
 20.     Traditional: Adeste fideles
 21.     Adam: O Holy Night (with Licia Albanese)
Ed Sullivan Show, 1952.

CD 2 (73.26):
      1.     Gounod: Faust – Salut! Demetre chaste et pure
      2.     Flotow: Marta – M’appari tutt’amor
      3.     Puccini: La boheme – Che gelida manina / Si, mi chiamano Mimi / O soave fanciulla (with Bidu Sayao)
San Francisco, 1/10/1950.
      4.     Massenet: Le Cid – O souverain, o juge, o pere
      5.     Verdi: Rigoletto – Ella mi fu rapita – Parmi veder le lagrime
      6.     Puccini: Madama Butterfly – Viene le sera (with Renata Tebaldi)
San Francisco, 15/10/1950.
      7.     Ponchielli: La Gioconda – Cielo e mar
      8.     Puccini: Tosca – E lucevan le stelle
      9.     Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor – Duet and Finale of Act 1 (with Lily Pons)
San Francisco – 29/10/1950.

San Francisco Opera Association Orchestra
Gaetano Merola, conductor

Giuseppe Di Stefano, tenor


*This is not Tosti’s “Serenata”. According to the discography compiled by Frank Hamilton, the song is “Serenata del burattino” by one Eugenio Mignone. Mr Hamilton also gives an orchestra (Grand Orchestra del General Motors) and a conductor (Raoul LaVista) for the Mexico City concerts. He claims that only “La donna e mobile” comes from Ed Sullivan’s show; the last two tracks on CD 1 he describes as “unknown radio broadcasts”. There are many other discrepancies between Mr Hamilton’s discography and the booklet; only the more substantial are noted below.

**Mr Hamilton notes this song as “Santa Lucia” and gives the composer as “N. N. Palardi”.

***There is actually no name given in the booklet, suggesting that the song is also by Bellini. Mr Hamilton disagrees and gives “R. Barthélemy” as the composer. The correct title is "Chi se ne scorda cchiù".


I am told that there are natural singers and made singers. Though of course he must have something of a voice the made singer owes the better part of his accomplishment to training; with taste and musical ability he can eke out the relative poverty of his organ and his singing can afford a great deal of pleasure, especially to the connoisseur; but he will never move you as you are moved to ecstasy by the pure, bird-like notes of the natural singer. The natural singer may be inadequately trained, he may have neither tact nor knowledge, he may outrage all the canons of art, but such is the magic of his voice that you are captivated. You forgive the liberties he takes, his vulgarities, his appeals to obvious emotion, when those heavenly sounds enchant your ear.

So wrote Somerset Maugham.[1] Though he was neither a musician nor a musical critic, there is a great deal of truth in his words. Giuseppe Di Stefano (or Pippo, as he is affectionately known to his fans) was a natural singer. He committed all of the original sins at one time or another, though less often than one might think as his natural taste was remarkably good. He never had the technique of Bergonzi, Krauss or Gedda. Then again, they never had the emotive power of his voice. There was much the same situation between Pavarotti (a natural singer) and Domingo (a made singer) in more recent times. Domingo’s longevity, repertoire and critical acclaim are far greater, but he has never moved – and never will – the masses with his voice as Pavarotti did.

If Pippo’s art, whatever his vagaries of taste, has the power to move you, you must have this set. It contains live recordings from 1950 and 1952 that capture him in his absolute prime. Now, Pippo’s prime was tragically short. It was confined to the late 40s and the early 50s. Unwise choice of heavy parts (Radames, Alvaro, Canio, Calaf) and loose life (so the evil tongues say) ruined his voice in a decade or so. As early as the mid-50s, it had begun to show signs of strain. Ten years later, there was virtually nothing left of his magnificent lyric tenor. Simply compare his two studio recordings of Tosca. If you only know the second one (1962, Karajan, Decca), you might think there is nothing much wrong with Pippo. He still sounds better than 99 percent of his contemporaries. But when you hear his Cavaradossi merely nine years earlier (1953, De Sabata, EMI), you might just be shocked by the change. He continued to sing songs and small parts until the early 1990s. The less said about this period, the better.

Pippo’s performances on this set make all but the very best of his studio recordings pale in comparison. The first disc contains 18 tracks, mostly Italian songs and an occasional aria, recorded in June and July 1952 by the Mexican TV at the so-called General Motors concerts in Mexico City. By way of bonus tracks, there are three selections from Ed Sullivan’s show. The second disc contains only opera, both arias and duets (with Bidu Sayao, Renata Tebaldi and Lily Pons), recorded in October 1950 in San Francisco, complete with the voice of an unknown announcer.

You have to hear these performances in order to believe them. The voice is fabulous. The killer high notes are effortless, ringing, jaw-dropping. Just hear the finale of “Nessun dorma”. Pippo’s famous pianissimi are as breathtaking as ever, most notably in “E lucevan le stelle”, but also in the end of Faust’s “Salut!”, “Ay, ay, ay” and especially in “Granadinas”, a beautiful Spanish song of which Pippo gives the definitive performance. If he had but few peers in the operatic repertoire, he had none whatsoever in the realm of the Italian (or Spanish) song. Just compare Kraus’ vapid rendition of “Granadinas” with Pippo’s impassioned delivery here and you will know what I mean. Nor can I think of any singer who can compare with Pippo’s full-bloodied renditions of classics like “O sole mio”, “Core ‘ngrato”, “Tu ca nun chiagne” and “Na sera e maggio”. He is an absolute master of the controlled excess they require.

For this is precisely the point. It’s not just the voice. The sheer musicianship is amazing, too. Much like Caruso (another natural singer par excellence), Pippo had an instinctive grasp about the dramatic value of words and phrases; his “canto” may not be “bel” enough for the connoisseurs, but for me it works really fine. Even at his best he does distort melodic lines occasionally, but for the most part he only inflects them in a peculiar but dramatically relevant way. Opera, like any other art that combines words and music, is an impossible thing by default. You cannot have perfect diction, like Pippo, without losing some of the music’s elegance – unless, of course, you choose a completely passionless way of performance. This Pippo could never do. It is important to understand that his “defects” were not wilful eccentricities. They stemmed from firm artistic convictions. “It’s no good just singing the music,” he used to say. “You have to sing the words, and sing them from your heart.”[2]

Of course, there is a catch. The sound on the first disc is atrocious. I hasten to add that Pippo’s incredible singing easily transcends any sonic imperfections. Nevertheless, you should be prepared to put up with a good deal of background noise and heavy distortion that bring to mind early electrical recordings. The haunting clarinet in the beginning of “E lucevan le stelle” is just one example of cringeworthy, indeed painful, aural experience. The ending of “Granadinas” is marred by a sudden and particularly nasty sound change. It’s not enough to obscure that heavenly pianissimo, but it’s rather unpleasant all the same. I suppose one is unwise to expect more from the Mexican TV in 1952. Fortunately, the sound on the second disc is much better.

The presentation is what one should expect from a small Italian label. The booklet contains recording details and a delightful collection of photographs of Pippo in various roles, from warhorses like Tosca and La Traviata to rarities like Wagner’s Rienzi and Mascagni’s Iris, but no liner notes at all. Who needs them with a voice like that anyway? There is a second "booklet" which serves the purpose of G.O.P. catalogue. The set is impressively out of print and may be hard to find, not to mention slightly expensive. It is worth all the time and money you are likely to spend on it. But only, I repeat, if Pippo’s artistry means something special to you – and if you don’t suffer from the severe and all but incurable disease called audiophilia. If Giuseppe Di Stefano is just another tenor for you, don’t bother.   

[1] The Summing Up (1938), xxiii.
[2] Patrick O’Connor, liner notes to Giuseppe Di Stefano: The Opera Singer, EMI Classics, 2008, 3 CD, ICON series.

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