Monday, 25 August 2014

Mario del Monaco on Video: Trovatore (1957), Otello (1958, 1959), Pagliacci, Carmen (1959), Aida, Chenier, Pagliacci (1961)

Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore (1957)

It was Caruso, I think, who once famously said: “It’s easy to stage Il Trovatore; all you need are the four greatest singers in the world.” The remark is profound. If you don’t want your production of Verdi’s most elemental score to suffer, you do need a tenor, a soprano, a mezzo and a baritone of the highest quality. You don’t need great acting and you don’t need much subtlety. All you need is great, glorious, incredible singing. That’s why it’s not possible to stage a decent Il Trovatore nowadays. There are just no voices around. But in the 1950s there were plenty of them.

Whatever its technical deficiencies may be, this 1957 RAI production is stupendously sung. The soundtrack has been released separately by Myto and is well worth having. The young Leyla Gencer, who was only 29 years old at the time, is a luminous Leonora. She is in magnificent voice, effortlessly climbing all heights of the demanding part; when you hear “Tacea la notte” and “D'amor sull'ali rosee” (in the second case without the cabaletta, unfortunately), you will know why she was one of the hottest tickets at the time and why today she is regarded as criminally under-recorded. Nor should her acting be underestimated. In the famous “Miserere”, her distraught face complements the tragic pathos of the music to perfection. Ettore Bastianini needs no extensive comment. He is the finest Count Di Luna on record. Period. Fedora Barbieri may not have the impeccable technique and the terrific high notes of Giulietta Simionato, but dramatically she is the superior actress. Her histrionic acting may be out of place in many operas, but Il Trovatore is definitely not one of them.

For MDM fans, the film is as much a treasure as it is for the Gencer buffs. Mario sang the role of Manrico for only ten years between 1947 and 1957; indeed, the radio recording for this film was one of his last performances. Although he made a spectacular studio recording in 1956 (with Tebaldi, who never sang the role on the stage, as a meltingly beautiful Leonora), there are no surviving live recordings that may suggest how Mario approached Manrico on the stage. This movie is the closest approximation we have. It includes a robust “Ah si ben mio”, an exhilarating “Di quella pira”, some fine quiet singing (yes, you’ve read this right!) in the moving final duet with Azucena and much else that many cannot stomach. The acting is similarly impressive in scope and ranges from the tenderness of the aforementioned scene with Azucena to the awesome drama of “Ha quest'infame l'amor venduto”. For me, personally, this passionate and heroic Manrico is among the finest on record.

One can only be sorry that the technical aspects of the production are subpar even for those bygone times when filming operas was a great novelty and a huge challenge. The picture and the sound are nearly terrible, the direction is awkward, the sets are preposterous, and the lip-syncing is poorly done. Nothing of this matters much when the singing is on that level. 

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello (1958, 1959)

These two must always be viewed together: each has different pros and cons, so they complement each other to perfection. The 1958 Milan production is a film-opera with the singers lip-syncing to a pre-recorded soundtrack, while the one from 1959 is video recording of a live performance from Tokyo. The film-opera has the advantage of better picture and sound quality and more accomplished direction, with plenty of beautiful close-ups to appreciate the acting of the principals; but the lip-syncing is not always perfect, and even when it is it doesn’t have the exhilarating power of live singing. The Tokyo performance boasts blurred picture, boxy sound and amateurish direction; but what you hear is what happens on the stage, a window-in-time effect no film-opera can achieve.

Mario is stupendous in both productions, clearly proving, if any proof is needed, that his vocal glory and his intense acting were in no way mutually exclusive. And yes, he could and did sing mezza voce. Just listen to the Love Duet and the Death Scene in either production. I’m tired of the old nonsense that he was relentlessly loud, lacked subtlety, etc., etc. Even Renata Tebaldi, while praising the voice, once remarked in an interview (what a shame!) that Mario perhaps lacked a little humanity. Rubbish, of course. Del Monaco could never manage anything like Di Stefano’s heavenly pianissimi (who could indeed?), but his voice did have dynamic variety and a not inconsiderable ability for shades and colours. As for humanity, the truth is precisely the opposite: Mario had too much of it. That’s why his interpretations make many people uncomfortable. That’s why, I venture to suggest, so many people resent opera. It tells too many unpleasant truths about them, truths about excessive sentimentality and violence they would prefer not to know.

For my part, these two video recordings, together with the two audio attempts in the studio (1954 with Erede, 1961 with Karajan) and who knows how many performances captured live in the theatre (I have heard three myself, all superb), document the finest Otello of the last century. Mario is untouchable. Nobody comes close to his portrayal; not Martinelli, not Lauri-Volpi, not Giacomini, not Vinay, certainly not the puny efforts of Domingo. It is not just that del Monaco had the glorious voice and the perfect diction to do full justice to Verdi’s most Wagnerian tenor role. He had the artistry to convey, not just Otello’s madness and anger, but also his nobility, integrity and even tenderness. To hear all this is exhilarating. To see it is mesmerising.

Incidentally, it is a pity that we don’t have Tebaldi’s Desdemona on video, though she is on both of del Monaco’s studio recordings. Carteri and Tucci are very pretty and very capable substitutes, however. The Iago situation is rather the reverse. Instead of the decent but rather ordinary Aldo Protti, we have the superb Tito Gobbi live, by all accounts one of best Iagos and a particularly impressive actor, and the unlikely but compelling choice of Renato Capecchi on film. Capecchi was most famous for his comic roles, most notably Fra Melitone where he dwarfs the competition, so it was quite a surprise to see him as Iago. His Ancient doesn’t have the versatility and worldliness of Gobbi’s, but it is not to be dismissed lightly. Capecchi is especially outstanding in the scenes where the “honest Iago” twists Otello around his little finger. He exudes sincerity that is very difficult to doubt.

Mario del Monaco at the Bolshoi: 
Carmen, Pagliacci (1959)

These excerpts from two of Mario’s most iconic roles are the best opportunity to appreciate his incredible acting on the opera stage. Not for nothing was Boris Christoff himself deeply impressed with Del Monaco’s dramatic intensity. “Vesti la giubba” is tremendous, by far the most shattering rendition I have ever seen and heard, matched only by Mario’s later performance in Tokyo (see below). “No, Pagliacco non son” and Carmen’s death, the finales of both operas, are simply stupendous. This is acting in the grand style. To my mind, it is perfectly suitable to deranged maniacs like Canio and Don Jose; any of them is even more insane than Otello, and, incidentally, Mario’s explosive performance brings to mind Olivier’s bizarre yet magnificent Othello. Today, in our emotionally crippled age, many people find Mario’s histrionic gestures and wild, bulging eyes unacceptable, even repulsive. I find them captivating, consistent with the character, and wonderfully complementing the voice. No wonder the Bolshoi audience went mad.

It must have been quite a sensation when Mario visited Moscow in 1959, reportedly the first Italian singer to break into the USSR. The Russians knew a great thing when they saw one and took a lot of trouble to preserve the occasion for posterity in the best possible way. Except for Del Monaco singing in Italian (and occasionally French in Carmen), the whole casts are Russian singing in Russian. No matter. Irina Arkhipova shines as a sultry, seductive Carmen. Mario was so taken with her vocal and dramatic interpretation that, according to the liner notes by Allan Altman, later “arranged for her to sing Carmen in Naples and Rome, setting Arkhipova on the path to become one of the first Soviet opera stars to sing extensively outside of Russia.” It’s a pity we don’t see more of Pavel Lisitsian’s Escamillo, for judging by the audio from this performance, which has been released separately, he is no less terrific.

The sound and picture leave a great deal to be desired by modern standards, but they are certainly no worse than other live performances from the late 50s and early 60s. Actually, the camera work is rather advanced for its time. The Russians evidently used several cameras and the editing, though crude, is dramatically relevant and often very effective. Most of the attention, naturally, centers on Mario and there are plenty of opportunities to appreciate his intense facial expressions.

A Gramophone critic once said that Del Monaco’s face is just “as inexpressive as the voice”. Amazing what rubbish these people get away with, is it not? Nobody is obliged to like Mario. It is the most natural thing in the world that his voice and acting should not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, claims like the one just quoted carry the blind-spot excuse a little too far. Quite a number of people, myself included, find the voice and the face highly expressive. Are we all supposed to be in some kind of mass delusion? Is it so much to ask from “The world’s authority on classical music since 1923” just a little appreciation of what they dislike? To their presumptuous assuming of authority I would reply with a quote: “One should always cultivate one’s prejudices.” Thus wrote Somerset Maugham in his mid-20s. Most people, including many eminent Gramophone critics, never learn this lesson.

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida (1961)

Umberto Giordano: Andrea Chenier (1961)

Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci (1961)

Isn’t it funny that most video material with Mario del Monaco should come from Moscow and Tokyo? Apart from occasional arias in concert, Europe and America don’t seem to have been interested in recording him. Fortunately for posterity, Russia and Japan did realise the historical importance of Mario’s guest appearances. These three complete live performances were recorded during a Japanese tour in October 1961.

Sadly, none of them captures Mario in his element, not even Pagliacci which comes the closest of all. “Vesti la giubba” is still fabulous, but not quite so fabulous as it was two years earlier in Moscow. Radames and Chénier, too, were among his most celebrated roles, but on those two evenings he seems to have been in the wrong mood. He sounds stiff and bland. In the case of Chénier, he doesn’t even take the performance very seriously. Before “Vicino a te”, the great duet in the end, he gives the audience a sly smile that rather ruins the effect opera tries to achieve. Incidentally, this is the only video that also features Renata Tebaldi, and she isn’t in top form either. I freely admit that the case of Chénier is partly my fault, as Giordano’s only opera to have survived (well, sort of) the test of time is far from my favourite works, but I certainly can’t say the same about Aida. By the way, there is a 1955 film-opera of Chénier with Del Monaco, Stella and Taddei that makes the Tokyo show look vapid by comparison.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy on these DVDs. Tebaldi and Del Monaco, even not at their best, still have more flashes of brilliance that many opera singers today manage in their whole careers. Gabriella Tucci is an excellent Nedda and an even better Aida. Plump and pretty, she is in excellent voice here. Giulietta Simionato never was much of an actress, but, vocally speaking, her Amneris is one for the ages. Aldo Protti had the misfortune to be born in the age of giants; in the baritone department, these included Ettore Bastianini, Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei and Robert Merrill. Signor Protti has suffered much, and not without reason, in comparison with his contemporaries, but on his own he is a fine singer quite able to dispatch difficult parts. He does well in Chénier, where his swarthy good looks are a fine bonus, and he does even better as Amonasro, not the most grateful part, but dramatically very important.

To sum up in conclusion by quoting Irving Kolodin, “it is not enough to hear Mario Del Monaco, but you must see him performing on the scene.” Quite true. That’s why his video recordings, which the above list does not pretend to list complete, are essential viewing for anybody who cares about the art of Mario Del Monaco. Like many great artists, Mario was nearly always better “live” than in the studio, especially live on the opera stage. It was not because of the audience, he once said, naively or not, but because of the costumes, sets and make-up which create a special atmosphere, apparently conductive to artistic miracles but unfortunately impossible to recreate in the recording studio or the concert hall. Whatever the reason, Mario del Monaco’s video legacy, both on film and live, remains one of the most astounding examples of dramatic singing-acting ever recorded. Even on the concert stage, dressed in “civilian” clothes, he could summon, not just volcanic vocal energy, but awe-inspiring dramatic presence, as evident from this “Vesti la giubba”. For the true opera artist there is no such thing as “concert performance of an aria”. It is the revelation of character that matters most.

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