I’ve said here before that opera singers these days — at least when they sing Italian opera — can’t compare to singers from the 1950s and before.
This is an old debate in the opera world, and you could finesse it — in very simple terms — by saying that singers now have more musicianship, and singers in the past had more passion. And, maybe, more voice.
But wait — why am I talking about this here, apart from my wild love of Italian opera, which my frequent readers must be used to by now? There’s a larger reason. It’s about a spark, some sponaneity, a sense of electric immediacy that we’ve partly lost in classical music. One reason I like the music I’ve been calling alt-classical is that it brings that immediacy back. I might not be perverse enough to call the performances I’m about to discuss — which took place in the 1950s — alt-classical. But don’t think I wasn’t tempted. They’re like nothing we see today, and if we want the alt-classical immediacy (whatever term we might use for it) to spread through classical music, we can learn a lot from classical music’s past.
So. If you go to the website for Mario Del Monaco, you’ll see one version — and a titanic one — of how things used to be. Del Monaco was a huge-voiced Italian tenor, active in the ’50s and ’60s, and at the very least the most devastating Otello of his time (and, I’d think, more devastating than anyone since, Domingo included).
But he could be devastating in anything he did. Just click the “To Listen” tab on the left side of the home page (the site has been translated from another language, surely Italian), and listen to the two samples of Del Monaco that the site gives you. Start with the excerpt from Verdi’s Ernani (it’s an ensemble from the second act, which starts with a solo for Del Monaco, who sings the title role). In fact, I’ll give you a link to it right here. Why don’t you listen right now, while you’re reading this?
And now tell when you’ve ever heard a singer as virile as this one, or as fervent, or as thrilling. And listen to what he does with the words. When he comes to the end of his first solo, with the words “sono il banditto Ernani” — “I am the bandit Ernani” — doesn’t he just leap out of the speakers, or out of your headphones, flinging the words right at you? (And, more to the point, at the others on stage with him; this is a live performance, from Florence, in 1957). And aren’t you seared by the raging pride and fury that his character feels, forced to live as an outlaw — and doing damn well at it — even though he’s really a nobleman?
You could say that his voice is hard, though you might just as well say that it rings with the clarion strength of golden steel. You could say that he pushes his voice, but you’d be wrong. He sang successfully like this for years, suffering only when he got into a car accident. What he’s really doing is going all out.
And you can say he overdoes the passion, that he’s not dignified, or artistic, or polite. Or, God help us, classical. But then what do you think Ernani is about? For maybe half its length, the opera trembles on the edge between life and death, and the rest of the time seethes with pride and fury, and with wounded honor, or else swells with a mighty glow of compassion. You should be restrained when you sing this?
Now listen to the other excerpt on the site, marked “Alvaro,” after the name of the character who sings it. It’s the big tenor aria from Verdi’s La forza del destino. Here once more you get Del Monaco’s almost shocking virility, and his unsheathed passion. But you also get tenderness, which you might not have guessed was there, and a tremendous sense of sadness and loss. (This is from another Florence performance, this time from 1953. Del Monaco’s live performances outdo his recordings, by quite a lot.)
And when he’s finished, you’ll hear the start of an ovation. And I do mean an ovation, the kind you don’t hear much anymore, with people shouting and in fact even roaring, as if they’d lost control. The roaring is clearer, at least for me, through headphones than through my computer’s speakers. It’s cut off quickly on the website excerpt, but if you listen to the complete recording of the performance this comes from, you’ll hear that the ovation lasts for a full minute, which in ovation time is amazingly long (try timing the applause next time you’re at the Met). And in fact it only stops because the conductor starts the next scene.
Now name someone who sings like this today. Or even comes close.
Footnote: the entire Ernani performane is like this. All four of the leads — Del Monaco, Anita Cerquetti (the woman he loves), Boris Christoff (the old man who’s her guardian, and wants to marry her), and especially Ettore Bastianini (the hugely regal baritone king) — are titanic. And so is the conductor, Dmitri Mitropoulos, who presents the rare picture of one of the world’s top conductors (he’d been music director of the New York Philharmonic, where he specialized in things like an early, seminal concert performance of Wozzeck) conducting Verdi in an Italian opera house, and doing it with intense and idiomatic understanding.
Maybe later I’ll put some of Bastianini online, so you can hear how, like Del Monaco, he was an unstoppable force of nature. This Ernani, overall, is one of the most thrilling opera performances I’ve ever heard, marred only by an odd bit of microphone placement, which puts Bastianini off to the side in his biggest scene. It’s available on Emusic, and from Amazon as both a CD set and a download. Put it on your Christmas list!