Mario del Monaco - Live Performances
Excerpts from operas by Verdi (Otello and Un ballo in maschera),  Cilea (Adriana Lecouvreur),  Puccini (Manon Lescaut), and  Giordano (Andrea ChÈnier).
Mario del Monaco, tenor, with sopranos Clara Petrella and Renata Tebaldi, and baritone  Giuseppe Taddei; various orch. & cond.
Bongiovanni GB 1160 (F) (ADD) TT: 78:55

Although Mario del Monaco (1915-82) has been dead for almost twenty years, the charismatic Florentine tenor remains the source of considerable debate. Many have criticized his general lack of subtlety and, in particular, what appeared to be an almost obstinate refusal on his part to sing at dynamic levels below forte. Few deny, however, that he possessed one of the most compelling dramatic tenor voices of the 20th century.

Mario del Monaco enjoyed a long and distinguished career that spanned the early 40s through the 70s. But I find del Monaco's performances from the late 40s and early 50s to be the most thrilling. At that stage of his career his voice was in its freshest, most attractive estate. While the top notes remained an asset throughout his career, as the years progressed the middle voice became drier and rather nasal in production. But in those early years, del Monaco's voice proceeded from a handsome, middle register—remarkable for its concentration and dark color—to top notes of extraordinary security, focus, and power. In short, the voice of the young Mario del Monaco is one of the most impressive I have ever heard.

A Testament compact disc (SBT 1039) includes several of del Monaco's early studio aria recordings. Anyone interested in the tenor's career—and dramatic tenor singing in general—will want to have these recordings. 

Even more electrifying however are the live performances from that same period, including the 1951 Mexico City Aida with Maria Callas, the 1953 La forza del destino from Florence with Renata Tebaldi, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, and a 1954 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Andrea ChÈnier, with Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren. These have been issued on various labels devoted to live performances, and they document some of the most exciting dramatic tenor singing of the 20th century. The Forza is particularly valuable for demonstrating that Mario del Monaco was, on the right occasion, capable of sensitive, nuanced singing.

Also highly recommended is this new compact disc from Bongiovanni, documenting del Monaco performances from 1949 and 1951. The CD begins with excerpts from a 1951 Mexico City performance featuring del Monaco in his signature role, Verdi's Otello. Del Monaco first sang the Moor of Venice the year before, in Buenos Aires. And to be sure, he would, in time, bring more subtlety to the role than he does here (in particular, a 1958 Metropolitan Opera broadcast with Victoria de los Angeles and Leonard Warren, issued on MYTO 2MCD 944.107). Still it is thrilling to hear this music negotiated with such confidence and dramatic intensity. Giuseppe Taddei and Clara Petrella, the Iago and Desdemona, are worthy partners for del Monaco's fiery Moor.

Excerpts from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur (Mexico City, 1951, again with Petrella) and Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (Florence, 1951) also find del Monaco in superb, heroic voice. They also document, on occasion, a lighter, more delicate approach. This is most evident in Maurizio's "La dolcissima effigie" and Riccardo's "E’ scherzo od Ë follia" (in the latter, the "B" section is inexplicably spliced from the recording).

Del Monaco and Petrella are the des Grieux and Manon in a 1951 Mexico City performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. I'm sure that del Monaco's intensity of approach and tendency to elongate high notes will not be to all tastes. But Puccini's "desperate passion" is here in spades, and the tenor is again in stunning voice.

The disc concludes with a few brief excerpts from a 1949 La Scala performance of Giordano's Andrea ChÈnier, conducted by Victor de Sabata. Del Monaco brings down the house with one of the most passionate and gorgeously sung versions of ChÈnier's first-act aria. Then, del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, both in their most radiant vocal form, join forces for a meltingly beautiful (and all-too-brief) excerpt from the Act-II love duet for ChÈnier and Maddalena.

The sound on these excerpts is, for the most part, surprisingly good for the period. There is a clicking noise on my CD during portions of the Otello love duet that sounds as if it may be a pressing defect.

It is quite often said that we would now give anything for the return of some of the artists who were so maligned in their day. I suspect that if Mario del Monaco were part of the current opera scene, he would be subject to the same kind of criticism he provoked in the 50s, 60s and 70s. But whatever his flaws, he possessed a unique vocal gift, which he lavished unstintingly upon his adoring public. Releases such as this Bongiovanni CD leave me no doubt that we would be the far richer for his presence. Highly recommended.

K.M. (MARCH 2001)