Where’s Mario? A tenor’s missing centenary…

Where’s Mario? A tenor’s missing centenary…


norman lebrecht

July 24, 2015

Next week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mario del Monaco.

A repository of the great tradition, Mario enjoyed a huge international career after the War in all major houses. Posterity has been less kind to his memory, eclipsing him between the long shadows of Bjorling and Pavarotti.

Mario deserves better.

There is a splendid audio, film and photographic tribute here. Watch this genius interviewer:

mario del monaco otello


  • Martin Bernheimer says:

    For better or worse, fair or unfair, I think it was Franco Corelli who eclipsed him.

    • Fred says:

      he did BUT Del Monaco had already been singing a long time and was on his way back when Corelli made his mark(car accident etc), Corelli was younger as well. He did eclipse him but not really his reputation and certainly not in Europe where Del Monaco’s name still got the headlines when he passed away. At his best -read at his best -MDM was magnificent and without pair.

    • Marshall says:

      Certainly MDM should be celebrated-it was an amazing voice, and career. However, I can’t think of any other singer whose reputation has faded from the heights it occupied in his time. That clearly has to do with the recorded legacy which overall does not hold up to more detached scrutiny. As fewer people remain who experienced the sheer visceral impact of his voice, which seems to be what is always recalled, his star has faded. I don’t agree that Bjorling, his contemporary and a different sort of tenor had anything to do with it. Pavarotti (also essentially a lyric voice) ends up overshadowing every other singer because he became, beyond his substantial operatic accomplishments, a global phenomenon, and superstar recognized by everyone. Ask an average person with no knowledge of opera or classical music to name an opera singer-there will only be two-still remarkably Caruso, and Pav.

      I agree that in del Monaco’s time, Corelli clearly eclipsed him, and IMO, it was for the better and it was fair enough.
      The evidence shows that MDM feared Corelli, and was obsessed with him, and never came back to the Met-despite some scheming by Bing-after Corelli’s arrival. Again, possibly not the place to denigrate MDM, but from my perspective.many of Corelli’s recordings-especially the live ones-seem even better, whereas MDM’s seem less attractive-and if not that, predictably at one dynamic level.

      • Herman says:

        @marshall : it was exactly the other way round it was Corelli who was obsessed with del monaco (check the bio by Seghers) and read it all. Del Monaco’s fanciulla recording is still the best there is, ditto for his otello. Corellis commercial recordings are one volume only, he as well lost his touch when getting more popular in the sixties. corelli is at his best before 1964 and perhaps even before his met debut. After that he began to sing his own version of the score and conducting it as well 🙂 MDM was never that unmusical. Anywya both singers at their best and best behaviour are without pair.
        @mlka (what a name) I heard him in his prime and MDM was glorious, his fanciulla and forza in florence wre out of this world. Ur just pathetic…..Gee some guys here behave as the callas versus tebaldi crowd. Listen and watch great MDM in his flower song from the bolshoi : that was the impact the man had on his public. Sadly nuff much of the recordings on youtube are not MDM’s best. But the site mr Lebrecht refers to puts the record straight.

        • Marshall says:

          Guess i missed this comment before.

          No, I think the facts confirm my statement-and I’m quite familiar with the Segher’s biography as well as other sources. The fact is MDM never came back to the Met after Corelli’s debut, and essentially for the rest of his career became a one trick pony-a melodramatic Otello. You say MDM was never unmusical-but what is singing at one relentless dynamic level, to not follow any dynamic markings (because you can’t) to make every phrase an exercise in stentorian tone (because you can), to sing every different character as if it were the same? Why by the middle 50’s he started singing in this way, why he took his splendid voice and used it the way he did, to where he could only sing that way, is a question that hasn’t been answered. The proof of the pudding is with all those studio recordings, his singing often diminished the entire opera (many of Tebaldi’s performances, or that relentlessly loud Turandot), and are not considered important any longer. You make the point, as is always made that hearing him live was overwhelming. Well, as I said already that is no longer relevant to how we appraise his singing.

          And to the comment about his videos-the ones I’ve seen on Youtube don’t impress me-a Chenier finds him in bad voice, and that Russian Carmen, made me remark that the tenor behaves as if he had escaped from a mental asylum

          Of course debates involving advocates for a particularly tenors-of all voices-never end well, but I simply disagree with your characterization of Corelli’s singing-are we listening to the same recordings?

      • Rob Maynard says:

        As Marshall notes, MDM’s recorded legacy lets him down – at least on disc. But if you watch him on video it’s a different matter: he has remarkable presence and keeps his vocal excesses more firmly under control. Check out the DVDs of Andrea Chenier (two separate versions – in my view the earlier one is better) and I Pagliacci. Amazon has them.

      • Bob says:

        I think almost every tenor’s reputation has faded from the heights it once occupied, except for Pavarotti who had the the benefit of satellite technology where millions of people could attend the 3 tenor concerts and other events throughout the globe. This technology was not available during MDM Tucker or Corelli’s era. There was also not a handing off of the so called baton as there was after the professional passing of GDS, MDM, Tucker and FC followed by PD, Carerras and Pavarotti, who in my opinion were not superior to the aforementioned four. Pavarotti debuted in 1961 and was a fine lyric tenor but his career did not really take off until the late 1970s and the rest is history. When studying opera and as a fan or an aficionado and referencing the dramatic tenor voice, Del Monaco’s voice can not be ignored as one of thee most important Dramatic tenor voices for at least the last 70 years and for this reason alone, I don’t believe his star will fade. Serious young opera fans are discovering him along with FC Tucker Bjorling GDS Pertile and many other tenors. Whether Del Monaco was obsessed with Corelli or not, I don’t believe that Corelli eclipse him. MDM was better live but it wasn’t only for the sheer visceral impact of his voice but also for his impeccable diction, clarity with a beautiful bronze tone, endless breath, consistency throughout every register with a solid vocal line and great high notes. He also had the ability to express anger and rage like no other tenor before or after. Yes, over the top at times and not a tenor that would or could caress the music but was successful at times in doing so. MDM’s voice was built with Melocchi, one step at a time after his wife told him he could not be heard passed the 3rd row in the theater. I think the trade off was a good one instead of drifting off into mediocrity. Enjoy

    • La Donna del Largo says:

      The only sense in which Pavarotti could be said to have “eclipsed” del Monaco was that Pavarotti became the star tenor for Decca recordings just as del Monaco’s contract with that company was expiring. Del Monaco’s last Decca recordings were in 1968 and 1969, and the flood of Pavarotti recordings began around 1970.

      But obviously these two were completely different “types” – del Monaco would hardly have been recoring “L’elisir d’amore” or “La Fille du regiment” at any point in his career, let alone the late 1960s.

      One important reason del Monaco is perhaps not so well-remembered as some other artists of his stature is that his voice did not record particularly well, or, rather, recordings generally fail to convey was special and thrilling about del Monaco’s singing in the theater. In contrast, it can be argued that Bjorling and Pavarotti sounded even better on disc than they did in real life. For the majority of opera-listeners, “opera” is something one listens to on an electronic device, not something one attends in the flesh, so what is on record is the “real” experience.

  • Olof Axler says:

    He seems to have been quite a character. This movie about him is priceless (my favourite sequence comes right after the three-minute mark)


  • Melisande says:


    This Belgian site is worth visiting and does the singer right. Enjoy.

  • Stephen says:

    Del Monaco had a very serious car accident in 1963 which put him in hospital for a year and left him without a kidney. His voice was never quite the same after that.

    • Marshall says:

      His voice may not have been the same after the accident-but the aspects of his singing which many objected to, and most of the “important” recordings, many of which are heavily criticized, had all taken place before 1963.

  • Mlka says:

    Heard him often against my better judgement -he was nothing but loud and vulgar
    to the point of giving one a head ache . So many better great artists out there
    to remember.

    • Stephen says:

      I don’t know why you bothered to go and hear him so often! Before his accident Del Monaco had a superb, ringing voice without any hard top edge. His diction was exemplary and his stage presnece magnetic. I was very glad that it was he and not Jon Vickers singing Otello for Solti.

      • Marshall says:

        On paper MDM had the ideal voice for Otello-and that was apparent in the heroic moments when loud singing was called for, lacking in nuance. One of his major problems is that he wouldn’t, or his vocal technique didn’t allow him to follow dynamic markings-the composer’s wishes. But I recall Francis Robinson’s comment that MDM was Otello as melodramma-and that is one kind of Otello. But Vinay, and especially Vickers made it into tragedy with a richer, more complex characterization.

  • Harold Lewis says:

    There’s a wonderful clip of Del Monaco from a performance of Andrea Chenier in Japan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPNRGVP67FA

  • Duncan McLennan says:

    Mario del Monaco may not have been the best tenore robusto of my time – that was in my opinion the late Jon Vickers. But he was the most viscerally exciting. Like Martinelli he needed a vast amount of air passing his vocal chords to generate agreeable music, and like him his legato and mezza-voce were average.

    Some years ago I was browsing in my local classical CD shop. The proprietor asked me “What should I play to make the other customers buy something?” I noticed that more than a few were clustered in the opera section so I suggested he try the final duet from Andrea Chenier – del Monaco and Tebaldi. The shop froze for about 5 minutes, people came up and asked what it was and who was singing, and three sets were sold in 10 minutes. A few years later I heard Tebaldi live for the first time in the same opera, but with Corelli as the tenor – perhaps more nuanced than MdM but a little less exciting..

    Nobody sings like that today. If they can they don’t try. Little wonder that so many opera houses are in trouble.

  • The Civility Squadron says:

    The final measures of Act II in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” with MDM and mezzo Rise Stevens in the Met’s 1957 live broadcast of the opera are spine-tingling.

    Speaking of which … I was surprised that Slipped Disc published no news alert when Rise Stevens passed away in 2013, about a month shy of her 100th birthday. Her advanced age was newsworthy, of course, but when you also consider her memorable roles at the Met — Mignon, Octavian, Orfeo, Orlovsky, but particularly Carmen — it was even more surprising not to see any reporting at all.

  • Theobald Knillenhauer says:

    MDM had a magnetic appearance on stage, his development after 1945 is well documented and give plenty of reasons for one of the most remarkable voices in the history of opera. A huge Voice like his remains a huge Voice, also in piano or mezzavoce. Splendid in Rigoletto, marvellous in La Africaine, sheer effortless. His Canio overwhelmed people into tears, his Pollione not heard ever since, his Chenier outstanding. His Álvaro in Forza del Destino unbelievable with lots of Nuances for those open for Beauty and masculine Virility. Björling was one of a kind. Pavarotti said once asked about him, „ I am only human“. Corelli had his own vocal character, uncomparable to MDM. Golden times when People could hear JB, FC MDM and GDS in one season! Today? Tenor Mediocracy. Which Gentleman could be Callas ´or Tebaldis or Nilsons partner on Stage?
    And if MDM was still alive, ALL the others would still compete for Cassioin his Otello! Todays -Tenors would give their right hand just to be able to sing an evening like MDM did so many times. The world hast not seen anybody like MDM ever since. The Reality today are more or less lyric voices, Media made, too early forced into the big roles, disapearing with vocal problems. Next please!

  • Theobald Knillenhauer says:

    Despite JB, FC and LP sang also roles like MDM did, they had different voices. All three lyric Tenors, JB gifted by God, taught by the angels! LP asked about JB answered, „I am only human“. And how marvellous LP was! FC and MDM had a very good relationship. FC spoke at MDMs funeral.
    MDM developing from a very well balanced more lyric voice- listen to his „Africaine“, „Cavalleria“ , „Boheme“ and „Rigoletto“. He had wonderful Mezzavoce , Legato and Piani. Listen to his Alvaro in „La Forza….“ A voice like his remains a huge voice, also in Mezzavoce. An Piano is result of a strong, even and well controlled voice, no weak whispering.
    . Audience at those times appreciated huge voices ,also with the Ladies. Who of the actual Singers could compete with a Callas, Tebaldi and Nilsson? None. Their predecessors of the Golden Age could as they had time and space to invest organically in their vocal career. Today there are Media-made, preferably good looking Gentlemen, some of them pretending being able to sing every role. People have just listen long enough. I call this Hybris.
    MDM had a magnetic Stage Presence. His Canio, Pollione, his Chenier, Hagenbach in „La Wally“ made the audience either burst into tears or made their hands burning. There are still people who have heard him live. All of them keep saying, they will never forget! His Otello is still uncomparable , unequaled. If MDM was still alive and activ, ALL the other Tenors would only compete for Cassio. The world has never seen or heard any Tenor like him ever since. Nowadays Singers would probably their right hand if able to sing a single evening like MDM did so many times. Imagine MDMs voice with todays recording possibilities! Recording that voice was certainly a tremendous task for the engineers. A Lion compared to the friendly male-cats nowadays.


  • Jim Cotter says:

    Are we also about to also miss the Mario Lanza Centenary?
    January 31st is his 100th birthday