Giuseppe Di Stefano (1921-2008) occupies a special place on the list of the greatest tenors of the last century. I will try to show why with a few examples of his singing recorded when he was at his best.
You will often hear singers and critics admit to admiring the “young” Di Stefano. When you do you are encountering someone who masks confusion and conflict by being patronizing. It’s a response to the tenor’s short period at his peak, barely a decade, in contrast to his long life. No one says they admire the “young” Callas though she was at the top for about the same time as GDS. Ten years of being as great as Di Stefano was is long enough to require no qualifier.
First start with the voice. In its prime it was the most beautiful Italian tenor I ever heard. To my ears even more lush and ravishing than Gigli’s. In his 1951 recording of Che gelida manina the voice was at its pinnacle. The tone is gorgeous. It is not spread or open as it later became. The high note is focused and thrilling. His modulation of the aria’s final word “dir” is one of those small touches that differentiate him from everyone else who has sung the piece. To the beauty of the voice add his ability to find meaning and make great effects in ways that no on else did and you have the combination that made Di Stefano unique.
The quartet (Dunque e proprio finita?) that ends the third act of La Boheme, recorded at the same time as the aria above, shows his distinctive ability to convey meaning and sing pianissimo with full vocal support. “…alla stagion dei fior” is unmatched by any other tenor who’s recorded the number. It’s pure genius.
Di Stefano also set the standard for Cavaradossi in Tosca. His rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” combines both tonal beauty and inimitable phrasing. It speaks for itself. No one has ever made as much of the line “Le belle forme discioglieia dai veli!” as he did.
Mario Del Monaco said Di Stefano was a dramatic tenor in temperament, though not in voice. It was this temperament that made him a great interpreter and which also compelled him to sing roles that his temperament demanded but which prematurely destroyed his voice. Canio in Pagliacci was a role he couldn’t avoid. Though he spent his vocal capital every time he sang the part, he was magnetic as Leoncavallo’s cuckolded clown. The famous aria that concludes the opera’s first act (Recitar!) was never sung with greater effect. While he shouldn’t have sung the spinto parts he added to his repertoire, he wouldn’t have been the artist he was had he been resistant to this temptation. Listen to the opera’s final few minutes – Suvvia cosi terribile. Canio has spent half of the evening trying to learn the name of Nedda’s lover When he does the explosion of his emotion is palpable; no other tenor manages this effect.
Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino was another role that put too much strain on his voice. Richard Tucker had the ideal voice for this part. But Di Stefano still managed to add something different to his impersonation of Alvaro. This performance of O tu che in seno agl’angeli from a September 1960 performance in Vienna shows the tenor in remarkably good form considering how far into his vocal decline he was by this time though he was still under forty . Even then he could occasionally come up with something hard to match.
Di Stefano’s diminuendo on the high C in Salut demeure is an extraordinary tour de force. This recording is from a 1950 performance in San Francisco. He was still capable of the effect at the end of 1955 which was when I heard him do it at the old Met. It shows how a singer who was so often criticized for bad vocal technique also possessed a technique that was matchless.
La Favorita was an opera that Di Stefano was made for. This 1949 performance of “Spirto gentil” had to be encored. It displays all of the tenors strengths – the great piano, emotional density, and the lush voice. Alas there is also some openness in the high notes. But so what.
Manon was the Opera in which he made his debut. “Le Reve” displays all his strengths. This performance is from 1948 just two years after his debut. It too was encored. How the 26 year old tenor had reached this level of artistry is unfathomable. Touched by God seems as good an explanation as any.
The world’s most enduring popular songs are those from Naples. Di Stefano sang these songs with the same passion and intensity that he gave to opera. In this repertoire nobody comes close. Everybody sings Core ‘ngrato. Di Stefano recorded the song many times. Here’s an especially good version from a 1950 concert.
It’s human to fully value what you had only after its gone. Pippo’s voice departed almost half a century before its owner left us, but now that both are gone I think that his place among the greatest singers will become clear. I’ve heard many great artists and it’s fruitless to rank them. But when it comes to magic Di Stefano stands alone.
Di Stefano, of course, should have the last word. Listen to the way the emotion changes in the song’s refrain. It defines his art. O sole mio
Addendum: After I posted this piece I received an email asking how I could have been so foolish as to leave out Di Stefano’s 1947 recording of Lamento di Federico. On short reflection I agree it was an egregious omission, so here it is. While I was at it I decided to add two Sicilian folk songs which Pippo sings with such simple beauty that your heart will skip a beat. They’re also from 1947. Cantu a Timuni and A la Barcillunisa.
Addendum 2: If you wanted to create the perfect tenor and you could do anything you could think of you’d make Jussi Björling – golden voice, wonderful technique, ringing high notes. The blue print for Björling existed before he did. But you couldn’t make Giuseppe Di Stefano until after you’d heard him. He was unique, sui generis, without precedent.