Born in Rome in 1922, Cesare Valletti was the leading tenore di grazia of the 1950’s. A while back Malley Keelan asked me to post something about the late Roman tenor; this is it. Valletti’s tenure at the Met coincided with those of some of the 20th century’s greatest tenors. In 1956, for example, Björling, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, Di Stefano, and Tucker all appeared at the old Met along with Valletti. But in his fach Valletti was unmatched.
Mozart, Rossini, the lighter Donizetti and Bellini, Verdi’s Alfredo, and Massenet’s De Grieux and Werther were the roles in which he excelled. After studying with Tito Schipa he made his debut as Alfredo in La Traviata (Lunge da lei… De’ miei bollenti spiriti) in Bari in 1947. The influence of Schipa is apparent, though there are also important differences. Their repertoires were similar. Schipa had a richer sound, Valletti had much more vocal agility. Both were short on top, but sang with impeccable line and style. When Valletti sang The Daughter of the Regiment (in Italian) there were no high C’s.
Over the next six years he appeared in most of the world’s most important opera houses. He came to the Met in 1953. His debut role was Don Ottavio in Mozart’s (is there another?) Don Giovanni. He appeared in this role 32 times at the Met over the next seven years. He was the best Don Ottavio I ever saw. He had good looks, was young, and knew how to act. Vocally he just about perfect. Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro show him at his best.
He was equally good as the Count in Rossini’s Barber (a role he sang 31 times at the Met) and as Elvino in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale – Povero Ernesto…Cerchero lontana terra. He would have been equally good in L’elisir d’amore if he had been allowed to sing it at the Met. In one of the strangest episodes of Rudolf Bing’s strange career he removed Valletti from the 1960 new production of Donizetti’s opera after the dress rehearsal. No one then or now seems to know what prompted Bing to make such a moronic move. The great Valletti was replaced by the forgettable Dino Formichini. Valletti withdrew from the company and never returned despite being asked back several times by the idiot Met. The Roman tenor who was 37 at the time and at the height of his powers was sorely missed by the Met and by American opera goers. In 1968 Valletti quit opera entirely to concentrate on his father-in-law’s pasta business. He died a rich man in 2000. This is what the Met missed – Quanto e bella and Una furtiva lagrima.
Though a very light tenor, he was as easily heard at the old Met as Jussi Björling. Though to be fair he never had to compete against Dimitri Mitropoulos. He was a considerate colleague and fluent in English. I attended the dress rehearsal and prima of the Met’s new production of Don Pasquale (1955) and remember how much he tried to cooperate with his leading lady – Roberta Peters. He appeared six times in the Met’s English version of Cosí Fan Tutte. He was an aristocrat in both temperament and art.
Finally here’s an excerpt from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. You might recognize the soprano. Prendi , l’anel ti dono. There are singers now active who can sing Valletti’s roles with much excitement, but none with such style and grace.