No great tenor seems to have spawned more ambivalence among opera lovers than the late Giuseppe Di Stefano. Even I’m showing it by leading with a negative. So let’s get it out in the open. He was the greatest Italian tenor I ever heard in performance. That he’s not a household name as are Callas and Pavarotti is because there were no critics constantly reminding the public that he was a once in a century artist.
His flaws vocal and personal matter not a whit. That he was at his best for barely a decade is irrelevant. He was a phenomenon. The most beautiful tenor voice I ever heard live or on record. His vocal insights and characterizations were unique. He found meaning in every syllable. You didn’t have to understand the language he was singing to understand what he was singing.
What made him a miracle was the combination of a voice of molten beauty combined with the emotional insight of the greatest of poets. Those who possess the one almost never have the other. That he had both sets him apart from all his coevals. It’s not that they don’t make ’em like this anymore, they didn’t make ’em like this before he was around.
Two of the performances I heard him sing at the old Met will probably defeat dementia. The first was Dec 9, 1955 – Faust. Monteux was the conductor. The diminuendo on the climactic high C caused pandemonium. Monteux put his baton on his lap and calmly sat on his stool until the audience cheered itself hoarse. The other was just a month later, January 13, 1956 – Tosca. The third act aria sounded just the way it does on the great recording under De Sabata. It was inimitable.
Ernest Hemingway once remarked that there was no order among great masterpieces. This is equally true of great performers, but Pippo was in a special category inhabited only by himself. When time permits I will post some sound files of those little bits singing that show his unique ability to find meaning in what seemed to others mundane.