Last month’s Opera News contains a review of Rome’s new production of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Here’s its first sentence: “In the first half of the twentieth century, Andrea Chenier was one of the most frequently staged works at Rome Opera, with tenors of the caliber of De Muro, Gigli, Lauri-Volpi, and Pertile alternating in the title role.” Gigli and Lauri-Volpi were such fixtures at the Rome Opera that their busts are in its lobby. Pertile, of course, was a mainstay of La Scala. But many opera goers will have to think a bit to recall De Muro.

Bernardo De Muro (1881-1955) was a diminutive Sardinian tenor with a very large voice. Barely five feet tall, his height prevented him from singing Verdi’s Otello for which his voice was very well suited. He made his debut in 1910 and reached La Scala just two years later. He sang widely in Europe and South America until the 1920s when he moved to the United States. In the US he sang predominantly in smaller houses. He sang in both Italy and the US in the 1930s. After his health deteriorated, he moved to Milan where he operated a successful cork factory. He is buried in his native Sardinia.

He made about 50 recordings, most of which are compiled in a 3 disc set by Bongiovanni as part of their Il mito dell’Opera series. Amazon has these recording available either on discs or for download. The tenor made both acoustical and electrical recording. There was a considerable gap between the two formats. His voice was in better shape when the acoustical recordings were made, so I have only presented samples of the first part of his recording career.

De Mauro’s repertoire was rather small for a leading tenor. It was mainly focused on verismo operas. His favorite role was Folco in Mascagni’s Isabeau, a retelling of the Lady Godiva story.  Fu vile l’editto is from Act 3 and was recorded in 1912. The aria shows a spinto tenor verging on the dramatic.

De Muro didn’t seem comfortable with high notes above B-flat, at least on the basis of these recordings. Di quella pira from Il Trovatore is taken a full tone down, so the climactic high note is a B-flat instead of a C. A lot of tenors take the note down a half tone to B, but a full tone down is unique in my experience. It’s possible that the pitch was altered by a change in disc speed during the recording process, a common problem with acoustical recordings. But after listening to all of his recordings I think that B-flat was the limit of his comfort zone.

As I mentioned above, De Muro had the vocal means to sing Otello. Otello’s entrance Esultate sits right in the middle of the tenor’s passaggio.This placement make the volume required of Otello’s dramatic first appearance so difficult. De Muro inserts a grace note in the middle of brief piece which I find unsettling. Probably because I’m not used to it. Nonetheless, he clearly has the force needed for the role. Ora per sempre addio from Act 2 again shows the tenor’s vocal affinity for this role.

Two French selections, both sung in Italian. O paradiso is from Act 4 of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. The Flower Song from Carmen shows that De Muro could use his big voice with delicacy when finesse was required.

Il Piccolo Marat was the 13th of Mascagni’s 15 operas. First performed in Rome in 1921, it is a rescue opera set during the French Revolution. It didn’t reach the US until 2009 when it received a concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall. Written in a declamatory style it has picked up a few supporters who think highly of it, but has never caught on with the audience. Va’ nella tua stanzetta is from Act 2. The soprano is Irma Viganò.

De Muro’s big spinto voice was ideal for Dick Johnson in Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West. Caruso who first performed the part never recorded either of the opera’s two tenor arias. De Muro recorded them within a few years of the opera’s New York premiere. Or son sei mesi is from Act 2. Ch’ella mi creda, the much better known of the two, is from Act 3.

I started this piece with Andrea Chenier; so I’ll end it with the Improvviso from Act 1 of Giordano’s opera.