The third great tenor born in 1921 (July 24) was Giuseppe Di Stefano (1921-2008). Of all the tenors I heard in performance, Di Stefano had the most beautiful voice. He was also able to convey the emotional content of the music he sang with intensity and insight unmatched by any other tenor of his era.
From 1946 to 1956 he was without peer in the standard Italian and French tenor roles. After the age of 35 his vocal prowess rapidly diminished, though he continued to sing for decades after his voice had departed. The premature loss of his unique sound was the result of singing parts too heavy for his lyric tenor combined with a reckless lifestyle. He didn’t seem to take his art seriously. He would routinely show up late for rehearsals. Sometimes he would double book himself. It was this latter practice that got him fired from the Met by Rudolf Bing. He was singing at La Scala when he was supposed to be in New York to rehearse and perform in a new production of La Bohème. Richard Tucker took his place. Bing canceled Di Stefano’s contract, but was eventually forced to bring the tenor back for the 1955-56 season which proved to to the last great year left to Di Stefano. He gave a solitary performance of The Tales of Hoffmann in 1965 which Bing allowed mainly to embarrass the now mostly defunct tenor.
Born in Sicily, his family moved to Milan when he was six. When he was a teenager, he discovered that he had an operatic voice and began vocal lessons. World War II interrupted his training; he was drafted. As everyone knows, the Italian Army thinks much more of singing than fighting, so Di Stefano was kept away from the front and allowed to sing. Things got much more parlous after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime when the Germans occupied the northern half of the peninsula. Di Stefano fled to Switzerland where he was interned. His confinement was generous, however. He gave some public performances and made his first recordings, which demonstrated a beautiful voice not yet fully under control, but which showed extraordinary promise.
At the conclusion of the war, he returned to Italy where he resumed vocal studies. But not for long; he was a natural and there was no holding him back. He made his operatic debut in 1946, the following year he was at La Scala, and the year after that, he appeared at the Met for the first time. From 1948 to 1952, he appeared at the Met in more than 100 performances.
While his voice lasted, it was unlike anything heard this century. Its sound was beautiful beyond compare and Di Stefano could manipulate it with nuanced expression of seemingly endless subtlety. His diction in both Italian and French was perfect. Every syllable he sang was suffused with meaning. He shaded the music such that the listener seemed to sense the meaning of what he sang without understanding a single word of Italian or French. He could also make a seamless transition from the very loudest to the softest sound without losing support of the tone, and he could do it over his entire vocal range. The diminuendo on the Faust high C (Salut demeure) is an outstanding example of this ability. This effect has never been duplicated. Though he often forced his singing, he didn’t have to. His voice carried with ease through the cavernous space that was the old Met.
When asked about how he learned to take a diminuendo on a high C or sing very softly with full vocal support, he said no one taught him how to do it – he just could do it. I suspect such is always the case with this kind of singing. It’s a gift; you can do it or you can’t. There’s no learning process involved.
To my ears Di Stefano’s tenor was even more lush 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. Only two other tenors (Fleta and Corelli) since the start of the recording era could managed the line “Le belle forme disciogliea 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.
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. Di Stefano recorded Core ‘ngrato many times. This version is from a 1950 concert. O sole mio is sung by almost everyone, but rarely with the emotional intensity that the Sicilian tenor suffuses the paen to the sun of southern Italy.
Di Stefano’s 1947 recording of Federico’s lament is hard to match. He was only 25 when he made it. Also on the original LP were two Sicilian folk songs – Cantu a Timuni and A la Barcillunisa. The simple beauty Di Stefano brings to them is breathtaking.
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. 1921 was a vintage year.