Friday, October 12, 2007


YouTube has some excerpts of the tenor Mario Del Monaco singing Verdi's Otello. Del Monaco was the leading Otello of his time, but his singing of this role -- probably the greatest tenor role in all of opera -- takes some getting used to.

He was an unremittingly loud singer; he had a gigantic voice and he was always trying to show it off, so he would just show up and bellow all night. The fact that he could be as loud at the end of the evening as at the beginning was part of what endeared him to audiences. But of course it makes his recorded legacy very wearying, because when you're listening at home you don't want a guy shouting at you for three hours. (Del Monaco's fans have claimed that he was better on live bootleg recordings, but he really wasn't, mostly -- it's just that the miking is more distant on those recordings and doesn't put him right in your ear all the time.) Christopher Raeburn, a producer for Del Monaco's record company Decca, said that Del Monaco always wanted to stand right next to the microphone and sing into it, and finally they had to turn off the microphone in front of him and record him with a hidden mike a few feet away. Franco Corelli, who came along and surpassed him as the most popular Italian dramatic tenor, was more willing to shade his voice or sing semi-quietly.

But while Del Monaco wouldn't be my first choice for most roles, I can see and hear why he was the great Otello of his day, and I honestly can't think of anyone since then whom I'd prefer in the part. There was one point in Otello -- the love duet at the end of act 1 -- that Del Monaco usually had trouble with (he'd often alternate between crooning and shouting). But the rest of the part calls for unremitting intensity and passion, and that's what he could bring to it. His physical acting was unsubtle (and unlike Corelli, who never sang Otello, he didn't have leading-man looks), but, again, very intense and often frightening when it needed to be.

The two singers who made the biggest impact as Otello in subsequent years were Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo. But Vickers, while certainly intense, had a tendency to over-intellectualize his performances (especially in Italian opera, where he didn't seem quite comfortable). And Domingo has never had a big enough voice for the part; he's done well with it, but out of intelligence and experience, not necessarily appropriate casting. Otello isn't really about intelligence or a reasoned approach; it's a fast-paced, ferociously intense opera and none of the characters are very smart, except Iago. (If Othello and Desdemona and Cassio weren't idiots, the whole thing would be over halfway through.) For a visceral experience, you need a native Italian singer with a huge, powerful voice and unrelenting intensity. So I appreciate Mario Del Monaco for those qualities.

One thing Del Monaco always did well was Otello's entrance arioso, which establishes Otello's heroic side in 40 seconds of very difficult music. (One thing I love about Verdi is that he can do in 30-40 seconds what would take any other composer about five minutes.) A smaller-voiced tenor can get through this music, but it takes a real dramatic tenor to really thrill the audience with it.

And, at the end of the opera, he's still loud, still intense, still unsubtle and still quite exciting:

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