V1530. GIUSEPPE di STEFANO, w.Olivieri Cond.: Neapolitan Songs, incl. di Capua, Tosti, Falvo, de Curtis, Cardillo, Lama, Nardella, d’Annibale, Mario, Persico, Cioffi, Cottrau & Tagliaferri. (Germany) Naxos 8.111340, recorded 1953-57. Transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn. - 747313334025
“[di Stefano] had one of the most beautiful tenor voices of the past century, and these songs catch di Stefano in his all too brief vocal prime….[a] well-engineered collection, recorded in Milan from 1953 to 1957 for EMI.”
- Vivian A. Liff, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Sept./Oct. 2009
“Giuseppe di Stefano, a flamboyant, sometimes erratic opera star who in his prime after World War II was lauded as the most thrilling Italian tenor in a generation and was renowned for his superb voice, Mr. di Stefano had only brief years at the top, with a repertory that focused on lyric roles like the Duke in RIGOLETTO, the title role in FAUST and WERTHER. Rudolf Bing, the longtime general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, asserted that Mr. di Stefano could have been as great as Enrico Caruso if he had demonstrated more restraint in his personal and professional conduct. Mr. di Stefano conceded that he could be reckless. He reveled in his image as a bon vivant and bragged of his affairs, including a long romance with Maria Callas, his favorite onstage partner.
‘I wanted to enjoy life — not just the opera’, he said in an interview for OPERA NEWS in 1999, which took place at his villa north of Milan, on the edge of the lake district. ‘Yes, I smoked a lot. And it’s true I used to gamble, and I would stay up late and sometimes drive around all night. So of course the critics wrote: ‘He was not in shape to go on stage'.’ But Mr. di Stefano insisted that it was severe allergies that permanently damaged his voice.
With the onset of World War II, he served in the Italian army, assigned to an infirmary. But he was saved from duty on the Russian front by his regimental commander, an opera-loving doctor, who gave him a medical dispensation because he felt that the young man had a promising career ahead. Mr. di Stefano spent some of the war years as a pop singer, entertaining audiences at movie theaters between feature films. Then, in 1943, he fled to Switzerland, where he began his operatic career with recitals on a classical radio station in Zürich.
After the war, Mr. di Stefano made his opera début in Italy in 1946 at the Teatro Municipale, in the city of Reggio Emilia, as Des Grieux in Massenet’s MANON. He was quickly recognized as a rising star, praised for the rich, velvety texture of his voice and his great emphasis on diction. He was invited to sing at the major Italian opera houses. In 1948, Mr. di Stefano crossed the Atlantic to make his Metropolitan Opera début as the Duke in RIGOLETTO. But he received his greatest accolades for his performances as FAUST. Mr. Bing was awestruck by Mr. di Stefano’s interpretation of the role in the 1949-50 season. ‘The most spectacular single moment’, Mr. Bing wrote in his 1972 memoir, 5,000 NIGHTS AT THE OPERA, was ‘when I heard his diminuendo on the high C in ‘Salut! Demeure’ in FAUST. ‘I shall never as long as I live forget the beauty of that sound’.
But Mr. di Stefano’s behavior soon caused Mr. Bing to sour on him. When a new production of LA BOHÈME went into rehearsal at the Met in the 1952-53 season, Mr. di Stefano failed to show up in time, contending that illness had prevented him from traveling from Italy to New York. Mr. Bing learned that Mr. di Stefano had in fact been healthy enough to perform at La Scala in Milan, and banned him from the Met for three years.
On his return to New York, Mr. di Stefano expanded his repertory to include Don José in CARMEN and Cavaradossi in TOSCA. But Mr. Bing, in his memoir, complained that the tenor persisted in his erratic behavior. ‘We never knew from day to day whether he would show up’, he wrote, adding that ‘his lack of self-discipline soon harmed what might have been a career men would remember with Caruso’s’. By the late 1950s, Mr. di Stefano’s career was in decline, with his failing voice often forcing him to cancel appearances. He insisted that an allergy to synthetic fibers had inflamed his larynx. But the opera world remained skeptical. After a miserable 1966 performance as Otello in Pasadena, CA, Mr. di Stefano’s stage appearances dwindled. In 1973-74, he and Maria Callas made a disastrous tour of North America, Asia and Europe, with critics panning their performances. Mr. di Stefano, who first sang with Ms. Callas in the early 1950s and later became her lover, rated her as the best diva with whom he ever sang. ‘Even when Callas’ voice wasn’t perfect, she had so much interpretation’, he said. ‘Opera is storytelling. Feelings must be conveyed. Acting must be moving. And Callas had it all’.
Even in old age, Mr. di Stefano insisted that he had no regrets about his short career at opera’s summit, and that he did not begrudge the success of peers like Luciano Pavarotti or Plácido Domingo. ‘I was never jealous of anybody’, he said. ‘I don’t have to go around insisting that I had one of the great voices. Fortunately, I made enough recordings to let people judge for themselves’.”
- Jonathan Kandell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 4 March, 2008