Historical Performances: Mario del Monaco’s Overpowering Otello – San Francisco Opera’s San Diego Tour – November 5, 1959

This is the tenth of ten observances of historic performances of the San Francisco Opera that I attended during the company’s annual tours of Southern California

In 1950, the American debut of 35 year old operatic tenor Mario del Monaco  took place at the San Francisco Opera. His American debut role was Radames in Verdi’s “Aida”. Making her American debut with del Monaco was the soprano in the title role, 28 year old Renata Tebaldi. She had first sung the role earlier that year at La Scala, with Del Monaco as Radames. Although not certain Aida was right for her voice, Tebaldi sang it at the request and encouragement of Conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Tebaldi and Del Monaco only sang  those two “Aida” performances in San Francisco and never appeared together again in at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. At their second San Francisco “Aida”  the Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager, Rudolph Bing, was in the audience, having flown across the country to scout the pair.  Both subsequently had important careers at the Met.

Tebaldi and del Monaco sang a third performance of “Aida” on San Francisco Opera’s postseason tour in Los Angeles, but after those three performances, never sang together in California again. (I suspect many people with a general knowledge of the San Francisco Opera would be surprised that the two did not perform together more with the company, but, in fact, del Monaco sang twice as many performances with soprano Gabriella Tucci as with Tebaldi and even appeared more often with German soprano Wilma Lipp than with the soprano with which he is most identified.)

That debut season, Tebaldi sang Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello”, which, later in the decade, she recorded twice with del Monaco. However, when the San Francisco Opera was planning del Monaco’s debut in Fall 1950, he was not yet associated with that role, having sung it for the first time only a few weeks prior to his arrival in San Francisco.

Instead, Tebaldi’s Otello was Chilean heldentenor Ramon Vinay, who, that season, was also singing his first ever Tristan, in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. (His Isolde was Kirsten Flagstad, so Vinay was able to star opposite two of the 20th century’s greatest sopranos almost simultaneously – amazingly performing his second Tristan with only one day’s rest after singing Otello.)

Del Monaco sang 38 times for the San Francisco Opera, during four non-consecutive seasons (1950, 1952, 1959 and 1962), 25 times in San Francisco, 11 in Los Angeles, and one performance each in San Diego and Sacramento. I only saw him perform once, but this was in his greatest role, Otello.

After his role debut as Otello in summer 1950, he sang it well over 200 times (the tenor’s sometimes quoted statement that he had sung the role 427 times is not supported by the scholarly investigations of his most authoritative biographer.) However, del Monaco had such a regard for the role that, his family carrying out his wishes, at his death he was buried in his Otello costume.

[Below: Mario del Monaco, in costume as Otello; edited image, based on a copyrighted production photograph.]

Even though that opera was mounted in three of the four seasons that Del Monaco appeared in San Francisco, it was Vinay who sang it in 1950 and James McCracken who sang it in 1962. Thus, only four California audiences saw his Otello – the two at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, one at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, and one, that included your reviewer, then a teenager, at San Diego’s Fox Theater.

Del Monaco had a large voice, but, at the time, was a controversial tenor, who had trained his voice to produce a highly dramatic sound, with an extraordinary ability to display the emotions of a man under great stress. His voice was well geared for the larger orchestras of the Verdi and Puccini operas. The contemporary critics who charged that Del Monaco was incapable of singing below forte probably exaggerated, but according to the famous dramatic soprano Magda Olivero, with whom later in his career he was recording Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini”,  del Monaco admitted to her his frustration at being unable, at that time in his career, to control his voice as he wished in softer passages.

My friend Zaven Melikian, who was concertmeister of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra during much of the 1970s (with a master violinist’s attention to precision in tonal purity and pitch in all instruments, including the human voice), told me how confused he was at hearing del Monaco’s recorded voice, wondering why he was considered such a super-star. Then, he said, when he saw him in performance, he fully grasped del Monaco’s appeal. Although relatively small in stature (tenor James McCracken would have towered above him), del Monaco brought an intensity to any role he sang – through his facial expressions, dramatic physical movement, and especially the ability to color his voice to convey emotion.

[Below: Mario del Monaco as Otello at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco; edited image, based on a photograph courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

His voice was particularly well-suited for the parts of murderously jealous husbands – iconically, Otello and Canio in Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”. These are men who boil with anger, and Verdi and Leoncavallo wrote music to convey their rage. The dramatic tenor, the tenore di forza, often in Verdi, Puccini and the verismo opera composers, are sometimes called upon to sing above a large orchestra, as a Wagnerian tenor would, and, even when they sing without orchestral accompaniment, on occasion are alternating their bursts of sound with the orchestra. (Listen to how, in Act III, just after the emotionally distraught Otello sings a highly charged vocal phrase, the full orchestra comes in right after him in a passage marked forte or louder.)

This was a period in which San Francisco Opera was importing Italian singers, some of whose lives (and some opera houses) had still not recovered fully from the effects of World War II. Among the baritones, Tito Gobbi had first dropped as a bel canto performer in 1948, but by the late 1950s, the Italian importation was in full swing, with Giuseppe Taddei later to be joined by Ettore Bastianini and by Gobbi in his most famous roles.

Mario Zanasi was del Monaco’s Iago. Without the lucrative recording contracts that Gobbi, Bastianini and Taddei enjoyed, Zanasi was not well known in the United States. However, he had an attractive lyric baritone voice and dramatic instincts that provided an effective counterpoint to del Monaco’s savvy histronics. Zanasi was enthusiastically received as Iago by the San Francisco Opera audiences in all three California cities in which “Otello” played.

[Below: Iago (Mario Zanasi) plants doubts in the ear of Otello (Mario del Monaco); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Before his San Francisco Otellos, del Monaco and Gobbi were performing “Otello” on tour in Japan. Their Desdemona was the Italian soprano, Gabriella Tucci, who had not sung in the United States at that time. After Japan, “Otello” was to have been the opportunity for del Monaco to be re-united with Tebaldi at the San Francisco Opera.

But, one of the bouts with illness that Tebaldi suffered caused her cancellation, and del Monaco recommended Tucci as her replacement (affording the opportunity of the American debut of an artist that was soon to become a leading artist of the Met). With an attractive spinto voice, possessing an appealing vibrato, Tucci made a fine impression as Desdemona.

Although this was not a period in which recordings of San Francisco Opera performances were routinely made (especially when on tour) one can get a reasonably good idea of what del Monaco and Tucci sounded like, at least a few weeks earlier in 1959. When del Monaco and Tucci toured Japan together earlier that year, a quite brilliant archival recording was made by Japan’s NHK recording firm  of their live performance in Tokyo, under the baton of Alberto Erede. That recording has been released on CDs by Opera d’Oro, and that recording does have some partisans who prefer it to del Monaco’s studio recordings for Decca. (A reportedly substandard telecast of that same performance is also offered on DVD.)

[Below: Gabriella Tucci who was Desdemona in the 1959 San Francisco Opera performances.]

Del Monaco’s career was illustrious, but it might have been even more glorious but for the fact that the half decade when he was in his late 20s, that should  be a critical time in the development of  great tenor’s voice, his life was disrupted by World War II. When we talk of the postwar decades in opera, one should not lose grasp of the fact that the four European countries – Italy, Germany, Austria and France – that produced the greater part of the operatic standard repertory, and, historically (and logically), account for a disproportionate number of the world’s operatic artists – were engulfed in World War II. All four countries for all or part of the war were hostile nations to the United States.

The first two San Francisco Opera general directors, Gaetano Merola and Kurt Herbert Adler, were respectively emigres from Italy and Austria, and Adler a political refugee who abandoned his home town of Vienna in the 1930s. In a period that much of the operatic infrastructure was compromised or destroyed on the European continent, San Francisco Opera’s administration provided world leadership in promoting reconciliation and opportunities in San Francisco for singers and artists from the defeated nations.

The picture below shows del Monaco in an Italian soldier’s uniform. Yes, the Italian army knew that del Monaco possessed a promising operatic voice, and, yes, he was granted leave from time to time to prepare for and sing in an opera performance, but he was a soldier whose first call was on meeting the needs of the Italian military, rather than a great tenor voice preparing a career.  Wartime photographs such as this for del Monaco could be shown for many of the great operatic artists of the 1950s, whose youths were spent in military uniforms, in whichever nation they resided.

[Below: Mario del Monaco as an Italian soldier; edited image, based on a photograph, accessible through www.mariodelmonaco.net.]

But del Monaco had another great disaster befall his career. In his early 50s, only three years after I saw him as Otello, he was nearly killed in an automobile accident. Even though he in time returned to the stage, his career was never the same. He died, aged 67, in 1982.

Over the past century and a quarter every generation has possessed a very few great Otellos. The experience of first seeing the opera with Mario del Monaco gave me a true indication of the power and complexity of this role.