We are all familiar with the universally hailed trio of the Three Tenors, comprised of Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and the late Luciano Pavarotti. But does anyone remember, with any degree of affection, Three Titanic Tenors who came before them — namely, the great Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Richard Tucker?
Is there anybody around today who recalls how their voluminous, dramatic, larger-than-life voices seemed to fill every inch of the theaters they sang in, with such ease and facility and without apparent effort? Why, I’m sure there is!
They were all more or less contemporaries of each other, and epitomized to a postwar, opera-starved generation the “Golden Age of Tenor Singing” at the Metropolitan Opera, and abroad, for the better part of three decades.
The first of these truly magnificent and unforgettable vocal phenomena — for these are the only words that come to mind in describing what their voices meant to me personally — was Del Monaco.
Mario Del Monaco was born on July 27, 1915, in Florence, Italy, in the same region that would later produce Franco Corelli. He made his initial appearance, in 1939, in Pesaro as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. Officially, however, he debuted in the 1940-41 season at the Teatro Puccini in Milan, as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.
It was only after World War II that the full, dramatic singing voice we came to know and adore was developed, as Del Monaco inevitably moved on to bigger and heavier parts, particularly that of Andrea Chénier, which he sang for the first time at La Scala, Milan, in 1949. It was a role he had carefully prepared with the work’s composer, Umberto Giordano, and became for him, along with Otello, his two most frequently performed parts.
His debut at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1951, as Radames in Aida. While at the house, Del Monaco sang Canio in Pagliacci, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Don José in Carmen, Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, Ernani, Andrea Chénier, and, of course, his greatest role, that of the Moor in Verdi’s Otello.
When a decade later it was Franco Corelli’s turn to appear there, Del Monaco politely bowed out. For ten years he had sung many of the great Verdi and verismo roles at the Met. Unfortunately, he could not bring himself to share the spotlight with this young rival, so he departed.
In 1965, Del Monaco was involved in a life-threatening automobile accident that necessitated frequent kidney-dialysis treatment. Despite this setback, he continued to sing all over the world until he officially retired from the stage, in 1975, at the age of sixty. He had been singing professionally for over 35 years.
Mario Del Monaco died on October 16, 1982, near Venice, of congestive heart failure. He was 67 at the time.
A Lion on the Stage
Del Monaco’s iron-lunged approach to singing has never been equaled by any tenor, with the possible exception of Corelli. But even Franco had never sung a complete Otello on the stage as Mario had so often done.
In many people’s minds, the Lion of Venice was Del Monaco’s most complete portrayal. He showered the role onstage (and on records) with a torrential volley of sound, not to mention his total commitment to the part. Other major roles were treated with equal care: his Canio became a wounded beast; his Chénier, utterly tremendous as well as heroic; and his Radames, a warrior first and foremost.
Del Monaco’s voice in its prime was a huge instrument: it was even and firm, from top to bottom. My father first heard the tenor in performance, at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo, Brazil, during the late 1940s, as Enzo Grimaldo in La Gioconda, then as Radames. Dad was part of the paid claque at the time. Years later, he would recount that while it took Del Monaco an unusually long time to warm up — much to the impatience of the audience hearing “Celeste Aida” — he gave truly stupendous interpretations of these parts.
In addition to close study of the vocal score, the tenor also designed most of his own costumes, and brought to the theater his ferocious presence and thorough understanding of the drama behind the words.
Del Monaco’s recordings were generally the first complete stereo versions of many of the standard repertory items we now take for granted. His were the ones I and many of my generation grew up with and heard. Because of his talents, Del Monaco was one of the first singers to have been given an exclusive contract with Decca/London Records for nearly two decades; in addition, he twice committed the roles of Canio, Turiddu and Otello to disc for the label, an unheard-of practice at the time.
His frequent partner for many of these historic sessions was the opulent-voiced Italian soprano, Renata Tebaldi. The couple’s first complete stereo recording of La Fanciulla del West, made in 1958, featured a luxury lineup of artists: Cornell MacNeil, Giorgio Tozzi, Piero de Palma, and conductor Franco Capuana. I consider it the best recorded Fanciulla around, and the most vocally and dramatically satisfying.
The tenor’s prodigious outpourings in his two dramatic solos, “Or son sei mesi” (with much judicious word painting and a wonderful choice of phrasing) and “Ch’ella mi creda,” must be heard to be believed, although Del Monaco offered surprising gentleness and grace in his duets with Tebaldi.
His recording of Faust in Mefistofele is his most underrated achievement, a sensitive portrayal of the old philosopher who longs for youth and love. He joined the sessions late, after the original tenor, Giuseppe Di Stefano, had been let go. For such a large, unwieldy instrument as his, Del Monaco instinctively grasped the heart of the role; indeed, his renditions of the arias “Dai campi, dai prati,” “Colma il suo cor d’un palpito,” and especially the final “Giunto sul passo estremo,” are unsurpassed in line, beauty, sensitivity and passion. You’d have to go back to Aureliano Pertile for a better example of legato singing as fine as this.
Incidentally, critics accused the dramatic tenor of lacking a true legato line, or of not putting enough lyricism into the part. My advice would be to listen carefully to this recording. You’ll be convinced otherwise, and amply rewarded, with what Del Monaco does here. True, Di Stefano may have had a sweeter sound, but Del Monaco delivers the goods, in spades! He may just miss out on a few high notes, but the rest is nuanced poetry. The opera was committed to disc in 1959, and remains a personal favorite of mine among all the tenor’s commercial output.
The two versions he made of Canio in Pagliacci likewise showcase his continuing evolution as a performer and interpreter. Whereas the earlier one from 1953 (in mono sound) concentrated itself more on sheer volume, the later (and better) 1960 stereo remake featured a more vocally mature artist, with an insightful characterization of the tragic clown who laughs though his heart is breaking — and with only a slight diminution of vocal resources.
His “Vesti la giubba” is gripping from first note to last. Notice how Del Monaco climaxes the piece with a stunning catch in the throat instead of the usual hysterical sobbing. The aria does not feel like a single, self-contained showstopper but an integral part of the whole. It’s a classic performance to place alongside that of the great Caruso.
Del Monaco had a late blooming vocal autumn. Around the years 1967-70, London issued several recordings, many of rarely performed verismo works. Among them is the first complete stereo recording of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally with Tebaldi and Piero Cappuccilli, great scenes from Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, and a complete stereo version of Fedora by Giordano, the latter two starring the legendary diva, soprano Magda Olivero. These were more nostalgic than revelatory, and spotlighted Del Monaco’s rather unfortunate tendency to bleat out the notes, but they still managed to earn him considerable accolades and complemented Olivero’s ripe emoting to perfection.
His less frequent forays into Wagner territory — Siegmund’s two scenes from Act I of Die Walküre, for instance — did not prove convincing due to the tenor’s poor command of German and his rather hectoring vocal style. He can be commended, however, for at least having attempted this change of pace so late in his career.
* * *
Franco (real name Dario) Corelli was born in Ancona, Italy, on either April 8, 1921 or August 23, 1923. This discrepancy in his birth dates has never been completely reconciled. But then again, most concrete facts about Corelli remain an impenetrable mystery.
Take, for example, his operatic debut, which Corelli made in 1951, after having won a vocal competition that, as legend had us believe, he never wanted to enter in the first place — so much for advance planning.
He was completely self-taught after early lessons nearly ruined his ample top notes, or so Corelli claimed. He learned most of his vocal artistry by imitation and repetition, after listening to numerous recordings of the great Italian tenors Beniamino Gigli, Galliano Masini, Aureliano Pertile, and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.
He sang often in his early career, appearing in a variety of offbeat roles, many in infrequently performed works such as Spontini’s Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Donizettí’s Poliuto, and Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo. He was Pierre Bezukhov in the La Scala premiere of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, and even sang in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Hercule.
Corelli made his first recordings for the Italian Cetra label in the early 1950s. They reveal a large, almost uncontrollable voice of raw animal magnetism, with an uncharacteristic vibrato to his tone (which later disappeared almost entirely), as well as a certain “cavalier” attitude toward note values. Nevertheless, the potential for greatness was undoubtedly there.
In 1956, he made a widely admired film of Puccini’s Tosca, opposite the Floria Tosca of Franca Duval, and Afro Poli as Scarpia (voiced by Maria Caniglia and his close friend, baritone Gian Giacomo Guelfi). Indeed, Corelli never looked more heroic — especially in his frock coat, frilly shirt and tights.
He went on to sing all over Italy and Europe, before making his debut, in 1961, at the old Metropolitan Opera House alongside soprano Leontyne Price in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. He appeared in a variety of leading roles there, including Cavaradossi, Calaf, Turiddu, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Don Carlo, Ernani, Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, and Enzo in La Gioconda.
His surprise transition to the French repertoire occurred somewhat late in his professional career, although he had previously sung Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, in Italy, but only in his native tongue. Corelli also sang Raoul de Nangis in a star-studded, Italian-language revival of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at La Scala in 1962, but he first encountered the part of Roméo in 1968, and later sang in Massenet’s Werther in 1972, both new productions at the Met.
Though Corelli also recorded Faust for Decca/London, he never sang the role onstage; a pity, for he obviously had the looks and requisite lirico spinto sound for Gounod’s romantic protagonist. He continued singing until 1976, when he gave his final stage performance as Rodolfo in Bohème at Torre del Lago, with soprano Adriana Maliponte.
Corelli quite possibly possessed the most powerful and masculine tenor voice I have ever heard. His enormous high C’s were the most potent and thrilling imaginable, as evidenced by his recordings of Manrico, Cavaradossi, and Calaf. He was certainly one of the handsomest leading men ever to set foot on the operatic stage, so much so that it left soprano Maria Callas in a jealous tizzy — unjustly so, for Corelli was reported to have been invariably kind and considerate to all his colleagues.
He was the reigning Calaf at the Metropolitan and at La Scala — and has there ever been a more thrilling rendition of the Act II confrontation scene with the icy Princess Turandot, voiced by the incomparable Birgit Nilsson? Despite the notoriety, he considered his favorite role that of the poet Andrea Chénier.
I personally thought his greatest triumphs were as Roméo, and especially as Werther. Werther was certainly an unusual assignment for him, one he only assumed as a personal favor to outgoing Met Opera general manager, Sir Rudolf Bing. Franco begged out of the premiere, but the second night audience got to see a major undertaking.
Although he spoke little to no French, Corelli did surprisingly well with the vocal aspects; and physically, he was the melancholy poet personified. His legato at the time wasn’t as smoothly flowing as in earlier days. Still, he shared a real oneness with the part. Corelli captured the true essence of the character, despite the imperfect diction and noticeable vocal decline.
His last U.S. television appearance came in 1972. It was at Rudolf Bing’s gala farewell concert, taped by network TV to be shown in prime time. Unfortunately, the station had decided to air only brief excerpts of scenes, so viewers were denied the chance of seeing the complete performances.
The tenor did get to sing a portion of the Act I love duet from Otello, with Polish soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara as Desdemona and German maestro Karl Boehm at the helm. Franco had already sung that afternoon’s final Met broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlo, and was visibly tired; but he sang his heart out for the cameras, and he (and the prompter) were in exceptionally good voice.
It was his first live rendition of anything from the Verdi opera anywhere, and what a treat it was for his many fans! The final note of “Venere splende” poured out of him like free-flowing lava. I imagined at the time that a commercial break would eventually have to cut him off, but I was proven wrong. The audience roared their approval to the rafters.
Corelli had an almost irrational fear of failure, and suffered constantly from a bewildering and increasingly troubling stage fright. He wasn’t helped by a nagging wife, who’s only task was to wait for him in the wings in order to criticize his every fault.
When his top notes began to fail him, Corelli wisely decided to call it a career. I last heard him in a live broadcast of the Met’s Roméo et Juliette from Boston in the mid-seventies, where he cracked on his high B-flat in an otherwise lovely interpretation of the air, “Ah! Leve-toi, soleil.” He recovered later on to deliver a most powerful and moving performance.
Corelli left many recorded extracts of arias, duets, scenes, popular songs, complete operas, and the like for posterity. One of his all-time best is an early album of complete scenes from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, which was originally released in the early fifties by Cetra, and co-starred his Italian colleague, Gian Giacomo Guelfi as Don Carlo.
These two immense and leonine voices joined together to vibrate the very studio foundation they were in; it was probably the loudest, most earth-shaking display of male testosterone ever recorded. Hearing the album even once will forever spoil you for this type of ferocious, take-no-prisoners approach to singing — clearly nowhere in evidence today.
Corelli passed away quietly on October 29, 2003, in Milan, the city of his earliest stage triumphs. He was the longest lived of the three.
* * *
Richard Tucker (né Reuben Tickel or Ticker) was born on August 13, 1913, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a heavily orthodox Jewish neighborhood. He studied to become a cantor, but circumstances conspired to turn him into the greatest American tenor of the past 60 years.
He made his first appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House at the urging of then-general manager and former tenor Edward Johnson, who recognized in the young man a truly remarkable Italianate voice.
His debut there was in 1945 as Enzo in La Gioconda, and an unqualified triumph it was. Tucker’s early career at the Met was spent mostly in lighter parts, as he proved with his singing of such roles as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, and Alfred in Die Fledermaus (all in English translation).
Later, he took on the great tenor roles of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Radames in Aida, Manrico in Il Trovatore, Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, Canio in Pagliacci, and Samson in Samson et Dalila.
Eléazar in La Juive was a role most often associated with Enrico Caruso, and one that Tucker had long wanted to do at the Met. Unfortunately, he was denied that privilege and was only able to sing it in Barcelona in the seventies, just a few years before his untimely death. His recorded highlights on RCA Victor are a cherished memento of that occasion.
The American Caruso
Tucker’s voice had often been compared to Caruso’s for its beauty, vibrancy, and superb staying power. Even his physical appearance led many critics to dub him “The American Caruso.” Obviously, he was a particular favorite in Italy, and was even honored there with the title of Commendatore of the Realm.
He was unbeatable as Rudolfo in Verdi’s early-period masterpiece Luisa Miller, but he has gone on the record as declaring his favorite part to be that of the Chévalier Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut. Although he never recorded the role complete, his many recordings featuring arias from Puccini’s first big success illustrate Tucker’s fondness for this passionate, youthful role. It is without a doubt his most extroverted performance on disc, full of vigor and vitality, crystal-clear phrasing, and full-throated vocal abandon.
He also sang Cavaradossi in Tosca, Calaf in Turandot, Rodolfo in La Boheme, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, and Andrea Chénier. He died on January 8, 1975, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, just before a joint concert he was about to give with his old friend and frequent stage partner, baritone Robert Merrill.
Although fervently religious, Tucker had a wonderful sense of humor and an infectious joie de vivre. He was full of outrageous pranks and practical jokes, as attested to by his various colleagues. He and fellow New Yorker, mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, were such a hit together as Don José and Carmen, and so believable in their respective roles, that their sold-out performances at the Old Met were coined, at one time, “the hottest ticket on Broadway.”
Tucker was an early and frequent recording artist in his career, and carved out a fine niche for himself at Columbia Records, a lifelong association. He recorded many of his most famous roles prior to singing them on the stage.
One of these was done at the insistence of the iron-willed Arturo Toscanini. The Italian maestro wanted Tucker for the part of Radames in Aida. The young tenor told the conductor that he had not previously sung the strenuous role before, but Toscanini felt (and quite rightly so) that Tucker’s more straightforward approach was absolutely perfect for the young warrior. The RCA Victor recording and accompanying video of the sessions is now considered an established classic.
Tucker had an unfortunate running rivalry with another of Toscanini’s favorite singers, the tenor Jan Peerce, who in reality was his brother-in-law. Seriously hampered, at times, by his short stature, clunky stage deportment and silent-movie acting style, Tucker nevertheless persevered sufficiently enough to convince theatergoers of his total sincerity in whatever he did.
A good case in point is his late occurring Canio from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which he sang excerpts from on The Ed Sullivan Show in late 1969. It is a fitting document of his renowned ability to move an audience. His unrivaled intensity and powerful, explosive interpretation of “No, Pagliaccio non son” and “Vesti la giubba” galvanized television viewers; he was even more spectacular in the part at the Met. He also wore Caruso’s old clown costume, which gave his appearance an air of nostalgia.
Tucker had few rivals for the role of Don Alvaro in Forza. Whether he admitted it or not, his early vocal training as a cantor helped him through the difficult, high-lying passages. In the hands of another tenor, the role becomes pure vocal mush, but in Tucker’s experienced shoes, we feel the desperation in the character’s voice. Obviously, his commitment to the part is never in doubt. This is what set Tucker apart from his younger colleagues.
He made two memorable complete recordings of Forza del Destino: the first, in 1954, for EMI/Angel under Tullio Serafin, and co-starring Maria Callas, Carlo Tagliabue, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni; the second (and superior) one a decade later for RCA Victor, with Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, his friend Robert Merrill, and bass Giorgio Tozzi.
Tucker’s Duke of Mantua and Alfredo in La Traviata were well-nigh classic portrayals. He even sang Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra in his last season at the Met, and was all set to assume another new role, as Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani, when he suddenly passed away.
It may have been one of those once-in-a-lifetime coincidences, or a powerful portent from the entertainment gods, but between the years 1975 and 1976 the opera world lost all three of the Titanic Tenors, who ceased to captivate us with their vibrant voices either through early retirement or an untimely passing.
It was a loss we are still reeling from today. We will never have another triumvirate such as this incomparable tenor threesome. Fortunately for their fans, they recorded extensively, and left us a suitably rich legacy of their roles for each succeeding generation to enjoy and thrill to. ◙
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
Mario Del Monaco:
• Andrea Chénier (Tebaldi, Bastianini – Gavazzeni) London/Decca
• Cavalleria Rusticana (Simionato, MacNeil, Satre – Serafin) London/Decca
• La Fanciulla del West (Tebaldi, MacNeil, Tozzi, De Palma – Capuana) London/Decca
• Fedora (Olivero, Gobbi – Gardelli) London/Decca
• La Gioconda (Cerquetti, Simionato, Bastianini, Siepi – Gavazzeni) London/Decca
• Mefistofele (Tebaldi, Siepi, Cavalli, De Palma – Serafin) London/Decca
• Otello (Tebaldi, Protti, Romanato, Corena, Cesarini, Krause – Karajan) London/Decca
• Pagliacci (Tucci, MacNeil, Capecchi, De Palma – Molinari-Pradelli) London/Decca
• Andrea Chénier (Stella, Sereni – Santini) EMI/Angel
• Carmen (Price, Freni, Merrill – Karajan) RCA Victor/BMG
• Faust (Sutherland, Ghiaurov, Massard – Bonynge) London/Decca
• Pagliacci (Amara, Gobbi, Zanasi, Spina – Matacic) EMI/Angel
• Roméo et Juliette (Freni, Gui, Lublin, Depraz – Lombard) EMI/Angel
• Tosca (Nilsson, Fischer-Dieskau, Mariotti, De Palma – Maazel) London/Decca
• Il Trovatore (Tucci, Merrill, Simionato, Mazzoli – Schippers) EMI/Angel
• Turandot (Nilsson, Scotto, Giaiotti, De Palma – Molinari-Pradelli) EMI/Angel
• Aïda (Nelli, Gustavson, Valdengo, Scott – Toscanini) RCA Victor/BMG
• La Bohème (Moffo, Costa, Merrill, Tozzi – Leinsdorf) RCA Victor/BMG
• La Forza del Destino (Price, Verrett, Merrill, Tozzi, Flagello – Schippers) RCA Victor/BMG
• La Juive: Highlights (Moffo, Arroyo, Giaiotti, Sabaté – López-Cobos) RCA Victor/BMG
• Pagliacci (Amara, Valdengo, Harvuot, Hayward – Cleva) CBS/Columbia
• Rigoletto (Capecchi, D’Angelo, Pirazzini, Sardi – Molinari-Pradelli) Philips/Columbia
• La Traviata (Moffo, Merrill – Previtali) RCA Victor/BMG
• Il Trovatore (Price, Elias, Warren, Tozzi – Basile) RCA Victor/BMG