Classical musicians fall into many categories. There are Ukrainian pianists, German sopranos, American baritones, Russian violinists and so many more that we will explore in future posts on the Classical Archives Vlog.
Let’s begin with one of the most appealing categories of all . . . Italian tenors. To be sure, there have been great singers of many kinds. But of them all, Italian tenors have a very special appeal – and a very singular ability to thrill audiences.
What makes for a great Italian tenor? Although opinions vary, I would like to suggest that the best of them possess traits that include a ravishing sound, the ability to sing seamless legato and a certain purity of vowels. And ringing high notes? Well, certain Italian tenors have them too.
In today’s post, we will start with the lightest Italian tenors, because it is easiest to hear those traits in the recordings they have made. We will move from there to slightly heavier lyric tenors, and end by listening to more dramatic Italian tenors. Yet all the tenors we will watch possess those traits – the gorgeous sound, ability to sing legato and the rest.
Along the way, we will enjoy some of the most beautiful singing that can be found on video.
Tito Schipa Sings “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Donizetti’s Elisir d’Amore in 1929
Tito Schipa (1889-1965), a light tenore di grazia, possessed all the traits that made for a great Italian tenor – the ravishing sound, gorgeous legato and remarkable artistry too. This video needs no explanation. It is an example of singing at the highest possible level.
Ferruccio Tagliavini Sings Schubert’s “Ave Maria” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1951
Ferruccio Tagliavini (1913-1995) had a beautiful light voice that was just a touch heavier than Tito Schipa’s. This video shows us that he too possessed a gorgeous sound, the ability to mix the different registers of his voice, and other traits that place him among the pantheon of great Italian artists.
Luciano Pavarotti Sings “Che Gelida Manina” from Puccini’s La Bohème in 1964
This early video of a 29-year-old Pavarotti (1935-2007) shows what a miracle he was, even at an early age. Part of the magic was that he had the sound of a lyric tenor, but the volume of a heavier tenor – perhaps because of his physical size – that enabled his sound to thrillingly fill larger opera houses. A miracle, as this early video shows.
Carlo Bergonzi Sings “Celeste Aida” from Verdi’s Aida in 1973
Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014) was a true lyrico-spinto tenor (a lyric tenor who had moved into slightly heavier roles) who enjoyed a major international career. Listen for that line, for that legato, and you will discover another of the greats.
Giuseppe di Stefano Sings the farewell to his mother from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in 1955
Giuseppe di Stefano (1921-2008) was, like Carlo Bergonzi, a lyrico-spinto tenor who enjoyed a major International career. The pure allure of his voice was glorious – one of the most gorgeous sounds in the history of opera and song. In this beloved scene from Cavalleria Rusticana, Turiddu (sung by di Stefano) bids farewell to his mother before he rushes off to be killed in a knife fight. His idiomatically perfect performance really tears at your heartstrings
Vittorio Grigolo Sings “Mattinata” by Leoncavallo
In case you thought Italian tenors only lived in the past, here is a video of the currently active Vittorio Grigolo, born in 1977. He performs a deservedly beloved song, “Mattinata” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, who also composed I Pagliacci. The staging is a little tacky, granted, but there is no denying Grigolo has a lovely Italianate sound. (Note that in 2019, Grigolo’s contracts at the Royal Opera were cancelled following accusations of inappropriate behavior on his part. Perhaps inadvisably, we are including this video anyway.)
Franco Corelli Sings “Ah Si, Ben Mio . . . Di Quella Pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore
Franco Corelli (1921-2003) was a phenomenon – a tenor with fearless high notes, a unique timbre, the looks of an Italian movie star, and many other traits that drove audiences crazy. In this video, you will hear him sing one of his most phenomenal signature sections from Il Trovatore. Get ready for that thrilling high C at the end.
Mario del Monaco Sings “Vesti la Giubba” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s
Mario del Monaco (1915-1982) was the rarest kind of Italian tenor – a bona fide heroic tenor. He could have sung leading Wagnerian roles – in fact, he recorded some Wagnerian excerpts – but excelled instead in dramatic Italian operas that included Otello, Andrea Chenier, and Il Trovatore. He was a vocal phenomenon but as you will hear in this remarkable video, he still possessed all the traits that make for a great Italian tenor – the line, the pure vowels, the ravishing sound.
Tito Schipa Sings “I’ Te Vurria Vasa” (Neopolitan song) in 1957
We will close our hour by returning to Tito Schipa, who made this television appearance late in his career, in 1957. The artistry, the ravishing sound, the legato had never left him. It offers a lesson in what great singing is all about.