High Notes On This Day

The Glorious Dramatic Art of Tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano

Giuseppe Di Stefano is one of the great Italian tenors in history. For many, he possessed the most beautiful timbre of any lyric tenor and some fans lament the tenor’s insistence on singing operas that were often darker and heavier than his lyric could seemingly handle.

And yet, one of the reasons why Pippo, born on July 24, 1921, was so compelling as an artist was his ability to use his voice with such depth of expression. Di Stefano wasn’t just a great vocalist with polished phrasing and beautiful sound. He was a truly immersive dramatic artist, every one of his finest interpretations delivered with incredible nuance of emotion and characterization.

So today, we will look at a few of his greatest recordings and marvel at why he was precisely so riveting in his depth of expression.

“E luce van le stelle” – Tosca

The recording with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi is arguably the greatest of the Puccini’s Tosca. Every single artist brings his or her A-game and you feel immersed in the experience. Di Stefano is great throughout, but arguably puts together the most heartbreaking rendition of the famous aria. For me, it comes down to the open “spoken” text as Cavaradossi remembers his past. Just listen to how Di Stefano starts off rather somber with the text and then slowly builds it up until he almost falls into tears on “Mi cadea, fra le braccia.” I have searched and searched for recordings where that “fra le braccia” is delivered with the same combination of disillusion and nostalgia. Haven’t quite found it. And then the ensuing passages, the tempo stretched and pulled really adds to the sense of stopping the inevitable. Every peak of a phrase is met with Di Stefano’s singular pianissimo singing, the tenor even giving a glorious diminuendo at one point. It just builds and builds, the lament growing unbearable to the singer.

“Un furtiva Lagrima” – L’Elisir d’Amore

When it comes to bel canto, almost anything suffices for Di Stefano (except maybe Rossini), because the tenor’s voice was built for that kind of singing. But we go with arguably the most famous aria in the bel canto repertoire because Di Stefano delivers a performance tinged with melancholy and excitement. We can feel Nemorino smiling just from listening to the brightness of sound. Even the diminuendo at the end of the first stanza feels like Nemorino cherishing that one instant where he saw Adina cry. The richness of sound matches the abundance of joy that feels like it is about to explode at any moment. When Donizetti’s music finally allows for that emotional climax to come through, Di Stefano arrives with a riveting crescendo that brings the listener to pure elation.

“Salut demeure” – Faust

If you know Di Stefano’s art, then you know why this selection is included on this list. And it does come down to one note – a high C to be specific. The aria itself is beautifully sung, Di Stefano in his finest voice and growing in intensity as the aria develops. You could sense the growing passion and tenderness of Faust with each passing phrasing until he finally gets to that apex, with which he does the impossible. Rudolf Bing is said to have claimed it one of his memorable moments at the Met. Few other tenors have ever done it and some of the greatest who have attempted it have failed. Di Stefano’s diminuendo is simply put, one of the most incredible musical moments for any tenor. And it is right there. It expresses longing, desire, and tenderness in a moment that seemingly lasts for quite some time.

 “La Donna e Mobile” – Rigoletto

There are a number of different sections from this opera that you could probably include, but the famous Verdi tune was the choice since because at times it feels as if this aria was made for Di Stefano’s warm and elegant sound. Listening to his singing, the first impression one gets is that he is playing and having a blast singing this. He throws in diminuendos and crescendi on notes as he wills it. He slows the tempi at times to accent certain text, especially in the second verse, subverting audience expectations, and manipulating us to follow his lead, much the way the Duca does throughout the opera. And while one of the high notes isn’t perfectly in tune, that final High B is simply sublime. In the below recording, the tenor repeats the aria with the same charm and ever-fascinating phrasing.

“Ah si ben mio” – Il Trovatore

 Il Trovatore is often performed by tenors with starkly dramatic voices and heft, clearly with the challenges of “Di Quella Pira” in mind. But Manrico isn’t just a warrior. He’s also a troubadour gypsy. Many tenors tend to emphasize the former instead of the latter in spite of the fact that Verdi gives the character a rather lyric opening aria and a number of passages that showcase his need to sing with delicate vocal colors. One of those is “Ah Si ben mio,” one long rising legato line after another. And Di Stefano, while injecting the aria with intense desperation is able to remind us that beneath the rugged warrior is a gentle soul who may be seeing the love of his life for the last time in his life. Di Stefano’s driving force adds to the torture that Manrico feels, all while maintaining an elegance of line, a reminder of the character’s dual nature. 

“No, Pagliaccio non son” – Pagliacci

While you might have your opinions on whether Di Stefano’s lyric tenor should be going anywhere near this rep, there is no doubt that his risk-taking pays off in spades in the recordings with Maria Callas. The two were always sensational partners and their interplay in the final scene of Leoncavallo’s masterpiece is one of the most visceral sparring matches put to operatic record (ditto for the “Tosca” mentioned previously). What is fascinating about Di Stefano here is how he goes from the gorgeous lyricism in halfway through the scene and then we here the phrasing slowly grow more accented, the tenor pushing his voice more and more to the brink. We feel the character unravel simply through the singing. Nothing is overlooked, every phrase more violent than the last, and even the climactic notes, while comfortable for the tenor, are more and more visceral in their execution climaxing in a self-loathing “La Commedia e finita.”

 What is your favorite Di Stefano moment? Let us know in the comments below!

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One Response

  1. Having discovered Pippo when I was 12 years of age and actually hearing and meeting him in person following a Met performance I can attest to the impact his unique artistry and persons had on me and everyone in the audience who were in thrall to his performance.
    For many interesting observations and commentary I refer your readers to this link http://medicine-opera.com/?s=Giuseppe+Di+stefano.

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