Giuseppe Di Stefano (1920 – 2008) Part 2

By 1955 Di Stefano threw vocal caution to the wind. He was idolized by part of La Scala spectators and his passionate acting and singing made him a special favourite. Therefore general manager Ghiringhelli had no problem in casting the tenor in a heavy role as Don José (Simionato being Carmen and Karajan conducting).  Di Stefano continued in the same vein when he sang Riccardo for the first time one month later in Rome. And two months later he tackled a heavy spinto role as Alvaro. When La Scala asked him to return to a real lirico role as Alfredo he initially refused and Ghiringhelli had to promise a few dramatic parts and a season’s opening as well. Of course Di Stefano considered himself a star of such magnitude that he was afraid of being a lesser light in a new production that would make the name of Callas even better known. The soprano had been asking for four years that La Scala would put on the opera and Ghiringhelli had deferred as long as possible; just to prove that after all he was the boss and not the American soprano. But finally he relented and as a director he engaged Lucchino Visconti; a descendant of the lords that had once ruled the whole of Lombardy. Though Visconti was only known for directing some famous movies (and for using very coarse language, being rich and a member of the Italian caviar lefties) he knew opera very well. His grandfather was the boss of La Scala at the time of some famous premières like Andrea Chénier. Di Stefano immediately detested Visconti as he concentrated all his energy on Callas, almost analysing the opera to death. And as conductor Giulini and Callas were always conferring too on the smallest possible details of interpretation so the tenor was bored to death. Visconti only spoke more than one sentence with the tenor at the moment he explained why he wanted Di Stefano to stand with his back to the audience. The tenor replied with a “I sing with my mouth and not with my bum”. At the première a scandal erupted behind the scenes. Ghiringhelli allowed Callas to take solo bows at the end of each act  without telling Di Stefano or Ettore Bastianini. At the end of the opera Di Stefano told Callas she could have  all the bows in her  later performances as he refused to sing one other performance. Then he left La Scala in a Sicilian rage which nobody took very seriously as tantrums by famous singers belonged to the still existing traditions in Italian opera houses. And indeed, a few months later tenor and soprano recorded Rigoletto for Columbia in La Scala as if nothing had happened. And as the tenor always was in need of money he returned to the role of Alfredo as well, though in front of a mike and with a new Violetta, Antonietta Stella ( Callas had recorded the role for Cetra and couldn’t rerecord it in a span of less than 5 years). Di Stefano was one of the tenors with an escape clause in his recording contract that allowed him to record for other firms than EMI. Thus he made his début for Decca in a fine recording of Elisir d’Amore with Hilde Gueden. And with Ghiringhelli everything was once more OK as La Scala sent the couple Di Stefano-Callas to Berlin to perform Lucia, conducted by Karajan.

“Never say never again” is one of the slogans of the operatic world and even an austere disciplinarian as Rudolf Bing of the Met put on with it and engaged Di Stefano once again at the end of 1955 beginning of 1956. La Scala kept its promise and that year he got the extremely demanding role of Canio with Petrella and Protti. There exists a live recording and it ought to be heard to be believed. Di Stefano sings, shouts, sobs his way through the role and the listener is probably as exhausted at the end of the recording as the tenor was at the end of the performance. This is a major voice that is on its way to total destruction but at the same time his interpretation is heart-wrenching and La Scala goes berserk. A few months later there is a record of his Alvaro at the Maggio Fiorentina (with Tebaldi) and a very veristic interpretation it is. He uses the last ounce of energy he has in his body to make  inflated sounds and one fears for his vocal cords. One hears the results of his forcing in the coarser sound in his summer recordings (Ballo, Bohème, Trovatore: all with Callas. Trovatore is and never will be in his repertoire but he substitutes for Tucker who refused to sing with the former nazi Karajan. Tucker was not sued for his breach of contract as EMI feared a boycott of sales in the USA if the story leaked out). Ghiringhelli kept another promise when he gave the season’s opening of La Scala to Di Stefano and once more in a far too heavy role for his lyric voice: Radames. The general manager once more contacted Visconti to direct the new production but the director immediately and categorically refused when he heard he had to work with Di Stefano and Stella.

There is a pattern in Di Stefano’s performances from the mid-fifties till the early sixties. Winter and springtime he is usually to be found at La Scala or Rome and Naples. Gradually he performs a lot too in Vienna as his relations with Karajan are good and as Vienna has one attractive advantage: the casino at Baden. A lot of well-known tenors have the well-known hobbies of collecting fast cars and fast women. To these two extra-musical favourites Di Stefano adds a third vice: gambling and not for peanuts. In summer the tenor takes a long holiday though he often goes into the recording studio. In 1957 this resulted in a rather rough performance of Manon Lescaut. He and partner Callas were in not particularly good voice and the recording stays in the vaults of EMI for several years. When Callas needs ready cash (Di Stefano is always in need of money) during the first stages of her divorce with Meneghini she agrees to the release. Manon Lescaut is the last Di Stefano recording for EMI and means the end of his exclusivity contract with the firm. We still don’t know if Walter Legge of EMI was tired of his antics or if Di Stefano preferred other and richer pastures: probably the latter as even a producer with not much feeling for Italian opera as Legge was, couldn’t be happy with the wretched performances of Callas last recording tenors (late Tagliavini and Miranda Ferraro). Salvation would come with Franco Corelli joining EMI but by that time Callas had little voice left. Anyway, Di Stefano joined Decca and at the same time Decca’s American commercial partner at the time RCA. Decca had Mario Del Monaco while RCA’s star tenor was Jussi Björling. But this still left room enough for Di Stefano as Björling was always too lazy to record parts which he didn’t know from his stage performances. Therefore Di Stefano got the part of Enzo Grimaldi, principe di Santa Fior in the new RCA Gioconda with Milanov in 1957. Next year  he recorded with almost the same partners La Forza del Destino; another role Björling didn’t like to learn. And at Decca Di Stefano sang Faust in the recording of Mefistofele. During the sessions he gradually lost his voice so that he was unable to continue. By that time some people at Decca started to have doubts and next year the big boss’ favourite tenor Mario Del Monaco recorded the tenor part which was spliced in together with parts of the earlier recording without Di Stefano. In the eighties Decca produced an LP with the parts of Di Stefano that could be saved from the wreckage of his performance.

At the end of 1958 Di Stefano once more opened La Scala though this would be his last opening night in Milan. And once more he sang a role his essentially lyric tenor was not suited too: Kalaf in Turandot. The title role was sung by Birgit Nilsson who remembered that rehearsal after rehearsal was postponed as signor Di Stefano didn’t turn up. But when he finally appeared he was Mr. Charming himself though he didn’t make excuses for his absences. He continued in the same vein with another role one measure too big for the voice:  Andrea Chénier in Rome. Spring of 1959 he mainly sang at La Scala and Rome though by that stage of his career his artistic discipline had completely gone. As he was extremely popular with the audiences those houses didn’t dare to throw him overboard but they took precautions. In those days La Scala didn’ have cover singers as (unless the Metropolitan in New York) there were still a lot of tenors living at a few minutes time from the theatre. A last minute cancellation would at most mean a few minutes delay. The exception was a Di Stefano performance. Ghiringhelli didn’t take risks anymore. There had to be a tenor ready in the wings who could immediately go on stage if “caro Pippo’ decided on the spot that life was not ‘simpatico’ anymore. By 1959 too everybody in the business knew the tenor’s gambling habits and when the devil came over him he would leave for one of the many casino’s at the Italian and French Riviera where ‘il cantante giocatore’ was very welcome for days and nights. Another of his habits too probably had some influence of his vocal state. He usually didn’t bother to use matches as he preferred to use the butt of a cigarette to light the next one. Many years later he told the story he got his vocal problems from the floor tapestries in his new San Siro-villa in Milan while forgetting to mention his cigarettes, his drinking and his gambling. As a result he only gave 11 performances at la Scala during the spring of 1959. His fans were enraged that the theatre didn’t give ‘Pippo’ more chances as in their eyes he was blameless. There are among those performances a few ones which were not broadcasted and not recorded by pirates. A pity as even in those days he probably made something special from a role which is never sung by a major Italian tenor: Jenik in Smetana’s Prodana Nevesta. Thereafter La Scala was glad to be rid of him and the tenor made the Vienna Staatsoper his artistic home for a time. There too his generous singing, his passionate behaviour on the scene made him extremely popular. And there too he was not above shamelessly exploiting his popularity by indulging his vices. Vienna had to take some precautions as well. Here too a tenor had always to be ready to stand in and not only at the beginning but even at the end of a Di Stefano performance. Singers were paid their fee during the intermezzo and a few times Di Stefano took the money and miraculously lost his voice on the spot. He then left the house to drive to the Baden casino. Vienna therefore started to pay him at the end of a performance and not in the middle of one. And comprimario Giuseppe Zampieri made quite a career thanks to the many times he was asked to substitute for the “ailing” Di Stefano. Still as long as the voice had sheen Vienna and La Scala engaged the tenor again and again.
Sometimes Di Stefano replied in kindness. Ildebrando Pizzetti, the grand old man of Italian opera, had once more tried to compose an opera that would make a mark in the iron repertoire (and once more, due to his morose style and lack of melodic ideas failed): Il Calzare d’ Argento. His hopes were that Mario Del Monaco would sing the role but the tenor had more sense and for once it was Di Stefano that came to the rescue: the only world première he would ever sing. Later he would even sing it at the Naples San Carlo where a live recording was made and he recorded an aria on an official DG recital.

In the early sixties it is clear that his career is slowly going down hill. More and more one reads he was singing at places like Bergamo, Treviso, Fermo, San Remo (granted, there is a magnificent casino), Livorno etc. Decca records a few recitals of ‘canzone’ but didn’t trust him with complete performances anymore unless the moment Björling left the sessions of Un Ballo due to the high handed tactics of conductor Solti. Then Decca asked Di Stefano to take over but the tenor couldn’t or wouldn’t and so Decca had to eat humble pie and ask Carlo Bergonzi. RCA too preferred Richard Tucker and Di Stefano only got a selection of Manon with Anna Moffo. Thanks to the tenor’s relationship with Karajan he however got the Tosca in septermber 1962 with Leontyne Price and Giuseppe Taddei. It is a terrific performance: one that in this writer’s opinion could have surpassed the Callas-Di Stefano-Gobbi recording of 1953 if there had been another…tenor. The comparison with his earlier performance is somewhat painful. The voice has audibly coarsened though the timbre is still Di Stefano’s (and will remain so to the end). But the piano has now disappeared. The voice sounds either loud or very loud or uses crooning. Di Stefano sounds laboured and the lightness of the voice has disappeared. He aspirates a lot too. He always pretended he had no real passaggio but everything above the stave sounds more and more forced and he doesn’t cover. As a result he uses such open sounds that the listener almost shrinks back at the raw aaa or oooo sounds. What reminds one still of the old Di Stefano is his exemplary pronunciation. He always talked about his handling of ‘la parola scenica’ and one can indeed almost study Italian with his recordings. Anyway by 1962 he has become old hat and no label will ever ask him again to record a complete opera.

From now it’s downhill which will result in a few embarrassing moments. Originally La Scala has asked him to sing Rodolfo in a new Bohème-production by Zeffirelli. As always he appears too late after several rehearsals have already started. He notices that Gianni Raimondi is rehearsing and is sure that this tenor will know his place and leave La Scala now the real maestro has appeared. No way. Di Stefano is paid the contractual 6 performances and asked to leave the theatre. Raimondi will sing the performances early 1963. It is a scandal that is fully exploited by the Italian press. Karajan somewhat lamely explains that Di Stefano has no real C anymore  which is true but the conductor had no problems with a high B the year before when Corelli asked him to lower Di quella pira a full tone. In reality Karajan and Ghiringhelli don’t trust Di Stefano with that new and expensive production anymore and for Gianni Raimondi who has been singing almost as long as Di Stefano this is finally the great breakthrough as he will get the movie with Freni and Panerai as well (now on DVD). Di Stefano takes the money and sings in Palermo, Genève, Genova and Dublin and then once more runs into heavy weather. In October he can prove he is still a major singer and an excellent Rodolfo at Covent Garden. After one performance he leaves. The casting director has taken her precautions and engaged a young tenor to cover for Di Stefano. He gets all the other performances plus a television concert, initially meant for his older colleague. Thanks to Di Stefano’s defection operatic Britain meets Luciano Pavarotti. Exactly one month later the tenor is once more the star of several press articles though this time he is not completely to blame. He is singing Riccardo in Philadelphia and is almost ready to go on stage when his eye meets the programme. He cannot almost believe what he sees. There is a full page photograph of Franco Corelli with the capture “alleged to be the greatest tenor in the world”. The culprit is Corelli’s manager who has succeeded to get the advertisement in the programme to announce the tenor’s appearance later in the season. Nevertheless it is either stupid or naïve to accept such an ad. Di Stefano screams his head off, asks (correctly) if one can imagine a programme by the Met with an ad telling Price is the greatest soprano in the world on an evening Tebaldi is performing and then he and his wife leave in a rage. He is followed by the management and the rage plus the management’s sorry continue on the parking lot. In the meantime a lot of spectators for the performance follow the spectacle with intensity. Di Stefano is already at the wheel of his car when a policeman tells him he is so sad he will not hear his favourite tenor. Di Stefano relents somewhat and has the management promise it will collect all programmes. Several thousands of programmes are put into Di Stefano’s dressing room and the tenor is satisfied. At the merest hint of applause he steps out of his role. When he takes his final bows the ushers are entering his dressing room and they collect the programmes, handing them out when the spectators leave the theatre.

I’ve already written ‘never say never again’ and beginning 1964 Di Stefano is back at La Scala for a few Elisir-performances. Mario Del Monaco is still suffering from the consequences of a very bad car crash (which hampers the functions of his kidneys and will finally take his life in 1977) and cannot sing Wagner’s Rienzi. Di Stefano is so nice to replace him….more or less. Raina Kabaivanska who sings Irene later calls these performances an outright travesty as Di Stefano hasn’t bothered to study his role and there are long cuts. La Scala thanks the tenor and tells him the theatre can do without him…for the time being. Still he has a big name and time and again theatres will book him and take the risk. In Vienna he is still popular and he remains the biggest fan of the casino as well. Even Rudolf Bing offers him a series of performances at the Met of Contes d’Hoffmann. The first performance is such a disaster that the tenor is immediately substituted by John Alexander. So back to Vienna and the Baden casino. In 1966 Di Stefano tries to commit vocal suicide when he tackles the role of Otello in Pasadena. Tito Gobbi who is the director speaks in his memoir of “Pippo’ being frightened and frightening. Here too there is not a second performance. Still there is a tape of the general rehearsal and though the lyrical voice of Di Stefano is surely overtaxed and cannot stand comparison in those days when Del Monaco, Vickers and McCracken sang the role there is still something appealing in the sound. The story of his cancelling once more after a bad première does the rounds and his agenda becomes somewhat empty. He even agrees to take part in the pop festival of San Remo as a way to fill his days. Then some Berlin entrepreneurs come to the rescue. They are looking for a big name to sing Sou-Chong in Lehar’s Das Land des Lächelns  and that Di Stefano’s German is not very state of the art is not a big problem. He can learn his lines by heart and an exotic accent is not strange for a Chinese  prince. And they pay extremely well. The unbelievable happens. He keeps his manners, is disciplined and sings 97 performances; the longest run ever in his career. La Scala is even impressed and he once more gets a last chance though in a role not very suited to his talents: Nerone in L’incoronazione di Poppea.

After La Scala he gives a concert in Ghent on the 8th of March 1967 and that’s where I heard him in the flesh. It was a gala concert together with Rita Gorr (their Ai nostri monti is often requested by other collectors), Renato Capecchi and Berit Lindholm. Of course he hadn’t warmed up and he cracked on his first La Fanciulla-aria. But one still noticed the velvet on the voice and the charisma of the singer.

Jan Neckers, Operanostalgia