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29 Dec 2005
Mario Del Monaco at the Bolshoi
Myto has the good sense to call a spade a spade. This is an issue exclusively meant for the Del Monaco-crowd and not for people wanting a Carmen or a Pagliacci. The set has one enormous quality: a brilliant natural sound that hides nothing and doesn’t change the balance of the voices.
More than official Decca sets, where voices often were somewhat equalized, it shows the power of the tenor’s voice which often overwhelms most of the others on the scene. Pavel Lisitsian, who is a bit of a cult figure among Western collectors as he was so rarely allowed to leave the Soviet Union — one Met-performance in an untypical Amonasro-role — shows a fine though very idiosyncratically coloured voice; but it is clear from this recording that the voice is less powerful than on records. And one notes too that though the top is brilliant there are almost no low notes and his voice is simply not at ease in this role which better suits a bass-baritone. Irina Maslennikova as Micaëla has a rather small shrill lower middle voice and is dwarfed by Del Monaco but gets stronger the higher she sings. The only person on the scene who could give Del Monaco tit for tat is the formidable Irina Archipova, though as a result she sometimes forces the voice and becomes rather vulgar.
By 1960 decades of isolation resulted in Soviet singers more and more going for noise than for musicality. Lemeshev, Kozlovsky, Obukova all studied before the war; often with teachers who themselves had lived through extensive contacts in the West. By the time Archipova studied most of those teachers were deceased and almost no Western records were available. An exception to that rule were the movies by Mario Lanza and Mario Del Monaco, as Soviet censure considered them to be completely harmless. And a lot of Soviet singers took their clues from these examples.
And it was not the La Scala visit of 1964 with Carlo Bergonzi that changed Russian perception on Western singing. After all only members of the party’s nomenclatura got tickets for those much heralded performances; but ordinary Russians didn’t go crazy for Bergonzi, as he was just another tenor and not a star like Mario Del Monaco who had played the title role in Italy’s answer to Lanza’s The Great Caruso (in reality he only lent his voice) and in those popular movies on Verdi , Mascagni and that German pot boiler “Schlussakkord”. Therefore the coming of Del Monaco to Moscow was a major event in 1959 and the tenor met all expectations as he gave them what they thought was the one essential element of tenor singing: strong top notes, kept on as long as possible.
Del Monaco must have felt he was returning to his early days. At that time every high note in the Italian province theatre was still roundly applauded, if necessary in the middle of an aria or a duet and the Muscovites can easily compete with many an Italian theatre. As a result Del Monaco, who even at his best behaviour was always milking for applause, feels no restraint at all. There is of course no denying the richness of the sound, the formidable beauty when he remembers to sing like he did in some of his best moments with strong conductors. But time and again the coarseness takes over and he often uses an ugly glottal stop. In the second act he really has a field day, changing from Italian to French and vice versa whatever part of the role he remembers best in one of these languages. And that fine conductor Melik Pashaev has the great honour to accompany the tenor and keep the orchestra in check so that it patiently waits for the moment Del Monaco has finished his note and it can proceed further. Anyway, the Russians at the time were wildly happy as proven by the well-known video-recording of this performance (2nd and 4th act only).
The Pagliacci of a week later is stylistically better as he can sing in his own language in a role that will accept some sobs. And sob he does whenever he has the opportunity. And once again he is above all showing off his volume and his top notes. “Vesti la giubba” starts off really well, showing the intrinsic beauty of the voice in his last year of grace as all real Del Monacistis will agree with. But then, just after his “Ridi Pagliaccio” he breaks the line in “sul tua amore infranto” by taking a deep breath between “amore” and “infranto” just to score an extra-decibel on that last word. His “No, Pagliaccio non son” starts well and even a little bit restrained; but in the middle section of “Sperai, tanto il delirio” he simply reverts to shouting. The end of the opera is well worth hearing. Del Monaco has decided to improve the score and correct Leoncavallo’s forgetfulness. After “La commedia è finite” his shouts of Nedda followed by magnificent sobs repeated for half a minute probably led to her resurrection. This time Leocadia (and not Irina) Maslennikova has the honour of assisting the tenor and she has a metallic strong voice. The Tonio, Alex Ivanov, was probably a KGB-informer as I see no other reason why he got this role. He is wretchedly bad, more speaking in a dry tone, than singing.
The bonus is spread over two CD’s and is a recital Del Monaco recorded for Melodia on a ten-inch record. The arias from Otello, Tosca and Pagliacci are fine though he has sung them better for Decca; especially the Pagliacci-prologue but I’m sure Del Monaco-lovers will definitely enjoy the Moscow-version with a big “hahahaha” in the middle of the aria. And I’m surprised that Myto, always looking for the best sound possible, couldn’t find a better copy of that record as there is a giant tick in the middle of the recording that makes you sit up.