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Giuseppe Di Stefano:  in Memoriam (GF)

Almost to the day half a year after the demise of Luciano Pavarotti, his older tenor colleague Giuseppe Di Stefano passed away on 3 March 2008. Pavarotti openly declared his admiration for Di Stefano, whom he tried to emulate, not so much in voice character but in the whole-hearted involvement in everything that he sang.

Giuseppe Di Stefano was born on 24 July 1921 in a village near Catania in Sicily. He made his operatic debut in 1946 at Reggio Emilia – the same place where Pavarotti made his debut fifteen years later. There as well as at his La Scala debut a year later he sang Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon, a role that suited his beautiful lyric tenor to perfection. Within another year he bowed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as the Duke in Rigoletto and was a mainstay in New York for years to come. His British debut was in Edinburgh in 1957 and he eventually came to Covent Garden in 1961. Bu then his voice was already in decline, due to ill-advised choice of too heavy roles too early in his career, but also to in some respects faulty technique. His open delivery of high fortissimo notes, which can be heard on many of his recordings, took its toll and the intensity of his readings too often exposed him to overloading the voice. His earliest recordings, from November and December 1947, including arias from Manon, Mignon, Tosca and L’Arlesiana, have rarely been surpassed for tonal beauty and elegant phrasing, but just a few years into the 1950s it is possible to detect tear and wear to the voice, a pinched quality to some notes under strain and sometimes a bleating sound. But just as often he was able to make superb performances and only a couple of days before his death was announced I listened to the complete recordings of Il trovatore and Un ballo in maschera, both recorded within a few weeks in the autumn of 1956 with Maria Callas as the heroine, and in both recordings he was in splendid shape.

It was as stage partner to Maria Callas that he became best known and they mutually triggered each other to give their best. They also sang in concert and recorded ten complete operas together.

By the mid-1960s Di Stefano’s operatic career was practically over, but he sang some operetta and as late as 1992 he appeared as the Emperor in Turandot

In November 2004 he was seriously injured after an attack by unknown perpetrators in his home in Diani Beach, Kenya. His condition was critical for quite some time and after operations he was flown to a hospital in Milan. It was also there that he died.

Giuseppe Di Stefano will be remembered as one of the most charming and intense lyric tenors of the late 1940s and the greater part of the 1950s. The honeyed pianissimo and the perfect enunciation were his hallmarks. Besides the ten operas with Callas there is also a splendid L’Elisir d’amore (Decca), Madama Butterfly with
Victoria de los Angeles, La traviata with Antonietta Stella and a late Tosca with Leontyne Price, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, which is almost on a par with the famous recording with Callas, Gobbi and Victor De Sabata. Lovers of Neapolitan songs will also be richly rewarded when searching Di Stefano’s discography.

Personally,  the duet Teco io sto from the second act of Un ballo in maschera, with Di Stefano and Callas, will forever stand out as some of the most passionate moments ever recorded. There we find much of the essence of the art of Giuseppe Di Stefano.

Göran Forsling

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