A man sits on the battlements of a prison, deep in thought. In the distance the sound of shepherd boys can be heard, their clear voices filling the starlit sky. Dawn is imminent. In less than an hour the man will be shot.
What thoughts go through a man’s mind at such a time?
If the man is Mario Cavaradossi and the opera is Tosca, the memories he is filled with and overwhelmed by are those of lost love in fragrant gardens, of soft kisses and tender caresses … of the despair he feels at his imminent demise, yet the poignancy that never - at this moment of death - has he loved life so much!
Such is the material of Puccini’s much-loved aria ‘E Lucevan le Stelle’ (‘And the Stars were Shining’); such a song demands a singer who not only knows his stuff, but one who can deliver to the listener in one performance both that despair and the love of life. Last Sunday night a judging panel of two convened in my lounge to explore every singer in our collection to judge what they made of such a moment. I give you here the fruits of our survey – the finalists of ‘Italian Idol.’
The contenders were many: ‘E Lucevan’ is amongst the most recorded of all Italian arias, every top tenor worth his salt has a version in his repertoire, and most were entered in our contest. Pavarotti was tried: the voice was gorgeous, but as my fellow judge suggested, “Why does he not do more with it?” Perhaps, I thought, he was saving it for something – maybe for a long career?
Next we tried Guiseppe di Stefano in two different recordings, one with Maria Callas and the orchestra of La Scala and the other with Leontyne Price conducted by the brilliance of Herbert von Karajan. A truly luminous voice and beautifully tender, the first of these quickly made itself a contender and became the standard by which other contenders were judged. The second, sorry to say, was too tired to score well - the singer had clearly suffered a long night himself, but the conductor was first rate! This version immediately became the standard by which other conductors were judged; Karajan’s orchestra had captured in music the drama and poignancy of the moment – there would be no other to touch him.
Benjamino Gigli was played. Lyrical and gorgeous he was, but the judges declared it too delicate for our stalwart prisoner. Mario del Monaco had strength, but was a little stentorian in passages. Josef Schmidt was pleasant but too light. Placido Domingo in two slightly nasal performances touched heights of beauty that had one judge enthused, but for this judge neither performance could beat de Stefano’s at La Scala for lyrical power.
On came Jussi Bjoerling to sing Mario’s last. A wonderful natural voice and achingly expressive, he very nearly had the judges in tears.
Wiping our faces, we examined which contestants were left to perform? There were two: Jose Carreras singing Tosca with Monserrat Caballe under Colin Davis, and Mario Lanza singing the aria in 1950 as part of a session for his Great Caruso album.
Jose’s singing was tremendous; he made one feel as if you were on those battlements with him. Or he would have, but for one thing: an appalling production decision has left echo all over his voice – as if we are hearing him from several miles away. Galt knows why such decisions are made, but it removed Carreras from the contest.
So with di Stefano still holding the lead, Mario Lanza entered the field. Wow! From the first few notes all other tenor contestants were in the shade. Here was power, beauty, lyricism and a wonderfully natural voice that seemed to just surge forth – what stupendous control just to restrain such an instrument. And what emotion! Mario Cavaradossi is a man still burning with life, but singing here of his last hour before dying; Mario Lanza alone of all the world’s great tenors makes us feel as if – truly – we are hearing a man sing each note as if it was his last one on earth.
This is an absolutely breathtaking performance. The tragedy is that we can never hear the man in a complete opera; all we have to savour are gems such as these. I bow to each of the performers, but to Lanza goes the prize.