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ClassicsOnline Home » DI STEFANO, Giuseppe: Neapolitan Songs (1953-1957)
One of the most charismatic stars of the post-war operatic stage, the Italian tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano made numerous recordings, and was especially renowned as the performing partner of the equally fiery soprano, Maria Callas. Having earned a precarious living as a singer of popular songs in Milan during World War Two, Di Stefano was also a highly accomplished singer of lighter music. This experience, allied with the natural richness of his tenor voice, made him a master of the Neapolitan Song, as may be heard in this collection of his recordings of the cream of the repertoire, made at the peak of his career.
By David Denton
Great Singers • Giuseppe Di Stefano
One of the most charismatic stars of the post-war operatic stage, the Italian tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano made numerous recordings, and was especially renowned as the performing partner of the equally fiery soprano, Maria Callas.
Born in 1921 into a poor family at Motta Sant’Anastasia near Catania, Di Stefano entered a seminary in 1934. After three years, a fellow student encouraged him to take singing lessons and he became a pupil successively of Adriano Torchio and Luigi Montesanto. He won a singing competition in Florence in 1938 but his career was interrupted briefly by the outbreak of war in 1939 and his conscription into the Italian army. Seen as being of greater value as a singer than a soldier, he was discharged and earned a precarious living as a singer of popular songs in Milan.
Following the German occupation of Italy, Di Stefano escaped to Switzerland, where he was briefly interned before being taken up as a tenor by Radio Lausanne. Here his repertoire extended from popular songs to complete operas. After the war he returned to Italy and made his official stage début in 1946 at Reggio Emilia as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon. In 1947 he took the same rôle at La Scala, Milan, where he enjoyed immediate success. He made his American début in 1948 as the Duke in Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and quickly went on to appear in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. He soon became one of the most sought-after tenors of his generation.
During the 1950s Di Stefano was a leading singer at La Scala and at the Metropolitan, although he was barred from the latter by Rudolf Bing between April 1952 and December 1955 because of his cavalier attitude to contracts. He sang for Walter Legge and the British Columbia label in numerous recordings undertaken with the forces of La Scala. The most famous of these was Puccini’s Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, with both of whom Di Stefano sang frequently, and conducted by Victor De Sabata. Other distinguished recorded rôles from this period included the Duke in Rigoletto and Arturo in I Puritani, both again with Callas and conducted by Tullio Serafin.
Di Stefano made his British début in 1957 as a member of the La Scala ensemble that visited the Edinburgh Festival, singing one of his most famous rôles, Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, a part he also recorded. In the same year he and Callas opened the 1957–58 season at La Scala with an account of Un ballo in maschera which is one of the most intense ever to have been committed to disc, officially or unofficially. He made his first appearance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1961 in Tosca, but by now time and good living had begun to take its toll on his voice. He made his final appearance at La Scala in 1972 in Carmen, after which he undertook some less than wholly successful recitals with Callas. He made his final stage appearance as the Emperor Altoum in Turandot with the Rome Opera in 1992. In addition to his operatic repertoire, Di Stefano was a highly accomplished singer of lighter music. He enjoyed success in operetta, recording the rôle of Prince Sou-Chong in highlights from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles with the forces of the Volksoper in Vienna. Despite his personal unpredictability, Di Stefano at his best ideally matched tonal warmth with dramatic conviction, and his many studio and live recordings represent a remarkable testimony to his art.
As a popular music genre the Neapolitan Song has a long and distinguished history, which stretches back formally to the operas of the early years of the nineteenth century and specifically to an annual songwriting competition instituted during the 1830s for the annual Festival of Piedigrotta, dedicated to the Madonna of Piedigrotta, a well-known church in the Mergellina area of Naples. The winner of the first festival was a song entitled Te voglio bene assaie, written by the opera composer, Gaetano Donizetti. The festival ran regularly until 1950, when it was abandoned. A subsequent Festival of Neapolitan Song on Italian state radio enjoyed some success in the 1950s but was eventually brought to a close as well. By this time the repertoire of the Neapolitan Song consisted of a large body of composed popular music, of which songs such as O sole mio , Marechiare , Torna a Surriento , Maria Marì  and Santa Lucia  were among the most famous examples. Neapolitan Songs were especially popular around the turn of the nineteenth century—one of the most successful composers of the genre, Francesco Paolo Tosti, was also singing master to the British royal family and was knighted by Edward VII.
A typical Neapolitan Song is sung by the male voice solo, and most frequently takes the form of a lover’s serenade to his beloved, or, conversely, is a lover’s complaint. Many of the Neapolitan Songs are world-famous because they were taken abroad by emigrants from Naples and southern Italy roughly between 1880 and 1920. The music was also popularised internationally by performers such as the world-famous operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, who took to singing the popular music of his native city as encores at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the early 1900s. A prolific recording artist, Caruso’s success meant that henceforth many operatic tenors have performed and recorded these songs to considerable acclaim, not least such great artists as Giovanni Martinelli, Tito Schipa and Giuseppe Di Stefano, as well as singers from many other walks of life.
Naples and her culture represent the core of Neapolitan Song. All these songs are written and performed in the Neapolitan dialect (Napulitano). In Santa Lucia, for instance, Naples is beautifully defined as: ‘suolo beato, ove sorridere volle il Creato’ (‘holy soil, smiled upon by the Creator’), and the Santa Lucia quarter of the city is called ‘impero dell’armonia’ (‘the empire of harmony’). Santa Lucia faces the Gulf of Naples and the lyrics are the words of the boatman describing the view: the night and the moon are reflected in the sea, and the boats on the sea sail softly, driven by the gentle breezes. The boatman invites people to board his boat, promising that they will admire both the sea and the city of Naples. With his direct experience of having earned his living as a singer of popular songs, allied to the natural richness of his tenor voice, Di Stefano was a master of the Neapolitan Song, as may be heard and appreciated in this collection of his recordings of the cream of the repertoire, made during his years of glory.
The original master tapes for these recordings contain overload distortion (particularly severe in the 1953 sessions), dropouts and a few noticeable splices which were not a function of the mint LP sources used for the present transfers.
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DI STEFANO, Giuseppe: Neapolitan Songs (1953-1957)