Mario Del Monaco (Florence July 27, 1915 - October 16, 1982 in Mestre) was an Italian tenor and is regarded by his admirers as being one of the greatest dramatic tenors of the 20th Century.
Del Monaco was born to a musical upper-class Florentine family. As a young boy he studied the violin but had a passion for singing. He graduated from the Rossini Conservatory at Pesaro, where he first met and sang with Renata Tebaldi, with whom he would form something of an operatic dream team of the 1950s. His early mentors as a singer included Milocchi, his teacher at Pesaro, and Maestro Raffaelli, who recognized his talent and helped launch his career.
That career began in earnest with Del Monaco's debut on December 31, 1940, as Pinkerton at the Puccini Theater in Milan. (His initial appearance in an opera had occurred the previous year, however, in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana at Pasero.) He sang in Italy during the Second World War and married, in 1941, Rina Filipini. In 1946, he appeared at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for the first time. During the ensuing years he became famous not only in London but also across the operatic world for his powerful, metallic voice. It was heldentenor-like in scope but Del Monaco was no Wagnerian, confining his activities overwhelmingly to the Italian repertoire.
Del Monaco sang at the New York Metropolitan Opera from 1951 to 1959, enjoying particular success in Verdi parts such as Radames. He established himself as one of the Italian tenor "superstars" of the 1950s and '60s, along with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi and Franco Corelli. His trademark roles during this period were Giordano's Andrea Chenier and Verdi's Otello. He first tackled Otello in 1950 and kept refining his interpretation throughout his career. It is said that he sang Otello an astonishing 427 times. However, the book published by Elisabetta Romagnolo, Mario Del Monaco, Monumentum aere perennius, Azzali 2002, lists only 218 appearances by him as Otello, which is a more realistic figure. Aptly, the tenor was buried in his Otello costume.
Del Monaco made his first recordings in Milan in 1948 for HMV. Later, he was partnered by Tebaldi in a long series of Verdi and Puccini operas recorded for Decca. On the same label was his 1969 recording of Giordano's Fedora, opposite Magda Olivero and Tito Gobbi.
In 1975 he retired from stage.
He was a good-looking man, and his ringing voice and virile appearance earned him the nickname of the "Brass Bull of Milan". Despite his idomatic phrasing, he was still widely criticized for being unsubtle and unyielding in his vocal interpretations. In this regard, the soprano Magda Olivero noted in a recent interview (
"When del Monaco and I sang Francesca da Rimini together at La Scala [in 1959] he explained his whole vocal technique to me. When he finished I said, My dear del Monaco, if I had to put into practice all the things youve told me, Id stop singing right away and just disappear. The technique was so complicated: you push the larynx down, then you push this up, then you do that—in short, it made my head spin just to hear everything he did.
"We recorded Francesca excerpts together [in 1969]. Francesca has a beautiful phrase, Paolo, datemi pace, marked piano, and then Paolo enters with Inghirlandata di violette, which also should be sung softly, delicately. Instead, del Monaco was terrible—he bellowed the phrase [she imitates him and laughs]! When he listened to the playback he exclaimed, I cant believe it! After that soft poetic phrase I come in and what do I sound like—a boxer punching with his fists! He recorded the phrase again, but the second attempt was more or less the same because he was incapable of singing piano. He was furious with himself because he wanted to. He tried everything, but his technique would not permit him to sing softly since it totally was based on the muscles."
Del Monaco belonged to a once flourishing lineage of dramatic tenors born in Italy. Famous predecessors of his included Francesco Tamagno, Francesco Signorini, Giuseppe Borgatti, Giovanni Zenatello, Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana, Bernardo De Muro, Giovanni Martinelli and Francesco Merli, among others. His present-day Italian successor has yet to appear.