Giuseppe di Stefano, 1921–2008

How could he?, they seem to say. In obituary after obituary, one reads how tenor Guiseppe di Stefano squandered his voice. Too much smoking, too much drinking, too much shouting at late-night parties, they declare. It's almost as though opera lovers feel betrayed, unable to forgive an artist who abused such glorious gifts so early in his career.

Thank goodness, the recordings are here, in abundance. On them we find proof that, from the end of World War II through the mid-1950s, Giuseppe di Stefano was the finest native Italian operatic tenor to emerge since Beniamino Gigli (1890–1957). On a MYTO CD, mistakenly titled Giuseppe di Stefano a Chicago–1950, we can hear him live in San Francisco in first bloom, partnered in some selections by no less than Renata Tebaldi, Bidu Sayao, and Lily Pons. The recording captures di Stefano's remarkable (if not perfectly executed) diminuendo on the ecstatic high C climax of Faust's glorious aria, "Salut! Demeure chaste et pure."

The feat so astounded Metropolitan Opera General Manager Rudolf Bing, when he heard di Stefano sing the aria during the 1949–1950 season, that he described it in his memoir as "the most spectacular single moment" he had ever experienced in the opera house. "I shall never forget the beauty of that sound," he wrote in 1972.

By the time Bing published his memoirs, di Stefano is believed to have kindled a love affair with his ex-operatic partner, Maria Callas. Perhaps the desperation of their affair propelled them to undertake their ill-fated final world recital tour of 1972–1973. If the ample recorded evidence shows Callas in sad decline, it reveals di Stefano's voice tattered beyond repair.

Giuseppe di Stefano was born on July 24, 1921 in the small Sicilian village of Motta Santa Anastasia. After spending his childhood in Milan, the former choirboy abandoned studies for the priesthood when he fell for a young seamstress who had dropped by his home to pick up some fabric. Not long thereafter, he won a national singing contest, along with a scholarship to train in opera. Although he was drafted into the Italian army before he could begin his career, he was spared from death on the Russian front by an opera-loving commander, who gave him a medical dispensation to insure that he would survive to sing.

Sing he did, first as a pop entertainer in movie theaters between feature films. After the war, he made his opera debut in Italy in 1946. Invitations to major houses quickly followed. He debuted at the Met in 1948. Four years later, when he failed to show up on time for rehearsal, Bing banished him from the house for three years. Although Bing had a proclivity for banishment—he dismissed Helen Traubel for singing in a nightclub, and subsequently fired Björling and Callas—the dismissal certainly opened di Stefano to charges of irresponsible recklessness.

On a two-CD EMI compilation, The Very Best of Giuseppe di Stefano, we can hear the voice in its prime. Some of the earliest selections, from 1947, show the essential lyric beauty of the voice. They also exhibit di Stefano's exemplary diction and bountiful passion. That passion—raw and thrilling—made for great theater. But it also overwhelmed discretion, impelling him to take risks.

Too early in his career, di Stefano undertook heavy roles that required him to muscle his voice into full-throated exclamation above the stave. By the late 1950s, we begin to hear him backing off from the microphone on high notes, replacing natural vibrato with straight-toned, eventually shouted high Bs and Cs.

As late as his 1962 Karajan-conducted Tosca with Leontyne Price, he retained the ability to emit meltingly soft, sweet notes lower in the range. But compare his 1962 performances of Cavaradossi's two great arias, "Recondita armonia" and "E lucevan le stele," with those on the irreplaceable 1953 Tosca with Callas, and you too may mourn what was lost so early.

In 1963, after singing one performance of La Bohème at Covent Garden, di Stefano was replaced by a young, barely-known tenor named Luciano Pavarotti. It only got worse after that.

Di Stefano's final years read like a tragic opera. In 2004, the octogenarian was severely injured at his villa in Kenya while trying to defend his wife from thieves intent on stealing her necklace. Struck in the head, he was operated on twice for severe concussion, but never regained the ability to feed himself. He died in his sleep on March 3 at his home in Santa Maria Hoe, north of Milan. He is survived by his wife and son, and a treasure chest of glorious recordings.