Sometimes recordings can open a window on the past. I’ve got a “new” CD, actually an old one that’s only new to me. Forgive me if I choose to write about something that’s not easily available but the CD immediately took me back decades to several powerful moments.
- One of my first live opera experiences, at the U of T Opera School (later the Opera Department)
- One of my most powerful moments ever playing for singers
- The first night of the Canadian Opera Company under Lotfi Mansouri
What or rather who do these three moments have in common? Tenor Ermanno Mauro.
#1, up close in the MacMillan Theatre of the Edward Johnson Building, Mauro’s voice was a powerful experience, in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. I remember very little except the visceral pressure of the voice in a space that seemed tiny when he let fly, an effortless sound, and my first real experience of a huge voice.
#2: Playing? I think it must have been the year my brother sang Schaunard with the Canadian Opera Company opposite Mauro as Rodolfo, and so Ermanno came to dinner at my mom’s house: where I still lived, a teenager. In Opera Viva (that wonderful and sometimes astonishing history of the COC by Ezra Schabas & Carl Morey), I see that it was in the autumn of 1972, when Peter was all of 23 singing on the COC’s mainstage, and Mauro? a mature singer ten years older than my brother with that huge voice. His Rodolfo could be lyrical, but from an instrument of such power. I’ve never heard anything like it before or since.
That 1972 experience (#2), one of the most powerful musical experiences of my young life, felt like I was riding a wild horse, playing the Otello vengeance duet while Peter & Ermanno sang. I played as loud as I could, barely able to hear the piano, while the two voices enveloped me, in my mom’s back-room. Afterwards I only recall the kindness of the man, so sweet to me while I had been struggling to keep up, sight-reading Verdi, turning pages, while these two amazing voices belted out music that I had recently heard and embraced from records. I was 17 and star-struck, but will never forget. Ermanno’s voice is remarkable, an ideal instrument honed for verismo, spinto singing. He can sing soft delicate phrases but has a direct sound and secure high notes. I hear a bit of Giuseppe di Stefano here (particularly in the gentle oh so Italianate pianissimo passages, a bit of James McCracken there (the vowel diphthongs, a sound we sometimes hear from American tenor Russell Thomas). But unlike di Stefano or McCracken the voice stayed together, the production impressive even in his maturity.
Listen to him sing Otello in this video, nearly 70 years old, and still an amazing voice.
#3 was a curious moment. The opening of the 1977 fall season, I was sitting in the cheap seats at the back of the O’Keefe Centre for the opening night of Don Carlos, as the COC got the jump on the Metropolitan Opera as the first company in North America to present the original five act version in French. While its acoustics are famously bad, the back rows of the orchestra under the balcony actually tended to be better for sound, as there was a bit of a concentration of the sound there, unlike the dead spots in the midst of the orchestra. I was back there because it was all I could get, but by a magical fluke, there he was.
He stood directly behind me, pacing, fidgeting about. What was he thinking, I wondered? I could feel his tension. But the production was handsome and very beautiful in places. Mauro played the title role. And the production was the beginning of a quantum leap for the COC.
Pardon me for the preamble, but that’s more or less meant to indicate that when I slipped the CD into the player in my car, I was somewhat breathless in anticipation, encountering an old friend. The CD is from the CBC SM5000 series in the 1980s, a DDD recording (meaning, fully digital), Mauro singing a dozen arias accompanied by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uri Mayer. The Boheme aria you see shared via youtube above is from this recording.
- “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen
- “O souverain” from Le Cid
- “Nessun dorma” from Turandot
- “Un di all’azzuro spazio” from Andrea Chenier
- “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci
- “Niun mi tema” from Otello
- “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther
- “Ah! lève-toi soleil” Romeo et Juliette
- ”Ma, se m’è forza perderti” from Un ballo in maschera
- “Ah si ben mio” from Il trovatore
- “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca
While a purist might take issue with some of the interpretations, Mauro’s pragmatic vocalism is a good match for most of these operas. In 2018, we could use a voice like this. At times his muscular sound is as big and loud as any I’ve ever encountered, wonderfully reliable on top. I’ve now listened to his “Niun mi tema” from Otello twice, totally destroyed by it both times. While his “vesti la giubba” skips the histrionic crying, the way this Otello chooses to die is heart-breaking, and very original to my ear (and speaking of crying, I had enough sobs for the both of us). Mauro has a very vulnerable soft voice he employs in places, for instance to begin the flower aria, or in “E lucevan le stelle”: but not in the places I expected. His “oh dolce baci”, going up to the F-sharp, is soft as the kisses he would describe, so gently evocative that you can see the scene he is describing. The middle voice is huge when he wants to call up a dark and passionate power, as Werther or in Le Cid.
Ermanno Mauro? Quite a voice. I will be listening to the CD again and again.