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Mezzotint by G. Zobel after a photograph by Caldesi.

Giovanni Matteo MARIO (1810-1883)

October 2010

MARIO , Giovanni Matteo, Cavaliere de Candia (born Cagliari, 17 Oct 1810; died Rome, 11 Dec 1883)

Remembered by Queen Victoria as “the greatest tenor who ever lived”, this supreme operatic artist of the mid-nineteenth century was born 200 years ago this month. The son of the Marchese de Candia, a general in the Sardinian army, Giovanni de Candia himself became an army officer but at the age of 25 fled to Paris when his known revolutionary leanings threatened certain imprisonment. Although possessed of a naturally beautiful lyric tenor (Gautier described it as “fresh, pure, velvety … like a nightingale that sings in a thicket”), he adopted a professional singing career only with reluctance and took the pseudonym Mario in fulfilment of a promise made to his mother never to use the family name on stage (nor to sing in Italy).

Heard first in fashionable Paris salons – where his singing of romances was said to be unsurpassable – Mario soon attracted the attention of the finest musicians of the day and was personally coached by Meyerbeer for his successful début at the Opéra in Robert le Diable on 5 December 1838.

In London six months later, his début at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia started a 32-year love affair with the British public and introduced him to the distinguished soprano Giulia Grisi with whom he was to enjoy one of the most legendary partnerships (personal and professional) in opera history.

Mario owed his success to outstanding musical intelligence and to the care for detail which he brought to every aspect of his roles. These covered a wide range of styles (Italian, French and German) and periods (Mozart to Gounod and Verdi) with equal distinction, though curiously his only actual creations to survive in the modern standard repertory are Ernesto in Don Pasquale and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. A painter himself, he designed his own exquisite and historically referenced costumes, as can be seen in numerous contemporary lithographs.

Mario also enjoyed success in New York, Madrid and (especially) St. Petersburg. In London he sang at the openings of two key venues: the Royal Italian Opera (now the Royal Opera House) and the Royal Albert Hall.

Oliver Davies © 2010