Archive for Il Mio Tesoro

Il Mio Tesoro – John McCormack

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on December 19, 2021 by telescoper

The aria Il Mio Tesoro Intanto from Act II of Mozart’s great Opera Don Giovanni is widely regarded as a test piece for Operatic tenors because of its demanding mix of long flowing lines, big leaps and florid coloratura ornamentation. The other day I heard a performance by the great Irish tenor John McCormack which, despite being recorded over a hundred years ago (in 1916) completely blew me away. I thought I’d share it here.

John McCormack made over 800 records in his lifetime, the vast majority of them Irish songs and ballads that found a huge audience not only in Ireland but also in the Irish diaspora in the United States of America; this part of his career was extremely lucrative making him a millionaire. His first love was the Opera: a lyric tenor of the highest quality, his career overlapped with that of the great Enrico Caruso and the two became great friends after McCormack moved to the United States and became a regular at the Metropolitan Opera. It was Caruso who made the first ever million-selling record (Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci in 1902) and perhaps that’s what persuaded McCormack to embark on a recording career.

Before the 1920s gramophone recordings were entirely acoustic, made by a process exactly the reverse of a gramophone player. Musicians and singers would play into a horn at the sharp end of which was a needle that could leave an impression on the recording medium. In the early days the recording would be made on a wax cylinder, but this was soon replaced by plastic or acetate discs. It wasn’t possible to make recordings longer than a few minutes using this method.

Here’s an example of an early recording session showing what it was like. The chap with the moustache is Sir Edward Elgar:

Given this sort of arrangement it is no surprise that the sound of the Orchestra of the Met is muffled and distorted on the following recording. Almost certainly McCormack would have been standing right in front of the horn so his sizeable form would have acted as a kind of baffle. When I think of these old records it always seems a wonder that you can hear anything at all.

Despite the limitations of the recording technology the crystal clarity of McCormack’s voice and his superb control shine through. I listen to quite a lot of old jazz records made in a similar way so my ears are perhaps unusually forgiving but I think this is one of the greatest versions of this aria that I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard quite a few. I hope you enjoy it too.

P.S. John McCormack was born in Athlone, which is about 100km due west of Maynooth.