University Musical Encyclopedia/Vocal Music and Musicians: The Vocal Art; Great Vocalists; Famous Songs/Mario
Theophile Gautier, on hearing for the first time the exquisite voice of Mario, listened in rapt attention. When the aria ceased he seemed lost in wonder, and said, the soft tone of the last note still lingering in his ear, "It is a nightingale singing in a thicket"; then, after a pause, "Yes, he excels in the rendering of tender thoughts—love, melancholy, regret for an absent home, and all the soft sentiments of the soul."
Never was youth more richly gifted for the operatic stage than was Mario. Beauty of voice, face, and figure, with the most winning grace of Italian manner, were all his. For the stage he was born, and to the stage he remained faithful during his artistic life. To the brilliance of his success in opera he brought one great helping quality, the eye for color and all the important details of costume. His figure on the stage looked as if it had stepped out of the canvas of Titian, Veronese, or Tintoretto. Never was an actor more harmoniously and beautifully dressed for the characters he impersonated—no mean advantage, and no slight indication of the complete artistic temperament.
Mario, Marchese di Candia, was born in 1812 at Genoa, of an old and noble family. His father had been a general in the Piedmontese army; and he himself was an officer in the Piedmontese Guard, when he first came to Paris in 1836, and immediately became a great favorite in society. But he was then only an amateur, and as yet all unfitted for public singing. Tempted as he was by the offers made to him by Duponchel, the director of the opera—which are said to have reached the sum of 1500 francs a month, a large sum for a beginning—and pressed by the embarrassments created by expensive tastes, he still hesitated to sign such a contract. Finally persuaded to do so, he compromised on the matter by signing only the Christian name, under which he became afterwards so famous—Mario.
After a course of training under Michelet, Ponchard, and Bordogni, he made his début, November 30, 1838, in the title-rôle in "Robert le Diable." His success was pronounced from a vocalistic point of view, but he had yet to learn to be dramatic as well as musical. In 1840 he passed from the Académie to the Italian opera, as best suited to his nationality. His first appearance in London was in "Lucrezia Borgia," June 6, 1839; but it was not until 1846 that he took the place of Rubini, and was acknowledged as the most perfect stage lover ever seen. The only failure, if it can be so called, was ion his attempt to sing the title-rôle in "Don Giovanni," a part in which Nourrit and Garcia had failed to succeed. In Mario's case this failure is to be accounted for by the fact that the character of reckless profligate was not in keeping with his temperament; in fact, he was too amiable to secure the approval of his audience. Mario seldom sang in oratorio, although passionately fond of sacred music, which strongly appealed to his sensitive nature. At the Birmingham Festival in 1849 he sang "Then shall the righteous," in "Elijah"; and at Hereford in 1855, "If with all your hearts," in the same work.
Mario sang, after this, in each season at Paris and in London, improving steadily in acting and in singing, though it fell to his lot to create but few new characters—scarcely another besides that of the "walking lover" in "Don Pasquale," a part which consisted in little more than the singing of the serenade " Com è gentil." In other parts he only followed his predecessors, though with a grace and charm which were peculiar to him, and which may possibly remain forever unequaled. "It was not," says Chorley, "till the season of 1846 that he took the place of which no wear and tear of time had been able to deprive him. He had then played Almaviva, Gennaro, and Raoul, and had shown himself undoubtedly the most perfect stage lover ever seen, whatever may have been his other qualities or defects. His singing in the duet of the fourth act of "Les Huguenots" raised him again above this; and in "La Favorita" he achieved, perhaps his highest point of attainment as a dramatic singer.
For five and twenty years Mario remained before the public of Paris, London, and St. Petersburg, constantly associated with Grisi. In the earlier years (1843–46) of that brilliant quarter of a century, he took the place of Rubini in the famous quartet, with Tamburini and Lablache; this, however, did not last long; and he soon remained alone with Grisi, the sole remaining star of the original constellation. To this gifted prima donna Mario was united, after the dissolution of her former marriage; and by her he had three daughters. He left the stage in 1867, retired to Paris, and then to Rome. There he was subsequently appointed curator of the Museum, and there he died, December 11, 1883. He made two tours of the United States, in 1854 (with Grisi) and in 1874.
Mario never got over his nervousness. "Gli assi, gli assi mi fanno tremare" (Your footlights make me tremble), he used to say. Once he was asked by a lady to sing at her evening reception; and would he think 1500 francs sufficient remuneration? Mario refused, telling the messenger he was sorry, but he was engaged. When remonstrated with he said, "Is it worth while putting on a dress coat for the sake of 1500 francs ($300)?"
Again, when the Czar Nicholas ordered Mario to shave off his beard, he refused. The Czarina, knowing that the Czar brooked no contradiction, asked him to comply for her sake; but Mario said he would rather leave St. Petersburg than run the risk of losing his voice, and he kept his beard. It is needless to say that whenever Mario walked in London he was recognized. One day, as he was walking in Picadilly, a young lady saw him, and involuntarily exclaimed, "Mario!" "A votre service, mademoiselle," said the handsome tenor, removing his hat, while the young lady blushed crimson.
Many other stories are told in connection with Mario. Well known is that of the lady who, though she had never been introduced to Mario, yet was present during her lifetime at every performance (all but three, some say) in which he sang, no matter in what part of the world it was, and who died without ever having spoken or written a word to the artist she so highly esteemed.
An interesting incident is related of his first visit to Queen Victoria, when commanded to sing before her Majesty at Balmoral. Upon this occasion a carriage had been ordered for the great tenor to enable him to enjoy the lovely scenery of Deeside without tiring himself; but Mario wearied of the carriage, stopped the coachman, and desired him to return home, continuing the excursion on foot. When, on his return, he entered the grounds of the castle, he lost his way and suddenly found himself close to a very plainly dressed woman, who, in a sunbonnet of capacious proportions, was engaged, watering-pot in hand, in refreshing a thirsty flower-bed. Mario advanced, hat in hand: "Your pardon, mademoiselle," he said, "but I am a stranger, a guest of her Majesty; she has asked me to sing. I have lost my way, and it is near the hour. Could you tell me the path to reach the Queen's apartment?" "You wish to see the Queen?" "Yes, mademoiselle." "Well, signor, you see her now—I am the Queen; follow me."