Call me McBenelli


Tenore di grazia, m. Lyric tenor voice noted for particular lightness and agility, especially in Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Mozart.

IT doesn't translate gracefully into English. It is, in any case, a bit old-fashioned - too sophisticated, too technical - for our dumbed-down soundbyte world. But the phrase tenore di grazia describes Ugo Benelli to perfection. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he fashioned a top-level international career in opera out of a relative handful of bel canto roles; and now, at the age of 63, despite the vagaries of a distinctly wobbly telephone line from Genoa and the Fawlty Towerslike hilarity of the linguistic cross-currents which threaten, from time to time, to scupper our conversation, he is grazia personified. He is also, clearly, delighted to be coming to Wexford Festival Opera to give this year's Tom Walsh memorial lecture. "I started singing in October 1958 in Montevideo, and I'm so pleased to have my 40-year anniversary in my beloved Ireland," he declares. Beloved? Is he kidding? "No, no - you know, I've sung maybe 12 times in Dublin, eight times in Wexford, and in Belfast too. So," he concludes triumphantly, "I am 'alf Irish. You can call me McBenelli."

But seriously, he adds, his name is typical of Florence, where his family - once upon a time - made women's hats. "This is the reason why I am in Genoa now," he chuckles, implying that a Benelli hat was neither bene nor bello. At the same time it is undeniably true that he was, for a long time, an adopted son of Wexford. He first sang at the festival in 1965, in Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera, and returned the following year to take the title role in Auber's Fra Diavolo. In 1969 he sang Nencio in Haydn's L'Infedelta Delusa, and in 1970 - oh, to have been in the audience that year - he partnered soprano Jill Gomez for a double bill of Rossini's L'Inganno Felice and Donizetti's Giovedi Grasso.

In 1978 it was back to Haydn for Ecclitico in Il Mondo Della Luna, and in the 1980s, at the height of his international fame, he returned for a series of celebrity recitals. In fact, if you count this year's lecture, Benelli has worked with all the artistic directors who followed Dr Tom Walsh at Wexford - an achievement akin, perhaps, to playing in five consecutive World Cups. So why does he keep coming back? "My career started there," he says simply. "In a glorious production of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera. People from Glyndebourne came, they listened to me, and after two years I did L'Elisir d'Amore at Glyndebourne with Franco Zeffirelli. And then I started to record with Decca. And this is the reason that I like to come in Wexford. I don't forget the past. All my career started from Wexford and I am" - there is a pause while his wife, who is helping out with translation on another line, supplies the word - "grateful". Since then he has sung just about everywhere: La Scala, the Met, Salzburg, Paris, Vienna, Chicago. "It is easier to say where I have not sung. I have not sung in Japan and I have not sung in Australia." His interpretation of Count Almaviva on the 1964 Decca recording of Rossini's Barber of Seville has been rated second only to that of Cesare Valletti in the back catalogue, and he remembers with fondness "all the Rossinis with Abbado in La Scala" and a Don Pasquale at Covent Garden in which he not only substituted for Stuart Burrows at the last minute but earned a glowing review from "the terrible Rosenthal" from Opera magazine.

Asked to choose the high point of his career, however, he doesn't hesitate for a second: "The highlight of my career was in 1969 when in Donizetti's La Fille Du Regiment I substituted Pavarotti in La Scala of Milano with Mirella Freni. I did three performances. It was wonderful. And it appeared in . . . it appear . . . " There is another hurried consultation with his wife, who is, to judge by the ominous burrs and cheeps on the line, simultaneously trying to deal with an incoming fax. Intriguing snatches of Italian escape, sotto voce, across the Ligurian Sea. Non e video - come si chiamano? Come si chiama . . . ? "Ah - Internet!" he eventually exclaims, with the kind of joyous flourish more usually associated with Tonio's redoubtable series of nine high "Cs" in the aforementioned Donizetti opera.

UGO Benelli's forthcoming lecture at Wexford will be devoted to the subject of the tenore di grazia and will focus on such examples of the species as Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda, Cesare Valletti and, of course, John McCormack. But what does he think of today's tenors? "They are very good. They understand personality and charisma. They are better than us, I think, especially if they can reduce the volume and still produce a beautiful sound. But sometimes they sound a little like a woman. The very good tenore leggiero has always to sound virile, no?" Nowadays, he admits, he prefers to listen to instrumental music. "Because when I go to listen to the opera I cannot relax - I'm still thinking technically and this disturbs me. Always I am thinking about what he is doing, or what she is doing; if it is right, if it is not right, what should be changed. Especially if they are singing my repertory." Once a tenor, always a tenor. But if he had not been a singer, what then?

"It is very difficult because now it is not the fashion to do hats for ladies. I could be, maybe, a book-keeper because I studied economics. But what I like, really, is to collect; to look in rubbish to find something good." He did exactly that in Dublin many years ago when, he says, he bought a 17th-century Italian painting on the street for £8 which is now worth £8,000. "This," he says with a fine disregard for Rossini, Abbado and the rest, "was the great business of my life."

Ugo Benelli will deliver the Tom Walsh Memorial Lecture at the Ferrycarrig Hotel on October 29th at 3.30 p.m. Coaches will run from Wexford, and afternoon tea will be available. He will also take part in An Evening With Our Italian Friends at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on October 20th, when he will be joined by a group of Irish singers and the Garda Siochana Male Voice Choir for a programme of operatic excerpts.