Article 1: Diaz And The Devil By Perry Tannenbaum. In: Creative Loafing (March 2000)
Article 2: Good guy Justino Diaz drips with evil in 'Tosca' role. In: The Detroit News (May 4, 2000)
Article 3: A legendary baritone's return to Connecticut By Dan Mathews In: Yawanna [05-01-2001]
Article 5: Justino Diaz by Erik Myers. In Opera News Vol.70, Issue 9 (2006); p14-16   [New]

Justino Diaz Mozart Arias
By Roland Graeme
In: Opera Quarterly. - Vol.7 (1990); p.204-208

In 1966 the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened with a work specially commissioned for the occasion, Samuel Barbers's Anthony and Cleopatra. Franco Zeffirelli not only adapted the libretto from Shakespeare's play, but designed and directed the production. The title roles were sung by Leontyne Price and a young Puerto Rican bass named Justino Diaz. Anthony was an expensive fiasco, but all parties survived the experience. And at the time, it looked as though Diaz, who had been a replacement (though not last-minute) for the originally announced Giogio Tozzi, would move on to happier nights and enjoy a big international career.

Things didn't quite work out that way though. Nearly twenty years later, in 1985, Zeffirelli was casting his film version of Verdi's Otello with Placido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli, and settled on Diaz for Iago. "He always seemed on the edge of international stardom, yet never quite there" is Zeffirelli's own assessment of the bass's career during the two intervening decades. "I had my doubts [about his suitability for Iago], but was unable to come with anyone else. Persuaded by Placido, I decided to risk him".

It was a risk that paid off, if not quite in the way anticipated. Despite enormous advance publicity, Zeffirelli's movie was almost as big a flop as Barber's opera had been in its original version. Ironically, though, the film (and its attendant hype) did more to bring Diaz's name before the public than his twenty years of perfectly solid singing in opera houses all over the world ever had. Iago has, in fact, become something of a signature role for Diaz: he is very much in demand for the part in prestigious stage productions, and sang it, for instance, in all five of the Met's performances of Otello last season.

His recording career has been a curious one. Until fairly recently, he had committed virtually nothing from the standard operatic repertory to disc, and very little that is representative of his stage work. While preparing for this review, I was startled to discover that my collection, which does not pretend to archival completeness, contains virtually every major-label recording Diaz has ever made. Most of the time, the bass seems to have quietly gone about his business while singers such as Nicolai Ghiaurov, Ruggero Raumondi, Josť Van Dam, and (more recently) Samuel Ramey repeatedly go before the microphones. In other words, Diaz's career as recording artist has not been aggressively pursued, either by himself or by his advisors.

Of course, he is distinguished company: just try to find anything on commercial records that is truly representative of the work of such fine singers as Jerome Hines or Donald Gramm or Norma Treigle. Or think of Cesare Siepi and Nicola Zaccaria, each of whom sang well for a full decade (roughly the 1960s) without setting a foot in a recording studio, Siepi, after Lucia and Rigoletto, in 1961. Zaccaria not at all.

Diaz's recordings have been almost as sporadic. There have been a handful of concert works - Rossini's Stabat Mater and Beethovens's early Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, both on CBS and both conducted by Thomas Schippers.

In the late 1960s, Diaz participated in two complete opera sets on the London label: Catalani's La Wally and Cherubini's Medea, in which he sings the roles of Stromminger and Creonte, respectively. These are both first rate portrayals, which makes it seems all the more odd that the label subsequently dropped Diaz from its roster of artists. For example, Stromminger (Wally's father) is a very small but difficult part: he appears only in act I and has nothing even remotely resembling an aria -only a few phrases in which to convey the combination of overbearing male chauvinism, resentment of old age, and brooding over past slights, exposure to which has molded his daughter's character and which sets the drama in motion. Diaz brings it off perfectly. For a period during the 1970s, Diaz seemed to be turning into a Handel specialist. For Vanguard, under de baton of Johannes Somary, he recorded the bass solos in Messiah, two roles (Cadmus en Somnus) in Semele, and the title role in Solomon. These are all estimable performances (although purists might insist that Solomon's music, written for a female alto, should not be transposed down an octave): the operatic heft of Diaz's bass, its masculine firmness and color, and the directness and "bite" of his approach to the music give the parts a welcome immediacy.

During this decade, there were a couple more operatic roles: Raimondo in Lucia (originally ABC/Westminster, now EMI) and Maometto in Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto (EMI) - both sets, perhaps not so coincidentally, led by Schippers and starring Beverly Sills. (A broadcast tape of the 1969 La Scala Assedio has also appeared recently on CD, on the Legato and Melodram labels.) Then silence, until the Iago.

Like most people, I found the film a disappointment - an exercise in self-indulgence and an appalling waste of time, money and energy. Diaz's performance was one of the few positive things about it - he looked part. He acted it as subtly as the director's often absurd "business" permitted him to, and his singing sounded fine.

The recording (EMI cdcb 47450), heard without the visual element, confirms this impression. (Although it served as the basis for the film's soundtrack; and it definitely utilizes a different sound "mix" in terms of balances and directional effects.) Doming and Ricciarelli are in poor voice and the supporting cast is vocally inadequate, on the whole.

By contrast, Diaz sounds like throwback to a Golden Age. His timbre is much darker than that of most Iagos heard in recent decades. The upper extension is unusually high secure for a voice of this sight and weight. The runs, staccati, and trills that form an essential part of Iago's musical characterization are not exactly tossed off, but hey are honestly and conscientiously executed. Most important, the vocal acting has dignity and subtlety - it's a relief, after the melodramatic rantings of too many Iagos, to hear so many lines delivered in a natural , unaffected manner ("quel fazzoletto ieri - certo ne son - Io vido in man di Cassio" near the end of act 2 is a good place to make comparisons).

Inexplicably, though, the recording of Otello has been succeeded only by a cameo appearance in a recital o Puccini songs performed by Domingo (CBS MK 44981; Diaz joins the tenor in the one item that calls for two voices - a Latin hymn that is a classic piece of religious kitsch), and now by this Mozart aria disc.

Although he has sung Figaro often onstage, an all-Mozart recital would seem a strange project for Diaz at this stage in his career. After Otello, the logical step would seem to have been a Verdi aria disc, in which he could further demonstrate his versatility by tackling both the bass and baritone roles to which he is currently suited.

But hers is the Mozart record, and listening to it is rather like welcoming an old friend back after a long absence. Diaz bills himself as a baritone on this release, but he still sounds like a bass. Despite his excursions into higher repertory, the range of the voice has not been significantly reduced at the bottom, and has still the heft and the dark coloration of a true bass. Admittedly, though, if some bass voices are "black" in color, then this one is a warm rich brown. The vocal production is not rock-steady: it has an unapologetic vibrato, but an even one, and I believe one's response to this is a question of individual taste (I like it). The vowel formation is exceptionally clear.

There are, in fact, only two purely vocal shortcomings. One is that the lowest notes - and several of these Mozart pieces make extraordinary demands upon the singer's bottom register - can take exaggeratedly, cavernous yawning quality. The other occurs at the passaggio into the upper register: in order to negotiate this delicate area in a way that is technically correct and preserves the voice, as opposed to just opening the sound up willy-nilly into an undesirable blattiness (as far too many American voice teachers these days demand of their low-voiced male students), Diaz has no choice but to employ an exceptionally cupo (covered) vocal position. Unfortunately, depending upon the lie of a vocal line, this technicality often robs his full-voiced singing of some of the freedom and spontaneity it had when he was younger, while turning softer dynamic levels into a heavily damped croon.

Furthermore, several of these arias make extreme demands upon the singer's agility; Diaz gets there, but without much room to spare. The listener is uncomfortably aware of several sharp turns, some of them negotiated on two wheels; we can't just sit back and enjoy the ride as we can with, say, Pinza in his prime. Nonetheless, by prevailing standards, Diaz is still a very good singer. But his limitations lie in precisely those areas in which a performer of this music must excel; there is little here to suggest that this is the repertory that Diaz sings better than anything else.

Four of the arias are familiar operatic fare. Figaro's "Non piu andrai" is neat and lively, if without the kind of relish that can make it really memorable in the theater. Either Don Giovanni or Leporello would seem to be an excellent role for Diaz in the opera house; interestingly enough, he resists the temptation to give us any of the Don's music here. The "Catalogue Aria" begins in an utterly deadpan, sober manner, as though Leporello were and accountant reporting on his master's asserts before a stockholder's meeting; I've never heard the number done this way onstage, but it is effective. His treatment of the second half of the aria is less original, including salacious humming of one phrase near the end.

Guglielmo would seem to be another good role for Diaz. (Although Don Alfonso is usually sung by a bass, while Guglielmo is assigned to a baritone, it is Guglielmo who has the lower line in the original score in nearly all of the opera ensembles.) "Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo" is, of course, an "alternate" aria, although some recent recordings and stage productions of Cosi have made a point of including it (usually as an appendix, in the case of the recordings). Diaz's performance is virile, pointed, witty - everything it should be.

It was a mistake for him to include "In diesen heil'gen Hallen"; the voice has neither the organlike sonority nor the calm legato for this music, and the low notes are particularly hollow-sounding on this track. The five "concert arias"(most of them are actually insert arias, written to be interpolated into other composers' operas) are mostly good. It is wonderful, in "Per questa bella mano", to hear Diaz matching the obbligato double bass (played by Thomas Martin) note for note, without ever having to artificially inflate his tone. In "Cosi dunque tradisci", the allegro section (Beginning with the words "Aspri rimorsi atroci") is exciting - the bold vocal attack, the balance struck between extroversion and classical restraint, are reminiscent of those earlier Handel recordings.

Diaz's enunciation is a model for other singers: his words always clear and forward, resulting in a certain degree of verbal communication being automatically built into the musical line. But this kind of clarity is not always the same as bringing the words to life. In the aria "Mentre ti lascio, o figlia" (vocally one of the better performances on the disc), for example, the sudden change in mood at the words "Parto. Tu piangi! O dio!" is not as vividly communicated as it could be.

Ettore Stratta's accompaniments are very well judged: he gives Diaz ample latitude without allowing the rhythms to sag. The English Chamber Orchestra plays beautifully.

The recording is very close and forward - sometimes too much for the listener's comfort. Diaz seems literally to be right there in one's living room. So big voiced a singer really needs a certain amount of cushioning distance. The booklet contains texts an translations of the arias as well as essays- not particularly illuminating- on the music an the singer. In short, an enjoyable release.
 

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