On October 18th, 1810 the parson don Antonio Cao noted in the register of Cagliari's cathedral the baptism of Giovanni Matteo, “born the previous day, the legitimate son of the illustrious Knight Don Stefano de Candia of Alghero (captain and aide-de-camp of His Royal Highness) and Donna Caterina Grixoni of Ozieri.”
But Mario De Candia was actually born 28 years later, on the stage of Rue Pelletier's theatre in Paris, after the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer had convinced him to make his debut in the leading role in his work “Robert le Diable”. The young Italian aristocratic would soon become one of the nineteenth century greatest tenors.
A promising military career, started for family tradition, ended after the young Giovanni Matteo had gained a reputation as a rebel and a subversive. At 12, De Candia had Camillo Benso di Cavour and Alfonso Della Marmora as his fellow students in the Military College of Turin. Transferred to Genoa at the age of 19 with the rank of second lieutenant, he met Giuseppe Mazzini and Giacomo Ruffini and grew closer to the republican ideals.
Warnings and threats from his father did not bring him back into the ranks. After seeing many of his fellows end up in prison, De Candia took off the military uniform and from Genoa sailed to France on a fishing boat. It was adventurous escape, first to Marseille then, in 1836, to Paris, where Giovanni Matteo was greeted by the community of Italian political refugees.
The young, penniless deserter made friends with the marquis De Bréme and the princes of Belgiojoso. Politics was the main topic of discussion at Cristina Belgiojoso's salon in Paris, but one had also a chance to meet some of Europe's most famous musicians and writers: Chopin, Liszt, Rossini, Bellini, together with Balzac, George Sand, Dumas father and son.
For a while De Candia earned a precarious living offering riding and fencing lessons. During a trip to London he unsuccessfully tried to enlist in the British army, and later travelled back to Paris, still broke. He started singing by chance, encouraged by his friends who were enthusiastic about his private performances.
From knight to opera singer: a very difficult step for an aristocrat, even if a fugitive. For necessity more than for firm belief, Giovanni Matteo De Candia accepted the challenge and began to prepare for the stage. To save his family from any further disgrace, he chose the stage name of Mario and in a letter to his mother he promised he would have never performed in Italy.
The applause and rave reviews in the Parisian newspapers for the young Italian tenor, the frequent invitations for private performances (the chronicles recall the matinees with Frédéric Chopin) opened the way to a career that would soon bring Mario on the European stage, from London to St. Petersburg. And then to America, always with the famous soprano Giulia Grisi, who became his partner in art and in life.
More details on those years of success and passion can be found in the biography that Cecilia Pearse, one of Mario De Candia's daughters, published in London in 1913, to celebrate the centenary of her father's birth. “The romance of a great singer. A memoir of Mario” can be browsed online on the Internet Archive or downloaded in various digital formats. (In 1995 the book was republished in Italian by Edizioni Sardegna da scoprire, with a revision of the text, critical notes and three more chapters written by Adriano Vargiu: “Mario De Candia. La vita del grande tenore scritta dalla figlia Cecilia Pearse De Candia nel 1913”).
The stage career was always intertwined with the political commitment, supporting the Italian Risorgimento. As recalled on the Progetto Risorgimento website, «at the end of August 1850 De Candia organized for Mazzini a special concert to help the Italian political refugees, whose number had increased out of proportions after the failure of the 1848 uprisings. An assiduous correspondence and continuous contacts with Mazzini, Garibaldi and other patriots took place between 1847 and 1852. Mario and Giulia Grisi helped the Italian cause in a tangible way, also giving shelter to Daniele Manin, exiled to Paris. For some periods, their London house became Mazzini's headquarters.»
Cecilia De Candia writes about “a stirring and historic scene at Mulgrave House”, her parents' house in London, «shortly before Garibaldi's famous expedition of the Mille to Sicily, when the English Garibaldians met their Italian comrades. On the lawn and under its beautiful trees several hundred red-shirts were assembled. Stirring speeches were made and many patriotic songs were sung, led by Mario and Grisi with the full vigour of their magnificent voices.»
In 1848 an amnesty extended to many sentenced for political crimes gave Mario a chance to return to Italy and to embrace his mother in Cagliari. One year later he purchased the prestigious Villa Salviati in Florence, where he settled together with his wife. For over 20 years many of the central figures of the Italian Risorgimento visited that refuge on the hills of Fiesole. Too loaded with memories, the villa was sold in 1873, four years after Giulia Grisi's death.
Mario De Candia had bade farewell to the stage in 1871, at the end of a long tour through Europe and America, and moved to Rome for the last years of his life. He suffered from heart trouble and died in near poverty during the night of December 10th, 1883.
The city of Cagliari at that time fought in order to fulfill Mario's wish to be buried in his family mortuary chapel, that he had got built in Bonaria cemetery. Later a street in Castello was named after the great tenor but city administrators would not avoid the shame of a mortuary chapel left in ruins for years.
- Don't you think his face is like Our Saviour? Red Murray whispered.[...]
Our Saviour: beardframed oval face: talking in the dusk Mary, Martha. Steered by an umbrella sword to the footlights: Mario the tenor.
- Or like Mario, Mr Bloom said.
- Yes, Red Murray agreed. But Mario was said to be the picture of Our Saviour.
Jesus Mario with rougy cheeks, doublet and spindle legs. Hand on his heart. In Martha.
Co-ome thou lost one,
Co-ome thou dear one.
James Joyce, Ulysses
Episode 7 - Aeolus
Weldon Thornton (“Allusions in Ulysses: An Annotated List”) confirms that Mario the Tenor was «the popular Italian tenor Giovanni Matteo, Cavaliere di Candia (1810-83), whose stage name was Mario. He did several times sing Lionel in Flotow's Martha, including a performance of it at Covent Garden during his final season, 1871».