Sunday, January 3, 2010
Franco Corelli: Prince of Tenors
It is safe to say that Franco Corelli was one of the great tenors of the 20th century, and almost certainly of all time. Born in Ancona, in 1921, Corelli was encouraged as a young man in college to sing in a music competition, where he impressed the judges sufficiently to win their encouragement to study further. He did so, at least briefly, and then through self study and application was able to develop his voice to such an extent that he was hired by the Rome Opera in 1951 to sing Manrico. The Rome Opera became his base for the next several years, during which time he also started singing in regional theaters throughout Italy. He was a hard working and highly disciplined young singer, memorizing many roles, not only the standard bread and butter repertoire, but also roles seldom done. His voice was a natural spinto tenor, with a lovely and somewhat dark color. It was a thrilling voice, with a brilliant and ringing top that extended all the way up to and beyond the high C. This places him in a category distinct from that of the typical dramatic tenors of his day whose voices characteristically did not possess the range or the velvet-like color of Corelli's, and were essentially baritonal in nature. There was always something of a lyric smoothness and line to his singing that was not characteristic of the dramatic tenors who often tended to bark and shout, and who did not have much usable range beyond Bb. Corelli always sang (even if loudly) and never condescended to shouting or barking for dramatic effect. He was a consummate vocalist (if not always the greatest stylist) whose essential technique—and this will sound strange to some—was not that far from traditional bel canto singing. It is possible to sing in such a way and still have a big, darkish, powerful voice. One does not exclude the other. Lauri Volpi, the greatest of the bel canto tenors, considered him a great tenor and went so far as to say that Corelli was his natural heir. Taking into account the more than considerable opinion that Lauri Volpi had of his own reputation (deservedly so, I am forced to concede), this was a kind of ultimate compliment from one great tenor to another. Because Corelli never had much formal study of music, his style and musicianship can be faulted in some instances, but his natural musical instincts, coupled with what an intelligent and hard working young man can learn from great conductors world-wide, were more than sufficient to make him a perfectly acceptable musician. Also, importantly, he was extraordinarily handsome; so much so that had he not had a great voice, or an inclination to sing, he would have been a natural for the movies, a real matinee idol. Because of all these qualities, he found adoring audiences all over the world, especially at the Met, where he began singing in 1961, and where he remained a great favorite for the next 14 years.
One of the roles with which Corelli is particularly associated is Manrico, the ill-fated troubadour. Here is a relatively young Corelli (36) in the famous "Di Quella Pira:
This is the essential Corelli; the coloration of the voice is whiter than that of many dramatic tenors, and the top is simply magnificent. Those high C's take no prisoners! Very, very few tenors have ever had such splendid vocal endowments.
One of Corelli's truly noteworthy qualities is his ability to sing bel canto showpieces such as "A Te, o Cara," from Bellini's I Puritani. This was also a favorite showpiece for Lauri Volpi:
The high C is of course spectacular—it always is with Corelli, but that is not what I most notice in this piece; rather, it is the musical line. The length of Bellini's musical line is notorious, and everywhere commented upon, and it is precisely this stylistic quality which characterizes this famous aria. One cannot rely on high notes alone (Corelli actually sings it down one half tone); the aria will not work if the line is broken at any point. And he does not break it; it is one long, unbroken flow of sound, always coming to rest on the appropriate word, so that the grammatical period of the lyrics coincides exactly with the resolution of the musical phrase. I will say again that this is something few if any dramatic tenors can do properly. It is for that reason that I have never considered Corelli a dramatic tenor. He could sing all those roles, certainly, and he did—very well—but he never compromised musical line.
Here, finally, is a role with which the great tenor was also associated, Andrea Chenier. This video is from a 1971 Tokyo concert. I find it as thrilling today as I did then. I do not believe I have ever heard the "Improviso" sung more intensely or beautifully:
Corelli does of course have his detractors; those who claim he was monochromatic (on the loud side), or who fault his musicianship and style, saying that he exaggerated the high notes and the big moments in an "old fashioned" way, like the divas of past ages; that he sang poorly in any language other than Italian (as if anyone cared) and so on. Rubbish. He was extremely popular because he was a great singer, physically beautiful, and an intense dramatic presence on the stage, and, hardly coincidentally, because he possessed a lovely voice with a wide range and an almost uniquely thrilling top. There have been few tenors like him, and there are no more in the works, at least not at the moment. In many ways, the day of that kind of grand singing has passed. Perhaps that is as it must be, evolutionarily, but it is missed by many.
at 11:38 AM