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Friday, January 30, 2015

                                                    Giovanni Martinelli

       Giovanni Martinelli was certainly one of the best known and most admired Italian tenors of the 20th Century. He was very popular in America, and was a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera for a remarkable 32 years, never easing off on his hard-core, bread and butter repertoire, which among other operas, included Aida, Trovatore, Otello, Turandot, La Juive, and Pagliacci. I would call his voice unique among great tenors. He sang with an open, white phonation that was very rare in the verismo world of dark-voiced, low-larynx singing so characteristic of post bel canto opera. That he did so successfully—especially considering the repertoire—is little short of miraculous. He never screamed, he never shouted. He sang the big dramatic roles with the same voice with which he sang lyric roles, and for him it worked. In a word, he always sounded like a tenor, no matter what he sang.

But if a picture tells a thousand words, a few Martinelli recordings tell the entire story of the Martinelli voice. I have tried to choose as many filmed excerpts as I could find, because he was a statuesque man of striking features, and one needs the entire impression: First, a famous Neapolitan song known to everyone:

 Beautifully sung, without question: This is the essential Martinelli voice. Now, with that impression still in mind, let us look at an early Vitaphone recording of "Vesti la Giubba." Canio was one of his most successful roles, with which he, like Caruso, was often associated" :

It is fascinating to reflect upon the fact that he uses exactly the same voice—his voice, always recognizable—to sing two such different kinds of music. And it works! It works even though it is counter-intuitive, considering the different repertoire. Caruso, ever associated with this role, has become imprinted on the mind as the essential Canio, but that need not be the case. The tenors who have sung Canio are countless, and Martinelli's works perfectly well. The essential thing about Martinelli's voice, always to be remembered, is that it is essentially sui generis: Always the same sound, always the same color, always Martinelli. That is one of the characteristics of "open" singing: The characteristics of the speaking voice are always more present than they are in the heavily covered voices of the big dramatic tenors. It is not always easy—at least initially—to distinguish the voices of, let us say, Vinay, Del Monaco, Giacomini, Corelli, or Domingo. Certainly there are differences, but one has to stop and listen for a moment. That never happens with Martinelli. He is always immediately recognizable, because the personal characteristics of his voice, of  Giovanni Martinelli's voice, are always up-front and eternally his. This can be a big advantage in opera, because the audience recognizes the voice of the artist, as well as the character, and it is somehow more intimate. The voices of some singers are like instruments, and often have only that much "personality" about them. Some prefer that, especially in grander, more archetypal operas, such as those of Wagner. Wagner's characters are often aspects of the unconscious, and "personality" is already determined by archetype. Not so, as a rule, in Latin opera.

Finally, here is a recording of his "Questa o Quella," from Rigoletto, which is very interesting, for several reasons:

 Did you notice how sympathetic the Duke sounds? He has a very distinct personality in this recording, and it is much more elegant than usual, because it is sung in a recognizable voice that has the characteristics of a more conversational speaking voice, presenting a view of women that, while it remains cynical, is nonetheless expressed in a curiously human way that is more reflective and world-weary than it is foppish, thereby adding another quality to the Duke's character that actually makes him a more interesting person.

Finally, here is another old Vitaphone clip showing Martinelli is a piece from Marta, one we might more readily associate with a lyric tenor like John McCormack:

To reiterate, it is always Martinelli; same voice, same tenor.  Always brilliant, always believable, be it the tragic Otello or the sentimental and heart-broken Lionel. 

One of the great tenors of all time!



JD Hobbes said...

Ah yes, excellent. I have some Vitaphone clips of Martinelli singing impossibly long phrases--he had remarkable breath control. But you can also find many others on YouTube, including a stirring version of Di Quella Pira.

Again, thanks for the posting.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did. I have watched those videos over and over. My god, what a great tenor he was!
wow, wow, wow! Hope I can find videos as good as these for the next singer I post: Sort of gives new meaning to the phrase "Golden Age, doesn't it??

Edmund St. Austell said...

thank you Mr. Hobbes! Yes, you and I have sat in your home theater and watched that Pagliacci video several times. That was one of my inspirations for doing this blog. It is rare to have that many film recordings of a great artist from that long ago,and he was one of the greatest! Wish we had than many of Caruso!

Anonymous said...

For me Martinelli, similiary Zentatello, took some getting used to, an acquited taste. The white, metallic edge was initially off-putting, but Martinelli's masterly, interpretive gifts & skills removed whatever doubts there were, and I warmed to his artistry sooner than I was prepared to. A happy surprise! The Tomb Scene from Aida with Ponselle? I doubt if it's ever been equalled! Many thanks, Edmund!

Doug @ Curzon Road

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much Doug! That was exactly my experience! Now that I finally get it, I am a great fan. You can see from my essay how fond of him I have become Thanks for another great comment!

DanPloy said...

For me, Martinelli is the greatest tenor of the 20th century (and he himself would castigate me for that statement).

If Edmund will forgive me, for those who would like to know more about him or read reviews of his recordings, I have made a modest webpage about this great tenor.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Sure Dan, no problem. Your stuff is very good, and I got an excellent response to the piece you did for Great Opera Singers. Your own blogs are excellent!

nola colman said...

I found your broad review of Giovanni Martinelli compelling. I had not heard the earlier pieces you highlighted. His recording of Otello with Rethberg cultivated my interest in singers of the past. At one time I had 1000+ historical recordings that I sold when I downsized at retirement. Your blog offers a chance to relive those earlier discoveries. Thank you.