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!