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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:

Simply stunning!

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.


corax said...

thank you for transporting me back to my childhood [-- quite a distance at this juncture, ach]. the first recording i can remember of any opera [on LPs of course] was one my parents bought for me when i was 11 or so: CARMEN, not surprisingly, with leontyne price and franco corelli. everything you say about him here was in evidence in that recording. you dispose of his detractors handily in your final paragraph, the more so because you are spot-on in every way. please god, send us another corelli. or ten. we'll cope with the fallout.

Jing said...

What a lovely and expressive tribute, and a great posting to start a new year of "Great Opera Singers." Please allow me a few words of gratitude for the care and effort, Edmund, you have put into this ongoing celebration of opera and singing artists. One of my Christmas gifts this year was an anthology of poems by the poet and translator, Robert Pinsky. In reflecting on a particular poem in the book's introduction, he pauses to say that before we formulate analysis of a poem, useful as this can be, "something primary and significant" must be "heard and felt" in actually listening to the poem. He goes on to say, "Analysis and understanding heighten appreciation. Sometimes, however, they obtrude: trying to force knowledge before pleasure has a chance. Pointing this out is not sentimental or anti-intellectual; on the contrary, the goal should be to encourage intellectual precision by putting it in a stringent, fitting relation to the actual experience of the poem. Well-meaning teaching can muddle that process by leaving out the experience."

It seems to me that what Pinsky says here with respect to poetry, captures perfectly your infectious spirit of how we ultimately best enjoy great opera and singers. Though your analysis is invariably discerning and acute, you never "leave out the experience" of hearing the beauty of opera singing; and never better done than here with your appreciation of Franco Corelli. I look forward to a wonderful 2010 of "Great Opera Singers."

Edmund St. Austell said...

Spot on, mon ami. Yes, indeed, send us a carload. Callas, as I'm sure you know, was a big Corelli fan. This tells me something. Talk about a divine duo!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Jing: Thank you so much! Lovely sentiment, much appreciated at this end. A Happy New Year to both you and Corax! And of course you are absolutely right. Without the divine spark of excitement, the rest is all talk. It's like falling in love: poets can go on and on describing the feelings, psychologists and biologists can go on and on about what causes it, but until you have met her--or him--and felt the knife in the stomach, it's just words. The experience has to come first. Good post, good quote, and good to hear from you again. Your piece on Daniels got a big audience, btw! Well done.

Anonymous said...

The article is fine as usual , Sir Edmund. Yes, he was phenomenal. Beautiful timbre is rare, but a tenor voice that is both beautiful and huge is unique. He was a great and clever singer. And in addition to all this, such striking handsomeness. The only problem I have with Corelli is that he doesn’t impress me as a “romantic hero” in opera. It seems to me that he was not too happy, in spite of his tremendous fame and handsomeness. He sings passionately, but more like a passionate musician than a passionate lover. It doesn’t matter though. His voice and appearance were perfect .
Handsomeness usually becomes a problem for an artist , because there always will be some critics who will say that handsomeness is the main reason for the artist’s success. I’m sure there was a lot of such things written about Corelli. Maybe he looked not very happy because of the additional pressure on him – he always had to prove that he was a great singer and not just a “star”.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you. Interesting observation. I know what you mean. He did not smile easily; he always looked very intense and serious. One of the reasons might be that he was very badly affected by stage fright. It got so bad as he went into his 50's, and his voice began to show signs of strain, that he retired at age 55, at the height of his popularity. He had made plenty of money and did not need to work any more, but mainly he was just suffering from nervousness so much. He did not come from a musical family, and it was not part of his childhood. His father was a naval engineer, and he was studying engineering in college himself when he discovered his voice. So perhaps he brought more of an engineer's temperament to the stage:) Another interesting thing about him is that handsome as he was, and with an immense following of over-excited girls constantly following him around, he never once--to the best of my knowledge--disgraced himself in public or had any scandal at all associated with him. He was happily married to one woman for 45 years. I know of no "incidents." That is extremely unusual for a performer as handsome as he was. He did not drink or smoke, and as far as I know he only had one indulgence--sports cars. He had a collection of Ferrari sports cars that I remember really envying him for at one point:) But I honestly think that was it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, stage fright is a serious thing, and perhaps, it explains his intense look. But he was very good for heroic parts, in which his “intensity” doesn’t seem strange.
By the way, Leonid Sobinov, who was very handsome too, had problems with critics because of his handsomeness. For some reason they always compared him with Chaliapin and wrote that Chaliapin was a true genius, while Sobinov was just a good tenor and a matinee idol. Finally Sobinov and Chaliapin became serious rivals, even enemies.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Ah, the joys of show business:) That's really a shame, because Sobinov couldn't help being good looking. That sounds like the whole Stanislavsky "opera as theater" argument being picked up by the critics. I think the way Lemeshev eventually reacted to Stanislavsky was correct. There is music and there is theater, and when the theater starts to impinge on the music, then it is the music that must be favored. Stanislavsky went too far. Chaliapin did a lot of growling, and moaning and groaning, actually. There aren't many tenor parts where you can get away with that:)

JD Hobbes said...

The nervousness could be expected, I suppose, as a famous person often tries to best himself after so many years of adulation. I am sure you remember Caruso shivering in the wings of the theater when someone asked him why he was nervous. He was reported to have said, "Other singers must sing 100%; Caruso 110%."

Edmund St. Austell said...

Excellent point! Yes, when one is that good looking, and has so spectacular a voice, audience expectations naturally rise. Then fees go up, and ticket prices with them, and the audience feels even more entitled to spectacular singing. And when that includes roof-lifting high C's--in your 50's--it can all get a little scary. Good comment, thank you!

JD Hobbes said...

There is an interesting account on YouTube under "Di Quella Pira" posted by Germanoperatenor that says Corelli was singing in Naples and was heckled by a young fellow in the 3rd tier of the theater. Supposedly, Corelli (in full Manrico costume) ran to the 3rd tier, broke into the box, and had to be restrained by ushers to keep him from doing harm to the student. I don't know if it is true or not, but it might indicate the fire of the young tenor.

I find the very rapid vibrato of Corelli's voice to fit arias like "Di Quella Pira" so well and contribute to the excitement of the dramatic situation. Better than most tenors, to be sure. On the other hand, the power of his voice is much too much for something like "La Donna e Mobile." There is one YouTube posting of that which is, frankly, not good. While Caruso's voice could be heavy at times, I think he still reigns supreme in that final cadenza. I have never heard another as good and flexible, as I think I noted in a previous comment on your blog.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You make good, solid points here. Yes, the choice of repertoire is a crucially important matter for all singers. I suspect Corelli's Duke was visually convincing, since he was so handsome, but navigating the fioratura of La Donna e mobile is quite another matter. I haven't seen the video, but I suspect it is a good exmple of the "bull in the china shop." That can happen. I do know the Caruso cadenza you refer to, and you are right. If that record is playing at the same speed it was recorded, it is an incredible display of vocal flexibility. I wish I could be certain that he was singing in the original key, and that the recording we have is legit. His early recording of "Studenti, udite," from Germania, was played too fast for years, showing off what resonated on my pitch pipe as a C natural when in fact, if memory serves, the original key only takes it to a Bb. I also know of a Martinelli "Di quella pira," that went about for years playing too high. I do not know, frankly, if Martinelli ever in fact recorded any high C's. I suspect if he sang so high a note it public, it was a bit on the hysterical side. His extreme top was not good by today's standards. In any case, the Caruso cadenza is quite spectacular, you are right. It amazed many critics that he could continue to sing the lyric roles of his youth late in his career, when his voice had darkened considerably.

Edmund said...


racheleleeba said...

According to Seghers' biography, Corelli's family did have some musical background, though his parents, who were not musicians, discouraged him from taking up singing and urged him to continue his engineering studies. His grandfather, Augusto Corelli, said to have a beautiful tenor voice, at the age of 38 began a professional opera career, performing on several continents, including under the baton of Toscanini. His two uncles also had fine tenor voices and sang in the church choir. Franco's older brother, Ubaldo ("Bibi"), was a baritone but lacked discipline and ruined his voice by his mid-thirties.

Edmund St. Austell said...

OH, excellent comment! Thank you so much. I had not read the biograpy, and did not know that about the other singers in the family. That really is valuable information! Thanks again!

JD Hobbes said...

On YouTube simply type in "Caruso La Donna e Mobile" and it will come up for you. I do not know if the recording speed was accurate, but if it was, Caruso's cadenza was spectacular.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

I have very mixed feelings on Corelli. Fundamentally, in my opinion, he made the bargain of Faust when he went to America.

In earlier times, Corelli had a quick vibrato, very good, very pleasing, the sign of a healthy voice. When he went to America, he tried successfully to remove this element, and it unbalanced his voice.

Corelli liked to say he did not study much before his début but did after. This is not really very true, because he did study more after his début, but not for long enough.

His main flaw was his upper register, which was not well connected. Corelli was always inclined to bring too much chest voice too high up, which meant, especially in the latter part of his career, his upper register was often inaccessible.

Corelli had the potential to be a great heroic tenor, but he made the choice, conscious or not, to be a drammatico-spinto tenor: that is, a big lyric voice with dramatic tendencies.

In crude terms, he sacrificed his upper register for dramatic power. And it was a wonderful sacrifice, because a great Manrico and Kalaf was born of it.

We have already discussed Corelli and plans for «Otello», but there is another opera many Italians wanted to hear him sing in: «Guglielmo Tell». Fortunately he did not sing this role, because I do not believe he would have succeeded with all the C naturals and C-sharps, not mentioning other interpolations.

His performance as Raoul in «Ugonotti» with Sutherland and Ghiaurov at Teatro alla Scala was very powerful, but he rendered alot of the vocal score badly, and did not sing very high.

It is a shame, because if Corelli had wanted to, he could have been taught by his mentor Lauri-Volpi more fully, and developed such a voix mixte which would have permitted him to sing to D5 and maybe E5, or at least E-flat.

But, I not write to denigrate the great Franco Corelli: I wish he had done those things above, but what he DID do was more than enough!

He was a very great tenor, a formidable characterizer, even if not the perfect vocalist. And, another thing which has not been mentioned here, but which is important, is how reflective he was after he finished singing.

Personally, for the flaws I write above, I do not blame Corelli, but instead ARTURO MELOCCHI, who in my opinion limited the capabilities of who could have been a great heroic tenor with his "technique".

It cannot be said Melocchi did not teach a real technique: he certainly did, but it is not the correct technique.

Anonymous said...

Corelli is one of the great tenors of all time, no doubt.

Take five minutes of your time to take a look at this fresh, young tenor that could possibly be one of the greats of all time. He is still a student, an undergraduate. You will hear from this young tenor in few years.

Peter said...

Thanks - I have just discovered your blog and look forward to reading more. Your enthusiasm for Corelli shines through. Corelli - like Callas - gave it his all and then dug deep and found even more. What a generous singer he was. Which is why we love him.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Peter, and welcome to Great Opera Singers. I share your enthusiasm for the Great Corelli, senza dubbio! One of the outstanding tenors of all time, there can be no doubt about it! Again, my thanks. You are always welcome here, to share your comments and observations.

Il Conte Marco said...

My ear, with his recordings, has always been attuned to the rawness. His sound always hit me as markedly masculine, and thus well suited to particularly unique dramatic expression onstage. His Calàf was also sensitive and carnal (two words which don't often go together) in nature, particularly the Act I aria "Non piangere, Liù", which he impressively performed in 1961 in a performance with a dream cast (to me) of Nilsson, Corelli and Moffo under Stokowski's hand. To go toe to toe with Nilsson is an accomplishment and a half in my book, especially while maintaining stylistic integrity.
(Picture of the cast with Stokowski; one of my favorite historical photos)

Edmund St. Austell said...

A most interesting and incisive comment! Well spoken, and I absolutely agree with you!

Ron said...

I first saw Franco Corelli with the Met on tour in WERTHER. He walked out...opened his mouth...and I was hooked. I got to meet him after the opera..and he was as gracious and kind a man as one would expect. (Roberta Peters sang his only LUCIA with him..and said he was a magnificent colleague).
The next time I saw Mr Corelli was in Miami Opera's production of CARMEN. They only did 3 performances...and he cancelled the first two for "artisitic reasons". He sang the last one, which I was lucky enough to see. He was in great voice..but he came to the "Flower Song"...and switched to Italian from French. Being the bold young kid that I as ...I asked him afterwards why the switch?? He said he was nervous..and the Italian version kept him relaxed. I told him it was no matter...99.5% of the house had no idea that he changed language.
He was a wonderful man and great tenor. I saw him also as Calaf/Romeo/BOHEME Rodolpho with a young Riciarelli. ...and he did his famous diminuendo at the end of the ROMEO aria. AMAZING.
He is truly missed.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for an excellent comment! First person recollections of the actual singing and performance of great opera singers are very valuable as historical documents, and yours is first-rate. Thank you so much!

Mark Giugovaz said...

Really interesting comments! I was happy to read Jing's comment. That sums up your blog, Edmund, and I would like to say it's only after looking at other trash out there what a special achievement it is.

I loved Corelli, power and thrills in abundance. Sure his French was horrible but who cares?

Fiurezi-Maragioglio made an interesting comment. It's a bit muddled but I've heard similar sentiments from other Italians with his sort of experience.

I think when he refers to the diminished top, for example, he means that Corelli didn't quite have the freedom and confidence to sing the hard high top notes in the house, things like the top Cs in Di quella pira.

I guess too there have been plenty of tenors like Barioni, Filippeschi, Martinucci, even Bartolini in Italy doing things like the (relatively) easy high C in Turandot 'ti voglio ardente d'amor' while in North America, that was practically a Franco Corelli trademark. I'm not saying others didn't (King always did, according to his biography, Franco Tagliavini did it too, poor man, sharing that surname!) but it was highly associated with him.

Anyway great homage to a great tenor Edmund, and I hope you'll accept my comments as homage to a great author too!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mark. I really appreciate that! Your comments are invariably excellent and very much to the point. (And remarkably well informed). I always look forward to them, both here and on my Youtube channel. Edmund

Jan Knoff said...

This is more a question rather than a comment. - Is there any truth to my feeling that Franco Corelli might have been born with a minor speech organ problem. I am refering to his heartbreakingly charming "s"sounds
I really loved his voice, his "un
finished diamond" charm.
Knoff (

Edmund St. Austell said...

I've never heard it said. If I had to guess, I'd say it's the Italian "ss" you're hearing, which is quite sibilant, compared to the intervocalic 's' which is like a 'Z'.

Sonora = ssonora
Tesoro = tezoro

Sabine Frahm said...

When I was 12 years old I listened on the radio to the Salzburger "Trovatore" with Price, Simionato, Bastianini directed by Karajan - and I "felt in love" with Corelli...since today. I have for a lot of pirat records, but never saw him on stage, so say. The first tenor after his days who impresses me in the same way ja Jonas Kaufmann.