Antonio Cortis 1891-1952 was a Spanish tenor with a beautiful spinto voice capable of singing both the light and heavy roles in the Italian and French repertory. Born on a ship in the Mediterranean, he gave Valencia, where he was raised, as his native city. He initially studied voice at the Madrid Conservatory. After a move to Barcelona when he was 18, he continued training in the Catalan capital. He made his debut in that city in 1912 and sang comprimario roles for several years.
He was on tour with Enrico Caruso singing the role a Beppe to the Neapolitan’s Canio in Pagliacci, when he so impressed Caruso that he offered to introduce Cortis to the New York opera scene. Cortis, who apparently was very shy, an unusual characteristic for a tenor, did not take him up on the offer.
His career as a leading tenor began in Italy around 1920. He was a success and sang at many of the world’s important houses, but never at the Met. He did have a big success at Chicago’s Civic Opera where he sang to great acclaim from 1924 to 1932 when the company succumbed to the Great Depression. Thereafter, he was the victim of the worst of possible fates – bad luck.
Because of the deterioration of the world’s economy he returned to Spain, still in good vocal condition. Thereafter he got caught up in the poisonous politics of his country which descended into the catastrophic civil war of the late 30s. World War II kept him in Spain. When peace finally broke out he resumed singing, but his best days were in the past, his health broke, and he died in 1952 at the age of 60.
He made a number of recordings; the best were made between 1925 and 1930 when the singer was at his peak. They show a rich and lush tenor who phrases with elegance and who has a secure top. The undeserved neglect of his art is belied by the excellence of his recordings.
First up is Una vergine, un angel di Dio from Donizetti’s La Favorita. Written to a French text the opera is, as is the case with most operas by Italian composers set to French texts, often done in Italian. Ah si, ben mio…Di quella pira from Verdi’ Il Trovatore written 13 years after the Donizetti aria shows the same firm sound coupled with interesting phrasing sans trills. The cabaletta is rousingly sung. There’s even a chorus; an unusual feature for a recording of an isolated aria in 1930.
Pourquoi me réveiller was recorded (in Italian) in 1929. It clearly shows the exceptional beauty of Cortis’s voice. The Spanish tenor’s personal reticence carried over to his performances which were not marked by the hysterics often associated with Italian tenors. The elegance of his singing is clearly heard in his performance of Osaka’s serenade Apri la tua finestra from Mascagni’s Iris.
Mimì è una civetta from Puccini’s La Bohème is rarely performed as part on a solo recital. Corti’s makes a convincing argument for placing it more often in concerts or aria discs, even though he does the piece without the baritone and soprano parts. This music is as beautiful and emotionally moving as any in Puccini’s ebullient tearjerker.
Umberto Giordano’s La Cena Delle Beffe (The Dinner of Mockery) was composed to a libretto by Sem Benelli based on his 1909 play of the same name. The action takes place in Medician Florence The opera received its first staging at La Scala in December 1924 under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. It was a big success and was performed all over Italy. The Met did it in 1926 with Frances Alda, Beniamino Gigli, and Tita Ruffo in the leading roles. It lasted there for only 12 shows. After 1930 it disappeared from the repertory. The have been a few revivals of the opera in the ensuing 88 years. The tenor sings the role Giannetto Malespini, the subject and then instigator of the mockery of the title. He has two arias Ah, che tormento and Mi svesti. Cortis makes as powerful an argument for this music as possible, but the recordings are of interest more for his voice than the quality of Giordano’s two arias.
Finally, one of the earliest recording of Nessun Dorma. This one was just 3 years after the premiere of Turandot. If the ending sounds strange, it’s because Cortis sings it the way Puccini wrote it. The high B is a 16th note moving to the aria’s final A – a whole note. This version is doubtless how Toscanini conducted the aria at its first performance in La Scala in 1926. Francesco Merli also sang Nessun Dorma this way in the first recording of the complete opera in 1938. Tenors being tenors they altered the ending such that the B natural was held until until the onset of cyanosis leaving the A natural to be emitted as an agonal event. Toscanini who didn’t care much for Turandot stopped conducting it after the third performance in Milan and thus wasn’t around to insist on the aria being sung as written.
So what we have is a very fine tenor who didn’t have a big career in the world’s major operatic centers – New York, Milan, and Vienna. Nevertheless he left a relatively small number of outstanding recordings which show what an exceptional talent he was.
Incidentally, the tenor was also a sculptor. He did the two busts above the title. The one on the right is of himself.