Franco Corelli was born in April of 1921 in Ancona on the Adriatic coast. He decided to pursue an musical career later than most singers. After two unsuccessful encounters with voice teachers he resolved to train himself by intense study of the recordings of the great Italian tenors who had preceded him. After winning the Maggio Musicale contest in the spring of 1951, he made his debut at at Spoleto the following fall as Don Jose in Carmen.
He then joined the company of the Rome Opera for several seasons. He made his La Scala debut during this period. His international debut was at Covent Garden in London in Tosca with Zinka Milanov in the title role. His Met debut did not take place until he was almost 40 – January 21, 1961 as Manrico in Il Trovatore. Also making her debut at that performance was Leontyne Price.
Ove the next 14 years Corelli gave 369 performances with the Met. Most of these were in the great Italian spinto roles. But towards the second half of his Met tenure he added two French roles to his New York repertory – Gounod’s Roméo and Massenet’s Werther. He sang the former 37 times with the company and the latter 23 times. He was quite good in these French parts despite his idiosyncratic French, but his was a voice meant for the great heroic Italian roles – especially Verdi’s Otello which he never sang. He later was quite open about his failure to sing this opera. There were other tenors who could sing the French repertoire as well or even better than Corelli; but there were very few who could do the great Italian spinto parts at a level anywhere close to his. In interviews he gave after his retirement he said he should have sung Otello and was sorry he hadn’t. His voice was perfect for the part.
The details of his career are readily available at many sites. I want to focus on the characteristics that made him a unique artist. These are four that are found together only in Corelli. The first was the basic nature of his voice which was a tenor of immense power and strength Second, were acuti of great brilliance combined with almost endless breath. He could, and often did, hold high notes for more than a New York minute which frequently annoyed the more fastidious critics, but which drove audiences to a frenzy. The former got into the house with a comped ticket, while the latter paid full freight. Guess whose view the management cared about. Third, was an capacity possessed by very few tenors, and among the spintos only by Corelli – the ability to take a diminuendo on a high note and then spin out the sound for yet another New York minute while maintaining full vocal support. The fourth characteristic was a gift from nature. He was tall, dark, slim, and just about the handsomest man ever seen on a stage.
Luciano Pavarotti’s assessment of Corelli captures the full nature of Corelli’s talent. When he says that Corelli gave no concerts, he means in gigantic arenas linked across the world by TV. Forgive him for confusing Tosca and Bohème and underestimating the number of Caruso’s lifetime audience. What he get’s right is the quality of Corelli’s singing. “Vocal cords of steel” is an apt metaphor.
Pavarotti’s mention of the flutter that was an unwanted feature of Corelli’s early singing is illustrated by the excerpt (E lucevan le stelle) taken from the color film of Tosca released in 1956. This was my first exposure to his singing and I was put off by the flutter. So was its author. He remarked in an interview that he worked very hard to eliminate it. Also, the diminuendo on disciogliea is not as fully realized as it was soon to be. Compare the above singing with his live performance of the aria from his London debut the following year. The flutter is almost completely gone and the diminuendo and subsequent endless spinning of the tone is masterful. The Corelli of greatness had arrived. E lucevan le stelle 1957 – Corelli
The French opera that was just right for Corelli’s voice was Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. He sang Raoul in the Italian version (Gli Ugonotti) to great acclaim at La Scala in 1962. Joan Sutherland was also in the cast. The demanding tenor aria Bianca al par di neve alpina (Act 1) in the Italian translation show the tenor at his best. Powerful tone, matchless breath control, and thrilling high notes all sensitively delivered to make a matchless package.`
Andrea Chenier was another role ideal for Corelli’s burnished voice. The Improvviso from Act 1 and Come un bel dì di maggio (Act 4) show both the declamatory power of the tenor as well as the lyrical singing needed for the last act aria. In the opera’s final duet Corelli is joined by Antonietta Stella.
Corelli appeared as Calaf in Turandot 55 times at the Met, most notably with Birgit Nilsson in the title role. The pair made Puccini’s final opera an indispensable show in New York after a 30 year absence. In questa reggia is the punishing aria for Turandot, but it ends with prolonged high notes for both soprano and tenor. Both Nilsson and Corelli would fight cyanosis and hypoxia before letting go of these notes. Nilsson in her autobiography claimed that Corelli held out for longer than she did on most occasions – hard to tell. The pair set the standard for their respective roles that persists to the present. Nessun dorma from the opera’s last act is swallowed whole by Corelli. Hearing him sing the aria in the house was a near life altering experience.
The tenor’s interpretation of Che gelida manina from La Bohème inserts a brilliant high C into a nuanced reading of this standard aria. Di quella pira Corelli was a Corelli specialty. The most famous note Verdi never wrote was made for his voice.
The Wikipedia article on Corelli lists Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani as one of Corelli’s roles; but I can find no record of it in the Performance Annals of his career. He had the high notes for the role and a lot more voice than the part typically receives. A te, o cara is from Act 1.
Corelli was among the most widely recorded tenors of the last century. The internet is replete with hundreds of his recordings. The interested reader will have no trouble finding them.
When the gods grant as many favors as were Corelli’s – looks, talent, success – they exact a price. Corelli’s had a sensitive nature and a tendency to stage fright that grew as his career unfolded. It finally became debilitating and he retired at age 55. The remainder of his life was ironically spent teaching. His dissatisfaction with voice teachers apparently forgotten. He died in Milan in 2003. The vocal freedom and ease over the entire tenor range made him unmatched during his prime. His only competitor for the great spinto roles was Richard Tucker who became his friend though they sang much the same roles in the same house at the same time. Corelli was emotionally shaken at the sudden death of Tucker which occurred shortly after Corelli’s last appearance at the New York house.