Franco Corelli (1921 - 2003)
Recollections and Reflections

 


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FRANCO CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

Since a lion's share of leading tenor roles, in the Italian rep especially, are either fighters or lovers -- when they aren't both -- any artist therefore who can fuse the two in one and the same voice is automatically rare and valuable. Possibly some of the keenest commentary on Corelli that I've yet read is Paul Jackson's in his second volume on the MET b'casts: he spotlights this mercurial aspect to Corelli's singing right away. For me, that is maybe Corelli's greatest asset. Simply contrasting his "Si, fui soldato" with his "Io non ho amato ancor" in Andrea Chenier makes this point better than anything I could say.

Beyond this, Corelli may be unique (even though some very murky cylinders of De Reszke suggest Corelli may not be alone in this) in the astonishing capacity to combine the heroic and the amorous within one and the same phrase through veritably heightening the sweetness of his tone even as he swells it. How many other dramatic tenors *increase* the lyricism in their timbres while swelling the tone?! One thinks of dramatic tenors like Caruso, Melchior, Lauri-Volpi, Del Monaco, Vickers, Vinay, Urlus, Tamagno, etc. -- all of these, for the most part (however adept *some* *of* *them* may be in combining the lyrical and heroic styles), *usually* forfeit lyrical coloring when going for the grandest tones of all. Yes, Caruso, Melchior, Lauri-Volpi, Vickers -- they all sing quite tenderly when they want to. But the intrinsic coloring of their voices *usually* preclude tenderness when opening out for the "trumpet blast" (yes, there are a few tender fortissimos in the Caruso canon, but they are mostly from his earlier records when the voice was not yet a full dramatic, IMO).

For a few, this predominantly tender quality that Corelli sustains even at his most clarion marks him as the greatest tenor of all, for others it ends up as a handicap, making his singing a bit cloying. For me, I became a diehard Corelli fan during the '60s, because I found the generous "vocal face" (to use John Steane's phrase) exceptionally vulnerable and moving, particularly in the context of so much intrinsic vocal power. There was genuine interpretive inwardness *in* *the* *voice*, a feeling of a soul laid bare despite the glorious vocal armor and squillo, stirring and intriguing one through its touching contrast of abundant vocal power versus human susceptibility. During the '60s, no other tenor that I had yet heard in person affected me the same way.

That said, there are reasons why I might demur, many years later, at the idea of according him the title of Greatest Tenor.

There were nights when he clearly was not on top of his music.

There were nights when a fidgetiness overtook what could sometimes be a marvelously concentrated and focused interpretive approach. Overwhelming but artistically focused spontaneity of feeling alternated with utter lack of self-control or self-discipline. Yes, there were some nights when even Corelli's less disciplined phrases still rang emotionally true and did not seem at all self-indulgent, but there were, conversely, nights when self-indulgence was the dominant impression. Mind you, even today, I prize an undisciplined emotional engagement with the character *marginally* more than a deliberately calculated, self-preserving restraint. But the balance of preference, for me, is a close one.

There is also -- and this is putting it mildly, IMO -- his highly individual diction to consider. Many will stoutly maintain -- and no doubt this is true -- that this was strictly a matter of regional dialect, not something that was necessarily under Corelli's control at all. At the same time, many find it assuming distinctly eccentric proportions in his studio recordings, where closer miking is generally the rule (even a very few of his "live" recordings bring this out as well).

I can only say that this was not so noticeable in the hall, and I was never so bothered by it, since I brought primarily what I had heard in the hall to the experience of hearing his studio recordings at the time, where I usually latched on more to those aspects that had already dominated in the hall, recognizing and focusing on those aspects of his singing for which I would make an eager purchase of his studio recordings in the first place (in those days, I was innocent of "live" recordings).

It has to be recognized, though, that for future generations the diction will probably bulk larger, for the simple reason that it bulks larger in many of the studio recordings than it did in the hall. This is a shame and doesn't give a proportional picture of his artistry in person. But it is a fact, nevertheless, and those of us who heard him have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that posterity's picture of Corelli will always be affected to a degree by an exaggerated impression of this dialect of his.

Lastly, when one recalls how assured a Melchior, a Lauri-Volpi, a Vickers, what-have-you, still sound in their 50s, Corelli, however durable his *voice*, makes a disturbing contrast in, IMO, his inconsistent *technical* control from about 1968 on, when he is only 46 (turning 47 in April)! Yes, there are still some exciting evenings after that, but they are fewer and farther between, IMO. Of course, he is one of the finest tenors of the century all the same, and I would never regret having seen him in his prime. It's just that a greater discipline and musicianship would have extended his career so much longer. It's a shame.

(By way of shameless proselytizing, I would like to add that impeccable musicianship need never preclude "stem-winding" emotional spontaneity: vide the musician's musician Richard Tauber, whose emotional effect on his audiences, amply confirmed by his heartfelt recordings, was legendary.)

I'd say, for the sake of argument, that there would be three main factors in judging vocalism apart from the instrument itself: abundance of tonal coloration, basic musicianship, resiliency in the long term. These are separate and apart from matters of interpretation, intelligence, etc.-- these are purely to do with one's physical mastery of the instrument itself.

Corelli had an infinite array of colors and dynamic shading. For some, he actually overdid the sheer contrasts, but I admit I was, perhaps, a "sucker"(?) and I found it thrilling. Recently, Ed Rosen put Corelli's '66 Nessun dorma on his web site, and it conveys a very accurate impression of what I recall in person: seamless legato in the opening phrases, the supple reigning in of dynamics at "speranza", the effortless opening out at the "Ma il mio mistero" lines culminating in a "bocca lo diro" of dazzling freedom and a "Quando la luce" utterly free of the throat. As if this isn't enough, "splendera" is given a tender pianissimo, evoking the hushed stillness of dawn. "[F]a mia" is given a similar pianissimo, and so on.

When it comes to basic resiliency and musicianship, those factors emerge more sharply through a retrospective of Corelli's career and some of the extant recordings we have of him.

His best years, IMO, were really seasons. Apparently, he would "retool" his voice through diagnostic sessions with a tape recorder (sic!) every summer or so. I remember suspecting something of this kind before I even knew for sure he really did this. I would notice that there would be marked improvements in his singing from time to time around the early fall or during summer appearances. And things would start getting a little sloppy by late winter/early spring the following year. Clearly, there were always exceptions to this, but the general pattern seemed to hold. So for me, I've come to think of Corelli in terms of '60/61 versus '68/69 and so on, not '60 versus '69 or what-have-you.

Corelli started out with an occluded vowel production and a fast vibrato (*not* a tremolo) in the 1950s. As his career progressed during that decade, his production grew more open, sweeter, and much steadier. He hit his stride in the '60/61 season, though there were occasions in the '50s when one could guess the (positive) path his development was taking at that time (the Frazzoni Fanciulla ['56], the Cerquetti Norma ['58], the Olivero Adriana Lecouvrer in '59, etc.).

His Poliuto, opening the '60/61 Scala season, maintains this more forward, sweeter quality to a greater extent than any earlier performance.

I've always thought that Corelli's achievement in the Poliuto, a role written specifically for the practically superhuman Adolf Nourrit, is one of the more amazing things ever put on disc. True, I could wish this production had not opted for certain cuts (that missing "Fu macchiato" hurts). But no other Poliuto I've heard combines the same tenderness in the last act with the dark coloring in some of the earlier scenes, the physical ease across a big range, the variety of dynamics throughout, the vivid "face" needed in the voice for the mercurial shifts in Poliuto's remarkably volatile character, the easy strength and sweep in the great confrontation in the temple that closes Act II.

Unfortunately, his partner, Callas as Paolina, can sound pretty tentative, IMO, alongside Corelli's brilliantly moody and assured impersonation. He defers to Callas in one respect, and certainly not a negligible one for this opera: easy suppleness. But even here, adept as some of Callas's singing is, too many tricky sequences such as her cabaletta, for instance, still find her uncomfortable in other respects, making her undoubted suppleness less the point, sad to say.

I do not necessarily believe either artist to be superior to the other. But with an historic achievement like Corelli's Poliuto to consider, arguably the most expressive rendering available of one of the most demanding tenor roles yet written, this seems a clear instance where Corelli overshadowed Callas rather than the other way around. Yes, her quiet lower-lying artistry in the "Qual preghiera" solo, for instance, is highly distinctive and a balm for the ears as well as the soul. Would that all of Paolina's music could have been like that the whole evening! It's frustrating to think that in later performances of this run, Leyla Gencer, then at her peak, took over, while Corelli's growing confidence in this opera spurred him on to a triumphant optional high D (a note nowhere in his discography, SFAIK) at the conclusion of the Temple Scene! Yet I'm not aware of a single note having surfaced from this later pairing.

A related "What-if?", if I may: Personally, I regret Corelli's having never sung Otello. I think he would have had no problem with it. In fact, he would have thrived on it, IMHO.

Since I am one of those who feels that it's axiomatic that Poliuto is fully as heavy as Otello (before Otello, Poliuto was a specialty of Tamagno's) -- while being even more difficult because of its requirements for greater suppleness -- I feel that Corelli had already "crossed the Rubicon" in doing Poliuto in 1960. He was already 39 years old at that time. The essential nature of his voice was pretty much set. Having survived -- in fact, triumphed, IMO -- in Poliuto, Otello might not have been much of a stretch for him after all.

I recall that Ponselle in her autobiography speaks of her having been momentarily at sea after having mastered Norma -- in effect, "where can you go after Norma?!" Corelli may have felt the same way about Poliuto -- "what could trump Poliuto?!" So after doing one other big Nourrit role, Raoul in Huguenots (or Ugonotti in Italian), Corelli branched out in more lyric repertoire instead rather than attempt a futile(?) duplication of his Poliuto triumph with Otello or with its equivalent. The chief remaining Nourrit role we will never hear him in now is Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell, arguably more of a complement to the staggering Poliuto than the marginally more lyrical Raoul. In a way, I regret the absent Arnold as much as the absent Verdi Otello.

As an artistic achievement, Poliuto stands as probably the most ambitious accomplishment of Corelli's career. But his instrument, while having reached a significant plateau with this role, was not yet as completely free and open as it would later become.

 

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MARIA CALLAS (1923 - 1977) -- HER BEST RECORDINGS IN GOOD SOUND

CARMEN -- FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY

ENRICO CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

DON CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS

DONIZETTI AND BRINKMANSHIP

GREATEST SINGER?

THE TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)

MEISTERSINGER ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

RECALLING ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)

PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

HISTORY OF OPERA IN MINIATURE

RICHARD TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

VIOLETTA IN LA TRAVIATA

PARTIAL OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD

IL TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

UPCOMING SINGERS

 

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