Franco Corelli (1921 - 2003)
Recollections and Reflections

 


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Poliuto may be the more important artistically, but the Battaglia di Legnano, opening the '61/62 Scala season, is even freer in tone. It's true Corelli gets badly winded in the penultimate scene, but he recoups for an effective deathbed finale. Another remarkable aspect to Battaglia is his coming on completely warmed up right off the bat. He was notorious for his "nerves" problem, and even in his best seasons his opening scene would be occasionally skittish and none too accurate. But here in Battaglia, Arrigo's entrance aria becomes an object lesson in easy long-lined singing. This is in contrast to the opening scene in Poliuto, which is good but not so open and relaxed as the rest of the evening. Even at that, the best moments in Poliuto never quite have that freedom of the Battaglia.

It is after this that we have his Raoul in Ugonotti, lifted from a Scala broadcast in 1962. Here, the tone is even freer than in Battaglia, while the vocal demands may be even greater, making this a greater artistic milestone. However, the baritonal heft in the low, while present in this Raoul, is not exploited quite so perilously or so frequently -- particularly in constant juxtaposition with his highs -- as in the Poliuto, making the latter still his most staggering technical foray.

A comparison of two '62 Trovatore performances shows marked improvement even during the few months separating a Salzburg Festival performance in July from a December opening night at La Scala. The reason these improvements assume such significance in Corelli's development lies in his growing control over his dynamic range. Interpretively on the one hand, the summer performance may project Manrico's character with a bit more energy than at La Scala. But on the other, certain pianissimi and diminuendi in the Scala opening are of a caliber that we just don't hear out of him earlier that year. True, this facility of his is always there to a creditable extent through most of his early career, but it becomes a veritable artistic wonder in the '62/63 season. The incredible control of the Scala Trovatore is not a flash in the pan. An Adriana Lecouvrer broadcast from the Met and a superb Chenier made in the studio for EMI bear this out. The '62/63 season shows a consistency of musical, technical, and dynamic control that marked the first peak of Corelli's career.

Here--for me--the imponderables start to emerge. I sense that Corelli, consciously or not, either became too over-manipulative on the one hand or too sloppy on the other as a result of having attained the kind of astounding technical control he displayed throughout the '62/63 season. It seems to me that an occasional curtness of phrasing and over-muscular production overtakes his singing in the '63/64 season. Whether we're talking the Met Tosca broadcast with Nilsson, the Price/von Karajan Carmen, the EMI Trovatore, or the out-take with Callas of the Aida duet, I seem to hear the same thing throughout. Maybe there will be a simpatico phrase here, an effective note there, but the fundamental "dolce" quality he had been cultivating, such an unusual sweetness for such a sizeable instrument, is more often absent than present, which is not the case in '62/63.

Corelli may have been aware of this himself, because for the Scala opening night of '64/65, a Turandot with Nilsson, there is an abrupt, obviously deliberate, adoption of a far more simpatico, relaxed style--and the phrasing just goes on forever. This man appears incapable of singing a line of song in three breaths when one will do. The very notion that he could ever need to take a breath at all *appears* grandly irrelevant. (Of course, this is an overstatement. The fact is that scrupulous control of both tone production and the breath were clearly needed to maintain this exhilarating, sweeping style. It's the ostensible impression on the hearer that I am describing. For once--and here the cliche will do just fine-- Corelli had attained the "art that conceals art.") As with the Scala Trovatore, the Turandot opening night was also not a flash in the pan. His Forza broadcast from the Met with Tucci, the Met Ernani b'cast, the newly released SRO Forza with Farrell from Philly, his EMI Turandot all testify to a consistency of musicality and technical control during the '64/65 season fully the equal of the '62/63.

And once again that pesky pattern holds. Having attained perfect mastery of his instrument in '64/65, a somewhat careless, brash style takes over during '65/66. It retains more of a sweet quality than his other blipout, '63/64, did. The singing is more musical. But it represents a slight falling off in quality nevertheless.

The next season, his first at the new Met, '66/67, represents, for me, his peak year. We have a Gioconda, a Don Carlo, another Turandot b'cast (this time from the Met), a Chenier duet on the Ed Sullivan show(!), two studio recordings for Decca/London, a Tosca from Parma, and I have a hunch a few other items from this season that have temporarily fallen between the cracks. His output during this season was prodigious.

And he was in his element.

Comparing his phrasing in a perfectly fine '61/62 Gioconda b'cast with what he achieved in the '66/67 season makes my point. Enzo's phrase of longing for Laura in the Act I Barnaba duet pours out as one endless arch of tone in '66/67, where '61/62 finds him snatching an extra breath. In '66/67, we have musicality, heart, an abundance of vocal riches including sweetness, impeccable technical standards and infinite dynamic elasticity, true interpretive spontaneity, intelligence, and inwardness, and sheer performing relaxation combined to an extent that was rarely equalled in any other tenor of his generation.

Why didn't he hold to this standard? You will find many who will stoutly maintain that he did. Maybe it's true that the fundamental quality of his instrument per se did not alter that appreciably. But for those like myself who prized his capacity for maintaining a lyrical coloring even in his most heroic phrases, who were in awe of his ability to follow frequently impossible phrase markings without turning a hair, of giving an impression at times that he hadn't even bothered to take a breath at all(!), of taking the grandest tone and bringing it down to a whisper on a dime, much was compromised during the ensuing seasons.

From having started in the '50s with too covered a tone, he seemed to adopt too blary a vocal production in the middle of 1967. The '67/68 season seems to be a series of hit-and-miss opportunities. A new tension is accompanied by a resurgence of a problem occasionally encountered earlier, but here rendered more severe than ever: a pronounced, unmusical grunt at the conclusion of many a phrase. A concert in December of '67 finds him apparently jettisoning his baritonal foundations altogether, one of the real assets of his incredible instrument. Without that deep-seated "connection" to his low, the tightness and tension becomes especially pronounced. Granted, the sound quality of the tape is nothing much, but it is striking the way his low notes just disappear into the fabric of the noisy tape for much of that recital.

The end of the '67/68 season found him with a somewhat improved "connection" to his low, resulting in less tightness. But he sure took his time warming up! A Met Forza finds him not really in stride until the "Solenne" duet in Act III (or the Met's Act II). From there on, there are some quite stunning- -and genuinely moving--moments, but I know he was capable of better. I saw him in the summer of '68 doing a Forza in Philly that boasted much surer phrasing and a quicker warm-up than he had shown the previous spring. That and a good Romeo with Freni during the same week showed that we were probably witnessing a recurrence of the pattern established during the '62/63 season. In other words the "biannual zigzag":

62/63 Co64/65 Coree66/67 Core?68/?
Core\ Co/ Co' 65/66 ' Cre' 67/68 '
Core63/64

He may not have been fully the equal of his very best in those two Philly evenings (he still took a little time warming up for the Forza, although he was fine by the time of his aria--in contrast to the more tense delivery heard in the previous spring b'cast, and there was a momentary loss of energy and fullness of breath in the marriage scene during the Romeo), but these were, by and large, Corelli evenings very much on the plus side of the ledger. Everyone I was with that evening realized we were witnessing an extraordinary vocalist with a sheer sound that, if anything, was more beautiful than ever, whatever the momentary technical glitches. As an artist, he was finer that week than he had been at any time during the regular season.

But, sadly, the technical glitches were not momentary after that. I still believe that Corelli would have made the '68/69 season one to remember had he not suddenly dropped out of sight altogether in the following months. Many reasons were given: his father's death, dental work(!), a nervous breakdown. We may never really know. The bottom line is that his frantic unmusical style when he returned to the Met at the end of the '68/69 season was a shocker for many of us. The long phrase of old was now the exception rather than the rule. The magnificence of his instrument (still undamaged) seemed sadly irrelevant to many of us. The man's sense of sovereign ease, the sheer authority he projected in so many really demanding roles became intermittent from then on. To project strength or resolve for this scene or that passage, he seemed to resort to hectoring and short, grunted exclamations rather than the old grand musical authority.

A critic once wrote of the great Richard Tauber's ability to project to the audience the sense that "Oh, this is nothing at all; let's just have ourselves a great time." This describes in a nutshell what Corelli was able to project through much of the 60s. . .and this is precisely what he lost at the end of the '68/69 season. His frantic, occasionally floundering moments from then on were sometimes as terrifying to his sincere admirers as they must have been for him. An inexplicable air of amateurishness lay over the proceedings: this from a man who had refused shortcuts around the most daunting music, shortcuts habitually taken (however tastefully) by most of his rivals without so much as a pang of artistic conscience. He had been the technical wizard, the vocal conscience of his time for his repertoire--not just for high notes, as so many tiresomely reiterate, but for the ability to mold the grandest, longest phrase, the most daunting sostenuto, the most taxing decrescendo so it made thrilling musical, dramatic, and interpretive sense--true artistry, in other words. Now far from having anything to show for it, he seemed to need assurance, encouragement, retraining(???) from anyone who would listen!

I should clarify here that, in praising Corelli's laudable ambition in terms of incredibly difficult and conscientious application of myriad dynamics and shading together with staggeringly broad phrasing (at least for a brief while anyway), I am referring primarily to his imaginative treatment of music where the tenor is singing "solo", whether in lines of recitative, in a duet, or in an aria, or whatever. In these cases, he would habitually go beyond anyone else of his period in this repertoire, IMHO. But I hasten to add that I personally feel that this was the case for only slightly less than a decade. Beyond that time period, there are some trade-offs in one way or another, it seems to me.

Furthermore -- and this is most important -- he started habitually slacking off relatively early in his career when it came to his music in ensemble sequences during those passages where others were singing simultaneously along with him. In these cases, unfortunately, one could sometimes catch him "marking" his lines as if in rehearsal! Pretty disconcerting really. But considering how much he gave -- and gave and gave<G> -- throughout the rest of the evening, one couldn't help feeling that it was better to conserve his energy this way than in the exposed passages (of which there are many, many, many more, of course) where he almost never failed to thrill us time after time and to give of his very best no matter what.

 

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