Franco Corelli (1921 - 2003)
Recollections and Reflections

 


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After 1968, he will occasionally (as in a Vienna Don Carlo in Vienna, 1970) show signs of a renewed authority, but, personally, I find these the exception rather than the rule. It was somewhat encouraging, though, that there was a slight resurgence of professionalism and dependability during stretches of 1972, 1973, and early 1974. It seemed he had settled to more modest technical ambitions, and he was temporarily reconciled to lowering his sights for the sake of maintaining an easier, more natural style. But the days of astonishment and sovereign ease were over.

The voice itself was now getting just a bit dry. But it was still a good voice. We thought he might settle into a general routine of being a respectable, reliable, if unremarkable, trooper, no longer in the highest rank but useful for providing a reasonably distinguished night at the opera. But whether through nervousness or through impatience at having become so-- *technically*--ordinary, he started fussing and distorting the line again during 1974, now without half of the technical chops he had once had and with disastrous results. (Not that there weren't occasionally such evenings in '72 and '73 as well. It was just more frequent by '74.) The end came soon thereafter.

Many years later, in the early 1980s, he tried a comeback. There are some fairly effective Neapolitan songs extant from this phase, but they are relatively tame, IMHO.

What should you listen to?

Calaf in Turandot was probably his finest role. Fortunately, the EMI studio Turandot from 1965 not only has Corelli in good voice; the entire recording is, IMO, the finest Turandot available. With Nilsson's phenomenally easy Turandot and Scotto's deeply affecting Liu from her absolute prime, this is the ideal set that every fan should have for Puccini's final masterpiece.

Of course, a number of his "live" '60s Turandots, a few of which have survived, had to be, in any case, some of the finest examples of Italian tenor singing I had ever heard. IMHO, those Turandots, his Cheniers and his late '60s Don Carlos may possibly have been his greatest roles.

I regret that, of those three, I did not get to catch his Don Carlo until after he had already begun his intermittent struggles of the '70s, but I'll never forget that '66 Chenier in the theater. In fact, it is the lyricism of much of his singing there that seems to have stayed with me more vividly than the sheer strength of that sound. On stage (early '66 at the MET), the combination of the poet and the fighter was complete, both vocally and dramatically. Here was a revolutionary who was equally credible in a love scene and in a trial for his life. In fact, the sense of living life on the edge came alive with Corelli as with nobody else I've ever seen in this role. It was clear, through Corelli, that Giordano intended Chenier to be presented as someone who consciously seeks to play life risking only the highest stakes. Hokey, maybe, but desperately real all the same. (Tebaldi's Maddalena wasn't bad either, although she was past her very best.)

Corelli is fine on the EMI recording (1963, his first peak), but, what with a slightly-past-it Maddalena, IMO, in Stella, and Santini's stop/start conducting, the palpable electricity of the MET b'cast of '66 only comes and goes in the EMI recording. That's what gives the '66 b'cast its edge. I'm just glad I saw it. There may be a few isolated phrases here and there that come off a bit more tidily in '63 than in the MET b'cast (the '65/'66 season was very good, but not as consistent as '62/'63), but everything in the b'cast is characterized by just that extra bit of contrast, that keener and more startling shift of mood, vocal coloring, etc. (There is also another "live" Tebaldi/Corelli Chenier -- from Vienna in 1960 -- but, even though Tebaldi is in better form there, Corelli's interpretation is not yet so keenly developed as in '63 or '66, IMO.)

The role of Don Carlo and Franco Corelli just clicked. It was one of those happy cases where an opera and an artist were a perfect match. Both the "live" '66 (the Met on tour) and the '70 (from Vienna) happen to be fascinating documents of a performer with magnificent gifts applying them with genuine interpretive genius. Yes, the '70 performance is not as relaxed or quite as varied as the '66, which comes from his very peak, after all, and is a strong candidate for the finest "live" document we have of him, IMO. But considering the somewhat unsure performances we hear ca. '70, this Vienna performance is a pleasant surprise, artistically. He is still in touch with the music and the role here.

Sincerely, I do not believe one has truly heard what Corelli is fully capable of in this music unless one has heard the '66, or, failing that, the '70.

To sum up, not only is the instrument in gleaming condition in '66, his sensitivity and imagination have been fully sparked by this Hamlet-like figure (the nearest Verdi ever came, IMO, to crafting such a haunting character), while in '70 we hear him still under that same happy spell, despite a somewhat less melting tone at certain points. An important point in favor of the '70 perf., though, is its superior sound quality, especially in the new ORFEO transfer.

By contrast, neither the early '60s nor the bulk of the '70s give us much of a hint of the full greatness of Corelli in this role. (Ironically, the voice sounds just slightly more rested and deeply anchored in a '72 Don Carlo than in the Vienna '70 performance, but the singing itself doesn't seem as conscientious as in Vienna.)

Two other roles made a deep impression on me: his Cavaradossi (Tosca) and his Alvaro (Forza del destino).

For his Cavaradossi, there is an embarrassment of riches. His studio recording (Decca/London), especially in Act III, is a rare case of a studio outing in which we do get a real feeling of what it was like hearing him in the hall, and the variety of shading this artist was capable of is finally given full play. This set (featuring Nilsson as Tosca) was made in 1966, and, after all, the '66/'67 season was probably his finest season. From January of 1967 comes another strong candidate for the finest "live" document we have of Corelli: a Tosca from Parma. No, the cast is nowhere near worthy of him, and as for any comparison with Nilsson, forget it (even though Nilsson, IMO, was not exactly the world's ideal Tosca either, however magnificent her voice). But one wonders whether Corelli was ever better: his "E lucevan le stelle" from this evening is one of the selections on the CD accompanying Marina Boagno's book on Corelli (for Baskerville Press) and one can see why. It encapsulates his art. The quiet loneliness of this reverie developing into the most desperate cry of anguish and loss is unerringly shaped. Even when the sheer abundance of vocal plenty threatens to overwhelm the piece, there is in the midst of this tumult a spellbinding decrescendo that leaves time standing still. Finally, he can be heard in nearly as good form in 1965 opposite Maria Callas's Tosca on the occasion of her comeback to the MET.

I recall a summer Tosca in '73 (with Bumbry and Gobbi). Yes, there was more to admire than to regret, and it was easily superior to the Tosca he had performed during the regular season in the winter of '72/73 (with Kirsten and Gobbi the evening I went). But, IMHO, even though that later summer '73 Tosca was somewhat superior, I still did not find it superior, say, to most of his Toscas during the mid-'60s. I found it good, but not tremendous, as he had been.

Fortunately, I did see a Forza del Destino featuring his Alvaro in splendid voice. This was at Philadelphia in 1968. The other singers were Amara (replacing the scheduled Leontyne Price), Merrill (the best I ever heard him) and Hines, who was already starting some of the vocal problems he is so frank about in his book. Hines did not start getting back on track until the early '70s. That night, it was clear that Alvaro and Corelli were a perfect fit. The brooding melancholy, the secretiveness, the volatility, the sense of being in exile (he is, after all, a disinherited Prince) were all in that dark, mysterious sound with its flashes of lightning. As with "E lucevan le stelle" for Cavaradossi, he also gave us one indelible moment of mortality in Alvaro, shrouding the "Solenne" duet (when Alvaro is sure he will not live through the night) in the ghostliest timbres, laid out flat on his back, singing his patented decrescendo flawlessly at the second "vi stringo al cor mio" without seeming to move a muscle. The sense of life ebbing away was unforgettable. I would say his finest recorded Forza is also "live" at Philadelphia, opposite Eileen Farrell in 1965 (on SRO). (Here, he opts for the decrescendo in both statements.)

As to other items in general, _maybe_ earlier b'casts like the December '60 Poliuto (of unique historical value), the Battaglia di Legnano (December '61), the Gli Ugonotti (smack dab in the middle of '62), and so forth, are well worth hearing (I'm not saying they aren't), but for starters, I would concentrate on the '62/63, '64/65, and '66/67 seasons.

From '62/63, listen to the Scala Trovatore under Maestro Gavazzeni and the EMI Chenier.

From '64/65, I would pick the Scala opening night Turandot with Nilsson and Vishnevskaya, the Met Forza b'cast with Tucci, the Met Ernani with Leontyne Price, the SRO Forza with Farrell at Philly, and the EMI Turandot.

From '66/67, I would pick the Decca/London Tosca with Nilsson, the Ed Sullivan Chenier duet with Tebaldi (it's out on Video), the Don Carlo with Kabaivanska (this has been out on Melodram), the Met Turandot with Nilsson and Freni, and the Parma Tosca.

Documents like these give at least a window on the ultimate greatness of Franco Corelli.

 

--Geoffrey Riggs

 

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