Franco Corelli, Tutto Tenore

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On January 29, two days after a moving ceremony in memory of Claudio Abbado, Teatro alla Scala in Milan honors another artist, Franco Corelli (1921-2003). A painting of the tenor and some of his costumes were donated to the La Scala museum and an exhibition will run until April 30 presenting performances and memories of the great singer. Corelli, who made his opera debut in 1951 and gave several now-famous performances with Maria Callas very early on had an important career at La Scala between 1954 and 1962, at which time he had transferred to New York and established a storied relationship with the Met and its audience.

Lest some readers think I have been spending too much time on Memory Lane, what with a birthday tribute to Marilyn Horne, a remembrance of Abbado, a celebration of Christa Ludwig and now a piece about Corelli, rest assured that this is more a confluence of dates and events than turning my back on the present. In upcoming articles, attention will be paid to the here and the now.

Corelli made a legendary debut  at the Met, along with debutante Leontyne Price, as Manrico and Leonora in Il Trovatore on January 27, 1961. Harold C. Schonberg, in The New York Times, wrote:

“In one respect he goes against the law of nature that decrees all tenors must be short. The Metropolitan includes, among his statistics, the fact that he is 6 feet 2 inches tall, and he weighs 180 pounds. He tops off this physical appearance with a handsome head-something of a cross between John Barrymore and Errol Flynn.

Can he sing, too? Well, it is a large-sized voice but not an especially suave instrument, and it tends to be produced explosively. It has something of an exciting animal drive about it, and when Mr. Corelli lets loose, he can dominate the ensemble. The nature of his upper register remains to be determined. He did take the D flat in the second act, but the ending of "Di quella pira" was transposed down, and he was unable to take the climactic note in one breath.

As a musician and an actor he did everything competently without ever being particularly imaginative about it. There is something about his work, however, that greatly excited the audience, pro and con. For at the end of the second and third acts, a scattering of boos was heard amid the cheers. The guess here is that Mr. Corelli could develop into an exceptional tenor, but his art does need some refining and polishing.”

I wonder if Schonberg was remarkably perceptive and prescient, or whether he and other opinion leaders created the talking points that would follow Corelli throughout his career? When I talk to people who heard him often in his heyday (I only heard him twice, as a very young operagoer), they say he gave a visceral thrill—the proverbial “chill up the spine”with his singing and vivid stage presence.

He was famously high-strung, especially as nerves got the best of him later in his career. Even if only a few of the many stories about him are true, he would fit the stereotype of the edgy tenor. One of the most famous is that he allegedly bit Birgit Nilsson, who was having a better night than he in Turandot. Legend has it that the Swedish soprano cancelled her next performance, advising the Met’s Rudolf Bing that she was suffering from rabies “as a result of a tenor bite.”

But his “Nessun dorma  always brought down the house and is a cherished memory for many opera lovers. Watch a complete Turandot at La Scala from the early 1960s, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni and starring Nilsson, Corelli and Galina Vishnevskaya as Liu. It is a superb performance, even if the person who posted this video seemed to think that Vishnevskaya was the star.

Corelli had a productive Met career, although he was occasionally undone by nerves. In Italian, the very telling way of describing this is to become emozionato, which he certainly did. Audiences responded to his passionate singing, his edgy stage presence and, in some cases, his famous cosce d’oro (golden thighs) which were often costumed to show them at their most shapely. 

He was a kinetic partner of Grace Bumbry in Carmen and Cavalleria Rusticana and a romantic one with Mirella Freni in Roméo et Juliette and Carmen.  He was magical with Christa Ludwig in a new production of Werther, although he was too nervous to sing opening night. And he famously partnered Maria Callas in her farewell Tosca in 1965 and Renata Tebaldi a few years later in Adriana Lecouvreur. He sang in Philadelphia every season from 1962 to 1971.

He sang most of the top romantic and dramatic Italian roles and performed occasionally in Europe, including a famous Mario Cavaradossi before the exacting audience in Parma , which he made swoon. His appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House seemed to end rather abruptly with a Turandot radio broadcast on Dec. 28, 1974. He was supposed to appear in Norma in the 1975-76 season, but did not. His last performance with the company was on tour in Virginia on June 28, 1975, in La Bohéme, co-starring Renata Scotto and with Leif Segerstam conducting.

His anxiety was not just about hitting high notes. His wife Loretta was, notoriously, “a piece of work.” She began her working life as a soprano and appeared as Giannetta in a 1947 film of L’Elisir d’Amore, whose cast included Tito Gobbi and Italo Tajo. She met Corelli in 1957 and married him the next year. Gradually she took over most administrative aspects of her husband’s life and career. Many people who knew the Corellis say Loretta fed Franco’s insecurity. There has always been a question mark attached to the tenor’s career—did he retire too soon? If so, what role did Loretta have in his doing so? Here is a video from about 1981, thought to be Corelli’s final public singing appearance.