Franco Corelli, Tutto Tenore

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - 10:00 AM

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. 


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Comments [19]

Robert Gennari from Sydney, Australia

Nice article by Fred Plotkins. Opera is 'Show-Biz' and jealousies abound and now, many years after his death, Franco Corelli is being revealed to the world. Franco Corelli was by far the best tenor of all. Powerful, yet controlled, as can be heard in his Bb at the end of 'Celeste Aida' and as Verdi penned it, diminuendos to a light floating head note. Brilliance derived from dedication!
Rather sad to hear how brittle his voice became in his latter years and I believe he was correct in his decision to retire. However we are fortunate to have at our disposal an ever increasing abundance of beautiful clips and arias which will forever prove that this man was special and a living, singing God.

Nov. 02 2016 05:00 PM
Annette from Texas

I think it is always good to try to indicate the approximate dates when talking of singers. I think that Corelli was the best in the middle of his career. He himself indicated that in the 70's his voice became a little dull and was losing his color. Something begins to fade with all singers as age progresses. Corelli was the best of his contemporaries and always gave credit to others and even asked them to show him how to perform in certain ways. At his peak his voice had color, diminuendos unsurpassed. Most say his voice broke the sound barrier above the orchestra. He owned the stage, particularly as The Calaf. At different times all humans prefer different sounds, sometimes soft or forceful. He was virile in his singing and could be dramatic. Corelli was always improving from the beginning and had presence or charisma as some say. His total package made you want to hear him and see him. His concerts were sold out and was one of the highest paid tenors. He treated his fans or persons with grace and dignity no matter what was happening back stage. I appreciated his unwillingness to do encores because he seemed to think that he could always do better. A great tenor.

Sep. 18 2015 04:32 PM
Marshall from NY

Yes, the person who said he screamed and pushed has a limited understanding of singing. THe voice was huge, and rolled out-no need to push or scream. Even critics who are not huge Corelli fans-all acknowledge his Calaf-live-and in the many recordings remains the voice for the role.

Oct. 19 2014 01:07 AM
Marshall from NY

Just stumbled on this-rather amazed at some of the uninformed remarks re Corelli. I too heard him many times live-and you knew you were watching legendary material-and as the years have gone on his legend keeps growing.Of course live, you also had his stunning appearance, but when nerves didn't get the best of them, he was a better actor than most tenors. What has become evident is that the voice alone has brought new admirers-and what a voice it is. A more realistic natural sound than traditonal tenors, with great power, but also caressing, capable of softness, and colors, with one of the great tops in tenor history. Sure he had his faults, and indulgences-what tenor doesn't?

The greatest Calaf ever-but for me is the first voice I hear when I think of Trovatore,Tosca, Cavalleria, Chenier,Adriana, and other roles

Oct. 19 2014 12:58 AM
Maria DeMeo from Maryland (New York Native

Concetta: In response to your comment that Corelli screamed. You must be mistaken.
the only one who I ever heard scream is that push-up baritone, Placido Domingo.
To listen to him strain for the high notes was painful where Corelli was hit them without any effort.

Oct. 07 2014 04:58 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

He screamed and was a big ham. However, he looked good.

Jul. 14 2014 08:34 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Thank you to Marinabo43 for information about Maestro Corelli's meeting and marriage date. My first hearing of Loretta di Lelio is her Gianetta in the RCA Victor recording of "L'Elisir d'Amore" with Margarita Carosio as Adina, Nicola Monti as Nemorino, Tito Gobbi as Belcore and Melchiorre Luise as Dr. Dulcamara with Gabriele Santini conducting the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, long one of my favorite recordings.

Feb. 03 2014 04:43 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Luckily for me, I got to see many , many performances of CORELLI at the MET OPERA from Standing Room in the Family Circle and got to know him personally. He had contempt for voice teachers. He would carry an tangerine enwrapped in a paper towel in his right pants pocket to suck on when his mouth was dry. Despite his almost ale=ways full-voiced singing that stylistically offended many, particularly the Franciphiles, his was the best diminuendo of any singer. He could easily have become a major Wagnerian as a Tristan and as the SIegfrieds. I broached that prospect with him many times, but he shrugged it off. His high notes were thrilling to all listeners. Whatever his eccentricities, he was the ideal physical prototype of the romantic hero. He was a good actor and a good musician. His vocal timbre was virile and handsome, his voice projected well and he had vocal stamina. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor performing in live concerts and recording them onto DVDs "The 300 Greatest Love Songs of Broadway Musicals, the Movies and the Grammys." Their release is upcoming soon. I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb:the complete Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," the complete Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," the tenor's music in Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Waldemar's music in Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, four solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites, and

Feb. 01 2014 07:13 PM

Feb. 01 2014 09:21 PM

As Corelli biogragpher I should like to put stright some dates. Corelli did not meet Mrs. Loretta in 1957 (as she liked to tell), but right when he first sang at the Rome Teatro dell'Opera (where she had been performing, mostly in second rolese for some ten years), in 1952, and they were married in January 1961, just a few days before his Met debut.

Jan. 31 2014 11:34 AM
Suzanne 57 from Ithaca, NY

Glad to hear from someone else who loves Tauber! His Lieder (Strauss' Morgen, in particular) and opera (esp. Mozart) are also wonderful, in addition to the operetta.

I had some fun yesterday finding "A te, o cara" from Puritani on YouTube; they have the Corelli recording (tenor alone, with the ensemble voices elided), and many , many others. I listened to quite a few, and honestly feel that the Corelli example has the most finesse and musicality. (In the first stanza, he sings what sounds like "furtiv' al pianto," all beautifully connected, though I read that it should be "furtiv(o) e in pianto"; then, in the second stanza, he does something remarkable on the word "tormento." Sorry for the lack of technical vocab., I'm just a fan!)

I forgot, somehow, to look for Carlo Bergonzi--I have several full opera recordings of his that I really enjoy (Bohème live from the Met with Albanese when he's very young, Aida with Tebaldi)--but I sampled Pavarotti (whom I saw in 1976 in Puritani with Sutherland at the Met; a dream come true!), di Stefano, Aureliano Pertile, Alfredo Kraus, and today's Juan Diego Flores. Kind of like running my own "Vocal Scene" show! But I'd still rather hear what George Jellinek would have to say...

Jan. 30 2014 05:13 PM
Madison from Manhattan

One last comment:

Suzanne in Ithaca:
One musical commentator in Los Angeles referred to Tauber as "the greatest vocal communicator of them all."

When Corelli sang Werther at the Met ca.1970, there were pickets outside carrying signs stating, Gedda for Werther".

Jan. 30 2014 11:16 AM
Madison from Manhattan


Thanks Fred for posting this music.

Jan. 30 2014 11:10 AM
Madison from Manhattan

Corelli was tremendous to hear live. At the Met. I saw his Turandot with Nilsson twice, once with Freni as Liu, as well as some Toscas, Werther,Trovatore,etc. To this day, the most "visceral" tenor I've ever heard. Sartling voice and he could diminuendo superbly.

Suzanne from Ithaca:
I feel likewise about Tauber, especially in German operetta-a unique singer with an expression that went right to the heart. I heard Bjoerling twice at the old Met in 1959-Cavaradossi and Turiddu. An unforgettable voice.If there is such a thing, he's probably my favorite all time tenor.

Jan. 30 2014 11:03 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I agree with Mr. Schoenberg and Kenneth's comments on the whole. However, I think that, like Callas, Corelli had that something that made one want to listen and watch; and just as indescribable, that quality that makes one cheer him on every step of the way. Among treasured memories: at the Met: that Cavalleria rusticana with Grace Bumbry conducted by Leonard Bernstein, rarely heard conducting this kind of repertory; Turandot with Birgit Nilsson conducted (very controversially, but I don't mean to open that can of worms now) by Leopold Stokowski; Romeo et Juliette with Judith Blegen conducted by Alain Lombard; at La Scala: La battaglia di Legnano with Antoinietta Stella and Ettore Bastianini conducted by Gianandrea Gazazzeni; at Naples: Adriana Lecouvreur with Magda Olivero, Giulietta Simionato, Ettore Bastianini conducted by Mario Rossi

Jan. 30 2014 09:51 AM
Tim Brown from Washington, DC

Hi Fred - am enjoying your ongoing series about past singers - these are the voices I grew up with on records and it is always fun to visit them again. Especially enjoy the YouTube links to full-length operas - they make for very good afternoon listening at the office. Bravo!

Jan. 30 2014 08:48 AM
Suzanne from Ithaca, NY

I never saw Corelli--arrived a little too late to NYC in the 1970s for that--and my favorite tenors (from recordings) are Bjoerling, Gigli, Tucker and (in a different repertory) Richard Tauber.

However, not long ago I acquired a 2-CD set of Corelli (EMI Classics, "The Very Best of Franco Corelli"), and I love it. If you listen to no more than the first track--A te, o cara from Puritani, recorded in 1962--you will hear (I think!) remarkable control, finesse, beauty; in other words, everything that is the antithesis of screaming.

I am enjoying the Turandot from Milan (which Vishnevskaya writes about in her brilliant memoir) very much; thanks so much for posting this.

Jan. 29 2014 06:50 PM
Kenneth from Grand Junction, CO

I saw many Corelli performances. In person, he absolutely had a kind of animal magnetism. What surprises me about the man is that, in retrospect, those good memories are not sustained when I listen to his recordings. With the single exception of the TROVATORE debut, his singing comes across now as loud and vacillating between crude, cruder and crudest. He had looks and occasional involvement with his roles, but his singing did no honor to the music or the musical intentions of any composer. A performance should, at the minimum, do that. It should not be a graphic demonstration of the emotional stresses of the singer.

Jan. 29 2014 02:29 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Fine article, thanks. I did not particularly like his style of singing. He pushed too much and it did not seem like singing, just screaming in Italian. Nessun Dorma for me will always be the Golden Swede, Bjoerling. DiStefano also sang beautifully but his career ended too soon. Francesco Albanese, was a very fine tenor who did not receive the praise he deserved in the United States. Superb interpreter of Neapolitan songs. He is on the recording of Traviata with Callas.
With very best wishes

Jan. 29 2014 11:59 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Fine article, thanks. I did not particularly like his style of singing. He pushed too much and it did not seem like singing, just screaming in Italian. Nessun Dorma for me will always be the Golden Swede, Bjoerling. DiStefano also sang beautifully but his career ended too soon. Francesco Albanese, was a very fine tenor who did not receive the praise he deserved in the United States. Superb interpreter of Neapolitan songs. He is on the recording of Traviata with Callas.
With very best wishes

Jan. 29 2014 11:59 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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