FRANCO CORELLI, born today 100 years ago
“If you want to do me a favour, please write that I am neither a dramatic tenor nor a lyric tenor: I am a voice.”
No other words can describe Franco Corelli as completely as his own words, uttered in a press interview in 1970, at the very peak of his extraordinary career. And that is why the title of my biography – HIS biography – is ‘A Man, a voice’. A title that I proposed and which he chose because he mirrored and recognised himself in the words. Words I remember whenever I am lucky enough to hear a singer so totally absorbed in and devoted to his/her performance that I can actually watch him/her ‘become a voice’. A rare privilege, especially nowadays.
Few other singers, I believe, have been so totally absorbed in and devoted to their voices, and to the emotions they were able to create by putting their ‘heart’ into them as he was. And ‘singing with the heart’ was another favourite way of Franco Corelli‘s to speak about his artistry, to describe his approach to opera. And so, they are the first words that come to my mind in this moment, as I write a few lines about him for Opera Gazet’s readers on the eve of the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, 8 April.
But other words come to mind too. The words that the great Italian musicologist and critic, Lorenzo Arruga (recently passed away as well), wrote in his obituary for Corelli’s demise: “A lesson, a daring, a wonder.”
Arruga wrote these words about Corelli’s performance in Meyerbeer’s Gli Ugonotti (sung in Italian at La Scala in 1962), but I believe they are the perfect description of his singing. A lesson, in a technical sense, because no one, perhaps, devoted so much time and passion and perseverance to studying and perfecting the control of his voice. A daring, because he had the courage, unique for a tenor with his repertoire, to defy and conquer not just the most impervious high notes and ‘tessiture’, but also the sweetest, more ethereal diminuendos to piano and pianissimo. A wonder, because, putting his technical perfection to the service of what he called his ‘hearth’, he was able to create magic, to cast on his audience the spell of sheer, undiluted emotions.
In his greatest roles – Andrea Chénier, Prince Calaf, Manrico, Radames, Mario Cavaradossi, Enzo Grimaldo, Don Alvaro – I believe he is still, and possibly will remain for a very long time, unequalled. But what is also worth mentioning are the role that he perhaps loved most, the more romantic, sweeter roles he chose to sing towards the end of his career. In his heart of hearts, he thought of himself as a lover and a poet, rather than a hero and a warrior. And so, he wanted to be Rodolfo in La Bohème, Roméo in Gounod’s opera, and, lastly, a passionate, white-heat portrayal of Werther, victoriously defying the traditional ‘vision’ of the role as a feeble, dreaming, moonlighting poet.
Of course, as he used to say: ‘You cannot be liked by everyone.’ He had (and has) millions of fans, but there are also some who do not like, or even dislike his voice, his style, his way of singing. But there is something I believe everyone agrees on: he was one of the greatest tenors in his and any time. And he was an extraordinary professional, an example of what such a difficult career means, of the sacrifice and devotion it demands. Singing was a mission to him. He considered his voice a gift from above, a gift to be used with integrity, humility, commitment and respect for the music, to oneself and to the audience. And this is, still today, one hundred years after his birth and almost eighteen years after his demise, his greatest legacy to young singers who want to follow his path.