Corelli, 82, was larger than life


October 31, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Franco Corelli, one of the most prodigiously gifted tenors of the 20th century, died Wednesday in his native Italy at the age of 82. He was hospitalized in August after having an apparent stroke.

If you added up the considerable assets of the Three Tenors (even when Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were in their prime), you still couldn't match Corelli's vocal opulence, electrically charged phrasing and movie-star looks. His one-of-a-kind packaging thrilled an opera world ever-hungry for tenors.

From his debut as Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1951 - the first of his 30 roles - to his retirement in 1976 at 55, Corelli was a dominant force in the romantic Italian and French repertoire. The handsome, 6-foot-1, muscular powerhouse of a singer had an unmistakable style of singing, which frequently included an abundance of little sobs inflecting the phrases.

This annoyed some listeners, who considered him self-indulgent, undisciplined, gimmicky. But even his detractors could have a hard time holding onto their reservations when they heard the distinctive glint of his tone and his intensity of expression, which are preserved on a fairly extensive discography and some filmed performances.

"He was the most impressive tenor I have heard live," Domingo told the Associated Press yesterday. "There was this unbelievable amount of easiness ... this sort of animal instinct which filled the theater and really got to you, this heroic sound. It was sensational."

Corelli was born April 8, 1921, in Ancona, Italy, and studied at a conservatory in Pesaro. After his successful Spoleto debut, he appeared at major Italian opera houses, and was a fixture at Milan's La Scala from 1954 to 1965.

Despite severe stage fright, which persisted throughout his career, he continued a series of triumphant debuts that confirmed his star status - London (1957), New York (1961) and Vienna (1963). Initially an unsubtle singer with a limited range, Corelli quickly developed into a flexible, incisive artist.

In 1958, he married a budding soprano, Loretta di Lelio. She is his only immediate survivor.

Although the magic of Corelli was easily conveyed when singing at full throttle, nothing revealed his talent more compellingly than when he would file down his voice to a delicate pianissimo. A live recording of Puccini's Tosca in 1957 contains a glorious example. It comes in the Act 3 aria E lucevan le stelle, when the about-to-be-executed hero, Cavaradossi, reflects on his love for Tosca.

Cavaradossi remembers her "sweet kisses" and "languorous caresses" and, then, in a slowly rising melodic line, sings about the way he used to lift her veil to behold her beauty. As he reaches the crest of that line, Corelli takes an incredible amount of time with it, stretching out the phrase to float exquisitely tender, soft notes on an endless breath. He lets you feel just how hard it is for Cavaradossi to let go of that memory. It's a stunning, time-stopping moment. .

When Corelli was in the belt-it-out mode, of course, he could be no less overwhelming - especially for some of his colleagues onstage. He developed quite a reputation for an anything-you-can-sing-I-can-sing-louder- or-hold-longer attitude.

One example can be heard on a 1961 live recording of Verdi's Il trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera with stellar soprano Leontyne Price. The tenor doesn't let go of his last note in the Miserere passage until after Price, the chorus and the orchestra have all finished theirs.

Corelli met his match with Birgit Nilsson, a soprano who had the biggest sound and most resilient lungs around. The two were first famously paired in Puccini's Turandot at the Met starting in 1961, bringing down the house with their combined vocal force. But when, during the Met's tour to Boston that year, Nilsson held onto a high C in the second act longer than Corelli, he was enraged. During intermission, he complained to company manager Rudolf Bing, who told him to bite her instead of kiss her in the next act.

"He neither bit nor kissed me," Nilsson told the Associated Press yesterday. "It all ended appropriately in any case. He was very kind and good-natured, but very temperamental and unpredictable. You never quite knew what he was up to. We finally became very good friends, but sometimes it was like a bullfight on stage."

Singers with such animal magnetism don't come around very often. Franco Corelli's visceral impact on the vocal art will be felt for a very long time.

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